The history of slot machines is the perfect example of how an invention evolves over time from its simple and rudimentary beginnings to a highly sophisticated digital creation. Much has happened in the course of a little over a century since the first slots made their appearance in bars and saloons.
Where early designs were mechanical machines housed in wooden cabinets sporting a single pay line, today’s modern video slots can have well in excess of one million ways to win. Not only that but they will also have a range of random modifiers, bonus features or free spin rounds included in the gameplay.
Such is the popularity that some 70% of all casino revenue worldwide is generated by slot players. No other game of chance comes even close to match that figure. Reason enough for us to take a closer look at the history and developments of the last century.
Liberty Bell – The First Real Slot machine
The honour for building the first-ever real slot machine goes to a gentleman from San Francisco, USA. Charles Fey (1862–1944), a car mechanic turned inventor, developed the famous Liberty Bell in 1894. Housed in a polished wooden cabinet, it had three reels with painted diamonds, spades, hearts and the Liberty Bell as well as a lever on the side to get them spinning. Hitting three bells gave the biggest payoff, a grand total of fifty cents or what was then ten nickels. As gambling halls were prohibited in most states at the time, the machines could be found in countless barbershops, tobacco stores, saloons and even brothels. The invention has been pivotal in the history of slot machines and the 3-reels mechanic is still used today.
The Introduction of Electromechanical Slot Machines and Video Slots
It wasn’t until the 1960s when Bally developed the first electromechanical slot called Money Honey, that went on to become one of the most popular games on casino floors in Las Vegas and around the world. Another decade passed before Nevada-based Fortune Coin Co introduced the first video slot, a rather monstrous cabinet holding a 19” screen from Sony. Interestingly, the company was later acquired by today’s industry giant International Game Technology Plc, better known as IGT.
Online Video Slots
Obviously, video slots kept evolving over the years with WMS introducing in 1996 for the first time a second screen bonus game on their iconic Reel’ em In slot. This was the same period when online gaming started to emerge, although it was a slow procession at first with Microgaming and NetEnt being the drivers in the early stages. Slots have changed dramatically since, leading to a multitude of format, reels, rows, ways, progressive jackpots, modifiers and features.
Line Video Slots
Gone are the days where slot machines would have a single pay line, be it on three or five reels. Today, we have anything from 3 to 100 lines incorporated in anything from 3×3 to 6×5 formats. The main characteristic of line slots is that in order to score a win you will need to land matching symbols or in combination with wilds along an active pay line.
Ways Video Slots
To have 100 lines were never meant to be the maximum or the end of the evolution of video slots. Microgaming was the first to develop and launch the ways game engine with 243 ways to win. The change meant that there was no need anymore to land symbols on a line. Instead, a win is paid as long as matching symbols land on adjacent reels. Thunderstruck II and Immortal Romance are some of the most popular 243-ways slots. That was further stretched to up to 4,096 ways with six reels on games such as the iconic Raging Rhino from WMS. And yet, it was still not the end as Red Tiger Gaming demonstrated on Laser Fruit, which has up to 60,466,176 ways to win.
And then came Megaways. Introduced in 2016 by Big Time Gaming on their Dragon Born slot, it started a new trend in how we play slots and became into an online gaming phenomenon. The immense popularity and success turned BTG into a shooting star in the industry. The highly sophisticated game engine features dynamic reels with no set amount of symbols per reel. Instead, the engine selects a random number of symbol for each reel at the start of a spin, limited only by the maximum ways to win and thus creating virtually unlimited combinations of rows and ways. The standard Megaways engine has up to 117,649 ways while other variants can have 15807, 46656, 200704 and more.
A different type of video slots not relying on pay lines are the grid slots. They started to appear around 2005 with Swedish game studio Play’n GO being the main driver. Instead of spinning reels, a grid slot comes in a defined format e.g. 5×5 and symbols drop from the top at the start of a spin. Landing a minimum number of matching symbols, usually four or five, connected vertically and/or horizontally will constitute a winner. All in the combo are then removed and more symbols drop from the top to potentially start a chain of wins within a single spin sequence. Reactoonz from Play’n GO and Jammin’ Jars from Push Gaming are currently the most popular grid slots.