Fearing the complex

”But Kim, why are you guys making the game more complex? For years you’ve been telling us that we need to cater more to recreational players. Surely making poker even more complicated will have the opposite effect?”

This is a reaction we will likely face as we make the first real rounds of introduction of the competitive free-to-play poker game I’m the lead designer of. In the wake of what I have preaching since this blog saw the light of day, passionately arguing for why our game, which radically increases the strategic depth of poker, is an awesometastic idea that they should back may seem like a turncoat move.
But it isn’t. So to precede the raised eyebrows, I felt it might be wise to explain myself in advance.

A summary of the underlying argument of why making poker more complicated is a bad idea goes something like this:

It is vital to optimize player demographics and nurture the recreational players who are the life blood of any real money (RMG) online poker room. They need a game based on their motivations for playing and a high level of entertainment.Managing the skill gap (the difference in skill between players) can increase the efficiency of the rake machinery and decrease recreational players’ sense and experience of loss. The more complicated the game is, the more it might turn off recreational players and the more difficult it is, the more these players will lose.

The effect of reducing the skill gap can be split into two money making effects. One, by leveling the playing field it increases efficiency of the rake engine. Every deposited dollar will be turned over longer. Two, by reducing loss-induced churn. Deposits increase because losing gradually likely creates a higher total loss tolerance.

Any discussion about how to attract and retain recreational players is much larger than a discussion solely about game complexity. Game complexity is just one of many variables online poker rooms can work with in order to make their rooms more accommodating to depositing players (123). But the complexity question often takes center stage because dumbing down the game,  for example in the form of fast-paced minimal chip tournament structures and rule sets (cap games for example) that give skill less room to maneuver, is a powerful way to manage the skill gap.

Why move in the opposite direction?

1. As a free-to-play game with a distinct free-to-win slant, our game economy will be a very different beast. Our challenge will not be to keep players paying as a consequence of losing. Our challenge will be to make everyone pay as a consequence of having fun and a desire to compete. We primarily design for hardcore players. Casual players are a welcome extra.

2. Players in general, even recreational ones, have a high failure threshold. People don’t give up on Candy Crush because they can’t finish a level. On the contrary. A game’s difficulty is often a key ingredient in its success recipe. It’s the pursuit of beating it that attracts us. Only when money is involved does losing have a detrimental effect on the overall enjoyment of a game.To fear complexity is to underestimate players and reduce them to mindless button clickers. I will never master chess the way I know it can be mastered. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good game of it without simplifying the rules.

3. An unfortunate side-effect of real money wagering is that it is difficult to decouple financial success from game success. I’ve written about how to do it, here for example but in the end it is very hard to get away with labeling a player as say “good” while his bankroll says “$0”. This is exceptionally unfortunate in poker where short terms wins/losses are inadequate measurements of actual skill to begin with. Natural variance makes sure of that. If mastery is fixed, you’re in a straight jacket when it comes to gameplay. But once you remove the shackles of real money wagering you’re free to develop a much more dynamic model of mastery and introduce gameplay innovations to match. Leveling, rankings and points scoring in general makes more sense when they can exist without the threat of red figures looming over them. The game may become harder to beat, but it can still be easier to feel like a winner.
A revenue model that does not hinge upon allowing players to bring in a theoretically infinite number of game pieces (chips) to the table also makes the task of offering a truly level playing field easier in a sense.

We’re increasing skill instead of dumbing down poker so that players can fail more spectacularly; make even more devastatingly bad decisions and be owned by to an even higher degree by those who get it right. We have no skill gap or player demographics concerns simply because we don’t have to. By adding depth to poker, we can introduce fresh content, novel game challenges and more ways to achieve, accomplish and experience success.

A brief look at complexity in poker

Complexity can manifest itself in several ways. A virtual page from my game dev model SCREAM! lists the following:

  • Accessibility complexity
  • Rules complexity
  • GUI complexity
  • Gameplay complexity
  • Mastery complexity

There are many ways to skin a cat and and I’m sure there is plenty of game design literature that covers complexity in a more academic and manner ( I have no formal training so ship me recommendations), but this is the categorization I use to keep track of how we increase complexity in accordance with our game’s vision and simplify everything else.

Various manifestations of complexity are intertwined in the product and can have an opposing overall effect on the usability and playability of a game. To keep our eye on the ball I invest a lot of time in trying to map these inter-product complexity relationships in our poker game.
aying that something makes a game more complex can simply mean a lot of things.

Here’s an example I’ve used before:

Say you introduce a “bet pot” button in your poker client:

1. For players who know what betting the pot entails, you’ve just simplified the GUI. Reduced GUI complexity.

2. For players who are not aware of what betting the pot is (it’s not a game rule), you’ve added a superfluous button. Increased GUI complexity.

3. For players who know what betting the pot is but don’t master that move, you’ve provided a shortcut to playing better than they otherwise would. They may not know HOW calculate pot bets, but they sort of suspect it’s the right play. Reduced gameplay complexity.

4. For players unaware of the concept of pot betting you’ve introduced something that doesn’t alter the rules of poker but alters their perception of what it takes to master the game. Increased mastery complexity.

Complexity is often is in the eye of the beholder. This is one of the reasons why knowing the target audience is so vital. And for our audience, packing the game with novel gameplay features that will require Super Systems III should be the right move.


Either way I hope that this post will help us overcome the concerns with our game that may stem from opinions I myself have wholeheartedly backed.
I still back them. That’s why we’re building the game the way we are.