What Slot Machine And Social Games Can Learn From Each Other

8 min read
Ben Logan
Design Research
Behavioural Science

Just because games are from very different genres and have different revenue models (freemium, free to play etc.) does not mean that they cannot learn from each other. The problems and solutions highlighted by one style of game can sometimes be adapted for the benefit of another.

The mechanics of a game that lead to the most player engagement are not always the most obvious parts. Looking at many different style of game can assist us in finding out what real points of engagement and disengagement are, informing future UX strategy.

At first glance it may not be obvious how similar slot machine and social games are. One is a gambling game where a player sits spinning virtual rollers in the hope of winning some money; the other is often free to play and involves actions like watering plants or decorating a house. On closer inspection, these two game types have more in common than you may think. The design tricks used in each style of game to aid player engagement can often be adapted and applied.

Both game types involve players putting money into the game that they know they will not get back (most gamblers are aware that ‘the house always wins’ especially with low skill games such as slot machines). Most social game players do not put money into the game; however, those that do realise that the money they put in is the cost of playing the piece of entertainment they enjoy.

When looking at demographics, both game types have similar player bases. The majority of paying players for both games are 30 -55 year old females. Once players have purchased in game currency (be this a social games gold coins or a slot games credit) they spend it quickly because they do not see it as real money anymore.

Both styles of game rely on reward structures – often giving random rewards of random amounts. This is more visible with gambling games where the odds mean a player can win or lose varying amounts of money. This basic reward structure is also seen in social games with random number generators used to decide exactly how much ‘loot’ drops.

The player engagement created by this random rewards schedule is based on the results of studies by researchers such as B.F. Skinner. He found that consistent rewards led to the least engagement, the receiver eventually got bored of the predictable rewards; randomising of the reward provided increased engagement, as did randomising the amount of the reward. Randomising both the reward amount and whether or not it was provided led to the most engagement. This basic principle can be leveraged into all styles of gaming but works particularly well in gambling and social games, where players often play lots of different games of a similar type and have limited loyalty to one particular title.

What can social games learn from slot machines?

Slot machine games are very good at keeping players engaged via different reward structures. One of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of a slot machine game is the near miss. The player’s reaction to events when they think they have nearly won is often as powerful as their reaction to winning. Slots achieve this by techniques such as the having the white space just above and below a jackpot icon line up with two other jackpot icons, meaning the wheel is only a couple of degrees off a win, and the player can see this.

Social game mechanics are often more binary – the player either wins or loses, there is not so much of a grey area. The plants either drop fruit or they don’t. The amount may vary but players don’t have a similar near miss experience, where they think they were very close to getting what they wanted. This is a powerful tool for social games because it allows the player to be given a thrill without adversely affecting the economy (they do not actually win / get anything). This means the number of items in the game can stay the same but the number of player reaction spikes can be increased.

Loss disguised as win

Slot machine players can often think they have won money when they have actually lost. This is mainly due to them being able to bet on multiple different lines at the same time. Their total bet may be £5, one line wins them £1, the player gets the ‘win’ feedback of sound effects etc. and reacts accordingly. The win reaction is often still felt even if the player knows they have actually lost money.

This mechanic could be useful for social games when it comes to pacing. Games must have natural barriers so players do not blitz through the content. Using simple factors like time – I.e. it is impossible for a player to get to a certain point without putting in a large amount of time is quite a transparent road block to the player’s objective. The loss disguised as win mechanic may allow developers to provide speed bumps to game progression that act less like a restriction and more like fake progression.

Illusion of skill or control

Slot machines give players the impression of skill or control of the game by having buttons such as nudge, hold etc. These options have no bearing on the overall odds under which the player is gambling, but do give players the impression of having a greater impact on the outcome of their game. As the overall odds do not change, this also means that the player is not penalised for not using the extra buttons if they do not wish to.

In social games giving players controls that actually have very little or no effect on the outcome of the game could provide a similar benefit. Without changing the actual game design the player is given the impression that they can have more control and thus be more engaged; alternatively, if they are not interested in the controls they are not penalised.

What can slot machines learn from social games?


Social games allow the player to customise their experience. They can often drastically change their environment. This can be both through paid for items and items they earn from playing the game. This gives the player a greater feeling of ownership of the game and also means they are incentivised to come back and play the same game because the time they have spent in it has resulted in a change in the game.

Slot machine players do not, generally, have the opportunity to change the graphics of the game. Giving them the ability to make cosmetic changes and thus create a game that is more appealing to them may assist in retention rates. Instead of needing to produce lots of new games because players move from game to game at will, fewer more engrossing games could be used to hold a player’s attention for longer.

Dual currency systems

Social games often have two currencies: one is for high revenue transactions and the other is low revenue transactions. This provides some useful benefits for the game design. Firstly, it allows the developers to deal with inflation – if a player has lots of one currency they still need to worry about the other, as both are needed within the game.

Secondly, continually gaining a resource makes the player feel like they are progressing and gives them options regarding what they can spend it on. The primary currency is the main item that is often pushed through the online shop; however, the secondary currency can also be purchased. This gives two possible revenue streams for developers. Slot machines could utilise a similar system by having a primary currency with which players gamble (bought with real money) and a secondary currency which could be earned through gameplay which can be spent on cosmetic changes such as new sound effects or graphics etc.

This secondary currency can be further leveraged by having special events, such as a Christmas theme skin, which can be purchased via the secondary currency. If the player does not have enough of the secondary currency to buy what they want they can purchase more with real world money. At the same time players are incentivised to play the same game more because they build up the secondary resource, which they now want because of what it can get them.

Click fatigue

Some social game developers were noticing that players were suffering from click fatigue. The constant requirement to click was becoming repetitive and boring. Their answer to this problem was to attempt to make clicking more fun by building mini games around it. Players were given bonuses for achieving certain click combinations. These mini games are optional.

In slot machine games the player is often constantly clicking one button to pull the lever. This could possibly lead to similar click fatigue issues. Utilising a similar approach of click mini games could be a possible way to increase player enjoyment whilst playing a slot machine game. This is also an example of gamification – taking a mundane task and adding gaming elements to make it more interesting.

MORE from us
View All
headshot of Ben, Director of Spotless
Got a project in mind?

Ben is on hand to answer your questions.