In this long form article on the Verge, author Antonio Regalado digs in on the slot machine/video game poker industry and how they approach game play.
IGT makes 93% of the worlds video poker games and goes to great lengths to create a state of flow with customers playing their machines. Too much of a payout can cause players to stop playing because it can break the “experience.” Too little, and players will abandon game play early.
“To keep players gambling, all slots rely on the same basic psychological principles discovered by B.F. Skinner in the 1960s. Skinner is famous for an experiment in which he put pigeons in a box that gave them a pellet of food when they pressed a lever. But when Skinner altered the box so that pellets came out on random presses — a system dubbed variable ratio enforcement — the pigeons pressed the lever more often. Thus was born the Skinner box, which Skinner himself likened to a slot machine.
The Skinner box works by blending tension and release — the absence of a pellet after the lever is pressed creates expectation that finds release via reward. Too little reward and the animal becomes frustrated and stops trying; too much and it won’t push the lever as often.
Like video poker, most multi-line slots rarely pay large jackpots, instead doling out smaller wins frequently. “They’re imitating the formula of video poker, but they’re doing it in a slot formula,” Natasha Schüll, an associate professor at MIT who has researched slots for 15 years, says. In 2012, Princeton University Press published Addiction by Design: Machine Gaming in Las Vegas, the culmination of her research and a deconstruction of the slot machine.
Too little reward and the animal becomes frustrated and stops trying; too much and it won’t push the lever as often.
Schüll says modern slot machines essentially continued the trend started by Redd so as not to jolt players too intensely in the form of losses — or wins. “Too-big wins have been shown to stop play because it’s such an intense shift in the situation that you’ll kind of pause, you’ll stop, you’ll take your money and leave,” says Schüll. Stretching out gameplay with minor rewards, Schüll says, “allows you to get in the flow of, another little win, another little win.”
Education and learning websites like Khan Academy & Code Academy do something similar to keep the flow by breaking their lessons into much smaller chunks than what would be found in traditional learning classes and proving the user with badges after completing lessons and encouraging them not so much to complete the entire block of lessons but to “do 1 more section”.
Other nuggets I found interesting from the article –
“Perhaps no one has uncovered the Platonic ideal of the slot machine, but certain principles undergird most games. First, there’s a vague aesthetic uniformity: colors tend toward the primary or pastel, franchise tie-ins are a must, and the game soundtracks are typically in a major key. Meanwhile, the multi-line wins introduced by Bally have become an unintelligible tangle: modern slots offer players upwards of 50 and sometimes 100 different winning combinations — so many that without the corresponding lights, sounds, and celebration, most casual and even advanced players would have trouble recognizing whether they’d won or lost.”
The entire article is very well researched and written and I recommend reading the entire piece when you have 10 free minutes or so. It’s a great look at using engagement to increase your objective be it profits or brand engagement.