Depending on what casino you walk into, pokie machines could make up as much as 75% of the available games. In Australia, the larger casino-resort properties list their number of electronic gambling machines as a point of pride.
Video poker and pokies games outnumber table games in Australian casinos by as much as 20 to 1. Though this popular game of chance was invented in America in the late 19th century, Australians have been fond of this reel-spinning jackpot game for nearly a century.
Before a newcomer sits at a machine, it’s important to learn the basics about how the machines work, and to take a look at the variety of titles to be found on Australian casino floors and in gambling halls around the world
The first such games, invented in the USA as a distraction for saloon customers, were totally mechanical. When a man named Charles Fey produced the first slot, called Liberty Bell, it contained little more than three reels each illustrated with ten different symbols. Placing a coin in the machine and pulling a lever spun the reels, and the player won a different prize depending on the three symbols that lined up on the game’s face.
Today’s pokies do not operate so simply. Electricity, the use of larger coin hoppers, and eventually the inclusion of random number generators and complex computer components all had a major influence on game design. Today’s poker machines use virtual reels rather than mechanical ones to establish wins and losses. The switch to a computerized system allowed for the games to display many more symbols than the old mechanical games – the result is more and larger jackpots, an improvement to the way the games look and behave, and an increased cultural obsession with poker machine gambling.
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That all-important random number generator software is what actually decides whether a pokies player wins or loses – the software selects a series of random numbers and the outcome of each spin is decided long before the virtual reels stop in place. These random number machines are programmed to pay out a theoretical percentage of the cash paid into them – over the long-term, a casino or other business that hosts a poker machine knows the game will be profitable, even if it occasionally pays out a massive jackpot.
Computerized poker machines make it easier for designers to guarantee profits because of the larger pool of potential outcomes. The old mechanical Liberty Bell had three reels, each with ten symbols, meaning the game was limited to 1,000 possible symbol combinations.
Another way to think of that – even the least-likely symbol combo still had about a 0.1% chance of happening on each spin, which may sound rare but is nothing compared to modern and online games. If each virtual reel of the same three-reel machine (with an RNG system built in) is designed to have 256 possible symbols, the number of possible combinations jumps to 16,750,000. The rarest outcomes on this game (the ones that pay out the biggest prizes) can be expected to occur far less often than on the ten-symbol mechanical game.
A big part of their appeal is how easy they are to play. It can take a long time to really master a game like blackjack or Texas hold ‘Em, but with machines all you really need to do is insert money to the game, pick how much you want to bet per spin, and set the reels spinning using the game’s interface. When the reels stop, if you’re lucky enough to have landed a combination that leads to a prize, you’ll either be rewarded with coins spit out of a hopper or have those credits rewarded to an account card.
Hand pays are another feature of modern poker machine play – jackpots larger than the machine can pay all at once require a casino employee’s approval; that same employee will then pay you by hand, counting the cash out so you know you’ve earned what’s coming to you.
Pokie machine play is very simple, though some modern games are a little more complex than the action described above. Modern games have features like progressive jackpots, bonus rounds, and special symbols like wilds and scatters that make the game a little more complex.
The use of electricity and now computer components means that these games offer features like video and audio clips, themes licensed from popular TV shows and movies, bonus games that test players’ hand-eye coordination, and even arrangements of chairs and loudspeakers that produce an effect similar to stereo surround sound. Of course, many casinos still host versions of machine games that look and act more like the traditional mechanical three-reel games of the old days for customers who don’t want to bother with the complexities of pokie variety.
Here’s a quick glance at a couple of the most popular new varieties of machines in modern casinos.
As the name implies, a progressive jackpot (sometimes called simply a “progressive”) offers a top prize that is not fixed at a specific amount like many games, rather these prizes grow bigger and bigger until one lucky pokie fan lands the right combination of symbols and collects the winnings. Some progressives are linked in a bank at just one casino; others put together jackpots from big networks of machines from all over the world. Progressives are put together by shaving off a small amount of each wager paid into the game network, so the prize grows every time a player anywhere on the network makes a wager. Progressives worth millions of dollars are not uncommon.
Spinning reel games designed to be more like video games are very popular at modern gambling venues. These games have plots and tell stories as the player spins the reels and plays special bonus games that are triggered when certain symbol combos are landed. With special animations, video scenes, and games that pay out cash prizes, free spins, and jackpot multipliers, the modern bonus poker machine is clearly designed to appeal to a generation of fans who grew up playing Atari, Nintendo, and PlayStation games. The inclusion of a skill element, like the ability to fire laser cannons at approaching alien ships, is even more proof that today’s machine designers are looking to attract a younger crowd.
No matter what sort of machine you’re looking to play, whether it’s a classic-style title with just a few reels or one of the more complex multiple-pay line pokies with bonus games, side wagers, and progressive jackpots, the essentials of machine gambling are much the same. The trick to succeeding on the pokies is reading and understanding the payout schedule, placing the right size wagers, and making sure only to gamble with money you can afford to lose.