A couple of weeks ago I was asked to comment on the state of mobile poker for a piece published in the latest issue of Mobile Intelligence. I highly recommend reading it.
It’s packed with insightful comments from people with far more influence and power than me and paints a comprehensive picture of the current mobile poker landscape.
In my answers to the great questions asked I pointed out that I think the industry would benefit from a holistic debate about mobile’s place in poker’s future. It’s ultimately a different discussion so none of that (for good reason) made it into the article.
Good thing I have this blog :-D

While I am first in line hailing any company willing to innovate in the poker space I do feel that the industry, in somewhat typical fashion, has rashly pivoted from a position of under-estimating the potential of mobile to a position of over-estimating that potential. Everyone is targeting mobile now.
And I think ”mobile first” strategies are a mistake. Here’s why.

 

IS POKER NATURALLY FIT FOR MOBILE?

Some types of games are entirely device and/or platform dependent. Triple A 3D games are still technically limited (yeah, I know) to high-end consoles. Some games rely on social networks’ sharing mechanics and payment services to function. Others (like Piano Tiles for example) are based on touch mechanics that don’t really translate to non-touch devices.

Poker is neither device nor platform dependent. But it does not belong to the Tetris club of games that can be developed for whatever without hassle either. Developing poker games for mobile poses a challenge.
What that challenge is depends on what you mean by ”mobile poker”. I struggled to answer several of the questions for the article because it is not obvious to me what people are actually referring to when they talk about ”mobile poker”.

“Mobile poker” can mean:

Playing poker on an iPhone (device centric)
Playing poker on a touch device (user experience centric)
Playing poker in on-the-go environments (usage centric)

A device centric strategy is very different from a usage centric one. So without clarity and specificity any strategy around ”mobile poker” runs the risk of being scattershot and un-focused. This is no difference than what has happened to strategies related to making online poker ”social” or cater to ”recreational players” or introduce ”gamification”.

Throughout my years as a consultant I’ve had dealings with many of the worlds leading online gaming companies. Whether they internally invest in figuring out what all of these terms mean to them and how they apply specifically to poker or just jump on the latest buzz word bandwagon is a great tell for whether they are ultimately successful or not.

Let’s review the three alternative listed above and exemplify the difference in innovation challenge that they present.

DEVICE CENTRIC
The user centric alternative to defining ”mobile poker” centers on the notion that you want your game to be sold, distributed and be accessible on the devices that your target demographic owns and use. And since real money poker sites are keen on shifting focus from hardcore to casual players (a group already targeted by social poker games), multi-purpose devices with massive install bases and widespread use like smartphones and (to a much lesser degree) tablets become everyone’s favorite channel through which to deliver poker experiences.

If you hold a device centric view you’re absolutely dedicated to making your game work optimally on smartphones. That’s where the install base is. But you’re likely going to have to make design and gameplay sacrifices in order to make it work. That, in turn, means that you risk distancing your innovative product from poker’s most devoted  players who closely match the overall gamer PC/console demographic and thus expect a level of gameplay depth, audiovisual experience and performance that you’ll struggle to serve on smartphones.

USER EXPERIENCE CENTRIC
A user experience centric definition of mobile poker hones in on the difference in method of interaction – touch, sweep and pivot mechanics instead of keyboard input and mouse movements. From a game design perspective touch interfaces provide an exciting opportunity to evolve the experience of playing games. Sometimes porting a mouse and keyboard based interface to touch is seen merely as tedious design challenge that needs to solved in order to make the mobile experience equal to the computer experience. But that is selling touch short. Touch-based devices can deliver experiences that transcend their mouse/keyboard counterparts even in games based on traditional gambling games.

If you’re user experience centrist then the tablet is naturally the device you design for. It is the penultimate touch device. Sure, it can’t match the processing power of a touch-enabled laptop but the latest generations of tablets are perfectly capable of delivering high-end sound and graphics. Se Vainglory for example.
Tablets are also metrics wise generally better gaming devices than smartphones. Better conversion rates, higher average revenues. But you’ll end up primarily targeting a smaller market.
Your user interface innovative game should obviously be perfectly portable to touch -based smartphones but the smaller screen and reduced computer power ultimately tends to make these games a lesser experience on smartphones.

Now in terms of the actual innovation, poker is unfortunately quite a static and inactive game. The interface required to play the game is very basic so injecting that user interface magic is not going to be easy regardless of device.

USAGE CENTRIC
A usage centric definition of mobile poker is based on the notion that the portability, ease-of-use nature and mobile network accessibility of certain multi-purpose devices enable games to deliver bursts of entertainment and relaxation to adults (handheld consoles have served kids’ needs) in environments and situations where adults have traditionally not  been gaming. While commuting. While on the toilet. While err.. walking.

If your approach to mobile is usage centric then you have to contend with the fact that poker is definitely not by nature a short-session game. It’s most often played as a multiplayer game which means you have to rely on others to want to play the same game you want to play. Luck obviously plays a significant role in the short-term and there is no guarantee that any of the cards you get early on are justifiably playable. A ten minute session may end up with you have done exactly nothing but pressing ”fold”.  Adding to that, as long as money on the line, connection reliability is of upmost importance. It’s definitely risky to design real money games for commuter play when you know that a single tunnel can hypothetically ruin everything for the player.

Are each of these issues solvable? Yes.
Are they hard to solve? Yes.
And that, really, is why our studio does not follow a ”mobile first” strategy. We find that a slightly different focus presents us with easier and more fun challenges to solve.
But rejecting a ”mobile first” strategy does not mean we don’t have one at all.
Based on the above considerations ours is very simple:”Design with tablets in mind and take it from there”.
Definitely not the best door opener yet but that’s something we hope to change.

 

THE ALTERNATIVES

So what is the alternative? If mobile, whatever your definition, isn’t your primary guiding light what should be? I can’t answer that. But I can provide some suggestions.

How about a ”monetization first” strategy? Closed markets. Grey markets. Expensive and creatively restraining regulated markets. These are all issues specific to a real money wagering business model. Social poker and casino games have long since proven the value of driving product innovation from a ”monetization first” perspective by venturing into the free-to-play / freemium space. Charging people for wagering their own money or or selling them fake chips aren’t exactly the only possible means to extract revenue from a poker game.

Another option is ”gameplay first”.  Like everything else, gameplay follow trends. Right now deck building mechanics are being implemented in basically everything. HoldemX is an example of a poker game adopting this trend.  Online battle arena games like League of Legends and first person shooter Overwatch cultivate a strong Champion / Hero based gaming experience. This is the bandwagon we’re joining with our poker game Hands of Victory. Gacha (part of the reason why Lottery Sit & Gos work so well) is another very successful mechanic right now.

If you go ”gameplay” first you are ultimately allowing yourself to fully experiment with a game that still tends to stays too true to its rich offline history and tradition. Your aim is to build the most entertaining and modern poker game you can and then you deal with the consequences.
Unplayable on smartphones (extreme example for the sake of it)? So be it.

A third option is ”security first”. Whatever we do we have to make sure the integrity of the game and the service provided is protected at all times. I’ll probably get fleeced for saying it but this has definitely not been the case throughout online poker’s decade long existence.

A fourth option is to make latching on to the biggest gaming trends of all – e-sports – your primary objective and make sure your products and innovations fit within the context of e-sports – be it related to streaming, broadcasting, betting, competing or making your game available via competitive gaming platforms.

For us it is natural to be ”gameplay first”. We believe that poker is a fundamentally brilliant game just waiting to be truly ushered into the the digital era by taking inspiration from other successful games. But all above avenues offer opportunities.

 

WHAT HAS WORKED SO FAR?

Mobile first. Mobile second. Really, as long as your company is devoted to innovating a limping vertical like poker I have your back. I hope and think poker on all widespread devices has a bright future. All I am intending with this blog is to  offer an alternative perspective and hopefully spur even more innovation – mobile specific or otherwise.

I’ll end with this: In my mind the most successful poker products to date on smartphones are Zynga Poker for mobile and Pokerstars Spin & Go app which is a mobile derivative of Winamax game innovation Expresso.
Neither was developed specifically for mobile. Both just happen to be products that for various reasons could be acceptably ported to smartphones. Would these innovations and products had seen the light of day if the companies responsible had had a mobile first strategy? And how have the products designed specifically and primarily for mobile fared in comparison?