When Angry Anderson was screaming the chorus to We Can’t Be Beaten in the eighties, it isn’t too likely he was talking about having a flutter on the pokies.

But a couple of years ago, in a deal worth about $50,000, the Rose Tattoo front man allowed his name and iconic face to be slapped on a poker machine. And with odds of winning the top prize being somewhere in the vicinity of 1 in 9 million, it’s quite likely on this occasion punters will indeed be beaten.

While they may just look like pictures on a screen, as Crikey reported yesterday poker machine themes are a very important part in attracting punters to pubs and clubs around the country.

The big manufacturers know this, and are spending millions of dollars each year mastering their brands. And with pokies linked across the country, EGM manufacturers know which of their machines are underperforming and which have that magic appeal.

Australia’s largest maker of poker machines, Aristocrat Leisure, spends more than $100 million annually on its worldwide research and development — of which about half is spent on developing games.

The other big local players, International Gaming Technology (IGT), Ainsworth and Konami, also spend millions on R&D, with strength of game titles seen as a key indicator for potential investors. The result is a glittering array of new machines built to entice and entertain players for as long as possible.

Every year Aristocrat and its competitors take lots of new themes to EGM expos around the world, with the intent of testing the waters with club owners for the next big thing. More than 150 exhibitors attended last year’s Australasian Gaming Expo, where Nevada-based Bally Technologies launched its entry into the local market.

A big player on the Vegas Strip, Bally boasts the latest in EGM technology — including high-definition video, surround sound stereo and motion sensing capabilities.

But it’s not just pretty pictures where the tech battle is being fought. Aristocrat have started to hit back using movie and television official licensing in their themes, which has seen machines like Jaws, Sopranos and The Phantom being introduced onto the gaming floor.

Aristocrat are also the company who’ve commissioned a new game themed around Australian pub rock band Rose Tattoo, which features Angry Anderson (as well as the Eureka flag) as a jackpot logo.

But regardless of how successful Angry or HD technology is at bringing in punters, most new games are still being fashioned around the cartoonish themes that have been used in clubs for years.

A study by Gambling Research Australia last year found the most popular themes still centre around the established formulae of magic, luck and love. There is also a healthy fan base for ethnic-themed pokies (think The Golden Gong, Queen of the Nile and Indian Dreaming).

These findings are mirrored in the games offered by the big players. For all their bluster about improved gaming technology and superior title development, there is a very distinct pattern in what the big manufacturers think the punters want.

In its library, Ainsworth offers Peking Panda, Wolf King and Year Of The Ox, while IGT boasts Apache Valley, Dolphin Dreams and Flower of Mexico. Over at Konami it’s all about African Diamond, China Shores and Egyptian Sunset.

But a machine’s appeal only lasts for so long. Once a high performer in South Australia, Aristocrat started pulling its Indian Dreaming machine out of pubs and clubs in 2009 because it was failing to bring in the punters like it used to.

Pokies researcher Dr Charles Livingstone, from Monash University’s Department of Health Social Science, says a machine’s theme, while important, is only part of the overall appeal of the pokies experience. There is also the combination of bright lights, colours and noise — all of which impact on the conditioning of players to keep playing.

Ideas such as a “loss disguised as a win” — where a machine “goes off” despite paying out less than what the player bets — and the regular use of positive aural and visual reinforcements can also keep players on particular machines.

When kept in isolation a machine can be ineffectual, says Livingstone. But take this experience to a mega club such as  capital city casinos — where the drone is constant — and the sensation can become hypnotic.

“This is very attractive to some people — so attractive in fact that it has kept people at machines whilst their children die of heat exhaustion in the car, and regularly keeps people playing for long enough to go through their wages, their relationships, their homes, their employer’s money, their self-respect, and in some cases their lives,” Livingstone said.