Writing for SlotBeats, Pavlos Sideris, director of Double Up Media, takes a look at the past, present and future of online slots before hinting at some of the challenges facing the industry in the wake of the Gambling Act review.

Just like any form of entertainment, online slots evolve and change over time as new trends emerge and advancements in technology give studios the tools to seriously boost their games.

Back in the early days of online slots, at the start of the new millennium, players were treated to nothing more than a simple four or five-reel game that featured no more than 10 or 20 paylines, and if they were lucky, a progressive jackpot with surprisingly large cash prizes.

Today we’re absolutely spoilt for choice. Not only are there tens of thousands of slots out there, but there are slots dedicated to specific themes, features and even special mechanics such as Megaways, Infinity Reels, Link & Win, Cluster Pays, Slingo and Gigablox (just to name a few).

This article takes a look at some of the most innovative online slot gameplay mechanics of the last decade, what worked, what’s popular right now, and most importantly, what we can expect next in terms of innovation.

The past – The dominance of Jackpot and Megaways slots 

The first real innovation in slots were progressive jackpots that found their way into casinos in the 90s and early 2000s, these include iconic titles such as Cash Splash, King Cashalot, Major Millions and timeless classic Mega Moolah.

Jackpots were always going to be the natural first choice when it came to what kind of slots should be immortalised online in those early days, as they’ve always been the most popular type of game in brick and mortar casinos in cities such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

As the years progressed online slot developers got more creative, bringing branded slots into the fray. In addition, developers began adding lucrative bonus features to their games such as free spins, the gamble feature, and ‘pick and click’ mini-games. However, it’d be fair to say that these were pretty standard amongst most games, and weren’t particularly innovative.

The first standout slot that really hit players (and developers) hard in terms of delivering the wow factor was Big Time Gaming’s Bonanza Megaways. The mining-themed slot is famous for really introducing the world to the Megaways mechanic, which sees players enjoy up to 117,649 ways to win thanks to game-changing reel modifier technology.

Such was the popularity of the mechanic, some of the biggest and best online slot developers in the industry such as NetEnt, Red Tiger Gaming, Blueprint Gaming and Microgaming have lined up to license the mechanic and release unique Megaways slots themselves.

The present – Infinite possibilities as studios get creative with slots

With Big Time Gaming leading the way in terms of innovation for the last few years, creative teams at studios across the globe were putting their heads together to see what they could do to compete with the Australian powerhouse. 

A handful of developers have stepped up to the plate in recent times, creating innovative new mechanics… Arguably the most impressive of the bunch would be Microgaming who invented the Link & Win mechanic, a unique new bonus feature that sees free spins replaced by a respin of the reels and resets every time special cash value symbols land on the reels.

Despite it being an incredibly new invention, other developers have already gotten in on the act. Pragmatic Play has Hold and Spin, iSoftBet created Hold and Win and Wazdan introduced the world to the Hold the Jackpot feature.

These free spin-less slots are unbelievably popular right now and are undoubtedly the hot new trend of 2021. However, they’re all still a long way from outnumbering classic online slots with run-of-the-mill free spins features.

Other unique and popular mechanics taking the world of online slots by storm include Infinity Reels from ReelPlay and Gigablox from Yggdrasil. 

Infinity Reels see players start their gameplay with just three reels on screen, but every time they register a winning payline the number of reels expands by one. There’s no upper limit on the number of reels that can come into play (it’s infinite) and so can lead to some huge payouts.

Infinity Reels have proven popular enough to catch the eye of multiple developers, who now also have the ability to license the mechanic for use in their own slots. So far SG Digital, Relax Gaming, Games Lab, PG Soft and Boomerang Studios have all jumped on the bandwagon, and we fully expect more studios to do so in the not-so-distant future.

The future – New mechanics to circumvent regulatory challenges?

In a 2021 interview with Gaming Intelligence Relax Gaming’s chief product officer, Simon Hammon, explained how the fast-growing studio has turned its focus towards creating slots that cater to ever-changing regulations and market conditions. 

He said: “Players are increasingly looking for a high-action, high-entertainment experience and games must now offer the visuals and graphics they expect combined with engaging game flow and mechanics that are a departure from the traditional 5×3 set-ups of recent years.

“Our game design has evolved to address this accordingly – at the same time re-aligning its focus to cater for market conditions, competition, regulation and marketing strategies.”

There’s no better example of this than Relax Gaming slots Money Cart and Money Cart 2. Both of these 2021 games utilise ‘bonus reels’ and were designed to appeal to players that want action, and want action fast, particularly those in jurisdictions that do not allow feature buys. 

These games completely circumvent the feature buy ban in jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom by scrapping base gameplay altogether. Players still spin the reels, but they’ll only ever experience a losing spin in which they win nothing, or they’ll trigger the bonus feature.

Essentially, these games are perfect for players demanding thrills a minute, as a bonus feature is always just around the corner.

As it stands there are only two of these games on the market, and they’re the aforementioned slots developed by Relax Gaming, but we believe that other studios will have surely taken notice. Whilst they’re not traditional, players ultimately want action, and bonus reels slots deliver.

With more regulatory changes likely coming, and certain mechanics such as fast spin and autospin banned, developers will be scrambling to come up with innovative new slots that give avid players a sense of normality that allow them to play their way.