Anyone who has been working in the industry for a while would have seen a significant shift in the types of game features offered to players over the last 25 years.

Unlike the US or Macau, where players fly in for a weekend once or twice a year,  we have players who come into our venues several times each week and become bored quickly with the same old games. The Australian gaming machine market, in particular, has driven many of the game feature changes worldwide because the focus in Australia has been all about adding to the excitement level for these regular players.

In a way, we have changed the game design focus from high-risk bets and big payouts to slightly lower but more frequent wins, and much a more interesting delivery.  We are seeing these games move into other markets now who have a similar market base, such as the Native American reservation casinos. Here we have continued to develop our game features to meet our player’s needs.

Bonus Features:   The earliest game features in Australia were some of the old ‘pick a box’ style second screen bonus games where the player chooses from a few options. This very quickly developed into “keep picking until you achieve a win” style feature where the player builds anticipation by collecting certain win symbols. There are lots of games still around in the market that use this style, and it is always a popular game choice, with games such as Cash Express still going strong.

Free Games:  This is probably still in the majority of games, and always popular with the players. Some of the earliest were IGT’s ‘Blue Moon’ and Aristocrat’s ‘Dolphin Treasure’ or ‘Golden Pyramid’/’Queen of the Nile’. They are all based around the idea of gaining a number of trigger symbols, normally 3, to be awarded the free games feature. The number of the free games depends on the game math, but as long as the player feels like the feature hits often enough to maintain their interest, they are often successful games. Sometimes a few free games are offered with the chance of big wins, and sometimes lots of free games with smaller wins work well, and many will remember Konami’s “win up to 100 free games” ‘Incan Pyramid game.  Player perception of the success of these games depends on the frequency of the feature and the size of the win, rather than the number of free games.

Multiplying wins and volatility choice:  These free game options were developed further by playing around with the math. We now have options such as higher multipliers when you are in the feature, or having all the lower paying symbols drop out when in the feature, so only the royals remain, such as Scientific Game’s most popular games.  And of course one of the most successful game feature tweaks has been Aristocrat’s ‘5 Dragons’ where you get to choose your own level of volatility by choosing the number of free games you want and the multiplier.

Variety is the key:  With the incredible increase in the power of the processors running our machines, the ability to offer interesting feature options for players has also increased. On-screen standalone progressives (SAPs) have been around for a little while and build anticipation as players see the jackpot level increase. Other modern options are  examples such as ‘block pays’ where a number of symbols on each reel expand and form a block, so the player gets free games with a guaranteed 3 or 4 of a kind pay while they chase the matching symbol on the remaining reels. Hold and spin features are also popular where symbols, or expanding and sticky wilds, are held while the feature continues. Increasing multipliers during the feature as players progress through the free games or increasing free games as players achieve a greater number of winning symbols are just a few of the many features available these days to interest our players. As with all things in gaming, the bigger the variety and number of choices you can offer your players, the more successful the gaming result will be.

What’s new: While on-screen bonuses are not “new” as a concept, it is a new “delivery”, where a number of the current crop of games show bonuses as part of a feature win in the same way that SAPs have been used. There have been several games in the last year that have, as a lower level bonus, extra free games, or fixed credit bonus prizes, that act as a consolation prize for the players and keep them in the game but display them on-screen as if they are jackpots. Aristocrat’s Lightning Cash games are one very popular example, but Scientific Game’s ‘Lock It Link’ and AGT’s ‘Cash Odyssey’ games also all feature these new bonuses.

What’s next: One interesting option to watch is IGT’s Cash Climb Link which offers everything to the player: it will apparently include link jackpots, standalone jackpots, escalating and dueling jackpots that increment at different speeds, have bonuses as consolation prizes, as well as free game features with multipliers that improve based on your bet, and/or with substitute and wild symbols. All the features are symbol driven too which means the jackpots are just random events but are triggered by the players collection of symbols, which means the bigger players will love it too.  The excitement and anticipation of all these features in one set of games for the player will be interesting to watch.

Future interactive features: We are limited in Australia with regulations that don’t allow ‘elements of skill’ in standard poker machine games but that doesn’t mean many of the manufacturers aren’t trying to develop in this area. Konami, as a leading designer of play station games, is pushing a few developments in this area and Aristocrat recently tried with ‘Red Queen’. No one has really succeeded just yet but this is definitely a case of …”watch this space”.

While these changes and developments are fantastic and the popularity of the games absolutely cannot be questioned, we have paid the price with more of the game percentage being moved into the jackpot, bonus and feature delivery. It is tempting to consider these days, what might happen, if a game was developed at 92% return to the player, with absolutely no features…just really solid wins for the punter. It would certainly stand out on a gaming floor as different, but would it be enough to really interest a player? It may just resolve the argument about whether they are chasing good wins or better entertainment.