Catering to the casual players? All hail the grinders!

Have you successfully turned your online poker business away from primarily pleasing greedy grinders and savvy highrollers? Have you fully embraced the casual player and begun to adapt your strategy accordingly? Have you recognized the flaws in the traditional rake/loyalty model adopted by online poker in the early days and invested in developing new pricing models? Are you reviewing your affiliate partnerships and finding the soar points? Have you read articles, blogs and tweets published throughout the years by people like myself, Bill Rini, and Yair Panet calling for a recreational player revolution and nodded in agreement?

Great. Fantastic. Splendid.
Let me ask you a question.
What you are you going to do next?

Your newfound love for the casual player is likely one borne out of necessity. Not desire. Your strategic shift is a reaction to the realization that your grinder dependent business is fundamentally flawed and that new market growth can’t counter the negative effects forever. No deposits, no action. Your conclusion is that you HAVE to appeal to the casual player. Not that you really WANT to appeal to the casual player. For good reasons.

You’re now targeting a category of players who are unlikely to consider your game their primary hobby. Their needs are oftentimes so basic that your innovations go over their heads. They’re less likely to open your e-mails and read your press releases. Time, not money, is often their hardest currency. When the urge to play surfaces, convenience, top of mind awareness and alluring prize pools tends to guide their trigger finger. A casual player’s wants, preferences, ambitions and motivations are not what your organisation has been set-up to handle. Your staff are ex players. Studying excel sheets and just concluding that casual players lose too fast isn’t going to cut it.

You have to wrestle with a complex matrix of life factors in order to increase a casual player’s game time to the point where additional deposits can come into question. And that is after you have after you’ve already slowed their pace of losing by thumb-screwing the grinders.
What can you possibly develop that will achieve this? And how can you cost-effectively market it?

I recently ran into this interview with Assassin’s Creed Unity game director Marc Albine. In it he says “… it’s harder to make games for casuals than for hardcore gamers and “… what the casual experience made me understand is that you need to understand your players… the game you are making is not for you; it’s for your players. So you need to understand your players and then you can make the game for them.”

It is frankly not surprising that no site so far has managed to truly capitalize on the casual player revolution. It. Is. Hard.
You are essentially betting on that moderate interest tends to generate tolerable and sustainable losses and that you can find a way to appeal to those moderately interested. That is one fine line to walk with an audience as hard to read as this one. Ask Zynga.

Right or left?

As I see it, poker is at a crossroads and sites have a very distinct choice to make.

Turn left and accept online poker as a digital must-have version of a classic casino game. Make it as accessible and easy-to-use as possible, package it in a traditional style and deliver it in a cost conscious manner. Lose the bells and whistles. Simplify everything. Raise the rake. Spend on big drives and campaigns instead of advanced feature sets and intricate grind initiatives.
Make your site a pick-up-and-play haven for your casual poker customers and rely on that fact alone to attract outside core traffic as well – which it can.
Improve fundamentals through streamlined operations, higher margins and cost savings.

Or, turn right and rethink your approach to grinders.
Don’t actively forsake the fanatic, purge the passionate and discard the dedicated. Build for them. Core players fill your tournaments and grow your prize pools. Core players’ profound interest in the game justifies poker being broadcasted on television. Core players read the magazines. Core players keep your tables busy. And most importantly, core players talk about you and spread the word to the casual players.
These are the players who make the game of online poker into something other than a slots game. Something bigger than roulette.

The monotonous large-scale application of tight ABC poker that provides little entertainment, no social engagement and a such a bottom line headache for you is your construction. Not theirs. You made them a problem.
To the most part, players have played by the rules under the conditions sanctioned by the sites. Their strong and instinctive desire to achieve has naturally guided them to the shortest path to the finish line – regardless of whether or not it is the most fun path or the most profitable path for you. Your rules. Your conditions.
Many (definitely not all) hardcore grinders would love to consume online poker in a more entertaining, engaging and less predatory and exploitative fashion. Player vs. player. Cards vs. cards. Your wits against mine. Your reads against mine. Your luck against mine. But you have to make that possible.

Poker as such is not a solved game of course. But online, under the current play conditions, it pretty much is. To break the status quo, the path to success for core players must be altered. You have to come up with new play conditions, craft new win conditions, create new challenges, and place new obstacles between the players and their end-goal so that a new grind emerges. A more player ecology friendly grind for sure, but mostly importantly something that throws hardcore players back in the starting blocks.
As long as the game can realistically be beat, the hardcore player base will have a go at beating it. And they will fork up those deposits in the process. This is where decades of game and progression design comes into play and where the power of game content and context becomes apparent. We haven’t creatively explored what the digital medium enables. Viewed through a PC or console game lens, online poker is thoroughly under-developed.
Tear the game up by its roots and apply what others have successfully applied to hundreds of games before and a truly genre-crossing core player experience can emerge. There are so many fun gameplay features, modes, progression mechanics, game context components and storytelling opportunities that can be integrated into online poker to create refreshing hardcore poker experience.  And that resulting play experience might even generate enough buzz to also make it the logical (new!) home of the oh-so- important day-fly recreational players.

Personally, I find both alternatives equally intriguing.
For Hands of Triumph, the poker game concept we’re working on, we are choosing the latter approach. You can read more about how I approach the fact that we’re making the game more complex here.
As an external consultant I spend most of my time working on the former.
Most of the key players in the space have begun the arduous process of steering their poker business in a new direction. The last year has seen a stream of promising releases. From Spin & win games, to Casual Cash Games, to new, more casual player software and more engaging progression mechanics to strides taken in poker app development. But I still sense a hesitancy. A reluctance to let go and fully commit.
Hence the inspiration for this blog.
The middle-road has no winners.
Left or Right?
The players are waiting, money in hand.