We look at Fruit Machines a hugely popular and familiar fixture in amusement arcades, bars and even airports and are now the most popular means of gambling for a great many people throughout the world.

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The flashing lights and characteristic sounds of fruit machines have traditionally been very much a part of the atmosphere within arcades, amusement parks, and casinos and have become familiar within a whole range of different environments, from airports to pubs. The ease of use and simple pleasure of inserting some coins and hitting a button or pulling a lever in the hope of some immediate returns is such an effective means of filling some leisure time that they have become the most popular means of gambling for a great many people throughout the world.

Betting, gambling and gaming have been ingrained in our culture for many centuries and fruit machines are very new by comparison. First conceived by Charles Fey in late 19th century San Francisco, his machine, the Liberty Bell was an immediate success. Inspired by the game of poker he devised a mechanically automated system of spinning reels, each of which represents a dealt card with symbols on each reel to represent the card values. The machine used three reels which were spun by the action of pulling a lever. These early machines quickly gained their nickname of one-armed bandits as a result.

The object of playing the game is to bet on the prospect of achieving a 'winning hand', which are the certain combinations of symbols on a winning line when the reels stop spinning. Some combinations are more likely than others and offer poorer returns commensurate with their frequency. Frequent returns, however small, are a factor in the enduring success of fruit machines and encourage continued play. Infrequently, larger sums, or jackpots, are paid out and they not only provide the motivation for the player to keep playing but also to those within sight and in earshot of the machine.

The original concepts inherent within the first Liberty Bell machine have changed little over time and the bell symbol is still widely used as a basis for big wins. Other symbols used in fruit machines have similar historic origins. Fruit, usually in the form of cherries, pears, watermelon and so on, and also the BAR symbol, are derived from a period in the machines history when it was introduced into stores and store fronts. Rather than cash payouts, the prizes consisted of candy bars and fruit-based candy and gum.

By offering food-based products rather than cash, the proprietors of the stores and machine owners were cleverly attempting to avoid the tight gambling legislation which applied to cash transactions. The opportunity did not last long but the legacy remains in the most common name for these machines and the fruit and BAR symbols which still dominate the gameplay. A by-product of the time is the gumball machines and candy dispensers which still dominate stores and storefronts. Nowadays the symbols can be anything and often represent some theme associated with the style of the machine.

Reels still spin and symbols are still called on a winning line, or lines, but what technology has brought is new underlying mechanisms. Buttons and touch screen technology have replaced the arm of the bandit while the gears and reels now largely exist within a virtual world created by computer graphics. Added extras have included bonus plays and increased user interaction through hold, spin and nudge functions. Even the mechanisms of payment have been updated to feature tokens and card-based credit rather than cash. Modern systems are particularly evident within casinos which may have 1000s of machines which generate the bulk of their profits.

Great graphics and more ways to play and get involved in the game are certainly positive aspects brought by new technologies, but the game remains the same and results, as ever, are a matter of chance. In the original three-reel machines, each reel had 10 symbols which means there are 1000 possible combinations. Charles Fey may have been aware when he created the machine that these limited combinations were the key to the machines success in delivering frequent pay outs but the downside is that large payouts were limited because they would just be too frequent for the machine to make commercial sense.

Computerisation removes these limitations. 100s of millions of combinations are now possible which results in extremely rare but very profitable jackpots. Some machines in casinos, and even the casinos themselves, are linked with the possibility of absolute fortunes being won on a jackpot. The mechanism for reducing the probability of certain jackpot outcomes was first established through electronics whereby certain valuable symbols were weighted against and so even though they could be seen spinning, they rarely finished on the winning line.

In the latest fruit machines the probabilities of the symbols is written into the computer code rather than any differential weighting. The result is the same and the method can also be used to enhance the gameplay experience with computer generated near misses. With computer algorithms determining each outcome based on pseudorandom number generation it is impossible to predict certain outcomes based on any perceived pattern or previous outcome. With software running the machine and computer generated graphics depicting all the aspects of the gameplay, there are very few mechanical parts in modern machines.

What is also written into the code when a machine is built is the payout percentage and this remains fixed during the usable life of the machine. Typically in the range of 80% to 98%, this is the proportion of money put into the machine which gets returned to the players. The only way then to increase returns is by playing machines with a high payout percentage.