Jul 31, 2020

Archive Dive: DOS Slots

Welcome to Archive Dive, a feature I just made up where I talk about an interesting old game (or maybe other thing) I came across on the Internet Archive.

The first installment is about a game that's not very interesting per se, but I have several questions about its existence. It's Microbucks II: An Electronic Marvel. It's a slot machine for DOS computers circa 1989.

Microbucks 2 Title Screen
A five exclamation point title screen. Brace yourself for excitement

Simulated slot machines are something I don't understand in general. I can at least see the appeal when you have a big physical machine in an arcade-like environment, and a big clunky lever you can pull, and lots of exciting lights and noises. Modern slot machines have special bonus modes with larger payouts and free spins. Seeing how long you can make a free spin combo last can be pretty thrilling, even if you're not actually doing anything. If you play with low stakes and are able to stick to your spending limit, it can be harmless fun, not too different than a couple hours at an arcade. The one time I went to a casino, I had 20 bucks in my pocket, got a couple hours of entertainment, and broke even by the end. I'm not gonna say I didn't have an okay time, although I think mainly I just miss arcades, and this is the closest you can get now. I miss the spectacle, the lights and the sounds, the physicality of the joysticks and the big clicky buttons, the cacophony. I have no fondness for the games themselves, and some of them were notorious quarter-eaters, particularly midway machines from the late 80s and early 90s, so in some ways a slot machine can be a better entertainment value. I definitely had more fun than I would have had dying on the first level of Smash TV over and over.

That said, casinos make the vast majority of their money by preying on people prone to gambling addiction, and gambling should be illegal, full stop. What small amount of pleasure I take in the spectacle of the casino isn't worth the lives they destroy. I recommend the BBC documentary Louis Theroux Gambling in Las Vegas for a peek into the lives of pathological gamblers and some of the dirtbags who exploit them.

I only talk about my personal experience with slot machines to stress that I, as someone who understands the appeal of a slot machine and has enjoyed them in the past, see no point in a video game that simulates them.

There's no spectacle. No video game can capture the feel of an arcade or a casino, but most virtual slot machines don't even try. The sound effects are low-quality and repetitive, there are barely any animations, and you don't feel immersed in it.

There's no financial incentive. Now, you should never go to a casino with the expectation that you'll win money. Over a long enough time frame, you're guaranteed to lose money. It's a rigged game. But even when you acknowledge that, there's always the faint hope in the back of your mind that you'll be pleasantly surprised. Here, you don't even have that. The money's fake, all you're doing is hoping a number will go up.

There's no player agency. I've played an RPG or two, so I'm not saying there's no satisfaction in seeing numbers go up, but making those numbers go up is always in service of some larger goal. You make numbers go up so you can make other numbers go up faster so the numbers will eventually be high enough for you to win the game. You have some agency regarding the manner in which they go up. It's satisfying when you find a strategy that makes the numbers go up more quickly. Slot machines have no player input.

Usually spectacle and financial incentive are enough to keep people interested in pressing a button or pulling a lever over and over, but with no spectacle, no hope of winning money, and no agency in the activity, what do you have left?

Well, getting back to Microbucks II, not much. Let's talk about how weird this thing is.

You start with no money, so immediately you're going into the hole to start playing. You're in debt right off the bat. The title screen promises a realistic, authentic experience, but realistically, I'd go into the casino with an amount of money I'm willing to throw away, and I'd never let that number go below zero. So putting myself into the shoes of our virtual gambler, I'm already starting to panic, and I can only continue playing because here in the real world I know the money's not real. Still not a great feeling!

So, what are the mechanics like? Well, you can bet between 1 and 5 dollars, and as the description on the archive.org page points out, there's no reason not to bet 5 every time. You're never going to go so far into debt that you get kicked out, unless you lose so much money that it underflows the variable. But maybe if that happens it'll wrap back around to +65535, so that might be a valid strategy.

So as the title screen says, you press space to insert a coin ($1 coins, apparently. It was 89, so these would have been Susan B. Anthony dollars, not Sacagawea dollars. Which is kind of a shame, because seeing a machine spew a bunch of gold-colored coins would definitely add to the spectacle.)

If for some reason you want to bet less than $5, you can press enter to spin with the current bet, or you can just hit space again after the fifth coin and it'll spin automatically. Once I read the title screen more closely, I saw that you can press insert to automatically insert 5 coins (I see what they did there) and auto-spin. So, press insert over and over until you get bored. That's it. That's the entire game.

The title screen says "because you asked us for it, it pays 98.9%!!!" Who asked for it? The people who played Microbucks 1?

The writer of the description on the archive page says "it pays out 98.9% of the time, but I never win anything!" I understand the confusion. That number doesn't refer to your odds of winning, that's the return on money paid into the machine. Different states (and other parts of the world where this is legal) have different laws about how much slot machines are obligated to pay out. In Las Vegas, slot machines are required to pay out at about 93%, so for every $100 you put into them, you'll lose about 7 of it. I don't know the specifics of how the machines pay out over what time frame, and honestly it's best not to think about it. Any "strategizing" you try to do about playing certain machines at certain times, or tracking how long it's been since a payout, or only doing a certain number of spins on certain machines, is succumbing to a gambler's fallacy. There is no strategy. There is no formula. There is no way to game a random system.

So if you compare Microbucks to Vegas odds, what this means is that on average, for every $100 you put in, you'll only lose one dollar instead of seven. Is this really what people asked for? Does this feature warrant three exclamation points? There is no house, no real money is being exchanged. You could make it pay out a thousand percent if you wanted to. Like, at least let the player choose their odds. I find it incredibly sad that, even in a simulation with fake money, only losing 1% of your money instead of 7% is, like, a fun fantasy. (The Vegas odds might have been lower in 1989, but you get what I mean.)

The enthusiasm of the "98.9%" made me wonder if this whole thing was a joke, or meant to be some sort of object lesson in the futility of gambling, but I looked up Ted Gruber's other games, and it seems like he was just really earnest about simulated gambling. Casino games were his specialty. A shareware version of MB2 (version 2.0, with sound blaster support! Featuring a huge catalog of public domain tunes in beautiful single-voice PC speaker fidelity, and an incredibly compressed coin-clunking sound effect) includes an order form. This was a commercial product you could buy for $12.

Order form for Microbucks 2 and a few other games by the developer. You're meant to print it out and mail it in with a check or money order.
Only $1 for Keno? I can't afford not to

Are the stated odds even accurate? Well...

In-game screenshot
I discovered that you can actually bet $9 per pull by pressing space 4 times and then insert, but that's more effort than I wanted to expend on this post, so this is a hundred $5 spins, and I'm down 141 dollars.

Of course 100 pulls isn't enough data to get an accurate estimate of the actual odds, but I gotta say, borrowing 500 dollars to make 359 doesn't feel very good. That's not what I'd expect from a machine advertising a 98.9% return. It's possible that the random number generator relies on some aspect of the CPU clock for its entropy, and something might be lost in emulation. However, even if I was up, I don't think I'd have gotten much enjoyment for the 12 real-world dollars I spent on the game.

I dunno. I guess for people who are really, really into slot machines, having a virtual version of it in 1989 might have been novel, but... I don't think it's good to be really, really into slot machines! That's not a good thing to encourage! I'm not normally one to be negative about other peoples' interests, we're all into our own weird stuff, and even if something doesn't appeal to me personally, I don't want to trash it if someone else likes it, as long as it's not hurting anyone. But gambling hurts a lot of people, and I don't think having a simulated version of it helps anyone. There is some research that suggests that VR gambling can help with addiction treatment, but only as part of a therapeutic process; on its own, a VR casino environment "evokes a significant urge to gamble", and "the participants' urge to gamble was the strongest in playing a casino game scene". I don't know how a crappy DOS slot machine compares to an immersive VR experience, but there's no way it helps. I'm pretty comfortable saying that real-world gambling simulators suck and probably shouldn't exist outside of a therapeutic environment.

So, uh, that's it for the first installment of Archive Dive. Tune in next time I find something on archive.org that I have opinions about, I guess.

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