Apple is Gambling

I personally don’t like to gamble. I don’t like slot machines or roulette. The decisions you make are too inconsequential.

Have you ever looked at the payout odds for roulette? No matter how you bet your percentage return is always the same. On average you’re going to lose 5 cents for every dollar you bet. It’s true that there are a lot of options in roulette. A lot of choices to make. But none of them have any impact on the game. You’re always going to lose about 5 cents for every dollar you bet.

Slot machines are the same. You can decide how much you want to bet and you can decide how many “lines” you want to bet but all your doing is deciding how quickly or slowly you lose your money. Even then, casinos tend to doctor the odds so that lower-cost slots have a worse payout in an attempt to even out the money-lost-per-hour of all slot machines.

So in slots, roulette, and other casino games it’s impossible to make a choice that impacts the game.

If you are a game author like me, shit like this makes you really curious. It’s hard to make a good video game, lots and lots of us have tried and failed. But here is a simple set of games where players literally make no decisions yet sit enraptured by them. The world wide gambling market is worth over 300 billion dollars while the videogame market is worth less than 70. Amazingly, the majority of that 300 billion dollars comes from people playing games where their decisions have no impact on the game.

Pachinko Players by Miguel Michán

But every pillar of game design that I respect is fundamentally rooted in player choice. So why the hell are all these people deciding to give money to casinos?

So far my only answer has been cash payouts. Yeah, slot machines are pretty simple skinner boxes. But even in a skinner box you need to give the pigeon something they care about. If you awarded the pigeon “points” for hitting a button then it would lose interest pretty fast. The cost of hitting the bar dwarfs the potential gain of the payout.

So it has been with slot machines. Downloadable slot machine games have been around for as long as games. They never really went anywhere because with no cash reward and no interesting choices the skinner box collapses. Until now. Ladies and gentlemen I would like to present to you, Slotomania:

Slotomania and, ridiculously, Slotomania HD are both on the iPad top grossing apps chart. That means people are dropping a lot of money into a slot machine with no payout. The skinner box has no clothes but it doesn’t seem to matter.

How did Slotomania manage to turn the Skinner Box back on? Well check out the bar at the top of that Screen shot. Can you guess what that is?

That’s an xp bar. You can level this slot machine. When you level you get access to more games (well, the same game reskinned) and you raise your minimum bet. You gain xp purely by spending credits. The more credits you gamble the more you level. Of course you run out of credits about two and a half games in so the only way to unlock more is by paying real money.

I also think they trade off the associations that casino gamblers already have with slot machines. By mimicking casino slots they can hijack the Pavlovian response people have already built up around traditional slots.

This is genius, evil, and Slotomania has been making money off of it on iPad and facebook for two years. They had been refining their strategy and becoming more and more profitable until, shock, last year Ceaser’s bought them and they really started to make money.

It’s these kind of brain hacks that make me really uncomfortable. Ceaser’s and Slotomania basically earn their money from failures in the human mind. They can compel us to play their shitty games and they can compel us to pay them money to do it. They don’t offer us a system to master or anything you might define as “fun” in return. They just reach into our brain and make us dance to their tune.

Gambling and slot machines have historically, and sensibly, been deemed bad for society and often made illegal. Why Apple has decided to let them loose on its walled garden is beyond me. They’re gambling that the government isn’t going to step in and try to put things in order. If they lose that bet then the laws will be broad and ham fisted and we’re all going to wish they’d just stayed the fuck out of the casino.


18 thoughts on “Apple is Gambling

  1. Wow. I’m amazed that they can pull this off with just an XP bar and some similarities to existing casino slot machines.

    I guess if you asked them they’d probably just pull out the same justification that anyone (Zynga?) does – people enjoy it, so why not? :/

    1. I find that a compelling argument.

      I definitely believe strongly in personal freedom and our right to make our own mistakes.

      On the other hand the human brain has some legitimate weaknesses. Can you imagine heroin ads on tv? Or free cigarettes at elementary schools?

  2. I work not far from a casino in a small city. It does not matter what day of the week it is, what time of the year it is, or even what time of the day it is. The parking lot is ALWAYS full. All day, every day. The nearest parking spot is no less than 100 yards from the entrance. If casinos in Podunk are like that, I can only imagine what the casinos in Atlantic City or Las Vegas are like.

    I don’t gamble either but I was coerced into going there one night with my coworkers. The first thing I noticed was the dejected demeanor that people leaving the casino had. Complete polar opposite from the excited demeanor that people entering had. I guess spending all your money and having nothing tangible to show for it will have that effect on you. Not that I have any experience in that matter.

    In the past, you had to stop playing when the little issue of “no cash left” reared its ugly head. Then they came out with slot machines with credit card readers built into them. Leave your wallet at home, plug in your plastic and play until your credit is maxed to the moon. However, you would still have to physically travel to the casino to do this. As much as the concepts of “logical” and “gambling” don’t exactly mesh, I guess gambling apps are the next logical step in the progression of gambling.

    Final thought: casinos should totally be the next “useless building” in Rebuild 3. Can be converted into a Bar or a Church. “For years, people left these places with empty pockets and broken hearts. Let’s have them leave with something to feel good about for a change.”

    1. It’s so weird that people will be so eager to do things that make them unhappy. The brain is such a mysterious thing.

      I really like that idea for Rebuild.

  3. I don’t understand how they get away with it. At least in casinos, slot machines are regulated.
    While I’ll never pay them a dime, I can see how people might get caught up in it. We can really only hope that the game upsets a hacker, who can then level the odds.
    Anyway, for anyone even remotely curious, I won around $15000 in free money, which took me about a week of blind luck.
    But I then threw it all away to “level up” – I was bored w the machines I’d unlocked.
    Now I just check it every now and then, bet all of my free coins on one spin – then I’m done.
    But the game is definitely rigged WELL beyond real money slot machines to burn coins.
    I just hope someone hacks the damn thing sooner than later. Makes me ill to constantly see the game as a top grossing app.
    Thanks for your article.

  4. Oh – just like to point out – Slotomania will not even load without an Internet connection. If you delete the app and reinstall it, it connects to their server and re-establishes your old “account”, though I NEVER authorized the app to do so. So Apple is deeper into this than we probably know.
    Also Caesars has a TON of cash, obviously, so paying themselves (again in conjunction with Apple) to randomly remain in the top grossing apps seems likely. You’ll notice how their ranking is always randomly in the top 10.
    And as you related, all of the “games” are really horrible. Nothing even close to on par with, for example, Aztec Temple, a real slot machine.
    I do enjoy gambling – but I limit myself to quarter slots :) Just find an addict, sit beside them, keep your bets low, and enjoy raking it in. On average, I pulled in over $80/hr – and all of the free drinks I wanted. Did I feel bad about sitting next to the idiots throwing all of their money away bc my little machine would almost ALWAYS go into “BIG WIN BONANZA!!!” mode, but actually only paying ME out $20 on a quarter bet, thus setting them off to throw away even MORE money?
    No, I’d happily sit next to them, enjoying my free drink, goofing off –
    But Slotomania is NOT even close – I bet the payout is in the 0.0001 percentile. So I waste my OWN drinks, there is NO upside – Hell, even the games only get worse and worse as you progress. Cat Chef and Save an Alien… blech!!!!!!
    It’s all just a horrible scam. And I hope Apple and Caesars get REAMED over it.
    At a Casino, you PAY for credits. In Slotomania you PAY for credits. So WHY is Slotomania completely unregulated or even legal. And Casinos give away FREE credits, too – so no clue what the HELL they’re hiding behind to get away with this.
    But oh well…

  5. I couldn’t agree more. I can’t stand this game. If you’re going to allow people to gamble on their phone you should be treated like a casino. I can’t fathom how this is legal…a virtually endless pit in which to toss your money. If 1 person was running this and we all lost millions instead of tens this would be called a ponzi scheme.

  6. Once i tried on off these i played it like 2 minutes and then i checked that i need real money for playing a games with the goal to press a button and lose money so i deleted it i don’t know why ppl like something like this so much and i like them too but only when there is the possibility to win and that they aren’t the mean part of the game in rebuild 2 you can gamble with gustav and at the end you have something beetween -100 to +100 food and a kitty :D (one question why gustav runs out of food when he is winning ?) i alway gamblr with him because i get the kitten in plants vs zeds you can gamble too but you only lose 25 suns and win with every roll sOmething like 50 suns or ingame money And another idea someone already said that there could be a useless building like the casino but you could gamble with it ingame like everyday you get -2to+5 food or even weapons it makes -1 to +1 morale if the ppl win they get some morale if they lose they lose morale but you get food

  7. It’s a rare kind of person who thinks of choices in terms of expected value. I know that many game designers and professional poker players probably do, but the average gamer most likely does not.

    If you have internalized the mathematics then it’s obvious that it doesn’t matter which bet you make in roulette. If you haven’t then the game provides a very strong illusion of agency. A player bets red and loses because the wheel comes up black. The player can truly believe that if only they had bet black that time they would have won, his or her decision would have led to an entirely opposite result, so this time the player bets black… and wins! It sure seems to the player like their actions have a huge impact.

    As a game designer I have come to realize that all games are an illusion played within the perception of the player’s mind.

      1. I guess the linkbank covers it, heh. I haven’t even answered the question fully yet, but hopefully some sort of understanding of my perspective is being developed…

  8. there’s probably a lot of reason why people play these games : the human brain is a pattern recognition machine at its genus, desire – release impulse stimulates endorphins, focus in this way can relieve anxiety and stress, people forget there troubles. The problem (apart from those who lose more than they have to spend) is that these games never increase a players well being, they don’t allow them to get better at playing the game. In the end they promote a negative impulse, that one is always destined to fail.

    i wouldn’t worry about it though, the universe is probably predetermined anyway

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