Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Wart's Opinion - Ripples in the Water

OK, it's long past obvious that the UIGEA screwed up the entire online gambling market.  First, it removed the US player from the client base.  I've heard estimates that this cut the total bet volume by anywhere from a third to a half.  Now the ripple effects begin.

Ripple Number One

There are 3 major "watchdog" web sites - Casinomeister for the online Casinos, SportsbookReview for the Sportsbooks, and twoplustwo for the Multi-Player Poker rooms.  (There were backups as well.  GamblingGrumbles for Casinos, and therx for Sportsbooks.)  All of these web sites operate as "Affiliates".  That is, in addition to their "watchdog" forums, they made money by sending people to "recommended clients" and getting a cut of those player's losses.

With the US bet volume in the market, these Affiliate Watchdogs could afford to be reasonably honest.  That is, they could afford to have decent operations in their "recommended clients" list.  They could afford to support an aggressive forum audience that would hammer away at any problem operations.  They could afford to remove an operation from their "recommended clients" list if the forum noise about them got too loud.  When that happened, the operation removed from the list would suffer a significant hit to their bet volume and thus their profit.

So, the customers would congregate through the forums.  The forums would drive their parent Watchdog Web Site.  The Watchdog would drive the online operations.  Bad operations would get pushed down to the bottom of the ladder, good operations would rise to the top of the ladder, and the customer was the source for the data that defined good and bad.

When the US bet volume came out of the market, this whole thing shit the bed.  The Affiliate Watchdog web sites weren't making anywhere near the money they once were.  So they had to listen a little less to the input from their forums.  The bar for getting into their "recommended clients" list started to drop.  Continued DOJ activities put more pressure on the market, bet volumes decreased further, and the bar dropped lower.

Of course, none of this was helped by the plunge in the global economy either.

The bottom line result - entry into the "recommended clients" list for the Watchdog web sites was now up for sale.  Crappy operations could literally buy a good rating.  The forum moderators simply ignored, downplayed or ridiculed any client noise for those operations that had paid for protection.

The Watchdogs weren't watching anything other than their bottom line now.  Of the three mentioned above, I'd have to say that SportsbookReview fell the farthest.  Nowadays they'd sell their grandmother for pocket change.  Casinomeister would still sell their grandmother, but they would charge more.

Ripple Number Two

The US players are sitting around waiting for their online suppliers to come back.  The rest of the world is watching as the online suppliers go into the crapper, as indicated above.  Everyone is saying that when the US suppliers come back, regulation will ensure that only quality suppliers will be available.

But let's take a look at some of the math.  I'll focus on Casinos, because the math is more straightforward.

The typical House Hold (after you factor in bonuses, freebie promos, and what have you) is about 3%.  That is, the online Casino keeps 3 cents for every dollar wagered, meaning that the player loses 3 cents for every dollar wagered.

Government regulation is a system, and systems cost money.  The government charges the Casino, and the Casino has to pass some, if not all, of that cost along to the players.  So, let's say that this increases the effective house hold from 3% to 4%.

However, anyone who thinks that what is happening in the US has anything to do with regulation is crazy, or naive.  Both the States and the Fed are looking at it to make money off taxes.  Politicians, State or Federal, have one thing on which to base their tax expectations - lotteries.  I've got this vague memory of reading somewhere that state lotteries have a house hold of around 40%.  That means that politicians have hopes for huge tax income off legalized online gambling.

So, what is the real house hold going to look like under legalized gambling in the US.  Lets say that, right out of the gate, it jumps from 3% to 10%.  That's just a huge whack to the players.

But, what does the future hold.  Gambling taxes are "sin taxes" like cigarettes and alcohol.  Any smoker will tell you what the price of a pack has gone to over the last 5 years.  It's guaranteed that gambling taxes are going to do the same thing - they are going to go up.

So, 3% house hold jumps to 10%, 10% jumps to 12%, 12% jumps to 15%.  Players used to pay 3 cents for every dollar wagered.  Now they are paying 15 cents for every dollar.

Ripple Number Three

When you're paying 15 cents on the dollar to wager online, you're going to start looking for alternatives.  My prediction - 5 years after US regulation, we are going to see a resurgence in the "unregulated market", and get back that 3 cents on the dollar wagering.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Free-To-Play Casinos

I was recently made aware of how important it is for a casino to offer free-to-play games. Moreover, it is important to offer those games without requiring an account creation. I have no idea how I had never thought of this — perhaps because my casinos of choice always had the option — but it truly is a very important element of casino design.

Of my top three choices, both Pinnacle and Nordicbet offer their games for free, but do so indirectly. There is no actual free-to-play option at either of them, but their software providers both have options on their websites. Galewind's FTP casino is very impressive, being a fully-functioning, integrated suite. Net Entertainment is slightly less impressive, with every game available for unlimited play time, but you need to load them one at a time. 3Dice doesn't offer this, but that's likely because they are a download product. Ok, yeah, I was totally wrong. I knew I should have checked as I wrote this, but I didn't. Pinnacle offers a free-to-play casino right on their website. It's actually an enormous button. I seriously have no idea how I missed it.

This is just another point of support for my contention that online casinos should ditch download products in favor of browser-based games. Because even if a company offers free games via their download, it's still an application that you need to download and install! Not at all user-friendly. As a user, I recommend leaving behind download casinos and only using those that embrace browser gaming. That means Galewind, Net Ent, IGT, and Betsoft.

Free-to-play is also nice because it allows those who don't really care if they are spending money to play the games, and garner a thrill from trying to "beat" the game. Gambling is almost always a losing proposition over the long run. Even if you win big, unless you win really big, you'll just lose it again over time. FTP eliminates that and, if you can, allows you the thrill without the loss. Obviously, I am not that person. I need at least a little on the line. If you are that person, though, more power to ya', and I heartily recommend heading over to either Galewind's or Net Entertainment's site.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Aren't Online Casinos Dominating? (Part 3)

This is a continuation of an earlier post.

Loss of Context

Casinos are trying to compete with one another in the only way that they know how: increasing the visual complexity of their product. We had slots that looked like slots in the early days, and as bandwidth increases, we have slots that are turning into Pixar films loosely connected to a slot machine. Similarly, we have companies like IGT, which came from the physical casino industry, simply bolting their extant video games into the online world. This is what I mean by loss of context: they make their games without an understanding of where and how the games are being experienced.

I mentioned in an earlier post that slots are losing their romance for me the further they go from being a slot and being some kind of interactive cartoon. There’s no thrill. In fact, I want to go play a Nintendo game that seems better matched to the wild, cartoony environments created by the complex CGI work. I want a slot to be a slot!

I think that many people feel this way. People want a casino to be a casino, because then all interactions are interpreted through that lens. A video slot or 3D slot can look ridiculous and not at all like a slot when it's actually being operated in a physical casino, since the environment provides the context. But when that same application is removed from the casino backdrop, the drama of the game is lost.

Because the online world puts so much focus the look and appearance of the games, and I think that this stems from the people running industry still being rooted in the physical casino industry, they lose focus on the fact that they are not making casino games. They are making simple video games that require money to work. Casino games exist in a casino, nowhere else. Because of this fundamental loss of context, their games are not doing as well as they should.

It’s like camera companies today who follow the same design patterns required by cameras of yesteryear. Today, most digital cameras do not need the “hump” in the middle of the camera, because there is no prism and mirror set up. It is simply light, hitting a sensor. Yet many cameras maintain the design elements as a conceit. They are anchored to their past as opposed to taking advantage of what the new medium offers to try to find new ways to create the casino “experience” online or create something that is equally enticing yet different.

Perhaps, just possibly, some of the multitude of companies are in fact aware of this and are trying precisely that. They are attempting to meld the more complex visuals that can be appreciated in the quieter, relaxed environment of the home, with something that triggers the same “nerve” that makes true casino gaming exciting. I suspect, though, that they aren't so self-analytical. All that they have managed to do is simply jack up the visuals. The underlying gameplay is the same. To be fair to IGT, they do have their Monopoly slot which changes its payout based on play time, but I consider this a wan attempt at a paradigm shift.

Most casinos seem to spend their time on the wrapping, assuming that everything will work just because, well, it’s always worked. I’m sure that the wrapping is, in fact, very important. Slots are, at least initially, games of visual impression. Does a customer like the looks of the slot? If yes, the slot may get a few spins. If not, the chances are far lower. Again, for me, the wrapping that best approximates an exciting casino are the slots that I periodically play (Lucky Lanterns at Pinnacle is a good example).

I mentioned in PART 1 that most players are probably not much affected by the wrapping beyond that first blush. As long as certain visual cues are met, they’re generally happy. They are likely more interested in other details, like whether the stakes on the game meet their budget or desires; whether the game moves at the correct speed; whether the game hits bonus features at a good rate. Game designers need to work hard quantifying, analyzing, and producing what players want, but an analysis of that is far beyond the scope of this post.

I have not seen a casino that manages to break out of the box and create an entirely new gambling environment. I’m sure that sometime in the future, this will happen. Hell, I have a few ideas on how to do this now. But until then, game designers need to be carefully aware of their context. I like to feel like I'm playing real casino games. Because this isn't a real casino. It’s me, sitting in my dining room, with The Princess And The Frog playing in the background... for the nine-millionth time. Make that entertaining — make that exciting.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Aren't Online Casinos Dominating? (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post.

Loss of Focus

Online casinos are selling a product. I don't think that they know what that product is. I think that most online casinos do something, they know not what, and that this something earns them money, they know not why.

While gambling and game dynamics can be transferred from a physical casino to an online one, the business dynamics cannot be, and online casinos seem unaware of this. Physical casinos actually have tons of product, much of which is easily quantified and measured. Is the food good? Ask people. Measure how much they are willing to pay or eat in comparison to a restaurant. Are customers actually vomiting to make room for more food? There are known baselines for performance.

Similarly, are tickets to entertainment events selling? Do people stick around for shows? Is the hotel getting good reviews on websites? There are so many things that physical casinos sell that can be measured, it's easy for one or two of the products to be sub-standard and have other things draw in customers. Why do you think Vegas casinos have flaming tigers being shot out of canons? A complex mix of product is more robust than a focused mix

Online casinos do not have the luxury of a complex product mix. They have a single product: entertainment. They need to maximize that entertainment in every way that they can, because I see only two avenues of doing this: probability/game design and RTP.

What are the precise chances of this event? 1 in 9,000?
1 in 10,000? Does the difference matter?

Casinos, and really everyone involved, need to understand precisely what fine variables of a game's design are what truly differentiate it from other games. The aesthetic design is the biggest variable, and casino game designers at least understand that very well — with companies like Microgaming having dozens upon dozens of different slots, even though they probably only have ten-to-twenty truly different underlying probability models.

The visuals will take people in for only a short time, though. Eventually, the visual impression melts away and is replaced with an intimate connection of game math and player. It is here where a seemingly minute element of the the probability model can have a large effect on game time and player engagement.

Along with the quality of the entertainment, casinos must also sell as much of that entertainment as possible for as little cost. That grows business and retains customers. We don't see that. We see casinos with hideous RTP's, thus reducing game time, evincing a company that doesn't think that they are selling entertainment. No business in their right mind would act as online casinos are acting, and I think that's because they aren't in their right mind.

The RTP problem reveals an industry that thinks that its real core product is a chance at winning. If that's the product, then RTP essentially doesn't matter. What matters is making sure that a set number of people have big wins, and to then promulgate those wins via marketing. It is no surprise that the terms & conditions of almost every online casino has in them the right of the casino to use your "notable" wins as marketing materials — because casinos think that's what they are selling.

To further explain my thinking, I look to the opposite end of the gambling spectrum: lotteries. The actual product of a lottery is an ephemeral fantasy, but looking at it as a chance at winning results in few misconceptions in the business model. Most lotteries cost between one and five dollars. A customer buys it, plays it, and either wins or loses. It's not entertainment, it's that microsecond of holding the lottery ticket before scratching it where you think about the boat that you'll buy if you win. In this business, it's completely fine to have customers who never win anything ever, since they are buying precisely what they expect every time they purchase a ticket: the fantasy. And with many pooled lotteries, the longer that no one wins, and the larger the jackpot grows, the bigger the fantasy, and the better the product gets. Thus, we see huge increases in lottery sales when the jackpot grows.

Casinos are not selling this. I don't even think that an analogous casino game could be invented, since part of the fantasy comes from holding the winning ticket before you know that it's the winning ticket. The closest that I can conjure is a giant button with a coin slot that, when pressed, either says "winner" or "no winner." A chance at winning is a thrill ride. It is something that ends quickly. Casinos are selling a movie with a duration determined by the amount of money that the player has, and crappy RTP's make that movie shorter than it needs to be.

Don't get me wrong, RTP's are not the only element of evidence indicating a company that "gets it," but it is the biggest, most salient, most easily quantifiable bit of evidence. Likewise, while a casino offering a huge sign-up bonus might appear to be trying to maximize value, as anyone who's researched the industry knows, that's not at all true. The bonuses are tied to massive restrictions and are intended to play the affiliate game. The "spirit" of the bonus is to lure people in, not to extend game time.

There are a few casinos that "get it," and this is revealed in a lack of sign-up-bonuses and good RTP's. I specify that lack of SUB's because having them almost always means lower RTP's and/or insane usage restrictions. Many casinos actually force you to use a specific set of slot machines and nothing else, and if the RTP's are posted, these slots are, unsurprisingly, sporting very low returns.

So why aren't the few casinos that more-or-less get it dominating the other casinos? I think that since there are only a small number, they are drowned out by the din. Second, many casinos are only available in certain countries and blocked in others. For example, I listed 3Dice as a recommended casino specifically because they are one of the few decent US-facing casinos (On a side note, the closure of the US market was one of the big reasons for the industries backslide into scumminess. Protecting people? Ha! Protecting casino owners who pay lobbyists.). This environment is necessarily going to fragment the industry.

The biggest problem, though, is that the good casinos do not play the affiliate game. Without a SUB, they can't. And as long as affiliates own the Google searches, there will be no easy path to eliminating them... which is actually one of the motivations for the creation of this website. As it stands, though, with the affiliate system holding the online casino world by the short & curlies, we will for the foreseeable future be faced with an industry dominated by casinos that are run by those who simply don't get it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Aren't Online Casinos Dominating? (Part 1)

In an earlier post, I asked why we hadn't seen consolidation in the casino industry. Considering the ease with which players can jump from casino to casino, it seems like people should have naturally pooled at the largest, highest-quality casinos. Instead, we have hundreds of casinos, all of different sizes, servicing small pockets of customers. While this isn't exactly an authoritative analysis, I think I know a few of the reasons why.


Pretty? Yes — at all 28,476 casinos that carry it.
UK casinos all use the same software. I think it's because they need to publish RTP data to be allowed certification, and only IGT, Betsoft, NetEnt, and a few smaller companies will give them the numbers. Why they aren't using Galewind is beyond me, since they provide more numbers than any other company on Earth. Regardless...

When every casino is selling the same games, as many casinos are, there is no fundamental way for one casino to excel over others. They rarely even have different colors, themes, or skins over the games. The best that they can hope to do is have better wrapping around the games: the website. This stands in contrast to physical casinos which can easily stand out from other casinos via the wrapping: food, decorations, music, entertainment, amusement, service, etc.

A website, though, is essentially a very simple avenue for people to play simple games. It is a single profit vector and single customer connection. A casino could try to stand out via customer service, but if you need to implement a great deal of CS, you need a better product, because software errors should not require constant interjection by a real person. A perfect product would do exactly what the product should do and never require CS, and if all products do that, casinos are left with even fewer options for differentiation. (Granted, some software packages are such nightmares, like Microgaming, that there is in fact space for a casino to make headway with good CS. But this isn't a good thing!)

As pretty? Not quite, but it's unique.
I would imagine that for most players, the quality of the wrapping has little effect. As long as the interface is understandable and not broken, and they have a good initial experience, people continue to play. The wrapping still goes a long way toward giving the games a flavor. With all casinos serving the same food, customers will begin to focus on other things to help them make choices.

For example, players will be free to fully engage their superstitions and jump from casino to casino in search of better "luck." Casinos, which lack any form of differentiation, are completely susceptible to this. And frankly, the customers are completely right to do this. I can understand that, when every casino at which they play is identical in nearly every way, they just decide to start fucking around.

Obviously, there are a few casinos out there that don't have this problem. Pinnacle is currently the only company running the Galewind suite, so it's unique, and Galewind's own website states that they will customize any suite that they develop. 3Dice has a 100% lock on its software, so it's unique. But for every Pinnacle or 3Dice, there are a hundred casinos running Microgaming or IGT.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Casino Operators Are Stupid

Many casinos have crap RTP's. I don't get this. Most gamblers, when they enter a casino, will gamble their entire stake. On some level, even the most superstitious gambler understands that they are buying something, and they will buy until they are out of money.

This means that a casino will inevitably get all of the money that a player enters with. There will be a small percentage at the right of the curve that leave, with some leaving with significant takes, but that's part of the math. The casino accepts this as part of the business. And even here, many of these players will return to lose all of the money that they won!

Many casinos, especially those, I would imagine, running Microgaming, RTG, Playtech, are setting their RTP's low. So low in the aforementioned tryptych of companies that they abjectly refuse to publish their RTP numbers. That means that the numbers are very bad indeed. This is stupid.

Players will lose their money because they like to gamble! They will continue to gamble because it's how they are buying their entertainment. A casino wants to give them as much entertainment as possible since then the player will return to buy more.

If I go to a burger joint that sells $5 hamburgers, and they are very small, I will eventually stop going because I do not satiate my hunger. Instead, I will opt for a burger joint that gives me larger hamburgers for the same price. Yes, the latter joint earns less per burger, but they continue to sell me burgers while the former joint does no. Which joint do you think is going to go out of business?

In an earlier post, I asked why there were so many casinos. Perhaps this is the reason why. With so many of those casinos running software with shockingly low RTPs, these casinos eventually die out. The mass of gamers stop going to the casino because all of the games are too tight. These players than shift to another casino, running the same games, in search of better returns. They of course do not get these returns, and eventually sour on this casino as well. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Land-based cainos in the United States have to publish their RTP's. Casinos in Vegas all have very high RTP's — in the neighborhood of 96% — likely because of the intense competition. In places with little competition, such as Connecticut where Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods duke it out, their slot RTP's are very poor, sitting ugly around 90%. This comparison alone shows why online casinos are so desperate to keep their RTP's hidden: they don't want to the effects of competition to hit them.

But why would people in their right mind ever play slots at Foxwoods? Because playing slots at an actual casino is a fundamentally different experience to playing slots at an online casino. Online casinos will never compete with land casinos, even though the near-retarded owners of the land casinos think otherwise. Online casinos need to compete with the land-based ones on more than a simple convenience basis. They need to provide the best numbers possible.

Online casinos also need to compete with each other where dispersed land casinos do not because of the ease with which players can jump to another casino. Because they are not, we are left with an industry with a comically large casino churn rate. Dozens, if not hundreds, of casinos crop up and go under every year.

There are a few major players in the UK market that are highly respected and large, but they seem almost entirely interested in the UK market. The list includes Paddy Power, Virgin, Sky, and a few others. Other companies like Bodog and 888 have been around since the beginning. I would have expected these large names to come to dominate the online market, but that is obviously not how it happened. For whatever reason, which is the subject of my next post, the market remains cluttered, noisy, and hard to grasp.

That means that for a casino to truly dominate, they need to compete and compete hard. Casino operators are not doing this. And the customers are hurting because of it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ignore Anyone With A Gambling System

If you have found this blog, I'm sure that you have similarly found a dozen other websites all dedicated to online gambling. There are some biggies, like The Wizard of Vegas and Casinomeister, but also smaller ones dedicated to particular games. On each and every one of these websites (well, except for the blackjack websites I'd assume) are people with systems.

"But systems are total bunk!" you may be telling me... by speaking at your screen... and that's true! Systems are total bunk. If you Google "gambling system," the very first result is the page from The Wizard of Odds describing why gambling systems are nonsense.

So why do systems persist? That's the question. Even with the infinite repository of wisdom and knowledge that is the internetpipes, people continue to think that systems work.

One reason is that I think that we are, by nature, somewhat credulous. When people tell us something, we have a natural inclination to believe it. Many people have overcome this, but unless you've lived a life of constant backstabbing, you're likely to feel this drive. I certainly do. So when someone tells us "this works," we're prone to believe. It primes us. Then, if the system succeeds, as it must for some percentage of the population, those that win are led to believe that it was the system that did it, and not just the chance inherent to the game.

A second reason is that we also appear to be prone to believing in hidden knowledge. This goes all the way back to ancient civilizations, where the truth of the the world had to be discerned. We see this manifested in Gnostic principles, and in pop-culture in works such as The DaVinci Code. We still see this behavior actualized in conspiracy theorists, who see massive, global patterns evincing a grand machine, controlled by a cabal of super-geniuses.

Looking at the chaotic complexity of gambling data, it's understandable when people feel that there must be something hidden beneath the randomness. It seems dictated by sheer chance, but every now and then, patterns betray their existence in a way as to be visible by the untrained eye. And even if patterns do not present themselves, there's so much chaos there, there must be some truth that can be discerned.

I understand this drive. Our world is visibly mechanistic. We can see, understand, and predict things. I understand the drive to believe that there must be some way to predict events in a game. Unfortunately, no matter how much it seems true, it's not. There is no way to predict the future events of a game. Unless you are counting cards, and even then, it's not really prediction.

People online take advantage of this drive to trick people into their systems. I would call them scam artists, but in many cases, they believe their own lies. They actually do think that their system works. They don't. NO ONE always wins. It is absolutely impossible unless you have rigged the game. At best, they shift the losses around, resulting in a non-normal distribution. This is why the system seems to work for many people.

Look at the above chart. A common system that's believed to work would likely result in a distribution like this. Yeah, for the people to the right of the chart, the system seems to be magic. But for those to the left, the system was a catastrophe. Many argue that enough wins to the right offset the losses to the left, but that's also bunk. Losses to the left cluster at 100%, but the wins to the right, while clustering well beyond the statistically normal hump, are not at 100%. You might increase your stake by 80%, but lose 100% the next day. No matter how many modal humps you manage to create with your system, you will inevitably end up to the left of the curve after all is said and done.

(A modal hump is any clustering in the number of results. A normal distribution is a single, curving mound in the middle of the chart, just like the red line. But real-world distributions can frequently have mounds at many different points.)

It's that distribution that allows dodge language to be used by those espousing a system. When asked "how often do you win?" or "how often do you cash out?" they will respond with lines like "I won't cash out until I'm up. So if I'm in a hole, I'll just keep going until I'm up. In the end, I always cash out with profit."

Oh yes. That's all that a gambler needs to win: endurance. Also notice how they never use the word "system." They know that going anywhere near that word will result in immediate mocking and/or attack. So instead, they simply talk about how they earn just so damned much. Yep. These super-gambling-geniuses have been earning money on every visit since the dawn of time. They don't even work anymore!

Pah! I know that you want to believe. I know that it's hard to imagine someone lying so completely. I know that the math of games sometimes seems impenetrable. None of that changes the inevitable truth of gambling: unless you are one of the very lucky few, you will always end up down. That is what casinos do. They are an exchange. People enter, pool their money, and a few people walk away with the pool. The casino takes a cut of that pool to pay for its status as the exchange.

No system will change that reality. Because even if there was a system, it wouldn't be applicable in any casinos. They would have been well aware of the system and only made games that were not susceptible to it. We would have, long ago, been reduced to tables where people flip coins. Like that bizarre evens-odds game that is somehow popular in Japan, Chō-Han — literally, even odd. Systems don't work because, if they did, gambling wouldn't.

I've got a system for you. It's 100% guaranteed to work. Go into a casino, walk up to roulette, and bet everything that you have on a single game. Win or lose, leave, and never return. It's the only way to win. I don't know about you, but that's pretty boring. I'd rather do what I know that I'm doing: buying entertainment.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Are There So Many Casinos?

I'm a pretty straightforward gambler. I play at two casinos. That's it. And considering the ease with which players can jump from one casino to another, it makes sense to expect the market to consolidate down to a few major players, and that's it.

We don't have that, though. We have an industry that has hundreds, and that's only the English-language casinos. This is beyond puzzling to me. How in the world can hundreds, if not thousands, of casinos actually stay in business? How do people know about them? By what great faith in mankind do they consider it reasonable to give these people money?

It is doubly senseless since so many of the casinos are operating identical packages. These games aren't even customized from casino to casino. They're the same damned games! To me at least, there is zero reason to go from a casino that has been reliable and trust-worthy to another, untested casino, to simply play the same slot.

Is it entirely superstition? Lord knows, casinos are loaded to overflowing with superstition. I've seen gamblers at casinos frantically jump from machine to machine. I've seen people leave the casino, only to reenter and go back to the same machine. If the casino operates on cards, they will take out their card, put it into a machine next to them, play a single game, then put it back into their chosen slot.

I assume that there are similar actions online, where people will play the same slot, just do it at different casinos — maintaining accounts at sometimes dozens of casinos, so they can willy-nilly jump around in some quest to find better luck. It's not there. This is why published RTP is so important, because that actually does tell you something real about your luck. It may not tell you everything, but it's better than holding on to an abstract conception that may do nothing more than lose you money. Because if, in a quest to find better luck, a player goes from a casino running Microgaming software to another casino running the same software, they may go to a casino that is running the lower RTP's. Microgaming won't publish their numbers, but it is all but certain that they allow operators to set different returns. That means that superstition just caused the player to lose money.

It reminds me of a great little part of a Richard Dawkins documentary on pattern detection.

If you find a casino that is trustworthy, seems to give out good returns (or explicitly states their resturns) stick with them! Don't go out wandering about to simply play the same games! It achieves nothing. You are not resetting a pattern — gaming some hole in the probability. You are decreasing your chances of winning. You are losing more money than you should. I understand the strength of the appearance of patterns, I really do. Holy shit, have I felt those patterns before. I have to strongly and specifically correct myself, and it sometimes takes a lot of strength to do so. Believe me, though, when you do, you'll have more winnings, more play time, and more money in your pocket at the end of the day.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Happy Father's Day To All Fathers (Especially Mine)

If you live in the United States, make sure to wish your dad a happy Father's Day. This blog post counts as, at least part of, my happy Father's Day wishes.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Casinos: Do Playtesting!

I swear, some casino game companies must never do any playtesting before releasing their games to the public. Need a deal button? Well. We're. Gonna'. Put. One. Riiiiight... here. Done! Phew! I need a break.

For Pete's sake, run a test now and then. Push it out to a beta testing crew. Ask people how they like it. Analyze button press speeds and number of errors. Good god, if video game companies did what casino game companies do, there would be riots at Gamestop locations.

This sort of behavior is weel manifested in the horrid quality of install suites like Microgaming. This is, ouf course, yet another reason why I refuse to use any download applications and will only ever run things in my browser.

One doesn't have to search long or hard in online message boards to read countless complaints about reliability issues, and being actually unable to fully uninstall programs from MG, RTG, and Playtech. I laughed outloud when I read that on one particularly popular board, when one member asked "How do you get rid of Microgaming software?", another member actually said that he/she keeps all of her gaming on a separate computer that he/she simply wipes clean every now and then.

What? What?! You wipe the whole damned computer?!

But that's something for another post. This post is about the actual flow of the game. It's an odd term, but anyone who likes to rapid-fire through blackjack of video poker understands what I mean when I say flow.

Maybe this is something only the hardcore think about, but I doubt it. I am not hardcore. I cannot play perfect blackjack for nine hours straight. It still very much applies to me. Flow is determined by the speed at which events happen, certainly, but also by the layout of the game, because this determines the speed at which the player operates.

For example, for a long time now, I have hated the layout of Net Entertainment's blackjack game. The speed at which events happens is slow as all hell, and I am constantly pressing the wrong buttons. Buttons do not do stay the same. They change dynamically, disappear, reappear. It's a mess. And sometimes they do this...

This is also a good chance to look at the layout of the buttons on the bottom. They keep friggin' changing. The "hit" is also "deal" and "new bet." "Stand" changes to "rebet." Not only do the buttons disappear sometimes, they are frequently made inactive, preventing you from doing anything. You have to simply wait for the game to do... something. You can speed up your play using the above game, which is their Blackjack Pro, which is actually just multi-hand blackjack. The red square, I dunno', represents the emptiness in the Western soul.

I like Net Ent's games because they are attractive, super-stable, and browser-based. I still prefer Galewind, though, because the flow is just so wildly superior. I can fire through blackjack games at the rate of three seconds per game.

While the Galewind game is a bit clunkier aesthetically, the buttons are there, and only the deal button changes. The deal button always puts more cards on the table, be it "deal," "hit," or "rebet." It might seem like a minor difference that Galewind has "rebet" as opposed to "new bet," but it makes a massive difference in the flow of the game. It's a tiny detail that reveals that playtesting has taken place to determine the fastest, easiest, most efficient way to click through a game interaction.

I don't think that it's out of line to expect playtesting. Considering that most of the players don't even do bug testing, though, this may be too much to ask for.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Do Online Casinos Need Government Regulation?

Go to any online forum about online gaming and one subject, aside from which slot is the loosest, will come up over and over again. What's more, no other subject, including which slot is the loosest, will trigger such virulent reaction from the community. Obviously, it is whether we should seek out and support government regulation of online gaming.

Before I go much further into this, I'll throw out which side I'm on. I do not think that government regulation would achieve anything. If anything, the United States' 2007 law preventing financial institutions from transferring money to online gaming companies has only made the world worse.

But anyone who's done much research into the online gaming world also knows how nasty it is and especially how nasty it was before the USA's law. It sometimes feels as though the only way to get the casinos to stop being shitty, and thus generate an industry with some semblance of respectability, is to simply force it upon them.

The problem is, of course, the world. One country cannot outlaw what is legal in another country. This is why we have countries like North Korea, Iran, and China, where they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to block, with only limited success, outside websites. In nations where authoritarian nonsense doesn't fly quite as well, we have ongoing legal wrangling between countries like the US and Antigua.

Antigua sued the US in the World Trade Organization's court for their block of financial transfers to their country for gaming. The United States lost. The US then appealed the decision. And they lost again. So, their eventual solution is to just ignore the WTO. It's good to be the king. You can be a complete prick, and no one can do anything about it.

The abhorrent behavior of the United States stands as a testament to why there can be no government intervention. In a system so economically complex and varied, they would only make things much worse. Adding to this problem is that even the regulated industry -Vegas, Atlantic City, etc.- is corrupt as all get-out, just in a different way. The major gambling players were the ones who managed to, I would imagine, bribe their way into getting the ban on online gambling pushed through. Switching anarchic, disorganized corruption for centralized and regulated corruption is no switch at all.

It is for this reason that we as customers need to hold the companies 100% accountable for their actions. We need to force respectability upon them. Either they are perfect, or they receive zero money. None. Not a drop. Only then will we see change.

This is why I refuse to patronize Microgaming, Real Time Gaming, and especially Playtech and Rival. They are major, multi-million-dollar organizations, and all of them have reams of clients with nasty reputations for screwing customers. Oh sure, these companies will claim that they have no responsbility for the behavior of their clients, and they themselves are respectable companies.

You know what? Screw that. They should have some responsibility. They should underwrite their clients, where if a client won't pay, the software provider will.

This is yet again a reason why I support Galewind so much. They have a single client, Pinnacle. They had a second client for awhile in the form of Hero's Casino. Hero's Casino left the reservation and screwed some guy out of $40,000. They claimed he was using a robot or some such line of complete nonsense.

What did Galewind do? First, they didn't do what the aforementioned group of companies regularly do and claim no responsibility. No. Galewind did claim responsibility. They shut down Hero's Casino and paid the player out of their own pocket. I've only been gaming online for about a year and a half, but the Wizard of Odds is one of the grand poobahs of online gambling and he has this to say...
The company seems to have a good reputation among players.When one of their licensees, Heroes Casino, tried to stiff a winner out of $39,900, Galewind Software gave them the choice to honor their debt or have their casino shut down.Heroes still refused to pay, so Galewind Software honorably did shut them down, and paid the player out of their own pockets.If any other software company has gone so far in the interests of fair and honest gambling, I'm not aware of it.
Now THAT is how you build a reputation. THAT is how you pull the industry out of the shadows. You eat a loss now and then for the sake of corporate ethics. It's not that hard! No, you won't be able to afford quite as many BMW's this month, but you will be respected.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Lack Of Excitement In New Slots

I've noticed something happening in the slot world, and to me at least, it makes no sense. In short, slots are beginning to look less and less like slots. This obviously started with the video slot explosion, where the mechanical requirements of slot machines were eliminated, thus allowing whatever weird crap the developer desired to display on screen.

Today, though, we are seeing a shift even further away from the original slot paradigm and into weird, interactive pictures as illustrated by Betsoft. The picture below is from, if you couldn't tell, from a slot called The Exterminator.

It's not a slot! It's a game that's sort of integrated into a cartoon background. I assume that many people find this appealing, but I'm not one of them. I don't play slots very frequently, but when I do, I want it to feel like a slot. I want it to feel casino-y. The above scene makes me feel like I should be playing a game that actually involves chasing a raccoon around a log cabin. When I play a slot, I'm playing a slot. I'm not playing a Nintendo game. The context needs to work, and in the above game, it doesn't.

Net Entertainment sort of straddles the line a bit, with wild, expensive, CGI backgrounds, but a delineated interface down below. Galewind actually makes their slots look like physical slots, which I seem to prefer. I still like Net Ent now and then, CGI and all, but the Betsoft ones cross some mental line for me. For all of their animation and impressive movies, they have been bled of the excitement that is necessary for gambling to be entertaining.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Avoid Rival Casinos Like The Plague

One of the more annoying casino companies on the interwebpipes is Rival. Don't bother Googling them, you won't get anything. They don't actually have a website. Oh sure, there are lots of casinos with the word "rival" in their name, but none of them are actually the Rival.

I'm explicitly aware of Rival because of my obsession with posted RTP's at casino. Currently, there are only four operators that post their RTP's: Galewind, Net Entertainment, IGT, and Rival. I explained why I don't like IGT in an earlier post, and the other two are my chosen ones. Well, Rival is even worse than IGT and it doesn't matter at all that they post their RTP's.

Rival has no central company. Yes, they are a company in that they do exist... somewhere. I don't know where they are, and I don't think anyone outside of the company knows, either. Truly, they are a ghost. This is not the kind of behavior that I want out of a casino provider.

Their business model appears to primarily be what's called "white label" casinos. In this set-up, a client approaches them to set up a casino. The client provides the seed money, Rival then brands, develops, deploys, and hosts the casino and then splits the profits with the client.

This model works wonderfully for Rival, since they can produce a casino that's as scummy as the day is long, rip off customers, then simply fold the casino and start a new one. This appears to be their modus operandi, because Rival is about as low on the totem pole as is possible as far as experienced online gamblers are concerned.

I hate Microgaming and RTG, but there are lots of casinos running their software where you will probably not be robbed. There is no such guarantee at Rival. They seem to have little control over their clients. Quality and integrity are absolutely alien terms to them. They are, absolutely, the worst casinos at which you could possibly gamble.

Avoid Rival like the plague.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why I Don't Like IGT

IGT is a casino games provider that started in the brick-and-mortar world. Considering the many things that I have said previously, one would expect me to at least tolerate them. I do not.

My biggest beef with them is their strange way of RTP reporting. Unlike both Galewind and Net Entertainment, where you can go straight to their website and get the RTP's of their games, IGT does not offer this information direct from the horses mouth, as it were. In fact, their website seems to only carry PDF's of brochures intended for casino operators. Some of these PDF's have data in them, others do not. And worse still, some have ranges of RTP values, which is as good as having none.

"Wait," you might say, "those ranges just indicate at what payouts the game can be set by the casino operator." Perhaps, but many casinos just copy and paste the RTP range direct from the brochure, which is again, as good as having no info at all. Other casinos just seem to pick the highest RTP available and post that, even as regards games like baccarat, where there are three separate RTP's in the game.

Virgin is the most notable example of this. They list the highest available RTP's for all of their IGT slots... but they also list baccarat at 98%. Buuuuuut, only the banker bet operates at that RTP. Unless given evidence to the contrary, I think that we can assume that their slots are similarly listed. There may be numbers there, but we have no idea if they are true or not.

The problems with IGT and its clients are grand examples of why third-party verification is so important. I think that any large differences between what is posted and what is real would be noticed and made apparent on online message boards, but smaller differences would be harder to see. And over time, even those small differences can be made large when they follow the RTP curve.

Still, in the end, if Galewind and Net Entertainment aren't enough for you, IGT is better than Playtech, Microgaming, and RTG. Those three companies don't even pretend to be transparent. They are black boxes, into which you pour money.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Better RTP Chart

In my earlier post, I just mocked up a chart indicating the expected fall of someone's bank account as they follow the RTP curve. I produced a better one that is even more striking.

This chart assumes that you are betting a constant amount, in this case 100% of your account balance, which very few people do, and also does not take into account volatility. Truly, you could lose everything on the first spin. Similarly, as people lose money, most of them are prone to either dropping or increasing their bet size, thus altering play time.

The takeaway from this chart is the huge difference between 95% and 98%. If you are betting $10 per spin, you would be losing $0.20 per spin at 98%. Compounding from spin to spin, the differences in the RTP numbers become positively gigantic.

As mentioned, this chart doesn't take into account volatility. With that considered, you could lose everything on your first spin, or earn 1000x your bet on the first spin. Gambling is essentially the hope that the latter will happen to you. But the more you gamble, the more your results will conform to this curve. Which curve would you rather have...

the blue, or the the red?

An Important Distinction In Payouts

There is a little semantic game that casinos sometimes play in an effort to confuse players. Namely, they fool around with the words "to" and "for."

If a game pays 8 to 1, that means that you receive eight times your bet back (as some of you probably guessed, my numbers are referring to the Tie bet in Baccarat). If a game pays 8 for 1, you receive seven times your bet back.

It's an annoying distinction that shouldn't be there at all. Basically, the distinction is thus:

8 for 1 means that they will give you eight units in exchange for one unit. You give a chip and get eight back, thus you only actually net seven chips.

8 to 1 means that you receive eight times your bet. So you receive a true 8x since your initial bet is not forfeited.

This small distinction can have a massive effect on the RTP of a game. For example, in Baccarat, if the Tie bet has return of 9 to 1, it will have an RTP of nearly 96%. If it has a return of 9 for 1, it's RTP drops to almost 85%!

One could assume that this distinction is just a matter of casino information pages being poorly written, and that's possible... I doubt it, though. For example, at Betfair (a casino that famously blew up about a year ago in a massive scandal), there  are two types of Baccarat on offer: standard and Zero.

Their Zero Baccarat has a banker commission of 2.75%, which makes the RTP on the banker bet 100% (or so close to it as to make no difference). In the help file for Zero Baccarat, they refer to the Tie bet as 9 for 1, which means it actually has a really nasty RTP of 85%-ish. But in Standard Baccarat, they refer to their Tie bet as 9 to 1, giving it the good RTP, but without the Zero banker.

Moreover, unless one reads the info page, they wouldn't know that the Zero only applies to the Banker bet. If someone assumed it applied to the Tie, wow, would that person would be really disappointed.

A great way of looking at Baccarat is three slot games in one, with each one operating at a certain RTP. Mathematically, that's exactly what this is. So calling it Zero Baccarat is very inaccurate. Calling it Zero Banker would make sense and be much more accurate. I cannot help but assume that these words were chosen very much on purpose with the intent of obfuscation.

The semantic distinction at the root of this so inane and confusing, Pinnacle's help files actually apologize.
We apologize for this potential confusion. It exists because this is the Pay Table system that is in use throughout the industry.
When a casino needs to apologize about its language to prove that it is upstanding, that's insane. But in one sense, it gives good casinos a chance to be upstanding. How Augustinian.