Frank Floor Talk: Slots 101 — Progressives

June 25, 2024 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
June 25, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

My article last month on “good and bad” persistence slot machines was well received. But quite a few readers had questions and comments, most of them about the subject of “progressives”. If my slot manager friends will forgive me, below is a Slots 101 primer on the subject:

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A simple definition of a progressive jackpot is a bonus that gradually builds by accumulating a small percentage of the credits wagered and offering that amount as a bonus. Seven other terms that come into play are “progressive meter,” “progressive liability,” “reset value,” “increment rate,” “progressive controller,” “trigger,” and “progressive PAR adjustment.”

The term progressive meter may seem obvious, but it is simply the display of the amount of money that can be won if a cumulative jackpot is won. Historically, these jackpots were simply coins displayed in a glass-front hopper. Quarters or silver dollars would occasionally drop into these hoppers and thus the jackpots “progressed” from one coin to dozens of coins. Later, electronic dot-matrix and then LED displays replaced these hoppers to allow bigger jackpots and more attractive displays. Internally, there are physical and electronic meters in the slot machines and/or slot systems that also track these amounts that are also called progressive meters.

The progressive liability is the amount accumulated on the meter, less the reset value. The casino must track and record these amounts, even though regulators have ruled that it is not the casino’s money. They specify those amounts are the property of the “players”. The casino simply keeps it until the jackpot hits.

On the books, it is called the progressive liability. It is similar to an escrow account in real estate. When a big progressive hits, it therefore has minimal impact on the casino’s daily profitability. Their cash flow is diminished, but their bottom line is unaffected since the money was never considered theirs in the first place.

Interestingly, when a casino closes, like the Las Vegas Tropicana did recently, the operator must find some way to give that progressive liability money back to the players. One common tactic is to do drawings or other promotions to make sure it gets to players before closure. If an operating casino decides to eliminate a single progressive machine or bank of progressives, that liability must be transferred to a similar machine or bank with similar odds.

When one of these progressives “hits”, the only financial impact to the casino is to cash on hand and to reset value. This is the amount that starts on a progressive meter before it begins building. For the rest of this article, let’s use a classic single-meter, mechanical-reel $1 Blazing Sevens[i] machine (pictured) with a $1,000 top award as an example. If you make this game progressive, the meter starts at $1,000 and grows based on the increment rate. In the example shown, the meter started at $1,000 (the reset value) and grew by $601.14.

This increment rate is the percentage of the money wagered that goes to the game’s meter. While operators can select any rate, the standard for a Blazing Sevens game is generally 1%. You can verify this yourself by playing three credits ($3) and verify that the meter increase by 3¢ (this only works if the game is not linked to other progressive machines).

The progressive rate, reset, liability and the mechanism for counting all the Coin In comes from a “progressive controller”. These can be standalone or integrated into the slot machine’s main CPU board. These digital controllers (like the early Mikohn board pictured) also handled all the background software to make the digital meters display the correct amounts.

To win the jackpot, there must be a trigger. In this example, you must be playing three coins, and line up the three of the “Blazing Sevens” symbols on the payline. That triggers the jackpot. You win the amount shown, and the game resets the new jackpot back to $1,000. If games are linked together, the entire group contributes to the meter, and the jackpot can be won by any one of the connected games (all the linked meters then reset). Because of this, it is important that all standard linked progressive games must have the exact same odds and pay tables.

That all changed in the late ‘90s when Aristocrat in Australia and Mikohn in America introduced “Mystery Progressives”. Along with all the functions of a standard controller, “Mysteries” also feature their own Random Number Generator (RNG) onboard. Therefore, they don’t need the slot machine to trigger the progressive jackpots.

The most common versions determined the winner based on a pre-selected Coin-In amount (selected by the RNG at random). As an example, once a jackpot was hit, the progressive would reset, and the mystery controller would select a completely random Coin In number like 40,789. Whatever player pressed the button to play the 40,789th credit, the jackpot was triggered. Another less-common variant was to use a random time like 9 days, 4 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds. Whomever played at – or just after – that time was the winner.

The biggest advantage of Mysteries was that you could link different types of machines, even some with different odds or denominations. For the first time, penny machines could be on the same progressive link as $1 machines. This is still fair because the $1 players would have better odds of hitting since they had more “chances” to be playing when the random Coin In number was hit, but even with fewer chances, the penny player could also win (if they were lucky).

Another advantage is that you could set many different types of meters. The most popular today are “Must Hit By” variants. Meters can reset at a base amount and begin to grow. However, they are “guaranteed” to hit at a certain top limit. An example would be a progressive that resets at $250, but “must hit by” $500. You can imagine that play increases dramatically when the meter gets closer to that ceiling. Remember, it could hit at $250.01, but will always hit no later than $500.

Back to traditional triggers, several readers noted that you should always play a $1 “Blazing Sevens” when the meter hits $2,500 or more because it is “guaranteed” to hit. That is not true, but you can’t lose either. What!!?!?!?

Honestly, as above, it is just as likely to hit at $1,000.03 as it is at $10,000. That’s because the game’s outcome is truly random. However, the payback percentage does shift in the player’s favor the more it is played. Basically, as the jackpot grows, the payback percentages increase. At $1,445, this particular game becomes “breakeven” and is no longer profitable, nor a loser, for the casino or the player. As the jackpot grows, the odds shift to the player. At the aforementioned $2,500 level, the game has a 107.15% payback. On average and over time, you simply can’t lose.

The chart above shows that with a $1,000 reset jackpot, this loose Blazing Sevens machine starts with a 96.98% payback earning the casino a 3.02% hold. As mentioned above, the lines cross and the game becomes breakeven at $1,445. At a jackpot of $3,000, the hold % is more than 10% negative. The hit frequency remains the same (on this game it averages one hit per 4,913 handle pulls no matter what amount is shown on the progressive), but as you can see the payback increases dramatically as the meter grows.

For those who want to understand the math in more detail, you can access this interactive Excel spreadsheet where I mapped a $1 Blazing Sevens game. This one is a game with an HO662 EPROM installed. An EPROM[ii] is a computer chip. This chip sets the odds. Notice near the bottom of the spreadsheet is a PAYTABLE chart showing the standard 1,000-coin jackpot highlighted in yellow with red print.

If you look in the lower right corner just above the logo, you’ll notice that the top jackpot will hit every 4,913 times the game is played (light blue cell). Of course that’s the average; it could hit at 1 handle pull or 20,000 pulls. That average hit frequency doesn’t change no matter how high the progressive jackpot climbs.

But now try this. Enter another number (like 2,500) where 1,000 is on the PAYTABLE chart. When you do this, you’ll notice that the MAX PAYBACK % (green cells) now goes to 107.15% as mentioned above. As a player, you can’t lose (as long as you have the bankroll to keep playing through the game’s drought cycles). The casino still treats this game as a 3.02% hold, since that bigger jackpot was built with the players’ money, not the casino’s.

[For Excel nerds, the Max Payback % is calculated as H39 (sum of all payouts) divided by (G8*3). G8 is calculated by multiplying the number of reel stops on each reel by each other (68*68*136)]. It is cell H31 that grows when the progressive jackpot climbs and therefore makes H39 increase].

Remember, the odds of hitting the jackpot on any given handle pull are still 1 in 4,913 on average, no matter was the meter says. Once the meter climbs high enough, the odds of coming out ahead tilt in your favor, not the odds of hitting. That’s the real fun of progressive jackpots. The same goes for many progressive video poker machines which can easily turn positive when their jackpot grows.

Unfortunately, with the Blazing Sevens game, you have no idea what “EPROM chip” or hold percentage the slot director used for the base game and therefore you can’t do the math I did with the attached spreadsheet.

However, with video poker, the odds are relatively easy to calculate without a PAR sheet since most games use a standard 52-card deck and deal the cards randomly. It just takes basic math to do the calculations. If you’re not into numbers at all, there are countless books and websites that will do it for you.

The final point some readers asked is “are progressive games ‘looser’ than non-progressive slot machines?” That answer has variants, but the simple answer is a qualified “Yes”. If you added a progressive to a game, it will always be looser than that same game without a progressive. And (as the spreadsheet demonstrates) it gets looser and looser as the meter grows.

However, slot directors are sneaky. Instead of using the identical game, we select a version with a tighter chip to begin with, and then add the progressive. That’s the final definition that often confuses even some slot techs: progressive PAR adjustment. The golden rule is that you always add the increment rate % to the “payback” of the game and/or subtract the increment % from the casino’s “hold percentage”.

In our Blazing Sevens example, the base is a 96.98% payback game that holds 3.02%. If we added a 1% increment rate, it would become a 97.98% payback game holding just 2.02% (that’s very loose).

Finally, the Blazing Sevens game had just one meter, but many of today’s reel and video games have three, four or more meters. For those, all of the individual increment rates are added together, and then the sum is applied as above.

Despite the details and technicalities cited above, progressive jackpots are simply more fun to play. And in their extreme forms they can be dramatic. As IGT used to say about their “Megabucks” machine: “one pull could change your life”.  Hopefully one of us will find out if that’s true sometime soon.

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[i] The Blazing Sevens machine was released by Bally in 1987, and it is still being produced today by Light & Wonder. It was designed by the legendary Robert Phillip Manz who passed in 2012. It is one of the most popular and long-lasting progressive machines ever produced.

[ii] An EPROM is an acronym for Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory like the one shown below. They are digital devices that retain their memory even after power has been removed. They can be erased and reused by shining an ultraviolet light in the round glass window for about 20 minutes. Older games like the Bally mechanical reel Blazing Sevens used a single chip to set the odds. If you wanted different odds, you had to install a different chip. Today, EPROMs have been replaced by improved memory devices with dozens of operator-selectable odds so they can be changed by a technician without having to install a new chip. However, it is still a lengthy process to change the odds. Despite countless casino myths, there is not a dial in the slot director’s office to tighten or loosen the machines. I often wished there was when lucky players were hitting multiple jackpots and destroying my daily budget, but it is simply not that way.  Remember, over time, the casino can’t lose, despite some days when the players get lucky.