Life

Arcade Experts Tell Us Why We Never Win Toys in Claw Machines

Behind the lovable plushies is a zero-sum game that spares no one.
April 21, 2021, 11:26am
how claw machines and toy catchers at arcades work
Collage: VICE / Images: Koh Ewe

In arcades, claw machines are crowd magnets. And understandably so. Most people have a soft spot for adorable plushies perched in well-lit boxes, just begging to be taken home — like this one kid who decided to crawl into a claw machine to take matters into his own hands. Many also love the thrill of knowing that the toy of their choice could fall into their hands (or out of it) with one skillful move. But whenever it seems like the prize is sitting precariously close to the chute — just one solid grab away from being yours forever — the claw drops the damn toy. This happens again and again, until you’re out of patience or out of coins, or both.

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How exactly do these insidious machines fuck with our deepest desires and sense of self-worth? I spoke with toy-catching experts and claw machine owners to find out. 

Here’s the big question: Are claw machines rigged?

“Hell yeah!” said Umehara Keiji, a Singapore-based content creator who documents his frequent trips to the arcade on his YouTube channel. “Claw machines are 100 percent rigged in the arcades.” 

To be clear, we’re defining “rigged” as claw machines having certain features that make it intentionally harder for players to win.

According to Umehara, who briefly owned a claw machine while collaborating on a project with a local arcade, the settings of most claw machines are “very very detailed.” 

“You can really configure everything to make it more enticing for people,” he said. 

how claw machines and toy catchers at arcades work

Photo: Koh Ewe

For example, owners can vary the claw strength for when the claw goes up, down, or back above the chute. This makes people feel like they’re on the verge of winning when the toy is close to the chute. But of course, the claw strength would be “crap at that moment,” Umehara said.

“That is the dark truth about claw machines,” quipped Umehara, who also calls himself the Arcade Ninja.

Meanwhile, another Singapore-based toy catcher known as Claw Coach pointed out another insidious function of claw machines — predetermined win rates or “payouts.”

“They are meant to be programmed such that the cost price of the prizes are fulfilled before issuing a payout,” he said. 

For example, if the prize costs $10 and the claw machine charges $1 per try, arcade owners can program the machine to pay out once every 15th try. This means that some lucky people would get to maneuver the claw during a payout round, when the claw strength is kept strong enough to drop the prize right into the chute.

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Rey Chua, an events manager at a Singapore-based claw machine rental company, told VICE that while there are different types of claw machines, they all pretty much work the same way. “Whereby the claw only [catches] tightly part of the time and not all the time,” he said.

“There [is] some element of skill and luck involved,” Chua said, adding that the difficulty of winning a prize would depend on the requirements of their renters.

how claw machines and toy catchers at arcades work

Photo: Carnival World

An events organizer at another claw machine rental company who goes by the name Jayden said that “the difficulty level [depends] on the prizes in the claw machines.” But he also noted that he “can’t reveal much” because he did not want to “spoil [his] rice bowl.”

While the claw machine owners remain understandably tight-lipped, the instruction manuals of claw machines pretty much bare it all.

For example, the one for Telephone Crane, a phone booth-shaped claw machine, explains that the machine’s claw strength is determined by two potentiometers that can change the voltage level going to the claw coil. One of the potentiometers controls the claw strength as the claw retracts upwards to the carriage (usually after picking up a prize); the other controls the claw strength while it is traveling, with or without the prize, to the chute. 

The variation in these two claw strength settings may explain why toys sometimes get picked up in a seemingly firm grip only to fall when it’s painfully close to the chute. This is also the reason people can’t stop playing.

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The fact that the machine “always seems to miss a little bit” when getting the prize “will trigger you to try your luck again and again,” said Jayden.

how claw machines and toy catchers at arcades work

Photo: Koh Ewe

Different claw machines have different ways to vary claw strength. The one examined in a 2015 Vox article has three types of claw strength settings, depending on the claw’s moving direction. The machine owner can also decide on their “profit rate,” which in turn determines the frequency of the claw grabbing prizes at full strength, allowing players to win easily.

Then, the question may really be about which claw machines are more rigged (have a lower payout rate) than others. But the answer isn’t quite so straightforward.

“The characteristics of claw machines differ from brand to brand, arcade to arcade. And even within the same arcade, there can be similar looking machines with different settings,” said Claw Coach. 

The settings that differentiate claw machines can range from predetermined payout rates to claw strength, claw release characteristics, and claw movement speed.

Where you play matters too. According to Umehara, his win rate is significantly higher in Japanese arcades compared to Singaporean ones. In Japan, “they kind of want you to win,” he said, pointing to an “environment” where machine owners are happy for customers to succeed. He said that arcades in Singapore, on the other hand, are “a bit more money-minded.”

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Some arcade enthusiasts also told us that claw machines with big-ticket items, like iPhones or Nintendo Switches, are usually much harder to win. 

“You've got a better chance at winning a stuffed bear than an Xbox,” said Erik Kane, an American YouTuber who runs the channel Arcade Warrior.

But how do you beat a claw machine?

So now you know how claw machines work. But that probably won’t stop you from taking a shot at the next flashy toy catcher you see. If you’re going to play, how can you maximize your chances of winning?

Claw Coach talked about the handy “double-tap” technique that most people don’t know about. After tapping the button once to drop the claw, try tapping the button a second time when it is right above the prize. This would allow the claw to move into the “ideal position” to grab the prize.

Kane recommends assessing the claw from different angles. “Most people view the crane machine from the [front] only. When you're lining up the claw with a prize, [peek] around the side of the machine to see if you've hovered properly over the prize,” he said. “It sounds simple but I've noticed so many people not lining up the claw properly because they only view the crane from the front and not the side.”

He added that it’s also important to observe when other people are playing. 

“Watch to see how the claw is operating. Does it have a strong grab? Are the prongs closing all the way?”

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Umehara had similar advice. Since different claw machines would require different strategies to win, as a rule of thumb, “watch other people play first, let them lose their money, and once you know the strategy … you come in for the kill.” 

It appears that, in sharp contrast with the box-load of wholesome plushies it contains, the claw machine is really a cut-throat zero-sum game.

So, how do you make peace with the claw?

Having gotten all the tips I needed from the claw machine experts, I spent a weekend afternoon at the arcade putting my newfound knowledge to use. From the first round, I was instantly sucked into the addictive but incredibly frustrating world of the claw machine. What followed was 20 failed attempts at pushing the cursed toy into the chute, losing my temper at the adorable money trap, and spending way more than I had intended. Oops. Rookie mistake.

how claw machines and toy catchers at arcades work

Me at the claw machine. See how close I got? Photo: Koh Ewe

Claw Coach offered a useful tip to cut your losses: “Before inserting my first coin [I] usually ask myself how much [I’m] willing to spend trying for the prize. …With that, I'll give that machine two tries. ...If the grip is so soft such that it can't shift the prize much, I [won’t] continue.” 

Turns out, learning to enjoy the claw machine without letting the claw control you is a practice that takes a lot of zen.

“If you want to play with the claw machine, just play to have fun,” said Umehara. “Go in with the mindset of ‘Hey, [even] if I lose, I had fun.’”

“The claw machine is infamous, and will always be one of the more popular choices for arcades to have. It's loved and hated, mainly because it's a game of skill, and sometimes chance,” said Kane. “You have to know when to walk away sometimes, because you can't always win.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.