The history of phone gambling

Top of the slots: the history of phone gambling

Sep 25, 2020

While mobile slots games seem ubiquitous now, their history is actually fairly short. Mechanical slot machines were first developed in 1891, and they didn’t incorporate any electronics until the 1960s. They weren’t truly random until the introduction of random number generators in 1984. But now, you only have to pull out your phone to be able to experience great gaming. We are here to take a trip down memory lane, and chart the growth of digital slot machines from niche curiosity into a billion-pound business. Find out how top mobile slots came into existence, and what the future could hold for gambling on the go.

Video slots: the beginning

Originally, slot games were mechanical affairs, which span based on the machinery inside them. Pulling the lever physically halted the slots, and the odds offered on different prizes had to accurately reflect how many symbols were on the slots and how rare they were. However, that all changed with the introduction of video slots.

Fortune Coin video slot machine

Originally introduced in 1975 by Walt Fraley, the Fortune Coin video slot didn’t go particularly well. Players were very skeptical whether it was as honest as the mechanical machines, and some didn’t trust the technology.

IGT were instrumental in popularising video slots. The company was founded in 1975, and acquired the aforementioned Fortune Coin Company in 1978. From there, the next important stepping stone was coinless slots. Classic mechanical slots required coins to be fed into them; coinless slots operated on tickets, which you punched into and out of different machines. This helped to pave the way for multi-line betting on machines, as well as different pay levels.

Video poker also became prevalent in the late 1970s. This popularity helped to boost the appeal of video slots, too: if you could trust poker on a video screen, why not a slot machine? Once this mindset became more widely held, video slot machines began to appear more frequently on casino floors. There are still video slots in casinos today, but they also exist online; many of the same games can be found in both land-based and online casinos.

The popularity of online casinos

You can trace the rise of online casinos back to the 1990s, when the digital revolution started in earnest. More people were buying home computers, and the technology involved with them was also rapidly improving. This meant that the computers of the 90s had more processing power, better graphics, and bigger memories.

The other crucial ingredient to this mixture was the commercialisation of the internet. It became easier for everyone to access the internet, which meant more information was available online, and so it became an increasingly attractive prospect for individuals to use too. More households began to pay for internet access, which in turn meant that companies started looking at websites as a viable business model.

Democratisation of the internet

The internet also opened up avenue of real-time, non-personal communication. You could store content and have it accessed by anyone remotely. Therefore, it followed that you could host games online, and let people around the world play them – and so online gambling didn’t take long to coalesce into a formal proposition.

Antigua and Barbuda was the first country to become an online gambling jurisdiction in 1994, and others followed fairly rapidly. It was also the year that the internet’s first gambling software was available for use.

Intuitively, we might think that mobile slots games required the capacity to access the internet. While that was true, it wasn’t necessarily in the way we might initially imagine it.

Rise of internet-enabled phones

The first phone game was Snake, for the Nokia 6610, back in 1997. Its popularity led to the company pre-installing the title on all of their phones, and soon people around the world were playing it.

Almost everyone knows about Snake, even if they didn’t have a phone that could play it: the simple idea behind it was avoiding hitting the edges of the screen, or your own tail, while growing ever longer.

Top of the slots: the history of phone gambling 1

It was very addictive, with players spending long periods of time hunched over their phones. So, Snake visibly demonstrated the appeal of mobile gaming. After all, who wouldn’t want easy entertainment right in their pocket?

Early games came pre-installed onto your phone, meaning it was impossible to purchase and play new titles. It wasn’t until phones became internet-enabled that you could start browsing and buying new titles. The first games were available for download in Japan in 1999, which marks the beginning of consumers purchasing mobile games. However, the 2G network in place across most of the world wasn’t good enough to deal with demand, leading to 3G’s roll-out in more developed nations.

WAP on a Nokia phone

Wireless Application Protocol (known better as WAP) allowed phones to connect to the internet, by using a more basic version of the HTTP internet protocol. In the early 2000s, many phones were packaged with WAP, allowing you to access a stripped-back version of the internet and thus download new games.

Software developers also became more interested in what you could do with WAP. While most people downloaded custom wallpapers and ringtones to their phones, you could also get access to games. Some of them were pretty innovative and ahead of their time.

Lifestylers, released in 2001, was a casual turn-based game allowing you to control a character and attempt to raise stats while interacting with other characters and the environment. Companies consistently tried to find ways to bring gambling to mobiles, but in the early 2000s it just wasn’t feasible. The technology wasn’t currently in place to emulate real-life casino games. Part of this was that WAP games were incredibly slow, and not optimised for different handsets. Despite all the setbacks, people were still (correctly) convinced that mobile games had a future. It just had to be delivered in a different way.

Another problem was that phone companies wanted to be involved in the gaming process, so they made a point of purchasing developers. This meant games companies couldn’t sell games directly to the market: they had to be pushed via the network providers or hardware companies instead. These companies took a share of the profits, and as a result, game designers had comparatively little money to play with to spend on innovation.

2002 saw the release of the first mobile phones which could run Java. The handsets used Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) and the programming language allowed for fast action games to be played.

Top of the slots: the history of phone gambling 2

WAP games initially had some advantages over J2ME, but better phone hardware meant they soon began to be phased out. Colour screens, better resolutions, and faster-paced games all had a part to play in making games more popular.

2005: the year of change?

Slots on mobiles finally became a reality in 2005. Pub Fruity was the first Java casino game, and featured a colourful display that aimed to emulate a pub fruit machine.

Pub Fruity slot

There were three reels and with three rows, and a variety of different winning symbol combinations. However, like all the other games you could buy, it was still pay-per-purchase. There were no in-app payments in this classic mobile slots game, and the only real money exchanged was with the initial purchase. Winning in these slots did not net you any real cash, but only virtual rewards. There were extra mini-games within Pub Fruity that accepted your winning chips, but it was still an unsatisfying experience.

The poker craze was also in full swing by 2005, making it an incredibly lucrative niche for anyone who had the ability to program a functioning game. Downtown Texas Hold ’Em was also released in 2005 and happened to coincide with the beginning of poker’s unprecedented popularity.

Downtown Texas Hold'em

As a result, it was a very successful game. Many people downloaded it onto their phones, and the people who programmed it made a lot of money.

But even with these casino-style games, players still couldn’t win money on mobile devices. The best they could do was exchange winnings within the game for other virtual prizes. Java was also proving to be a difficult way to program, as it wasn’t standardised in the industry. Different phones ran different kinds of J2ME, and lots of time was spent adapting games to different handsets rather than trying to just produce more games.

2005 also saw Jupiter Research forecast a revenue of $19.3 billion for mobile gaming by 2009. However, this was revised in 2010, all the way down to $5.6 billion, due to the USA prohibiting all internet-based gaming in 2006.

Smartphone gaming

iPhone 2007

The iPhone was first released in 2007, followed by the App Store in 2008. This opened up a world of choice to both consumers and developers. By this point, online casinos had been around for nearly 10 years; they were well-established companies, which often operate across a number of different territories.

The App Store was also revolutionary, because it allowed developers to market their games directly to consumers. In response to this competition, Android phones were released and the Android Market (now known as Google Play) also appeared. The Android operating system could be run on a huge range of smartphones, making it more versatile.

It was around this point that casino websites set up downloadable games. You could download mobile-optimised slots to play on your phone so long as you took the file directly from the casino website. This is the first time you were able to deposit to mobile slots, so it definitely shows a turning point in the evolution of mobile slots.

Cross-platform gaming

At first, it was tricky for online casinos to offer mobile slots games. Even when the phones became powerful enough to process rapid movement and show the great graphics and sound required, they could not run the same software that computers did. You had to program mobile slot games completely differently, and write separate code for them. Luckily, HTML5 helped to pave the way for cross-platform gaming.

HTML5 works off lots of different blocks, which it then integrates together. It runs the HTML code (which explains the content of webpages), CSS presentation (which determines the layout) and JavaScript (which programs the behavior). Popular casual games have been created with HTML5, allowing them to be run both as casual PC games and also as mobile titles.

As a result, casinos began to use HTML5 to develop games. Different titles could be programmed with HTML5, and then ported straight away for use on both online casinos and mobile casino sites. It became much easier to reach more people, as separate titles didn’t have to be created for different platforms.

Pure mobile casinos

Some casinos decided to move away from the computer element entirely, and focus their attention on the mobile market. That’s what LadyLucks did in 2011, becoming one of the UK’s first mobile casinos and placing all of the emphasis on providing high-quality gaming on the go.

The proliferation of smartphones means that now, more people – especially aged 18 to 35 – have smartphones than don’t. There is a large market to tap into by offering these specialised services. Better handsets have meant better games can be produced, and now even the most complex online games can be recreated on phone and tablet screens.

Live and mobile roulette

According to a 2010 survey in the US, 7.6% of smartphone subscribers had played mobile casino games – a number that has probably increased thanks to the improving the quality of games and larger number of options.

Mobile casinos really took off in 2012. Today, online casino sites see a lot of their players using mobile devices and phablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus or the 5 best smartphones of 2020 for mobile casino. Dedicated sites provide a better user experience than online casinos, which are still primarily aimed at computer-based players.

The future of mobile slots games

It’s impossible to say what the future will hold for mobile slots games, but there’s a couple of possible avenues.

The first is smart watches, like the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear. These provide a hyper-portable method of accessing the internet: even if your phone’s out of battery, you’ll always be wearing a watch. The first slots games have been put out for the Android watch, so it may not be long before casinos move into providing more choices for the technology.

Virtual reality (or VR) is the other obvious pathway. Anything which can make games more immersive is bound to appeal to a large audience. Although VR has been on the cusp of exploding for several years and never quite managing to have its breakthrough moment, it’s bound to happen soon – and businesses will be ready for it, when it does occur. In the world of online casino, SlotsMillion has already led the way.

Best mobile casinos to play slots games

Top mobile slots are a relatively recent phenomenon. Phones have only been able to run high-quality casino games for less than a decade. It can feel strange to think about how much the industry has achieved in so little time. So if you want to experience the thrills of mobile slots games, look no further than LadyLucks. We’ve tested and listed for you the best online casinos accessible from your smartphone.

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