Mobile poker is evolving by leaps and bounds. Once consisting of poorly-designed premium titles with limited monetization and no multiplayer gameplay, modern poker games are now online-enabled, Retina-ready, and can be found in the top-grossing charts for both Android and iOS.
Yes, mobile poker is “hot”–and new studios join the fray almost every month, flooding the market with “me-too” titles that often rely on licensed IP to differentiate themselves from the pack. We decided to take a different route with PlayScreen Poker, released in December 2011 and for its upcoming sequel, PlayScreen Poker 2. We wanted to take poker one step further–and like many other mobile studios, carve out a niche through innovation.
It helped that some of our principals grew up around poker tables and later worked on the first online poker games, which proved extremely valuable for development. Still, creating and launching a high-quality poker game on iOS is not for the faint of heart—especially when you’re competing with the likes of Zynga and its chart-topping Zynga Poker.
Lesson #1: Mobile poker is data-driven
Our plan was to start with a good set of features and then learn from the market. For example, we knew that an instance of a poker table takes up a significant amount of data. Shuffling the deck for thousands of poker tables could crash a conventional server. Some games use “scenarios,” a set of pre-shuffled decks to reduce the server load; this was unacceptable for us. We solved the problem by hosting the game architecture in the cloud. This allowed us to scale up and down based on the number of players and tables and to deal cards much the same way a casino would (i.e., shuffling the deck after each hand)—allowing us to create a realistic representation of Texas Hold ‘em Poker on mobile.
Lesson #2: Listen often and listen well
Getting the back end right is only half of the work. You need to listen to your players and, in the words of Guy Kawasaki, come up with features that enchant and engage players. One way to find out what features players are craving is to run in-game banners asking for feedback. Banners make it easy to opt-in and take a brief survey. Better yet, think about offering an incentive for taking part in the survey. We offered the first 20 participants iTunes gift cards, with great results.
The survey allows you to learn:
(a) How players heard about your game, which is gold for the marketing department; and
(b) Which features players would like to see implemented, which is essential for a successful sequel or update.
But sometimes a survey is not enough. You need to get in the trenches. We had directors and producers chat with players in-game, getting them to talk about their experience. One thing we quickly learned was that players were impressed, often blown away, that developers would interact with them and actually cared about what they thought.
Talking to players helps you rank how important some features are–or not. In our case, we found out that a new table selection process, faster load times, social features, and a new home screen were big “wants” for our players.
Players also wanted to replicate what they do in real life: play with friends, set up private tables, manage groups, and adjust play to meet their needs. We see this social aspect, the idea of taking on a poker persona, as a key trend in online poker. Building in-game wealth, and most importantly, being able to take charge of your own virtual life in a realistic way, were main takeaways from player feedback.
Once you collect a healthy amount of feedback from your players, it’s time to start working on an update or sequel. Superficial updates should be treated as basic title updates, while in-depth changes to gameplay deserve to be positioned as a sequel. Don’t short-change your game if you added a ton of features, new code, and new assets; the press might cover a sequel, but not a title update.
Lesson #3: It pays to watch Apple closely
We officially started work on the next version of PlayScreen Poker after the original game launched in December. We based the design off of feedback we collected from users. Being in the thick of the new iPad “rumor season,” we realized it would be worth our while to make sure the sequel was Retina-ready. It turned out to be the right move since launching any game today without support for high-resolution graphics is a surefire way to torpedo downloads and sales.
Based on clues in the development tools, we (correctly) guessed that the new iPad was going to support a display with twice the resolution. The resolution bump was relevant for a poker game in unsuspecting ways; it allowed us to add more information on-screen—a key commodity in poker.
Lesson #4: Allow players to “pay” without cash
In-game purchases, a key component of the freemium business model, has quickly become the standard in mobile and social gaming. However, it’s important to give players non-monetary ways to purchase in-game items. The studio will still make money, but players without access to funds or minors will now be able to fully enjoy the game.
The reality is that a majority of users simply don’t want to spend their own money on in-game purchases. In our case, the solution was to allow players to get free chips by watching a video ad or filling out a survey. We discovered this was a perfectly acceptable compromise.
We mentioned before that customization and the pursuit of “virtual” lifestyle are key trends in mobile poker. This is easier said than done. In our game, buying chips (or winning them at the table from opponents) allows players to take their chip count one step further. They now have the ability to build wealth and status—something most poker games fail to implement. In the original game, we noticed that players were buying wealth items—but we were sure that there was more we could be doing to increase the demand for specific items. One way to get this done was to create a calendar of events which includes; holidays, sports, even important TV show premieres/finales. With this list we are able to introduce, and feature, wealth items that are relevant to what’s going on in the “real world” for a few days at a time.
Building and selling in-game items is great, but you can’t forget tracking. Make sure to track how and when in-game items are purchased to evaluate and adjust each item based on its performance. For example, if an item does really well while it’s featured, you may want to make it available a little longer.
Lesson #5: If you build it, they may not come
Every mobile developer has gone through the experience of seeing great apps launch and fail to take off due to lack of marketing, so we decided to think differently and invest in marketing as early as possible.
We know from experience that incentive downloads may rocket you up the charts, but they also attract users outside your target market, who ruin the game for active players. Instead of casting a wide net, we focused on obtaining high quality users. One way of doing this was by promoting the PlayScreen Poker brand in places people may not be expecting to see mobile game ads—such as billboards and airports. Earning downloads this way gives us the high quality users the game needs to grow and prosper.
We came up with a number of different billboards with messages targeting specific audiences.
Billboard on the way back from Las Vegas, where gamblers often have to deal with stop-and-go traffic (I-15)
We also placed a big display in the departure terminal:
Sign at the gates in the Las Vegas airport, where travelers often have to wait hours for their (often delayed) flights.
Hopefully, the information in this article provided you with a deeper understanding of the intricacies associated with shipping a modern poker game–and a glimpse of its mobile, highly customizable future.
About William Volk
William Volk is the CCO of PlayScreen, LLC. He began his career in 1979, on the launch team of the computer game division of Avalon Hill, now a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. Volk also served as the Vice President of Technology at Activision, Inc. in the 1990s—where he was responsible for the development of the first CD-ROM entertainment project, The Manhole, and the tech behind The Return to Zork. To learn more about PlayScreen, please visit http://www.playscreen.com.