Look through the seemingly innumerable poker video games available today, and you’ll likely come to the conclusion that just about everything that can be done in the category has been done. There are no-frills, pro-caliber online games; there are cartoonish play-money poker career simulators; there are jingling, trashy casino arcades, bare bones old-school computer games, downloadable titles sponsored by professionals, and a few virtual reality experiences. There’s even a pleasant little poker app called Politaire that turns the game into a form of Solitaire.
Given all of this it certainly seems as if the average gamer looking for a poker experience can find just about anything he or she wants — which, of course, puts you in a difficult position if you’re interested in developing your own poker game. So, the important question to ask is a simple one: Can you still make a poker game stand out?
We’d still say yes, and there are a few ideas that might help you get started.
Plenty of poker games offer players the opportunity to customize avatars of themselves, which opponents will see around virtual tables. It’s a fun, simple way to inject a bit of identity into players and deepen the sense that you really are competing against real people rather than just a computer. But few if any poker games really take this player creation concept to a satisfying level.
Take a look through some of the best create-a-player modes identified by The Gamer, and you’ll see that some modern games approach the concept with an incredible amount of detail. Players can design and tweak every last aspect of their in-game representations. This sort of thing is by no means necessary in a poker game, but it’s always fun, and it would certainly be unique. A truly robust player creation feature simply doesn’t exist in the category.
The idea of career features goes hand-in-hand with that of player creation, in that it’s essentially about things you can do with your character away from the tables. This doesn’t mean an entire video game has to exist outside of poker; for that, gamers can turn to series like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, which provide poker mini-games within their larger concepts. Nevertheless, some sense of a world, lifestyle options, and ways to spend money can enrich a poker game. If you design a game in which players can take their characters out into town, buying new outfits, booking travel to exotic tournament destinations, and so on, you’ll get attention for it.
Maybe the most redundant thing in modern poker gaming is that almost all high-profile games concern Texas Hold’Em. This makes sense, because it’s quite possibly the best-known and most popular poker variety in the world. But it’s also far from the only one, and a game presenting something different — and doing so in a clear way that helped players to lean the ropes — might just get noticed.
The most interesting alternative may well be Omaha, a variety that is basically a spinoff of Hold’Em. An overview of this style of the game on Poker.org explains that the only real difference is that players are dealt four cards each, rather than the two they get in Hold’Em. Both games involve sets of community cards, and in Omaha players have to choose two of their four personal cards to match up with any three of the communal cards. It’s basically Hold’Em gameplay with a little wrinkle, which would make it easy for gamers to understand while still being fresh.
Then again, you can also opt to go with another variety altogether, or even offer a selection of different games. But focusing entirely on Hold’Em is a little bit tired, and will make it more difficult to compete in the category.
This is perhaps a smaller idea, but one that a lot of poker gamers will still appreciate. Tournament formats in poker games often tend to feel haphazard or amorphous. Players know they have to keep winning or placing above a certain level in order to advance, but usually that’s about all there is to it. The sense is more that one is in a progressive series of gamers rather than a contained, organized tournament.
A wise development move might be to look to mainstream sports for inspiration or fresh tournament structures. For example, a straight-up single-elimination tournament bracket can work brilliantly if the top half of each table advances each round. This would make each subsequent table feature the same number of players, right up until a final table a which a single winner could be determined. There’s also some fun to be had with the “group play” tournament style more typical of events like the World Cup. Whatever you decide though, it’s not a particularly large challenge to devise more creative tournament formats for a poker game.
Lastly and most importantly, we’d refer you to a past article on ‘Where and How to Sell Your Indie Game’. Even with all of the above strategies implemented to perfection, there’s never a guarantee that a new game will be seen — let alone downloaded, reviewed positively, and so on. Even the best of new gaming creations need to be marketed and sold strategically if they’re to gain visibility.
Addressing game design with some of the ideas above in mind will help you to develop a poker game unlike anything that’s on the market already. Once that’s one though, it will still be strategic sales and marketing that determine the project’s success.
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