Innovation is what keeps slot machines relevant. After all, slots developers are competing with other modern-day technology.
They can’t roll out three-reel, one-line slots when Nintendo Switch releases a Zelda game that’s so expansive it takes 60 hours to beat.
Developers are always looking for ways to keep slots fresh. Trailblazing providers develop new features to hold players’ interest. Some features are truly revolutionary and become instantly popular with gamblers. Unfortunately, these same bonuses eventually become overused and played out.
I’m going to discuss several slot features that were once unique when they came out but have since become commonplace.
Cascading reels see symbols from winning combinations disappear and allow other icons to take their place. The key benefit here is that you can continue forming wins without having to make another bet.
Slots with cascading reels (a.k.a. avalanche) can make the symbols explode or vanish. Whatever the case may be, they disappear in some manner and help you win more money.
NetEnt’s Gonzo’s Quest was the first game to introduce the avalanche feature. Released in 2010, this slot was ahead of its time in terms of both features and graphics. Not surprisingly, Gonzo’s Quest continues to draw players even today.
Other developers took notice of how popular cascading reels were and got to work on their own versions. Soon, a large number of games offered the avalanche element.
Today, cascading reels are so common that you might not even think anything of them. They aren’t as typical as slots with one-and-done spins, but they’re certainly nothing new.
The first slot machines featured three reels and one payline. This basic setup continued for decades, until the advent of video slots in the 1970s.
Video slot machines feature the technology to allow for more reels and paylines. The end result is that most slots now have more than three reels.
Of course, some players have gotten a little bored with playing the same 5×3 slots for decades. Developers have responded by creating larger grids.
One common version includes a 5×5 grid, which makes for a perfect square. Such games give players 25 spaces to form winning combinations.
Some developers are pushing the limits even further with 7×7 and 8×8 grids. These slots offer 49 and 64 spaces, respectively. Such slot machines look entertaining thanks to all of the winning possibilities they offer.
However, large-grid games are becoming pretty standard today. The 5×5 and 7×7 slots are especially in abundance at online casinos.
Payline slots usually require you to form wins in active lines going from left to right. Any winning combination also has to start in reel 1.
Cluster pays are different in that they don’t enforce such strict guidelines on wins. Instead, a payout can form anywhere on the grid as long as matching symbols are touching in the designated manner.
Oftentimes, you need to line the symbols up in vertical, horizontal, or diagonal lines. Some games, though, offer cluster wins as long as the icons are touching anyway whatsoever.
In any case, these slots let you get wins all over the grid. A paying combination doesn’t have to start in the first reel.
Cluster pays is another innovation that drew plenty of interest when it came out. NetEnt really popularized this feature when they released Aloha: Cluster Pays in 2017. But over the last few years, a number of other providers have jumped on this train.
Slots players used to be quite amazed when they saw a slot with 50 or 100 paylines. But the bar was set much higher when Microgaming began producing 243 ways slots.
In 2009, they launched their first such game in Burning Desire. This slot became the first in history to offer 243 ways to win.
This format was so new that many players were initially confused by it. Used to payline slots, they didn’t understand how wins formed in this new breed of games.
Speaking of which, wins form when matching symbols are in adjacent reels. Much like with payline games, the first icon in a winning combination must start in the first reel.
However, the key difference is that the icons only have to be in adjacent reels, not in actual paylines. The result is that you have 243 ways to win in a slot with a 5×3 grid.
Some slots have come out with even more ways to win, including 720 and 1,024. A 720 ways game offers an odd 3-4-5-4-3 reel setup and allows you to form wins both ways. Therefore, you can start a payout in the first reel (left to right) or fifth reel (right to left).
A 1,024 ways slot is very similar to a 243 ways game in terms of rules. But the main difference is that it offers a 5×4 grid. The extra row allows for far more payout possibilities. But 243 ways slots are definitely the most common among the group. In fact, they’ve become too common over the years.
If you thought that 1,024 ways to win are a lot, then you’ll be especially impressed by Megaways slot machines. These games are aptly named for the fact that they can offer numerous chances to win.
A Megaways slot doesn’t have a uniform grid. Instead, its reels can increase or decrease in height depending upon the rules.
Here’s an example:
- You’re playing a slot with six reels.
- Each reel initially features three spaces (e.g. 6×3 grid).
- But you can make the reels grow through cascading reels.
- You can make each reel grow to seven spaces high.
- The grid can be as large as 6×7.
- At this point, you’ll have 117,649 ways to win.
Not every Megaways slot offers this many possibilities. However, you can see the massive potential with these slots.
Several more online gaming developers have adopted the Megaways engine. These types of games are now being released at a record rate.
Wild symbols are typically known for appearing naturally on the reels. However, random wilds make for the possibility that additional wilds can be thrown onto the reels after the fact.
The key word here is “random.” Such slot machines are programmed to add one or more wild symbols at any point.
Here’s an example on how they work:
- You’re playing a winter-themed slot.
- Kids throw snowballs at the reels.
- Each snowball that lands on the reels offers a random wild.
The exciting thing here is that you can get extra chances to win out of nowhere. You may even form huge winning combinations as a result.
What’s not exciting, though, is the concept of random wilds. Once a new and interesting bonus, this feature is quite typical nowadays.
A standard wild symbol only fills one space. These wilds are still very helpful in creating wins, but they can only help so much in one spot.
An expanding wild differs by filling an entire reel. If you’re playing a 5×3 slot, for example, then such wilds will expand to cover all three spaces of the respective reel.
The obvious benefit of expanding wilds is that they cover more ground. You’ll win more often and earn larger payouts with a wild that takes up this much real estate.
Just like random wilds, these symbols were once a cutting edge idea. However, expanding wilds are actually among the most common features today.
Do Slots Developers Have Any More Room to Innovate?
I certainly don’t want to come off as nonappreciative for the slots features that exist today. The more bonuses and extra frills there are, the more enjoyable time I have playing.
But nothing truly new is hitting the gaming industry right now. Instead, the only innovation happening is either using different combinations of features or expanding on existing ideas.
Regarding the former, a developer might combine Megaways, cascading reels, and random wilds into one game. None of these aspects are new, but they can create a more entertaining experience when thrown together.
As for existing ideas, some companies are taking things overboard with certain features. For instance, Red Tiger Gaming has created a Megaways slot called Laser Fruit that offers up to 60,466,176 ways.
Again, Megaways are several years old. But the concept of offering this many potential lines is something new. The question, though, is if any true innovation will be taking place. Only the industry and players’ interests can decide this.
One area that might feature some new developments is skill-based gaming. Slotsmakers have been considering this heavily in the land-based arena as a way to attract millennials.
If skill-based bonuses prove successful, they’d be featured in more land-based and online slots. But no highly popular skill-based slot machines have been developed within the past few years.
That said, it’s really hard to say what could be the next big thing for slots. The industry will likely come up with something, though, when considering the saturation of the current “latest” features.
Real money slots providers have been immersed in a battle to keep up with new technology ever since video slot machines came out in the 1970s. So far, they’ve done a good job at keeping up with the times and coming out with new ideas.
Here are some key innovations that have been created within the past decade or so:
- Cascading reels
- Larger grids
- Cluster pays
- 243 ways (plus 720 ways and 1,024 ways)
- Random wilds
- Expanding wilds
Each of these ideas was new and fresh upon being released. However, they’ve all become rather standard in the modern gaming world.
Of course, players still appreciate these features; otherwise, they wouldn’t be so prevalent. But the same gamblers would enjoy seeing some new blood in the industry.
What new features arise is still a mystery. Not much new has been developed in the way of bonuses and unique game formats lately.
Skill-based gaming could be the next frontier. Or, developers might simply find a new way to package cascading reels, cluster pays, etc.
Given the larger grids, Megaways, and more, slotsmakers have more to work with. That said, I’m highly confident that they’ll come up with new concepts in the near future.