Home Game Too Many Ways to Win? How Slots Use Math to Offer Mind-Boggling...

Too Many Ways to Win? How Slots Use Math to Offer Mind-Boggling Possibilities

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There’s a memorable casino scene in the classic 1980s movie Starman. In the scene, Scott Hayden/Starman (Jeff Bridges) uses his extra-terrestrial powers to change the result of a slot machine spin. Scott makes it so that the machine has 3 “BARS” on a line, winning the jackpot for that game. In terms of a movie plot device, it was a useful way to move the story forward while highlighting Scott’s special talents.

But we wonder how a slot machine could be used in such a scene today? The games have evolved dramatically and are much changed from the concept of the classic slot machines of the 20th century. In particular, there is a new focus on winning lines in a game. The machine in Starman had one payline: today’s slot machines can have up to 1,000,000 paylines activated for a spin. At times, it’s hard to get your head around.

Online casinos changed the dynamics

Like many casino games, slots were little changed for much of the 20th century. Sure, technology might have led to improvements here and there, particularly with graphics. But the fundamentals remained almost the same. Take anyone from the 1950s, and they would have no problems recognising knowing how to play a slot machine from the 1990s and vice versa. Slots are still easy to play today, but those fundamentals have changed dramatically.

Online casinos have changed the game. In the mid-1990s, i.e., when the first online slots appeared at the pioneering internet casinos, there was a push to use technology to create games with 10, 20, or even 30 paylines. These became known as multi-line slots. The idea that you could win several times per spin was appealing to players, and it was easy for developers to create with the new tech at their disposal.

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But in the 2000s, things really started to take off. Developers like Microgaming decided to create games with 243 ways to win, meaning every possible combination was open across a 3-row, 5-reel game. In the 2010s, one of Microgaming’s rivals, Playtech, decided to take it up another notch by creating games with 4,096 ways to win. Epic Ape has 4,096 ways to win, for example, and it still remains one of the most popular online slots today five years after its release, along with its ‘sister’ game, Buffalo Blitz, which also has 4,096 paylines.

Megaways dialled things up another notch

The pull of games like Epic Ape is that it is far removed from the idea of 3 BARS on a payline like our Starman example. Players aim to cover the reels in lucrative symbols, knowing that the number of paylines can supercharge those winnings. This has caused a change in attitude by players, with many slots spinners looking for volatile games like Epic Ape that can bequeath huge prizes. Obviously, being volatile has a reverse side, too – there is no guarantee of anything.

Towards the end of the 2010s, we started seeing the arrival of Megaways games. The standard Megaways format has up to 117,649 ways to win. This is not activated in every spin, as the reels will shift intermittently as you play. But, at its maximum potential, a Megaways game will have six reels and seven rows of symbols. That reel structure – 7x7x7x7x7x7 – combined with the fact that every matching symbol will pay as long as it’s on consecutive and adjacent reels means that there are 117,649 ways to win. Popular Megaways titles include Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Megaways, which is based on the tv game show of the same name.

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Other Megaways games, such as One Million Ways BC (Iron Dog Studios), have over one million paylines in certain special features. In the Free Spins Bonus, an extra “Mammoth Reel” with 9 rows is added, making the structure 7x7x7x9x7x7x7 – 1,058,841 ways to win. Like Epic Ape, the win potential is very high and the gameplay very volatile. But we have to ask whether there is a little too much going on here? Can players really keep track of more than a million paylines?

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By keeping track, we mean having a general sense of what is going on. The game will, of course, collect your winnings and display anything of note, but having so much going on the screen can feel a bit overwhelming at times, particularly for new players. Arguably, the casino games developers hit the sweet spot with Epic Ape and Buffalo Blitz. There’s still huge win potential, but you can keep track of what is going on. While Megaways games are hugely popular – and with good reason – you can understand why some players might long for the simple slot machines of old.

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Christopher Stern
Christopher Stern is a Washington-based reporter. Chris spent many years covering tech policy as a business reporter for renowned publications. He has extensive experience covering Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and other federal agencies. He is a graduate of Middlebury College. Email:[email protected]

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