There are few more iconic pub features than a fruit machine rattling away in the corner. The bright lights, ringing sounds, and even the smells (if you were in the right kind of establishment) brought a little bit of that Las Vegas atmosphere into the pubs and clubs across the UK.
You might have noticed that the number of fruit machines in our pubs has dwindled in recent years as governing bodies get tougher on who’s allowed to host them and who’s allowed to use them.
Times are definitely changing, but let’s have a brief look back at how things used to be.
The History of the Fruit Machine
Fruit machines can be dated back as far as 1887 when the first poker machine was released by a New York company, Sittman and Pitt. The game included 5 drums with 50 playing cards and was priced at around a nickel to play.
Like the fruit machines of today, they were mainly found in bars and pubs of the time, but even the design bears an uncanny likeness to our modern day fruit machines.
The game was poker based and the player had to line up poker hands on the reels in front of them. The original machines had no payout functionality and so winners had to go and claim their prize at the bar, which usually came in the form of drinks or cigars.
What’s interesting is that even the earliest machines had a house edge, with two cards from the 52-card deck being removed. These were the Ten of Spades and the Jack of Heats. These two cards weren’t random though, as both decreased the chances of hitting a Royal Flush by almost half.
Whilst this was the first fruit machine of its kind, it’s widely regarded that Charles August Fey was the designer of the first slot machine as we know them today, dating somewhere between 1887 to 1895. What was superior about his machine was that it was the first to offer automatic payouts.
At the time this was a huge deal, but to do this successfully he had to reduce the complexity of the game in question to using just 3 reels that included the symbols hearts, spades, and diamonds, plus a horseshoe and a liberty bell.
The game required the player to make a combination of the symbols, with the highest payout coming from three liberty bells.
By 1902 rip offs and copycat companies were rife, and since Fey had not patented the machine there was nothing he could do about it, and competition grew fierce. It was around about this time that fruit symbols were first introduced and so the name ‘fruit machines’ was born.
What’s amazing looking back is the similarities from these early models to what we see today. The fact that a house edge was cleverly created in the early poker game, and the inclusion of reels and then winning combinations in the first of the slot games, are remarkable. These are still the basis for pretty much all fruit machines and online slots even today.
The games were mechanical until around 1964, which saw the first electronic version of the fruit machine released by Bally. The popularity of the game was instant and even though they kept the levers on the side just like the mechanical games used to have, the process was far smoother and quicker, allowing for a better gaming experience.
The complexity of the games continued to grow. In 1996 WMS Industries Inc. released the first full video slot as we know them today. It included a second screen of game play, which is essentially what we now know as bonus rounds with video slots.
This history is interesting, and the evolution of the games we love over the years has been massive, but the foundations on which all games have been built has remained ever the same since their conception.
How do They Work from a Player’s Point of View?
A player would first start by entering money into the slot and this tells the machine there is someone who is ready to play. You will then be able to choose the stake that you want to play for on some machines, while others might be fixed. The stake is the amount that it will cost you for one spin.
You simply press spin/start and the reels will start to spin quite quickly. The first reel will stop, then the second and then the third (assuming it’s a three reel machine). The idea of the delayed stopping is to increase tension as the reels stop, the icons show up, and the player crosses their fingers.
If a payout is needed, then the payout will take place. With modern fruit machines this will likely load to a digital balance that you can cash out at any time or use to keep spinning. Older machines wouldn’t give you this option and the money would drop right away.
Many of the older models, and even some of the newer ones, still work with a mechanical rather than an electrical mechanism. This makes the reels spin when the lever is pulled, or a button is pressed.
The electrical machines can now give you alternative options such as nudge and hold. When you nudge you can move the reel one space up to bring the next symbol into the payline, and when you hold, the selected reel will remain fixed in place while those around it spin again.
How Payouts are Determined
One of the things to note about fruit machine is that payouts aren’t random. They are classed as ‘Compensated Machines’ by the UK Gambling Commission, which means that the previous plays have an effect on the next, and therefore the chance of payout.
This is taken directly from the UK Gambling Commission website:
“Compensated machines vary the chance of winning a prize as a result of the outcome from previous play. Where such a machine is below its target %RTP it may become more generous dependent upon design and vice versa, though the prize distribution is still determined by chance.”
What this means is that if a machine hasn’t paid out for a while then the likelihood of pay out will start to increase. When it mentions RTP, this stands for Return To Player percentage (more on this here) that is attached to the machine. If it falls below the average number, it will notify the machine to compensate to make up for that low number.
We’ve all heard the phrase in pubs before about the fruit machine being ready to drop, and this is essentially what it means. If you sit and watch one being used and very little is won all day, then there’s a higher chance that you will win if you jump on next.
In older fruit machines this used to be all mechanical. It worked on the basis of entering money into the machine, which would then enter into a transparent case. Within those cases would be moveable shutters, so as the amount of money would increase, this would open the shutter and release money.
This wasn’t all down to the weight of the coins though – a number of different methods that were worked with throughout the years.
If you imagine a series of cogs within the machine and then each of the cogs having notches, these notches would be moved to create an almost pattern-like layout. Each of the symbols would have their own notch, so as the jackpot symbol was landed on reel one, it would move further away for reel 2 and then again for reel for 3, making it hard to align the cogs.
Once the cogs all line up, the shutter for the jackpot would open and the money would be released.
As machines became more advanced with electrical fruit machines starting to take the place of mechanical machines, metal contacts would be added to the reels and then attached to a circuit board. When the reel stops spinning, the metal contact would create the loop on the circuit board and signify to the computer in the machine what the combination is.
How Does this Differ from Online Slots?
The easiest way to determine the difference is that online slots are truly random and fruit machines, well… aren’t.
Slots work in a different way in terms of payouts. They use a Random Number Generator (RNG) to determine the combination of symbols that appear. The easiest way to think of this is that the online slot has a reel with thousands of options including all of the symbols in that game, and this reel is spinning at several rotations per second.
When the button is pressed, that ‘reel’ stops spinning and the symbol is presented on screen. Given the sheer volume of symbols and the speed at which it spins, it makes the symbols that appear totally random.
The reality is that the process is much more complicated for online slots, and they utilise very difficult algorithms. This allows the slots to not only offer random symbols at any one time, but also to work in their RTP% within this. It has no bearing on how much money has been staked with each spin or over a certain time period and starts a clean slate with each new spin.
Because of their complexity, online slots are highly regulated and go through scrupulous testing phases covering millions of test spins to make sure they are totally fair.
Payout Percentages and Odds
We briefly touched on RTP (Return to Player) earlier in the article. This is essentially the amount that the fruit machine will theoretically pay back over a long-sustained period of play.
The RTP is based on a percentage. These percentages range for each machine. For example, a machine that has an RTP of 90% basically means that for every £1 staked 90p will be returned to the customer. This is calculated over a huge sample of spins and then variance is also involved, so it doesn’t mean that you physically get 90p for every £1 staked. You could get less, you could get more (which is what we all hope for).
Fruit machines are notorious for having very low RTP’s. In fact, they are stipulated to have a minimum of just 70% RTP, with few choosing to go above this number. Whilst this may seem OK, online slots, which are essentially the same thing, have RTP’s that are upwards of 90% and as high as 98%.
The reason they are so different is more do with the volume of games and hands that online games can offer compared to that of fruit machines. The fact that each machine needs to be physically assembled and then programmed means it needs wider margins to cover initial costs. Online slots can be made once and then distributed thousands of times to online casinos, reach many many more players.
Popular Fruit Machine Games
Over the years there have been a range of games and themes that have been tipped for success from the off. These have obviously developed over time with both technology and pop culture being the driving force behind newer games.
One of the most popular, certainly of the current crop of games, has been that of Deal or No Deal. The TV show, hosted by Noel Edmonds, is a firm family favourite and the crossover into fruit machines has found the brand to be a consistently popular option.
The game is highly interactive compared with most games, with features that include the banker, 3 reels, a series of symbols with some related to the show, and of course the chance to play the Deal or No Deal game. Throughout the slot, depending on which boxes you have uncovered, you get offers from the banker as you play, meaning you can cash out at any time.
Monopoly is another popular game that’s been around for a while now. Like Deal or No Deal, you get to work your way through a variation of the game, with a hi or low game acting as your dice as you work your way around the board with each spin. High jackpots, great graphics, and brilliant gameplay have been the backbone to their success.
Popular Fruit Machine Game Providers
There are a number of game providers that supply machines to the UK.
- Bell-Fruit Games
- SG Gaming
Between the five of them they have been able to produce a huge number of games and have been the driving force of innovation for fruit machines. Whilst they have all worked within the online slots industry (and still do), it’s the classic fruit machines that put all five of these companies on the map and they are still the market leaders today.