What Mobile Game Designers can Learn from Poker Games?

When you think about the pinnacle of mobile and online gaming, odds are you aren’t thinking about poker first. The best mobile games to have come out recently tend to be puzzle, adventure, and strategy titles, and for the most part that holds true when we look back at the most popular games of all time in the medium. And online gaming more broadly is such a broad category at this point that you might think of 15 genres before poker or casino games come to mind.

At the same time however, poker represents arguably the most consistently successful genre or category in online and mobile gaming. It’s been around since the beginning, it’s featured in countless individual games, and it caters to an absolutely massive worldwide player base. Part of this, of course, is due to the simple fact that the actual game of poker is widely beloved. But it is also true that developers have consistently found excellent ways to present the game digitally.

With that last point in mind we want to look at some of the things mobile game designers and developers can actually learn from digital poker games.

Explanations Matter

Poker apps and websites often make a point of making rules and basic strategies available to players. In many cases this means a brief overview of how a given game room will operate, in terms of the sequence of dealer actions and player bets. In others, it means making resources available that make the game more accessible. Some sites and apps even post poker hands ranking charts and breakdowns of the odds of getting each hand — which can be extremely helpful tools particularly for beginner players who may not have all of that information stored away in their heads.

Not every kind of mobile game is so intricate as to require similar efforts. But broadly speaking, mobile designers would do well to learn from poker platforms that at least making guides, rules, and strategies available is a beneficial gesture. It simply makes it easier for more people to engage with the game at hand.

Progress Drives Play

Mobile games thrive on systems of progression, which come in all sorts of different forms. These might include unlocking new levels, gaining player customization options, advancing in competitions, and so on. Many poker platforms do an excellent job of building in progression systems in subtler and more effective ways, however. While some certainly involve characters that you can customize more the more you play, or “levels” you can unlock as you go (concerning game backgrounds and the like), the best poker games make players feel as if they’re actually working their way through poker careers. They enable the accumulation of in-game money and prizes and, accordingly, buy-ins to bigger and more difficult tournaments.

It’s not an exact format that any non-poker game can imitate, but it’s an example of how natural progress to greater difficulty and complexity often feels more genuine and rewarding to players than silly perks like being able to put a new hat on a character.

Difficulty Should Be Optional

Another feature most good poker apps and websites have in common is that they offer players a range of difficulty. Any poker game can wind up being hard, of course, because luck plays a role. But player typically have a choice of entering games with low or high difficulty levels, either in terms of the AI at play or the live opponents. Similarly, there are different levels of buy-ins (either with real-world or fake, in-game money) that tend to correspond to difficulty.

This is something that it’s frankly surprising we don’t see more often in more mobile games. One would imagine that in anything from popular puzzle and exploration games like Year Walk and The Room, to smash-hit combat experiences like Fortnite, players would appreciate — at the very least — “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “expert” modes. More designers in the medium should follow poker platforms’ lead and provide different modes to suit different players.

Graphics Go a Long Way

Graphics are always a consideration in mobile gaming, and as noted in a piece on development for virtual reality games, there are always choices to be made. The graphics can be 2D, 3D, or photorealistic, and it’s up to each development team to decide what best suits an app. All we mean to point out here though is that there are a number of poker apps and online games that prove how far good graphics can go even with a game that doesn’t seem to need them.

Poker games don’t need good graphics. There are some very well executed options in terms of gameplay, progression systems, and so on that only provide the bare minimum from a visual standpoint. But there are also equally well-executed poker games that make things a little more fun by providing more fully realised environments, character graphics, and so on. It’s a simple thing, but it’s a good lesson to learn particularly for designers and developer teams working on mobile games that don’t have to include noteworthy visuals. Generally, it’s best to go for good graphics anyway.

Hopefully these tips provide some help and interesting ideas to those looking to design and develop their own mobile games. The poker genre may not be for everybody, but it’s proven its staying power time and time again, and it certainly has some design lessons to teach.

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