Across the industry, established companies and startups alike are busy trying to figure out how to mitigate the risks associated with the millennial, gamer generation’s seemingly lacklustre appreciation of the conventional casino experience.
One suggested idea championed by me amongst others, is to bridge the gap between video games, esports and traditional poker. Doing so should raise the appeal of an experience that thanks to poker’s competitive nature, its place in culture and its social element naturally resonates with millennials to begin with.
And it might provide a much needed boost in interest among players from “older” generations as well.
Revenues from las Vegas poker rooms have dropped from roughly 170,000,000 in the peak year of 2007 to 117,000,000 now.
According to the great news resource legalonlinepokerreport.com, Severin Rasset, the Director of Poker Innovation and Operations at Stars Group, has stated that an internal survey conducted by PokerStars (the world’s largest online poker site by far) indicated 42 percent of lapsed poker players found the game of poker boring and not engaging.
The need to innovate is apparent. The millennial potential is, at least, interesting.
I believe the industry would be foolish to dismiss this opportunity. But it would be equally foolish to believe that there is one, simple solution for meeting this new, supposed, demand. For every League of Legends game there are five other MOBAs that didn’t make it. For every Candy Crush that are ten pick three games that never found an audience. The devil is in the details. Success in game development is a razor sharp edge.
The are several of these ”Poker with Powers” games that aim to evolve poker through the injection of game mechanics features found in other game genres and ramping up the audiovisual experience in order to craft products that cater better to the demands and desires of millennial gamers and disengaged older poker players alike already on the market or in production. There is Powerup Poker from Pokerstars and our game Hands of Victory. Playtrex has released Wild Poker in the appstore while the status of Mediarex’s HoldemX is unknown. Pipeworks’ Steam released Prominence Poker may fit the description as well.
Question is: are any of them hitting a winning formula?
To help you determine that I’ve put together a side-by-side comparison of two of these games: Powerup Poker and Hands of Victory.
The comparison is not about declaring one better than the other. It’s an exercise in illustrating the diversity in approach to meeting this new demand. It covers many of the design problems that have to be tackled and aims to showcase how small differences in game design can have huge implications on game experience, monetization, strategy and marketing.
I firmly believe there is a place for this new generation of poker games. And I think someone will discover a formula that works.
Bt I leave it to you to decide if any (or both) of these two will. All I hope to achieve with this multi-post series is to spark interest and prevent these innovative initiatives from being judged based on preconceived notions and/or surface-level analysis.
The devil. Is. In. The. Details.
Before we start, here is an intro video for those of you unfamiliar with Powerup Poker:
And here is a teaser video for Hands of Victory:
Powerup Poker is currently in and out of alpha trials in select markets.
Hands of Victory is about to end an extensive period of small-scale gameplay testing. It is scheduled to return for multiple devices and platforms later this fall.
THE POWER SYSTEMS
When setting out to craft a “Poker with Powers” game there are some obvious sources of inspiration.
Card battlers like Hearthstone is one. Multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs) another. And you obviously also draw storytelling, progression and character customisation inspiration from RPGs. You want to do a bit of world-building. You want players to be playing characters that somehow evolve and grow. Some basic poker rules may warrant experimentation. Altering poker’s natural skill/luck balance can fundamentally change the marketability and playability of the game. Competition features are likely also a natural component.
One thing you most definitely want to introduce is additional ways for players to impact and interact with an otherwise slow and passive game.
This is what I mean by “power system”.
Since both Powerup Poker and Hands of Victory are still in development I’m going to do my very best to avoid pointing out differences based on likely configurable specifics.
In Powerup Poker, players are dealt ”Power cards” from a secondary deck of cards. These power cards are hidden from other players’ view. In Hands of Victory, each player’s chosen character has learned a number of ”Abilities”. What those Abilities are is known to all other players. So in Hands of Victory you know your opponents’ full capacity at all times. In Powerup Poker you can only / or don’t have to (depending on how you see the difference) speculate as to what your opponent is capable of doing.
In Powerup Poker you are dealt three power cards out of total of nine at the start of the game. And if you use any cards during a hand you receive random new ones (currently one) before the next hand. In Hands of Victory, your chosen character starts the game with a specified number of abilities out of a total of roughly 15 per character. An Ability is never spent or replaced. It can be re-used as many times as the mana-system permits.
Both games utilise a mana-like system to control and limit the use of powers. In Powerup Poker players start with an ”energy” bank (I believe no official term has been revealed) that is partially replenished every hand. In Hands of Victory, you start with a character-specific amount of Cunning that you spend when you use abilities. To replenish it you have to earn various in-game achievements called Shark Awards.
There are powers in both games that basically mimic each other (but they still have contextually different impacts). And both games open up for the possibility of adding additional powers. So comparing the current impact of powers has to be done with restraint. But it’s clear to me that the two system are the creation of different underlying game design principles.
The Powerup Cards focus on improving your own cards, ruining your opponent’s potentially made hand and controlling the board. Their effects are limited to the ongoing hand and the way the powers combine seems primed towards forging an experience that makes every hand played and even each round of every hand a richer experience. The abilities in Hands of Victory are less disruptive in that they do not compromise the traditional structure of a poker hand as much.*
Many of the Abilities have a more limited impact on the current hand but are designed to create advantages over time as a tournament progresses. Information that can be used later is gathered. Opponent’s powers are weakened and things of that nature. Contrary to Powerup Poker’s hand/round focus, Hands of Victory’s power system is primarily designed to enrich the overall experience of playing a whole match/tournament.
*The fact that I use the phrase ” do not compromise” doesn’t mean it’s better. That depends on whether or not you think that structure ought to be altered.
In Powerup Poker you’ll be using those power cards frequently in an attempt to manipulate boards in your favour. In Hands of Victory, you likely use your Abilities less frequently. On the other hand you will be more frequently targeted by other player’s Abilities.
Pokerstars recently announced that they are working on introducing proper characters into Powerup Poker so some kind of customization functionality is likely to follow. Hands of Victory already has it in the form of the ability to create character builds. Certain powers are restricted to certain characters; some characters come pre-set with certain abilities and each one has a couple of free slots for general abilities. It’s not yet a system that manages to match the character flexibility of the MOBAs or RPG games of the world but it’s enough to talk about a character class system. Instead of Tank, Healer etc Hands of Victory opens up for classes like Mechanic and Stacker.
Powerup Poker’s nine power cards combine to create a frantic meta game. You will likely find yourself planning elaborate power combos based on your three active cards. Because you do no know your opponent’s powers you have to play cautiously and reactionary. A lot of tough snap-call decisions have to be made on the fly.
The power meta in Hands of Victory is slower and more calculated. Understanding the pros and cons of your ability build compared to your opponents’ and devising long-term offensive as well as defensive strategies as a result is key.
A certain amount of meta game trickery designed to lure your opponents to use their abilities at the wrong time is almost unavoidable.
I’m inclined to say that the Powerup cards have a more substantial overall impact on the game than Hands of Victory’s Abilities but I’m not sure.
Making that call requires a bette grasp of Game Theory than I have.
Either way they are most certainly different.
In part 2 I’ll dive into strategic depth, monetisation, progression, esports and more.
I happily respond to questions, comments, suggestions and criticism on twitter. You can find me at @infiniteedgekim.