The Illusion Of Control, Part 1: The Ellen Degeneres Slot Machine

About a year ago I went to Reno on vacation. While there, I took a look at some of the slot machines that were located in the casino-hotel where I was staying and in the airport as well. One thing I noticed that every modern slot machine had in common was the complexity of their rulesets. Each machine had enough rules to take up three to five pages on a large screen, and used terminology that even I, a certified Brass: Lancashire owner, had trouble parsing due to lack of experience with the genre.

I eventually ended up spending $5 on an Ellen Degeneres Show-themed slot machine that had become something of an ironic fascination among my friends. The experience was quick and bewildering – lots of stuff was going on on the screen at once and I had a hard time figuring out anything beyond “the symbols line up sometimes, by the machine’s definition of ‘line up’.” It was an experience that demonstrated that you needed to spend significant time with gambling master Ellen Degeneres to understand her intricate system of rules.

I found this interesting because slot machines’ clientele skews heavily older, a demographic that’s significantly less willing to learn in-depth rules for a game. (Incidentally, younger gamblers are increasingly drawn to more “skill-based” slot variants; slot game designer Edvard Toth wrote a really interesting article about designing them.) This includes slot machines with broadly appealing themes like Sex And The City and the 2010 Sherlock Holmes movie. So why, if slots are trying to attract a wide range of people at all ages and experience levels, are the rules so dense and complicated?

Part of this is because the mathematical models behind different slots are genuinely different, particularly in how often they pay out and how their payouts are distributed. (This Gamasutra article by Timothy Ryan goes into that in more depth.) But I suspect another component of these complicated rules is providing players with, not actual control, but the illusion of control.

Slot machines can’t genuinely reward player skill because by definition they’re luck-based machines. But what they can do is provide, through rules, the illusion that your greater familiarity with the game will result in better payoffs. All these rules must mean that something you did, something perhaps as minor as choosing how many rows to play with, had a genuine impact on how the slot machine plays out, though of course we know it doesn’t really.

As it turns out, providing players with the illusion of control is a valuable concept in tabletop design as well. Variance is an immensely useful tool for creating unique game states and providing replay value, but players like to feel smart and in control and get frustrated when variance takes that away from them. So, like video slots, designers can find ways to disguise variance to make it more palatable to players. Here’s a few ways you can pull that off.

Rock-Paper-Scissors: Disguise Variance Through Player Input

One of the most tried and true methods of hiding variance is by making the player the random number generator. Take rock-paper-scissors, for example; even though the outcome of a normal game of RPS is mostly random, players feel like they have agency because they get total control of which sign to throw.

There are many, many games that use a simultaneous selection mechanic; this provides a healthy amount of variance, as the game states that result when players don’t know what their opponents will do are much more diverse than those that occur with total knowledge. It also has the beneficial side-effect of making player decisions easier because you have less open information that you need to take into account when making a decision. Despite Go Nuts For Donuts having a lot of moving parts, Gamewright (which mostly publishes games for kids) published it because having most gameplay be reliant on other players’ hidden actions made it almost as beneficial to throw out a number at random as it was to deeply consider the other players’ behaviors.

An interesting component of this illusion is that it becomes closer to real strategy the fewer players there are. Libertalia with three players really does provide a lot of opportunities to figure out what your opponents are going to play based on the pirates they’ve already played and the booty tokens they’ve accumulated; Libertalia with six is a clown fiesta where there’s so many moving parts it’s impossible to make a good guess. This gradient obscures how much of simultaneous selection is strategy and how much is luck.

Cockroach Poker: Disguise Variance As Bluffing

This one’s very clever, because it’s a system of logical strategic moves based off a faulty core assumption: That people can successfully tell if someone else is lying.

A great deal of scientific research has demonstrated this not to be true, but what’s important for us as game designers is that it feels right. When you successfully guess if someone’s lying about being a bad guy in Resistance or smuggle contraband goods in Sheriff of Nottingham, you don’t feel like you got lucky; you feel like you outsmarted the other player.

A special shout-out goes to the delightful Cockroach Poker, a game built almost entirely on the illusion that you know whether your friends are bluffing. (A quick primer: The game has eight suits of cards. In turn, players place a card face-down in front of another player and claims what suit it is. That player has to guess whether the claim is true or false.)

This illusion is built in two ways. The first is that the game allows players to pass cards to each other and restate what the card is. Even though this only serves to flip the coin again, it gives the illusion of more evidence to determine whether a player is bluffing, as you can read the bluffs of multiple players. You can also team up with opponents to confuse a “target” player with a chain of bluffs.

The second is through weighted decisions. When a player incorrectly calls a bluff (or someone bluffing gets caught), that player puts the card face-up in front of them; whoever collects four cards of the same suit loses and the game ends. This means that when you put a card in front of a player with, say, three stink bugs, and claim that it’s a fourth stink bug, that player is taking a much larger risk by doubting the claim, which would make them lose the game.

The thing is, however, this secretly makes Cockroach Poker a press-your-luck game more than a bluffing game. Instead of asking “is my opponent trying to intimidate me?”, subconsciously, Johnny Three-Stinkbugs has to decide “is the off-chance this card really is a stinkbug worth taking the risk of doubting it?” Then, when Johnny doubts it and is proven right, he gets both the thrill of gambling and the feeling that he’s a deductive genius.

To Be Continued…

This article ended up getting really long, and I have more methods of creating the illusion of control, so I’ll be posting a followup in two weeks. Look forward to it!