Readers. I am sorry. I have gone on and on about something very important to me and very important to the industry in entirely the wrong way. Please consider this the first entry in a series as my attempt at repenting myself.
The something is the future game development and gamification of online poker.
First, however, I want to explain myself. Because I have an awesome excuse for why I’ve struggled to communicate with clarity in the past.
I operate on instinct. When I get a whiff of something I don’t stay behind and research it first. I need to get my thoughts and my ideas on paper while influenced by as little existing knowledge as possible. It’s what frees me to think creatively about matters. But it also means that I struggle to apply the correct terminology when I venture into fields I don’t master. So the result often lacks a red thread and it initially fails to draw from the canvas of existing knowledge within the field I am exploring. It is first when I have published something and immediately realize that my words could be utter bollocks, meaningless and/or insulting to resident experts; that I turn to research to either back me up or throw me under the bus.
I have my share of tire marks. And I’ve definitely taken some short-cuts when addressing this topic in the past. It’s always an ongoing process for me.
And it is such an ongoing research process that has lead to my thoughts on the “gamification of poker”, as I have previously referred to my vision for the future, finally coming to rest. Thanks largely to a current war of understanding of what gamification is and how it can and should be applied between self-proclaimed gamification expert Gabe Zichermann and renowned UXD researcher Sebastian Deterding (Thanks to Simo Dragicevic for pointing out Sebastian’s review of Zicherman’s book to me). If you know about the engagement between the two and wonder whose side I’m on; my professional experiences and my personal sympathies are all behind Deterding. Gabe Zicherman, based on what I’ve been able to pick up from his co-authored book “Gamification by Design. Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps”, represents virtually everything that is wrong in our industry.
Previously I have been calling out for the industry to increase the gamification of our game. But I’ve also desperately urged the industry to not be inspired by SMG companies like Zynga when designing the online poker experience of the future. Now depending on how you view gamification, these statements might appear contradictory. I believe Mr Zichermann would see it this way since in his world Zynga must be masters of applying gamification principles. And I don’t think Mr Deterding would get what I mean either – for other reasons. To be honest, I’ve definitely been sloppy with terminology and confused myself. I mean, even the fact that gamification by definition is something applied to non-gaming activities in order to make them “playable”, makes my statement strange. But I’ve phrased it like this in order to emphasize the important difference between core game development and the development of peripheral experiences that are created on top of the underlying game mechanics. While well intended, I no longer think that is a valid way to phrase that differentiation. So I clearly need to rewrite my vision for the future of online poker. Otherwise I can never hope to see the benefits of gamification and modern game development science being reaped.
My goal is to try and bridge the gap between us in the online poker industry and those who are experts at making engaging games. Because we are not. By attempting to formulate our situation in their terminology and knowledge maybe I can facilitate the application of their expertise on our game. Because In that lies the future of online poker.
Back to basics
One of my main gripes with the online poker industry while being part of growing it up has been the decreasing respect shown to the game as a game. I hate that the game in the eyes of many decision makers have been reduced to nothing but an addictive and somewhat skill-based click-fest perfect for marketing the get-rich dream. Even representatives of those who like PKR have gone off on their own with valiant ambitions have stated that in all essence they regard online poker as a game of marketing. One power player I used to work with and otherwise respect deeply had the unpleasant view that online poker was merely a commodity and hence needed to be sold and marketed like petrol.
That is little different from saying that first person shooter games are commodities and need to be sold and marketed like petrol i.e. it’s all about pricing, loyalty programs, security, availability, branding etc.
Fun, apparently, has nothing to do with it.
Last night on Quadjacks Radio, Dutch Boyd, who I’ve pinned down as a guy with respectable industry instincts, mulled over the fact that poker is ”negative sum game”. I, and others with me, have been mulling over that for five years. Somehow the glorious lifestyles, the millions and millions in prize money, the sick stack games and the fairy tale Moneymaker stories still prevent people from facing reality:
Players in general don’t make money playing online poker. A vast majority can’t ever make money playing online poker. They’d probably stand a better chance at making money in World of Warcraft if they just had a lot of time on their hands and a sick trigger finger. The fact that the ability to make money is the predominant message in almost all marketing of online RMG (real money gaming) poker doesn’t change the fact that roughly nine out of ten players lose. I discussed this half a year ago in an opinion piece in Inside Poker Business.
The simple fact is that we’ve abandoned the intrinsic motivations for playing this great game in exchange for exploiting extrinsic motivation easily applied to the game. Mostly in the form of real money prizes. And in doing so, we’ve discarded one of the greatest opportunities to grow the game’s popularity and status in society. Until we come to peace with the fact that poker is a negative sum game (something basically any non-freebie games must – including most gambling games) by exploring the awesome game mechanics of poker to maximize intrinsic rewards, we’re stuck with building and selling an illusion based on extrinsic rewards.
The funnest game ever invented if you are a follower of the Zicherman school of thought (my comment). Borrowed from the Sebastian Deterding and inspired by Jakob Stjerning’s Progress Wars.
Here are some quotes from Sebastian Deterding’s review of Gabe Zichermann’s book that help explain what I mean:
“Intrinsic/extrinsic has nothing to do with “inside of me” versus “outside of me”. Rather, it refers to whether the motivation to do something is inherent in the activity itself, or whether we do something for a reason outside the activity. Intrinsically motivated are those activities we do for their own sake – dancing, cooking, playing, satisfying work, etc., whereas extrinsically motivated activities are those that we do for something else – to get paid, to avoid punishment or social pressure, to gain status, etc.”
”Hopscotch, Minesweeper, Scrabble, Sudoku, Risk, whatever – none of them feature nor require any rewards. Indeed, playing is one of the quintessential behaviors that got psychology to realise in the second half of the 20th century that there are things we enjoy doing for their own sake, without any reward or punishment attached – things that are intrinsically motivating.”
“…global surveys done by Monster.com, the Kelly Global Workforce Index and others show time and again that interesting, satisfying work and the personal aspiration to do a good job are the most important motivators at work, more important than salary or promotions (i.e. status in the organizational hierarchy). Sufficient and fair pay and promotions are ‘hygiene factors’ – we are greatly demotivated if they are missing. But they do little to actively motivate us beyond that.”
“We habitually overemphasize the importance of extrinsic incentives for other people (like salaries or promotions), since we can readily observe these incentives, but cannot ‘look inside the head’ of people to see what else drives them ‘inside’.”
So this is my first challenge to the online poker industry:
Make the game fun to play even if it is impossible for players to ever withdraw any money, feature on a leaderboard, win a badge or earn virtual points.
There. Now you’re working under the same conditions many game developers work under. And have succeeded under. If you don’t think you can, if you think the game mechanics (an important terminology discussed in a later post in the series) of online poker are less entertaining, less intricately exciting than those of Sudoku, Risk or Minesweeper, please leave the industry.
If not, you earn five points and an invitation to read the next entry in the series. Clues on where to find it will be revealed on my twitter, facebook and as a geocash treasure outside my garage…..