Life is like a box of chocolates. In 1994, Forrest Gump, the Lion King, Friends, and the Sony Playstation all made their debuts. In the charts, Oasis and Blur were fighting it out. Kurt Cobain committed suicide, the Channel Tunnel opened and Charles and Diana called it a day.
Meanwhile… in South Africa… a small team of programmers, developers, and shrewd investors was about to rewrite the future of gambling. The casino was coming home and the online slot would lead the charge.
On the casino floor, things had been steadily progressing. The mechanical machines were now museum pieces and both video poker and video slot machines were ubiquitous.
Video Killed the Radio Star
It hadn’t always been like that. Inventor Walt Fraley and the Fortune Coin Co. had released a video version of a classic ‘Bell Slot Machine’ in 1975. The machine was not well received.
There were trust issues. Patrons complained that they couldn’t see the reels spinning. They were uneasy about the new video game, despite the fact the video slot had been rigorously tested by the Nevada Gaming Board.
Undeterred by the video slot’s lukewarm reception, SIRCOMA – which stood for Si Redd’s Coin Machines – bought the Fortune Coin Co. and continued development. A video version of draw poker was released in 1979 and was an instant smash hit.
Shy players who were wary of playing live could now enjoy a game of poker at their leisure, away from the crowd. People got used to the idea of the video screen, money was won, and the foundations were laid for a future of video gaming.
SIRCOMA changed its name to IGT (International Gaming Technology) and the popularity of both video slots and poker boomed throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
There were no physical or mechanical constraints. Games could now have the lure of second screen bonus rounds: a feature developed in Australia and first introduced in 1994, with the game Three Bags Full.
Multi-line payouts were also possible. Players could increase their stake and bet on several win lines – up to 1024. Games were also themed on films, music, or popular entertainers. Graphics and animation were now part of the package, adding to the overall experience.
The main attraction of the new video games was their ability to offer players huge jackpots, by using a random number generator to create the odds and having as many virtual symbols on a reel as the jackpot dictated.
A virtual three-reel game, with 256 symbols on each reel, would have 16,777,216 possible combinations. This allowed the manufacturer to offer players a million dollar jackpot on a $1 bet, safe in the knowledge it will happen only once in every 16.8 million spins.
The technology also enabled slots to be linked. Not only in casinos but nationwide. The global progressive game depended on a good Internet connection.
The Internet Explodes
Now… back to South Africa. By 1994, the Internet has 25 million users and ebusiness is the new business. Spam is just starting to appear, Yahoo is launched, and people are asking ‘what is the Internet, anyway?’
Microgaming is a small start up business with a great idea. In April 1994, it launches the world’s first online casino. The Internet will never be the same again.
In the next three years, Microgaming continues to enhance its product with player tracking and casino management. It stops trading as an online casino and focuses purely on game development. It also relocates to the Isle of Man.
Meanwhile, more players enter the gaming software development market. Playtech, Cryptologic, Real Time Gaming, Wagerworks, Boss Media, IGT, and many others all stake their claim for a slice of the online casino pie.
And what a pie it is. Currently, the online casino market continues to grow. In 2018, it is forecast the EU 28 countries will generate a market worth €3.3 billion.
Send in the Clones
And the games? Today, anything is possible. Initially, online developers emulated the casino games of their real world cousins. Note perfect versions of all the classic games like blackjack, roulette, craps, and baccarat soon appeared.
Slots started off as clones but rapidly became much more, taking full advantage of every leap forward in computer technology. As our laptops, tablets, and PCs became more powerful, the games got better.
Now you can play a slot on your phone or marvel at Hollywood-style animations, games have a narrative which encourages repeat play and loyalty. Online slots are no longer just three spinning wheels. They can be a complex and engaging form of entertainment.
Charles Fey started the reels spinning more than 100 years ago. Now, you can play in 3D, with friends around the world, or for a jackpot that could change your life for ever.
The history is over but – next time – we look to the future and speculate on the slots. What will the next century hold for the spinning reels?