The gaming industry isn’t just big business; it’s huge business.
Did you know that here in the US, the industry contributes around $240 billion a year to the economy? If you didn’t know that, the chances are you’ll also not be aware that slot machines, video poker machines and other electronic gaming contribute the greater share of this revenue. In the UK, the population is just as fond of a flutter as well. According to the nation’s Gambling Commission, the remote betting, bingo and casino sector of the industry occupied 37.3% of the market share from April 2017 to March 2018, with slots generating a £2 billion gross gambling yield for this period.
Those are some statistics alright and the industry has come a long way since it’s humble beginnings. Below we go back through the evolution of the industry and how slots have progressed over time.
Where it all began
The story of slot machines goes back to 1891 and the work of New York-based company Sittman and Pitt, who created what some would consider the first ever slot machine. The game boasted five drums, had 50 playing cards and cost just a nickel to play. The player had to pull the lever and the poker hands on the reels had to line up for them to win. They’d then collect their winnings — drinks or cigars — at the bar. There were no cash prizes on these machines.
That said, the credit for inventing slot machines goes to a man named Charles Augustus Fey, who is believed to have created the first slot machine, the Liberty Bell, sometime between 1887 and 1895. The machine paid out automatically and, instead of five drums, had three reels. Symbols – hearts, spades, diamonds, a liberty bell and horseshoes — replaced the poker cards. Fey also made it easier for players to identify when they had won.
What was, in effect, a ban on slot machines in 1902 saw the emergence of fruit machines, which used fruit symbols and paid out prizes in sweets and chewing gum. Then in 1907, the manufacturer Herbert Bell came along and produced the Operator Bell slot machine. It was around this time players started to see the BAR symbol. In 1908, the machine started to appear in shops, salons, bowling alleys and many tobacconists.
1964 welcomed the first electromechanical slot machine, ‘Money Honey’ by Bally. Although players still had to pull the lever, the reels operated electronically and the machine was able to pay out up to 500 coins because of the bottomless hopper fitted. From this point on, however, the industry slowly started to phase out levers.
The machines grew in popularity and in 1976, the first ever video slot was invented and manufactured by the Las Vegas company Fortune Coin. It featured a 19-inch Sony TV screen and was first available to players in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Following a few modifications and some cheat-proofing, the machine received the green light from the Nevada State Gaming Commission and soared to popularity on the Strip.
Fast forward to 1996, the year of the release of ‘Reel Em’ by WMS Industries, Inc. The game was the first ever video slot to include a second-screen bonus round and was a real milestone in the development of slots. When triggered, a second screen would appear for players to play the bonus game and, potentially, win an additional payout. During this time, slots had started to become popular at casinos and later down the line, in the 21st century, would become the most played game in them.
The arrival of the internet — and of online slots
Things were ticking over fabulously already in the gambling industry. Then in the mid-1990s the internet arrived, and so did online gaming. The first online gambling club opened and the era saw the creation of online casinos, recreating gameplay so that players could gamble from the comfort of their own homes. Games had the same number of reels and the same symbols, but following the removal of restrictions, new types of games emerged which had interesting new themes, layouts and structures. Since then, the number of games developers and operators has increased, which is good news for players because they have more variety and a massive selection of online slots at their fingertips.
All of this may lead a player to ask if online slots are better than offline ones. The convenience of online slots may be behind their massive success, leading to stats like the £2 billion gross gambling yield in the UK mentioned earlier. The industry has kept up with technology so that playing online slots isn’t a question of firing up your desktop anymore. Operators have adapted them for mobile devices so that players can play on the go, which makes them more convenient and accessible. Some have even developed apps specially for the purpose.
Then there’s the experience of playing in an online casino. You can enter an online casino and feel as if you’re at a glitzy casino in some other part of the world. This comes thanks to the use of virtual reality in gaming, allowing the experience to be as immersive as possible. With the prospect of even higher internet speeds in the future, in years to come the slot you pick could become part of a vast digitally recreated casino.
Gambling online, whether gaming or betting, isn’t just a fad, either. There’s an increasing appetite for it, especially in the UK. The total gross gambling yield for the remote sector from April 2017 to March 2018 was £5.4 billion, which is an increase of 13.7% on the same period from 2016 to 2017. The total number of casinos there has gone up since March 2018, whereas the number of betting shops has decreased since then by 1.8% and the number of gambling machines also appears to be falling (if you exclude those that only require a local license).
Who’d have thought the industry would come such a long way from the days of pulling levers and winning cigars or drinks as prizes to just sitting comfortably at home, playing and being able to win big? It can look back over the years both with fondness and with pride.