Why I can’t win from a claw machine (and neither can you)

claw-1

You’ve seen them. They are the cranes we use to try to snatch prizes, commonly referred to as claw machines. They are found in arcades, restaurants, and other establishments. Sometimes they have valuable prizes, and other times….not so much. In either case it is easy to get addicted to them. You throw money in the slot, try for that one prize you really want, then watch it slip out of the grip just before hitting the drop bin.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

In spite of your impressive claw management skills and hours of practice, sometimes it seems the claw machine simply won’t let you win. Rest assured it is not a lack of claw acumen on your part. Nor is it your overly vivid imagination. These machines are designed and programmed to give owners a chance to maximize profits.

Want to know what’s really going on? One only need look at the manuals for the claw machines, some of which are readily available online. For instance, you can find the operating manual for the Advanced Crane Machine made by Black Tie Toys on the Internet. If you look at page eight you’ll find an interesting section titled Claw Setting, with a subheading of Claw Strength:

 

claw-2

And thus it is that machine owners can program the claw in a manner whereas claw strength is sufficient enough to carry the prize for just a fraction of the trip to the drop box. Power to the claw is reduced after a specified time period, at which time the claw drops the prize (along with your hopes).

claw-3

It should be noted that some owners change the settings so the claw machine has full strength all the time. These individuals are known in the claw machine community as The Not-Cheap Bastards.

If it were only this simple. At this moment we could be satisfied knowing there are two settings and two types of machine owners. Alas….this is not the case.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit before automatically increasing the claw strength. This ensures players win only after the requisite amount of money is in the box:

claw-4

 

Hmmm….so now we have shades of cheap bastards, and I also have to somewhat, kinda, or maybe outright agree as to the value of this setting. If I owned the machines I would want to make sure I had profits balanced with payouts.

Aw crap. I’m turning into The Cheap Bastard.

Back to the story at hand while I readjust my self-perception – please continue reading while I rationalize for a bit.

During a trip to a local children’s arcade and pizza shop, the manager was more than happy to show me the settings. His claw machine was on the higher end of sophistication. It had the ability to program the value of the prize, and how much profit he wanted to make before the claw was provided with enough power to pick it up. However, it was more important to him that he give every child an opportunity to win a prize, and the claw machine was clearly set to full strength. He was candid, telling me the instructions (and limitations that could be imposed) were very clearly communicated when he purchased the claw machine. They were touted as product features (real ones, not like those obvious code bugs that will be fixed at some point in the future).

claw-5

I had similar experiences at a few other places where I found these claw machines and talked the person responsible for maintaining them. Even if the machines were not set to win every single time, it generally seemed you had a decent shot at winning – to include the ones with larger prize items.

I don’t know what the standard industry practice is with claw machine ownership. Learning what I did during this investigation does raise the possibility of, and certainly give the opportunity for, abuse in configuring these machines.

We also know that providing the ability to changes these settings this is a fairly standard practice across all manufactures of these types of machines. The following is a manual snippet from another manufacture.

claw-6

Phil Edwards from Vox.com wrote an excellent article that goes into the details of claw machines that provides an investigative expose that details findings similar to mine. It is an interesting read, and I recommend you give it a look: http://www.vox.com/2015/4/3/8339999/claw-machines-rigged

When I set out on this path to discovery, I suspected some claw machines were better than others. I didn’t expect to find the ability to completely control the game, and certainly not to the granularity that I uncovered. But then again, like any type of machine of this nature, you have to expect the odds to be in favor of the house. Otherwise they simply wouldn’t exist.

claw-7

So bottom line? I came away with 3 things as a result of what I found:

  1. I get it.
  2. They’re fun, so I’ll probably continue playing them.
  3. I’ll definitely know what patterns to look for in claw behavior.