Sound is a seldom talked about topic in online poker. I think its value in terms of creating immersion and heightening experiences already generated in the game is highly underrated. So I want to dedicate this post to the topic.

I think few people would question the importance of sound and music in video games. Everything from the 8 bit Super Mario theme to epic scores like this personal favorite of mine from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker which gives Hans Zimmer a run for his money.



Sound or sound effects are often less memorable (or easy to remember anyway) but I think any avid gamer, given some time to think, can come up with their favorite sounding weapon, enemy or in-game sound. Playing the Super Mario without the classic “Katching” every time your head-butt a brick and get a coin, just wouldn’t be the same.

In online poker, sound is mostly something that is turned off.
I think it needs to be turned back on again. Music and sound are vital tools to create immersion, help players and set the mood in games. And the fact that online poker happens to be a multi-player game doesn’t change this. Last time I checked, World of Warcraft was not a mute game. By not taking full advantage of sound and music we’re failing to make the player experience as pleasurable as it could be.

Within e-gaming the use of sound is mostly associated with Slots. I attended the ICE Totally Gaming fair in London a couple of weeks ago and Slots makers sure know how to incorporate content and sound into their machines. I can’t pass through a Vegas casino without being drawn towards the WGS Top Gun slot machine with 3d surround sound incorporated into the seat.

To understand why most online poker providers I frequent fail to utilize sound to its full capacity, I think it is necessary to do a bit of analysis as to the various roles in a game sound can fill. I tried to find some good articles that would enable me to build upon terminology and theories already established by the video games industry, but I didn’t find it fast enough, so I cooked up something myself.

THE NINE “I” OF SOUND IN POKER


Instructive, informative, immersive, impressive, invigorative, inspiring, inviting, intimating and identifying.

If any of these words is something you think your game needs, sound can help you. One reason why sound has not impressed players so far is because I think a lot of software makers are simply not aiming much further than the two first I’s.

Decks shuffling. Cards being dealt. Your turn being announced. Tournament starting. Player making a bet. All these are informative or instructive sounds. They are there to assist the player in playing the game. Much like the sound of a gun clicking in an FPS cues the player to the fact that he’s out of ammo.
Then there are even more basic sounds in place simply to help the player handle the interface like sounds representing different clicks and sounds providing telling you if you’re doing something wrong.

I know online poker software developers who’ve gone to great strides to get their instructive and informative sounds right.  I can’t judge the quality, but I’m sure it’s done superbly in places. 
But most instructive and informative sounds are “just” providing audio clues as supplements to visual cues. They don’t add anything. I know a new hand has started, because I can see the cards being dealt. I know it is my turn because my avatar is flashing brightly red. Add to that the complexity of multi tabling and the need for players to be selective about the information they have to process and off go the sounds.

What I’d like to see more of, is sounds that focus on the other I’s. Sound whose function it is to supplement other visual experiences than just informative and instructive ones and, even better, add value that is difficult to add through graphics and animation.

I think video game designers have long ago realized that a massive battle cry can be more effective and cheaper method of relaying the size of an army than animating and showing the army. We should follow suit. Granted, some have already. This is not intended  as a complaint post as much as it is intended to hopefully inspire. Inspire those who’ve never given sound a second thought aswell as those who already actively invest into sounds beyond the basics. Here are some random thoughts on what online poker could sound like.

THE OMAHA THEME

1. What is the ambiance of your room for and is that reflected in any way through sound?  It could be inspired by a crowded casino or by a carnival full of laughter. It could be a tailored to reflect the values of your brand or simply to inspire players to achieve great deeds at the table.

2. Poker can become dull and very mechanic. Fold, fold, fold, call, miss, fold, raise, collect, fold. Sound can help spark some life into long sessions. Let some hole card combinations have their unique sound bites.  Bring life to tournaments by announcing things like change in chip leads, fields reaching certain marks, increase in average chip stacks etcetera. Information a lot of players don’t look for all the time but adds a bit of excitement and life. Speaking of life, if Sit coms can fake the sound of laughing crowds why can’t online poker use such sounds as well? To be used sparsely obviously.  Most online rooms are vibrant digital worlds with thousands of inhabitants. But they certainly don’t sound like it.

3. A primary goal for game designers is to find ways to inspire players to keep playing even though they might be losing. Audio- visual rewards are key to achieving this. Every time I do something good in the game – even though it doesn’t lead to me winning a pot – reward me. Visually and with the help of sounds. A moment like surviving the bubble in a tournament is a perfect example. Or flopping the absolute nuts in a cash game.
Same goes for moments when I win. Celebrate me damnit! Blow the trumpets! If there’s any time in a session of poker where a regular player is attentive and willing to listen, it’s when he’s just won a damn pot.

4. Sometimes it is also, I think, important to remember that the GUI can be designed to be a part of creating immersion in a game. You see that in poker for example when the clock is running out. Buttons begin to flash, things change color. The intensity of the moment is reflected back into the GUI. Add a rampant pulse beat to that and you’ve tripled the effect.
Making big bets can be stressful. Link the bet slider and different sized bets to sounds that reflect the importance of the move you’re about to make.  Been put all-in? Cue drama music.

5. Personalize it. I get to choose the own ring tone on my phone. I want to choose my own celebration tune when I ship a pot. Maybe I also want a catch-phrase for when I put people all-in. 3d poker suppliers have done a lot to try and replicate the body-language game of offline play. Like the battle cry example, I think this would be so much easier to do with sound.

6. I also think some events should have their own tunes. More and more brands are expanding the identity of their brands by adding sound logos. The Intel sound bite is a good example. In online poker there are events where more prize money than in most sporting events is up for grabs. But do they have sound profiles or theme songs? No.
Maybe Omaha should have a different signature sound than Texas. One that reflects the more gung-ho style of play often experienced  when playing Omaha and that people can be triggered by.
Imagine sitting down and profiling the different forms of poker through sound… what does Heads-up sound like to you?

Obviously it is a challenge for game designers to design sound under the condition that players might multi-table. I’m of the opinion that GUI’s haven’t adapted to that fact yet, so maybe it’s a bit rich to expect sound development to move faster, but it shouldnät be that big of a problem since it’s not frequent, instructive sounds we’re talking about. And the multi-tablers are certainly not in majority anyway.

Some players will always want to turn certain sounds off regardless of how well designed they are. But you haven’t succeeded in implementing sound into your game until they also can’t wait to hear the sounds they didn’t turn off. Or when they decide that the supplementing sound actually makes the visual cue unnecessary and turns that off instead.

I read a fact somewhere that up to 20% of a Hollywood movie’s budget goes into music and sound effects. For video games the comparative figure was 2-3%. But that was couple of years ago.
What would the figure be for the average online poker software development company?

Every game ever designed with the capacity to utilize sound has had the chance to be a better game because of it. Online poker is not different regardless of how many grinders have found the sounds annoying and shut them off.

What would your tailored all-in sound bite be?

An ambulance? A movie quote? The first five seconds of the Terminator 2 theme?