Choosing a Game Theme

Long ago I listened to Scott Adams talk about the failure of the Dilbert animated series. Fans of the comic strip wouldn’t watch the cartoon. One reason is they hated the sound of Dilbert’s voice.

Now contrast the success of the Dilbert comic strip with the lack of details within the strip itself. We don’t know Dilbert’s last name, where he lives, his job title, or even what his company does. His boss’ name is just The Boss.

Now consider the most successful casino games on the market and look at their themes:

  • Generic Chinese theme
  • Generic Egyptian theme
  • Generic Greek theme
  • Jewels
  • Strong animal
  • Sexy lady
  • etc…

These themes may sound high level, but there’s actually not much more to them than what’s written on each bullet point.

The more details you add when it comes to casino games, the more chances you have to turn off the player.

As a concrete example, take a look at a game like Crash. You watch a rocket ship and a number go up, then you decide to cash out. That’s it. Do you think the game would be as successful if it was themed around hang gliding? What if they told you who was inside the rocket ship? Where the rocket’s trying to go? Why it’s trying to get there?

Measuring Casino Game Volatility

Standard Deviation

When we think about the volatility of data, the first concept that comes to mind is the almighty standard deviation metric. This is a good metric for 99% of casino games on the market, but over the last 5 years or so we’ve started to see a new class of game emerge: persistent state games (think games like Scarab or Ocean Magic). What happens in these games is bets are not independent. Instead some characteristic of the game carries over from one bet to the next, usually resulting in large wins at somewhat regular intervals.

The violation of bet independence makes standard deviation a lackluster metric for assessing the volatility of these kinds of games. The regularity of these large wins results in a deceptively large impression of the game’s volatility. Can you say a game is volatile if your typical player gets a lot of time on device?

A Better Metric

I propose a much more effective metric for volatility that works for this emerging class of games, as well as more traditional casino games: Median Spins (or Median Bets). The idea is to capture how long it takes the typical player to exhaust their bankroll. The more bets a typical player is able to make on a game, the less volatile it is. You can visualize how volatility affects median spins by comparing the histograms below.

Left: Less volatile. Right: More volatile.

How to calculate median spins

Unfortunately for most games there’s no simple formula for determining median spins, but it’s easy enough to determine it via simulation.

  1. Start by running a full game simulation where a player starts with a bankroll of 50 times the cost to cover (for a 40 cent game this would be $20).
  2. Determine how many bets it takes for the players to exhaust their bankroll. For calculating median spins you can usually cap this metric at 1000 spins to save simulation time.
  3. Repeat this process X times, keeping a log of how many spins it took each player to exhaust their bankroll.
  4. Finally, calculate the median value from the data to determine median spins.

In my experience, if we start with a bankroll of 50 times the cost to cover, median spins of less than 100 could be considered a high volatility game, and median spins higher than 150 would be considered low volatility.

Average Spins?

In case you’re curious, average spins is an absolutely useless metric for measuring anything, except for maybe reverse engineering the RTP of a game. This is because the average number of spins is completely determined by the RTP of a game. Imagine the player has enough to cover a single bet on a game. On average how many spins will this single bet give you?

This is a geometric series with a known solution. From here we can just plug all the known values into the following formula.

If a player starts with a bankroll 50 times the cost to cover, and the game has a 90% payback, then on average they’ll get 500 spins out of the game regardless of the game’s volatility.

Assessing Fake News: An Information Theoretic Approach

In 1948 Claude Shannon published a landmark paper that gave rise to a new field of science: Information theory. A few years ago I also published my not-so groundbreaking post on how we can make inferences from biased sources of information. I’m going to follow up that post by assessing the quality of a news source by using one of the key insights of Shannon’s research.

Let’s say you have a random source of information. The probability that it outputs a given message x is given by p(x). Furthermore, let’s say we wish to construction a function, s(x), that indicates how surprising a given message is. How might you want to construct such a function? An intuitive approach might be to give a few constraints on things we want from s(x).

  1. s(x) decreases as p(x) increases. The more likely an event, the less surprsing it is.
  2. If p(x)=1, then s(x)=0. A event that is certain should yield no surprise.
  3. As p(x)\rightarrow0, then s(x)\rightarrow\infty. The surprise of an message knows no bounds.

One such function that satisfies these conditions is

s(x) = \log \frac{1}{p(x)}.

From here we can go a step further and measure the average surprise of a source (aka the Shannon Entropy) given by

H(X) = E[s(X)] = \sum p(x) \log \frac{1}{p(x)}

If we take this formula in its most literal sense it seems to reinforce our own intuitions about the quality of a news source. If a news source is always pro or anti one side or the other then it’s Shannon entropy is 0. i.e. There is no information to be gleaned from the signal. But if it occasionally surprises us then H(X)>0. In fact, H(X) reach its maximum when all messages are equally likely.

Do you buy this literal interpretation of Shannon’s equations? If not, do you think it can be adjusted somehow?

Investigating the Pareto Distribution

During my graduate degree program in Statistics I needed to know the ins and outs of many different probability distributions. This includes the normal, binomial, beta, gamma, exponential, and Poisson. Surprisingly I never ran into one of the most popular distributions in popular culture: the Pareto distribution.

You may have heard of the 80/20 rule? Most commonly you hear about 80% of the wealth is controlled by 20% of people. Maybe 99% of book sales are generated by 1% of authors? These numbers don’t need to add up to 100%. We could just as easily say 70% of productivity comes from 10% of workers, or 90% of your musical abilities is generated from 30% of your practice. But no matter how you slice it there’s a sense of skewness of how some percentage of input generates a disproportionate amount of output. My goal in this post is to mathematically describe how the Pareto distribution arises from simple assumptions, and how it captures this skewness phenomenon.

Let’s describe a real life property, such as a random individual’s age, via a random variable X. Assume X\sim Exponential(1). That is X follows an exponential distribution with PDF and CDF

f_X(x) = e^{-x} and F_X(x) = 1-e^{-x} for x\geq 0.

From here let’s assume that everyone’s income grows over time at a constant rate of return. Ignore units and just assume everyone starts life on equal footing with a net worth of 1. Then we’ll use Y=e^{\alpha x} to describe a random individual’s net worth, where \alpha is the rate of return. The CDF of Y is derived like so…

\begin{aligned} F_Y(y) &= P(Y<y) \\ &= P(e^{\alpha X} < y) \\ &= P(X < \frac{1}{\alpha} \ln y) \\ &= F_X\left(\frac{1}{\alpha} \ln y\right) \\ &= 1-\left(\frac{1}{y}\right)^{\frac{1}{\alpha}} \text{ for } y\geq 1. \end{aligned}

The PDF comes from taking the derivative of the CDF. We have…

f_X(x) = \frac{1}{\alpha} y^{-(1-\frac{1}{\alpha})} \text{ for } y\geq 1.

This is the Pareto distribution (typically parameterized to remove the reciprocal of \alpha).

Consider p=1-F_Y(y_0). This value tells us the proportion of the population that makes an income above y_0. A natural question to ask is how much wealth does this portion of the population control? To answer this question first let’s calculate the following quantities.

\begin{aligned} \text{Total Wealth} &= \int_1^\infty y f_Y(y) dy = \frac{1}{1-\alpha } \\  \text{Total Wealth Above } y_0 &= \int_{y_0}^\infty y f_Y(y) dy  = \frac{y_0^{1-\frac{1}{\alpha }}}{1-\alpha }\end{aligned}

Taking the ratio of the above terms we can define a new function, W(p), to get the proportion of wealth owned by the top p percentile of the population.

W(p) =y_0^{\frac{\alpha -1}{\alpha }} = p ^{1-\alpha}

where the following substitution is applied

y_0 = F_Y^{-1}(1-p) = p^{-\alpha}.

Now let’s consider finding a value \alpha that expresses the most popular form of the Pareto Principle, i.e. the 80/20 rule. Simply setting W(p) = \frac{4}{5} and p = \frac{1}{5} we solve and get \alpha =\log_5(4) \approx 0.8616.

In our every day world 86% may seem like an unrealistic rate of return, but keep in mind that we never gave units for our underlying distribution of age. If the units X are in decades and you assume a person lives only 10 years on average, then you achieve this same level of inequality with just a 9% annualized rate of return. Of course this model is highly simplified since human lifespans don’t follow an exponential distribution with a 10 year mean. Still, it speaks volumes to how inequality can arise from something as innocuous as age and a modest return on investment.

Oddly enough there’s nothing special about the Pareto distribution that is unique in capturing this sense of inequality. We could have used this same methodology for many distributions. A natural question then becomes how \alpha must change to capture the 80/20 rule when you assume a different underlying distribution for age besides the Exponential distribution.

Standard Deviation vs MAD

Standard deviation is the most commonly used metric for measuring the volatility, or spread, of data. Besides mean average, it is the most commonly used metric in data science to the point where we never stop to think about why it’s used.

The formula for standard deviation is given by:

\sigma = \sqrt{\frac{1}{N}\sum_{i=1}^N(x_i-\mu)^2} \text{, where } \mu = \frac{1}{N}\sum_{i=1}^N x_i.

Not the simplest formula, but it does its job in capturing how data deviates from its mean. Except there is a simpler, more intuitive formula available to us. This metric is called Mean Absolute Deviation (or MAD for short). The formula looks like this:

\text{MAD} = \frac{1}{N}\sum_{i=1}^N\left|x_i-\mu\right| .

If you want to know how spread out your data is, doesn’t it make more sense to find the mean, then take the average distance of all the data from that mean? I see no reason why not.

So why is standard deviation the industry standard for measuring spread? I think it’s partly an accident of history, and partly due to the fact that square functions are easier to work with in mathematics (and lead to nicer advanced results).

Compare the square function to the absolute value function below.

Calculus has no way of dealing with that sharp corner on the right.

Okay, so we can see that there are alternatives to standard deviation. What difference does it make when analyzing data?

The consequences of using a 2nd order (or higher) polynomial when measuring spread is that data points further from the mean are weighted higher. Consider the comparison of the two data sets below:


MAD is constant between the two, but standard deviation INCREASES if we included data points that are further out.

Is this good or bad? It just depends on what you’re looking for. Are you more interested in detecting possible outliers between two data sets? Use standard deviation. More interested in how the data deviates from the mean? Give MAD a try.