The first part of this series contained a confession, a mission statement, a declaration of allegiance and a challenge to the online poker industry.

If you haven’t read it yet [intlink id=”1255″ type=”post”]do that first. [/intlink]

Done? Great.

In part two I’ll continue where I left off – with online poker stripped of everything but the basic game and gambling mechanics that make it what it is. By discussing various key components and aspects of game design from the perspective of online poker, the aim is to dress it back up in a costume better tailored to the needs of the future gamer. And gambler.

But first I need to return to the concept of gamification. While this series is an attempt of sorts to denounce that concept, it’s vital to point out that I am not denouncing the practices that leading gamification advocates are riding high on and are making the business world buzz with excitement. Leaderboards, points, badges, virtual prizes. These all useful tools to increase customer engagement and lifetime value – if you understand their role in the wider context of game design. And that is the big if. The online poker industry is living proof of what happens when one thinks that reward mechanisms (like putting real money on the table) can generate player experiences that boost bottom lines eternally without being coupled with, supported or naturally evolved from underlying fun and intrinsically rewarding gameplay. If you hand out virtual trophies for banging one’s head against the wall, few will deny it makes the act of wall-banging one’s head more attractive. But people will still stop doing it. Or die and be of no business value to you anyway.

This detached view on game design is what allows gamification advocates to proclaim that virtually anything can (and should) be gamified (by them). And it’s the same mentality that has lead online poker astray for the last three years or so (before then we could do whatever and still make money).
So when I hear whispers of certain gamification experts attracting the attention of people in charge of dominant card rooms, I fear old mistakes will be remade under this new cool and trendy banner.
That’s why I’m framing this entire series within a de-Gamification context.

Leaderboards, badges, points and virtual goods all play important roles in the online poker experience of the future. But in order to maximize their potential, we need to (re)model the game bottom up.

To learn more about this detachment between gameplay and gamification an its ramifications, spend ten minutes on this beautiful presentation from last year created by Sebastian Deterding (dingstweets).

“Pawned Gamification and its Discontents”


What’s the point?

Goals are key components of games. They give games purpose.  My personal belief – and now I’m going slightly off-topic and out on a limb thinner than the arm of an anorectic Flatlander – is that many modern game designers overemphasize the need for goals to be clear to players. However, games must always be designed with clear goals for players in mind. As primarily an inquisitive adventure gamer with a soft spot for storytelling, I like my goals hazy – at first. Step-by-step guided questing is not my thing, but even if you as a game designer decide to muddle the player’s goals in order to make the discovery of them part of the challenge, the designer must always know so he or she can steer players in the right direction and give them the tools needed to find their way if they get lost.

Tell me this, what is the over-arching goal of playing online poker?

Simple question with answers that do a fine job of revealing the game design dysfunctionality inherent in most renditions of online real money poker today.

  • Poker takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. The goal is to master it!

Good answer. An answer that capitalizes on the game’s most core strengths – complexity and fickleness –  and it segueways nicely into the next important game design element – namely Mastery (part 3). Let’s save and continue later. For this answer requires a follow-up question:

How then, is this mastery to be measured?  Save again. Different slot.

  • The object of playing online poker is to make da moniez!

Another great answer. It is a gambling game after all. As proven by many other gambling games that lack the depth of poker, this goal is tremendously strong and the envy of other great games eager to offer it but unable to find ways to monetize it.

  • You can learn mental and mathematical skills!

While I’m sure we in the industry could argue until Phil Hellmuth wins the elusive bracelet exactly how many skills you can actually develop from playing online poker beyond rapid eye/hand coordination, I think few would argue that there are none. Anger management, probability, patience, attention to detail, human psychology and risk management are some of the skills I feel I’ve had the opportunity to learn from playing online poker. That I have let most of those opportunities fly by strapped to a lunar rocket is a different matter entirely.

  • Relaxation

An often underestimated goal for games. While seldom (if ever – interesting concept) the direct goal of a game, there are many games that people play with the primary intent of taking their minds off of life. It genuinely doesn’t really matter what the result is. And poker, being a social and reasonably slow game, is perfect for filling that role. Play some cards. Talk some trash. Move some money back and forth.

OK. That’s four realistic and suitable goals for poker players to potentially pursue.
Question is how well we who supply the game have designed it to optimize the fun, entertainment and reward of pursuing  them.

Because we’re in the online gambling industry (although we call it e-gaming to make it sound better), and despite the fact that our game could be crafted around any or all four of these main objectives, we’ve designed the game for purpose number two using some of the others only as supporting cast.

The result is a mess.

Time to reload those saves we made earlier.

  • The object of playing online poker is to make da moniez!

Imagine Blizzard outlining the goal of playing World of Warcraft as follows:

  • To be one of the first 1000 players to reach level 90.

What the hell are the rest supposed to aim for?

While the winners/losers ratio in online poker can be tweaked and theoretically hit an equilibrium where no one does either; not everyone can win. It’s difficult to come up with scenarios where the majority is winning (the so-called Beal dilemma) – just like in any other gambling games. Nothing strange here though. You can monetize this. You can advertise it. No problem. People are accustomed to the idea of taking mathematically unsound punts.

The problem arises when it is not this we sell. It is mastery we sell. Because that aspect is what separates online poker from them lotteries and slot machines. It makes great ads etc.
I linked to an opinion piece I wrote last winter on the topic in the first part, and I don’t mind doing it again. Now, however, I intend expand the argument.

Combine the two game goals, Mastery and Making Money, blend and pour and we end up with:

  • Master the game and make da moniez!

Perfect. A much stronger game right there – until you remember that bit about mastery in poker being relative and taking a lifeteime to achieve. Hence the follow-up question: How is mastery in this game to be measured so that I as a player can experience growth and accomplishment?

Luckily, Anthony Holden has provided the entire industry with the answer:

“Poker may be a branch of psychological warfare, an art form or indeed a way of life – but it is also merely a game, in which money is simply the means of keeping score.”

So we simply flip the goals of the game:

  • Make da moniez and thus master the game!

We’re all set then! Right?

Let me ask you online poker players and industry experts out there:

Given poker’s potential as a mainstream game and the realistic level of dedication one can expect from the mainstream crowd, how smart is it to measure mastery by profit?

The equation is simple.The majority of players can’t profit. Ergo, the majority cannot master the game. And it gets even worse. Given poker’s fickle, unjust nature,  the following statement is true:

A minority of players who are masters of the game will be unlucky and not profit. So they will not be perceived or credited by the game for their mastery – unless, of course, mastery is defined as being unlucky which negates the original intent of bringing mastery into the equation..

If any real game developers out there read this; how well would that sit in your studios?

It’s like a Scrabble game penalizing particularly clever words and allowing words that are made up. Slartibartifism for 903 points thank you very much!

If we like the genuine and fantastic mastery element of poker then Make. It. Work! For everyone!

I’m a 34 years old freelancer/ consultant spending 120% of my time working for free in order try and get 100% of paid work. I haven’t completed a game since I don’t know when (I did finish Kid Icarus) and I can’t coordinate mouse clicks very well. Still, if I were to sign-up for World of Warcraft tomorrow, Blizzard would have realistic goals staked out for me and my character Balszac the Unlucky.

What do we have in store when I sign-up to play poker? We have failure lined up ready to go!

We’ve not thought this through. We’ve rejoiced at the fact that our gambling game carries traits of normal games. But we’ve failed to deal with the consequences and take advantage of the opportunities.

Please press… play?

The lack of goal-focused game design is apparent everywhere in online poker. I once asked my mother to sign-up for a renowned poker site (not UB to avoid misunderstandings given on of the chosen screenshots)  just to get an outside perspective on the process. To my surprise she skated through sign-up forms and software installation thanks to all the colorful directions. SIGN-UP HERE! DOWNLOAD SOFTWARE! She even caught that while she visited a web site in order to play, it was only through external software she could reach the game.

The problems surfaced when she’d filled in here newly created log-in details and faced the lobby. She stared at it for a while then she asked the fantastic question: “Where’s the play button?”

Now, the industry has seen significant GUI improvements overall these last years, thanks to features like quick seating, customizable lobbies and many more, but I’ll argue that these improvements have come about for the wrong reasons. They’ve come about because usability and user experience experts have had a look and been forced to visit a hospital afterwards. It’s not because a producer somewhere responsible for the play experience has had the power to dictate what options they players should be presented with given who they are and based on the goals of the game the producer has devised. I doubt there are many people in such a position with enough power. I tried to be one of sorts once. Great fun. On paper. My requests were no match for an Affiliate Manager shipping another rakeback deal though. To be fair, it seems like this is changing. My heart has rejoiced at seeing some outside-the-box job listings lately.

Right move. “Wrong” motvation.

When players arrive to play our game, we spread our legs. Welcome to the online poker room. You can choose, this, that, there, this, and that, and this here, and why not this ruleset, and that betting structure, or this stake, or that Sit & Go, and look at this offering of scheduled tournaments!

We kindly ask the players to choose, because we don’t have a clue what to tell them. We don’t have a game plan. It’s like the designers of a Mario Bros game making levels without an overall plan of progression and just letting players randomly select which level to start playing.

Before you get to eat that first acid mushroom you’re stomped to death by a Bowser on steroids who can only be beaten by using a hammer thingy the designer of this level is praying that some other level designer remembered to include in their level. Wherever that level is.

We’re extremely occupied with lifetime revenue numbers and optimizing retention budgets. But we simply seem to forget that somewhere beneath all the huge prize pools, the bonuses, the big cash games and the $5 Sit & Gos, the game has to make sense on its own. It has to provide players with a sense of purpose and with feedback mechanisms that in an interesting gameplay based fashion let them experience progress and success.

Dear Anthony Holden, I hereby banish that bastardly quote of yours to the bottom of the deck. And I challenge everyone to rewrite the quote or come up with a new one that better represents the game aspect of poker and the role of money in it. That, reader, is your goal while I ponder on the next part in the series. I don’t know which one it will be  though since they are all being written by myselfs in parallel time space continuums and the other me’s don’t see the need for a producer….. :-/