Online Casino Players: We Need to Talk About Volatility

Plenty is going on in the online casino industry at the moment: Live dealer games continue to evolve at pace; developers like Blueprint and Pragmatic are giving the established names like Microgaming and Playtech some stiff competition; and, the industry continues to grow around the world. However, if there is one trend that can be said to have defined the last year or so at online casinos, it’s volatility. 

Experienced casino players will know what we mean when we talk about variance. If we take a look at two popular online slots - Great Blue and Starbust, we can put them at opposite ends of the variance scale. Great Blue (Playtech) is considered a high variance, or volatile, slot. That means you win less regularly, but it has the potential to pay large sums on occasion. Starburst (NetEnt), meanwhile, is a low variance game and pays more frequently, but the wins are more likely to be small. It’s not always an exact science, and some games will lie in between, but players tend to build up a general idea of these slot characteristics over time. 

Many new high volatility games have arrived online 

The concept of variance has been around for as long as there have been online casinos, but recently we see a slew of new games that can be described as having ultra-high variance. Royal Mint (Big Time Gaming), Punk Rocker (Nolimit City), Jammin’ Jars (Push Gaming), Dead or Alive II (NetEnt), as well as almost every game in the Megaways range (various publishers), can be described as being in this category. 

The first thing to note about these games is that the potential payouts can be massive, even for small stakes. If you were to visit YouTube, you could easily find videos of players winning thousands of dollars in games like Lil’ Devil (Big Time Gaming) when only placing stakes of 10 or 20 cents. The games make for remarkable viewing on these streaming sites because of their big win potential. If we analyse the comments from subscribers, they almost always encourage the streamers to play highly volatile games, often for high stakes. But we must also remember that casino streamers are only showing the highlight reels on their channels and that the hours of build-up play – a process known as “grinding” – doesn’t make for exciting viewing.  

Within certain games, there is a choice for players to choose their levels of variance. Secret of the Stones, a 2013 title from NetEnt, has been repurposed for the 2020 market. Today, it has two different modes – the classic version or a “MAX” version. The latter claims to offer “Bigger Hits”, which is borne out by bigger prizes. The catch, of course, is that the MAX version is very short on those small wins that help maintain a balance. It’s boom or bust. 300 Shields (NextGen Gaming) offers a similar choice with its “Extreme” version. 

BTG is one of the big winners 

For those that observe trends in the iGaming industry, all of this has represented a fascinating gear shift in a relatively short space of time. Big prizes have always been part and parcel of the online casino industry, especially with jackpot games like Mega Moolah regularly making overnight millionaires. But this all feels a little different than popular progressive jackpot games where winning the top prize is akin to winning a lottery. In the case of this new wave of games, there is a presentation of the big payouts being more achievable, that they are within reach of ordinary players. 

The real winners here, however, are the developers, particularly Big Time Gaming (BTG). The developer masterminded the concept of Megaways, a series of shifting reels animations that have become synonymous with the idea of high volatility slots. Instead of keeping the trademarked design concept to itself, BTG has licensed Megaways technology to its rival developers. Dozens of Megaways games are now available online, with more new releases arriving all the time. It’s created something of a power shift in the developer sector, and the likes of Microgaming and Playtech, who at one stage seemed untouchable in their supremacy, would do well to pay attention.