6 Sep

History of Poker Machines: Then, Now and What’s to Come

Poker machines are some of the most fascinating gambling devices ever contrived. It’s been more than a century since the first mechanical pokies were placed on bar counters, and innovations continue to dominate the market. We’ll take a brief look at the history of pokies, where the industry is now, and what’s to come in the future.

History of Pokies – In The Beginning

The very first gambling machine was fabricated by a Brooklyn-based company called Sittman and Pitt in 1891 that closely imitates the video poker machines we see today. It contained 5 drums with 50 playing cards that spun around when the lever was pulled. To win, players would need to get a good poker hand – the better the hand rank, the higher the payout.

However, with so many cards and possible winning hands, trying to create an automatic payment system left the developers scratching their heads. That gave another man, a mechanic by the name of Charles Fey, an idea.

Charles Fey Liberty Bell Slot Machine 1899

Charles Fey Liberty Bell 1899, Nazox

Out of his garage in San Francisco, Fey built the famous Liberty Bell, which became the very first poker machine, (or slot machine as they call them in the US). He installed a trio of barrel-like reels with five symbols – a Diamond, Heart, Spade, Horseshoe and the game’s jackpot-releasing namesake, cracked Liberty Bell. With fewer drums and symbols, he was able to succeed where Sittman and Pitt had failed, inventing the first auto-pay gambling device.

It cost just a nickel to play, and the jackpot payout was only $0.50, but as we all know, half a dollar went a lot further back in those days. And with just five symbols on three reels, it wasn’t all that rare to see the jackpot paid out.

It didn’t take long for these machines to start popping up on bar counter tops throughout the western region of the United States, and before long, Fey had such a hard time meeting demand that other big manufacturers began mimicking his design.

What we know today as Fruit Machines came from the Bell-Fruit Gum Company, who developed poker machines with chewing gum symbols that paid out – you guessed it – chewing gum. Fruit symbols like cherries and melons often represented a flavor of gum.

Why pay out in food or gum, you ask? Gambling laws became more strict around this time, as the prevalence of pokies gave way to prohibition across many US states. Thus paying out in anything besides money was still enough to attracted players, but circumvented the law.

Evolution of Electronic and Video Pokies

Decades down the line, manufacturers started working on electronic machines. Bally’s was the first to bring a fully-electronic game to market in 1963. This revolutionary design brought about enormous change, with bottomless hoppers that could pay out up to 500 coins.

In 1976, another revolutionary design came from Fortune Coin Co., who manufactured the first video slot using a computer chip and display screen to exhibit reels (as opposed to using actual, mechanical reels). Two years later, the technology was purchased by International Game Technology (IGT) – a company that continues to lead the market in gambling innovations.

An Australian pokies maker was credited with inventing the very first ‘second screen’ bonus in 1994 with the introduction of a game called ‘Three Bags Full‘. US developers quickly ran with the concept, and most of today’s most popular machines continue to feature second-screen bonuses.

Online Pokies Take World By Storm

The history of pokies saw a whole new chapter written in the mid 1990’s when people around the globe were introduced to the World Wide Web. Software companies began developing poker machines that could be played over the internet. It took some time for technology to progress far enough for players to trust web-based financial transactions, but by 2005, online gambling was the second largest e-commerce market in the world.

Today’s online poker machines offer everything you could possibly imagine, from classic 3 reels and 5 reel video slots, to visually stunning 3D slots with interactive story lines. Thanks to big brands like Microgaming and Playtech, many poker machines don’t even have paylines anymore. They have ‘Ways to Win’, which could range anywhere from 243 to 4,096, depending on the size of the reel grid and whether lines are read left to right only, or both left-right and right-left.

Future of Poker Machines – VGMs

Manufacturers will always be seeking new ways to innovate the poker machine industry, and due to a shift in legislation in some US states, the infusion of skill is the latest trend in development.

Skill-based slots were approved by Nevada in 2015, and New Jersey in early 2016, but thus far, none have appeared on casino gaming floors. It’s expected that these game will play just like a traditional poker machine in the base game, while bonus features will allow players to compete in skill-based competitions to determine how many extra credits they win.

GameCo VGMGameCo looks to be leading the pack, set to introduce the first skill-based slot, called a Video Gambling Machine (VGM), later this month at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas. While we haven’t seen or played it yet, we know it’s called Danger Arena, and it has a game controller akin to that of Xbox or Playstation. The game is expected to see its first launch at Atlantic City casinos in the near future.

As the industry continues to evolve, there’s no telling where it will go next. Before we know it, skill-based games will be yet another dusty chapter in the history of pokies, as new developments keep the casinos, both live and online, bustling with activity.