Reinventing Slots — how Zynga hopes to tap into human happiness

Slots. It's a game that has been around for more than a hundred years. At its core it's one of the simplest of casino games — there are seemingly no rules involved, players hardly require skills to play and, most people would agree, there's no way to master it. So why do people keep playing? And, more importantly, why does a social game developer like Zynga think it's something worth investing in?

Nick Giovanello is from Zynga's Player Insights team. He, along with design directors Nate Ratcliffe and Josh Gause are working on Zynga Elite Slots, the follow-up to the already successful Zynga Slots. As his job title suggests, Giovanello is tasked with finding out what players want, what makes them tick and why they play. He says that many social and casino games are popular for a number of reasons on many different levels.

"What we've found with Zynga games in general and social games is they really help players do things that tie directly into human happiness," Giovanello tells Polygon. "There's a wealth of data around social psychology and cognitive neuroscience about it, and what you see are three major components.

"One is a sense of control. Another is progress towards goals. And the third ... is social connection."

"One is a sense of control. Another is progress towards goals. And the third, and that we think is most important, is social connection. No one wants to be alone."

As much as outsiders are often quick to pounce on Zynga with accusations of dirty design tactics that keep players hooked, Giovanello believes much of what keeps players returning to Zynga games is the fact that the games are catered to what that audience wants. Players have control over how much or how little they wish to invest in a game — whether it's five minutes or five hours, players are never penalized for not playing long enough. Zynga games are littered with goals, most of which are small and easily obtainable. And finally, all Zynga games are social, requiring players to connect with their friends in order to accomplish many of the games' goals. Zynga Elite Slots, for example, is synchronous, has multiplayer and allows for in-game chat.

When it comes to casino games in particular, Zynga Elite Slots design director Nate Ratcliffe says there's an added layer of appeal — the element of chance.

"I think there's real value in the unexpected," Ratcliffe says. "When you play something like a casino game, there are two things: there's the idea that you never know what you're going to get, and then there are strategies that people employ."

"I think there's real value in the unexpected."

Ratcliffe says that despite knowing that casino games are by nature unexpected, people still have strategies. Even the game's developers have their own strategies when they play.

"People have strategies when they play Poker, they have strategies when they play Blackjack or Roulette and people absolutely have strategies when they play slot machines. We've heard it over and over again."

The strategies in Zynga Elite Slots don't necessarily amount to "If I do this and that then I will definitely win". Rather, it's about the player being strategic in the decisions they make so that the conditions are as favorable as possible if their spin lands on a winning line. The game allows players to change their in-game bets, which affect how big they can win if they do win. Players can decide which lines they wish to play and take part in mini games that allow them to score more rewards.

"People have strategies when they play Poker, they have strategies when they play Blackjack or Roulette."

As part of its reinvention of the slots genre and giving players goals that go beyond what a traditional slots game can offer, Zynga has built an RPG element into the experience where each spin of the slots game affects the player's pet avatar. Players choose an avatar — each with unique abilities, strengths and weaknesses — that they then race across the screen. Each spin of the slot machine helps the avatar advance. When the avatar reaches the end of the screen it encounters a boss battle whereby the player's slot spins influence how the avatar performs against the boss. This, of course, can be ignored by slot purists who just want to spin and (try to) win, but even within this RPG mini game there's a layer of strategy. If a player chooses the tortoise avatar they may move slowly but their attacks against the boss will carry more damage. The shark avatar may move quickly but its attacks are weaker.

The game is elaborate, and while it contains more mini-games than any other slots social game out there, everything ties back to slots. Every bell and whistle relates back to the core game of spinning and winning.

"It's a mix of a really robust experience and a slots game like you've probably never seen before," Giovanello says. "We're really proud of it."

Zynga Elite Slots is free-to-play and will be launching soon on Facebook.

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