Reading people in game testing is tricky

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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to observe a focus group that was reviewing several new table games.

My area of expertise is the math and some of the technical constructs of a game. I have to admit that if I have any weakness in game design it is in getting inside other players’ heads to see the game the way they do.

I like games that require you to think. As soon as I sit down to play a new game, the math concepts of the game start going through my head and I try to figure out what the strategy is and/or how I would go about analyzing the game to get to that strategy. In other words, my thought patterns about a new game are probably very different from the average player.

I

had done the math on half the games that were being reviewed and seen the reports on the others. The paybacks on all of the base games were all within 1.5% of each other. They were all in the same range as the games you find in a casino.

The games were all relatively different from each other. These were not subtle variants of the same game. I was amazed at some of the comments I heard while the focus group sampled each game.

One that has stuck with me is when players described a particular payout or pay table as “unfair.” I didn’t understand how they could make that statement. The overall paybacks of each game were similar.

When creating a game, we could pay 5 instead of 4 on a particular hand but that would likely mean some other hand would pay 8 instead of 10. I could understand if they simply felt a game’s pay table was less than enticing.

Sometimes, the basic rules of the game leave little room for the pay table payout wager and we’re forced to pay out 1, 2 and 3 for the bottom 3 pays (perhaps Trips, Straight and Flush). If the only way you win a significant amount of money is by getting a Full House or better (about 2-3% of the time), players may walk on by. But, I’m not sure I would call this unfair.

The moderator would sometimes ask follow up questions to try and get more details out of the panel. Sometimes he would ask if the players were willing to give up this (or that) to get a higher payout. Some players say yes and others say no.

Obviously some want to get more cards than the dealer, have the option to fold or bet 5x and have a fabulous pay table. Nothing like a 55% hit frequency with thousand dollar payouts! But that’s just not going to happen.

Observing this focus group opened my eyes a bit. It is not the first time I’ve seen or heard of players making rather irrational decisions about a game. One way or another the casino is going to get an advantage.

I’ve written columns about the common mechanisms casinos use to achieve this. Yet for some reason, players have certain expectations about games.

A couple of years ago the inventor of Imperial Pai Gow told me a story about how each watched a player go back and forth between his game and a similar Pai Gow side bet comparing the pay tables. Imperial Pai Gow has extra payouts if the Dealer’s Hand is very bad.

Obviously, this payback has to come from somewhere. So, some of the other payouts are a bit lower, including the 7-Card Straight Flush. When the player decided to play the other game, my friend asked him why. It was the 7-Card Straight Flush payout that was lower.

He based his decision on the payout of a hand that occurs every 676,000 hands (on average), having to play for 15 months, 24 hours a day and get dealt 60 hands per hour to get to this many hands.

Now, it is of course possible he will hit on the very first hand he plays. But, to decide that the pay table of Imperial Pai Gow was inferior based on this seems absurd to my math mind.

Based on my experience, I now know players can consider a pay table to be unfair. The problem is I still don’t have a good handle on how they make this determination. Why does paying 4 for a particular hand feel right in one game, but wrong in another? How can you compare payouts of games with different rules, different betting structures and different number of cards to one another?

I know as well as anyone how a pay table can affect the volatility of a game. But a game with higher or lower volatility should not be one that is called unfair.

Blackjack is not unfair because most hands pay even money giving it low volatility. Is Mississippi Stud more or less fair with its pay table? It is a game of very high volatility. Then again, some may look at the MS Stud pay table and say it is unfair because some of the payouts seem low.

If you’re dealt a Pair of 6’s or better from the start, you get to put down 9 more units with absolutely zero risk. A high pair that doesn’t improve can be a big winner. Turn it into Two Pair, Trips, etc. and it can be a massive payout even if it only pays 3 to 1 because you will have 10 units on the table!

But, an inventor cannot ignore this phenomenon. If there was a simple formula to keep the player happy it would be far easier to create the perfect game. Of course, if it were this easy, the reward would not be nearly as great.

Buy his book now!

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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