From research to RTP: how today’s online slot games are created

There’s no denying the popularity of online gaming. With the industry predicted to be worth close to $60 billion by 2020, online gaming is one of the success stories of the global economy. Gambling has fitted perfectly into today’s digital world – with technological enhancements giving players the option of getting an increasingly immersive experience through computers and mobile devices, anytime and anywhere they want to play.

While online operators provide a whole host of games, it’s slots that are the real deal. Slot games generate more revenue than any other type of game. They’re estimated to bring in a total of 80% of online gambling income.

Let’s take a look at how slot game technology has developed – and what it takes to produce just one of the hundreds of slot games released into the market every week.

The evolution of slot games

You don’t have to be smart to see quite how far slot machines have evolved over the years. Way back when they occupied a dusty corner of a Western saloon bar, they were purely mechanical. You had to pull the lever to start the game and to activate the reels. It was in 1895 that the first machine with an automatic payout was created — the work of Charles Augustus Fey — and machines then started to evolve from poker to fruit machines. The iconic BAR symbol came about in 1907.

The breakthrough came in 1964 when the first electro mechanical slot machine appeared on the scene. You still had to pull a lever to start the game, but not to activate the reels, and this tactile feel to the games slowly started to become phased out. This was quite an innovation at the time — almost too innovative for the age, in fact – and eight years later, the gambling industry welcomed the world’s first video slot. Manufacturers went on to incorporate extra cheat-proofing systems and modify games by increasing their playability. One way was to add extra rounds so that people who were on a lucky streak could gamble more if they wished to.

Then the internet landed in the mid-1990s and changed the whole face of gambling as people moved towards playing online, with online casinos outperforming land-based ones by every metric. For players, the temptation is understandable. Why go all the way down the casino or amusement arcade to play on a fruit machine when you could do it from your own home?

What’s more, the advances in digital technology over the past two decades have seen slot games become faster, better and more engaging than ever. Today’s slot games are themed around a variety of niches – from music, to movies and more – and feature high-quality graphics, video and audio. To illustrate how far they’ve come, some gamers believe they now rival leading consumer titles – such as Red Dead Redemption 2 – for their quality. If you don’t believe that, one look at these super-immersive online slots will convince you otherwise.

Step by step: the process of designing an online slot game

Today’s slot games require the attentions of many professionals with different skills to bring it into existence. But just how many stages of development are there?

1. Getting a team together

Numeracy, IT, coding and web development skills – combined with gaming and UX expertise – are crucial to the development of online slots. That’s why a typical team will consist of a game designer, server developer, several front-end developers, a mathematician, a creative team and a project manager. Everyone involved has their own part to play in the process.

2. Researching the game

It all starts with some in-depth research. The team behind the game must collect data and decide what sort of slot the online gambling world is ready for. This will involve market research – and their own ideas in a brainstorming session – as they try to work out how to provide gamers with something different. They need to see what’s already out there and figure out how to offer something different. When they’ve analyzed the data, they can consider how they want their game to look and what features it might have.

3. Deciding a topic and a theme

Next, the team need to decide a topic for the game. Since online slot users have other interests than just the slots, operators can tap into these to attract new players to a game. Take baseball, for instance. It’s a popular sport and enthusiasts of the game may feel more drawn to a slot that has a baseball theme.

The game designers must also need to think about the character of the game: should the presentation and animation of the game be quirkier and whimsical, or should it be more serious? Often, the nature of the game will determine this.

Don’t be fooled by a game’s design, however. Operators aim games at specific target audiences, so if a game looks a little retro, the target audience is likely to be an older generation who long for days gone by and enjoy the feeling of nostalgia that comes with the game.

4. Design considerations

It’s at this point that the team will factor in design considerations, and how that will be affected by it taking a cartoon approach or real-life images and video. Marketers will have a hand in this, as they’ll have the market data to inform the team which colour schemes, fonts and audio elements will land best among the target audience.

3D rendering software may also have a role to play at this stage if it’s appropriate for the storyline, characters and tone.

5. Features and structure

Once the team has mapped out the main look and feel of the game, it’s time to decide on its main features. This includes everything from its visual style, to the number of reels, bonuses and other winning opportunities.

Many modern slot games have a corporate tie-in or are based on an existing movie, band or game – so this will be a factor in this stage of the process. Developers will immerse themselves in the existing brand the slot game is based on – and this is often easier and more time-effective than coming up with creative concepts from scratch.

6. Determining RTP and variance

Another hugely important factor in a slot game’s success is how easy it is to play. This is where the development team will consider where the game will fall in the variance system. Specifically they’ll consider:

  • Will it be low-risk variance, and have an abundance of winning combinations so it appeals to the greatest number of players?
  • Will it be high-risk variance, and offer jackpots that are huge but rarely won?
  • Will it be medium-risk variance, and offer both high and low jackpots – straddling both camps?

These are the questions the team should answer at this stage. When considering the variance system, developers will also decide the Return to Player (RTP) rate. This is essentially how much the game will pay out. Certain RTP rates suit certain target markets, so it’s important to make the right call here and base the right rate on the right audience.

7. Testing

Perhaps the most important stage in the process is testing. Developers will regularly test the game at different intervals to iron out any glitches. And when the game is launched, it will also be tested thoroughly before it’s officially announced.


With so many slot games on the market today, it can be easy to forget how much time and effort goes into making each and every one of them. Ultimately, today’s gamers have never had it so good with so much quality and choice on the market.

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