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Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: Lessons From The Virtual Felt

Online poker has a few lessons from the MMO genre, specifically as an example of why free to play MMOs appeal to a new audience.

Lessons From The Virtual Felt

Like millions of other people, I started playing online poker after an accountant with the amazingly appropriate name of Chris Moneymaker beat the world's best professional players to win the 2003 World Series of Poker main event. His completely unexpected victory paid him a tidy $2.5 million. What's more, he didn't even pay the full entry fee of $10,000. Instead, he won his way in via a "satellite" tournament that cost him all of $39.


Swords, sorcery and cards?

This year's WSOP got under way late last month. Entry into the main event, which will begin on July 3rd, is still $10,000; this hasn't changed in 40 years. It's possible to win seats online for far less than $39. In fact, dozens of people will play without having spent a cent.

In addition to them, countless thousands have made money in "freeroll" tournaments. Many sites offer these as promotions; they cost nothing to enter, but pay small cash prizes to the winners. So, while I wouldn't go so far as to call online poker free to play, I've noticed various similarities and parallels, some of which are rather interesting when I consider possible lessons or at least implications for both F2Ps and the broader MMOG space.

One is that hardware accessibility is absolutely crucial. That means low system requirements. And I do mean low; this is the minimum for the market leader, Poker Stars:

  • Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows NT 4, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista
  • Hardware: Minimum system configuration (Yes, we tested it. Not too fast, but still playable):
    • 100 MHz Pentium (800 Mhz for Windows Vista)
    • 64 MB RAM (Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME) or
    • 96 MB RAM (Windows NT 4, Windows 2000, Windows XP) or
    • 512 MB RAM (Windows Vista)
    • 800x600 screen resolution with 16-bit color depth (High Color)
    • 20MB of free disk space for download
    • 56k dialup Internet connection

Basically, very few PCs still in use won't run the software. That's rather different from MMOGs, where the min-spec is often equivalent to what was a mid-level system around three years ago.

As gamers, we tend to forget there are millions of computers we would consider obsolete that still serve other people's needs quite adequately. If the users of such elderly hardware want to play online poker, they can. It's very easy to knock the sites for not having even current-generation graphics, never mind advanced. In fact, few are even 3D. What they are is as accessible as possible so anyone who wants to play can.

How does this relate to F2Ps? Well, do all of the millions who play them have gamer-quality PCs? When people decide to try MMOGs for the first time, will they upgrade in order to run the latest hot release, or will they simply try something that the PCs they have will handle?

Let me be clear. I'm not advocating that MMOG developers should revert to 16-bit 2D graphics. What I am saying is that more advanced visuals come with a built-in cost, a narrower potential audience. It's a generalization, but I believe a key reason for the growth of F2Ps is that they are playable by more people.

Another thing about online poker is that it's really easy to play for any length of time. I've jumped online for as little as five minutes, which includes logging in and selecting a table to join as well as playing some hands. Most times, noting much will happen. But it can; even at the low stakes I frequent, I've won (and lost) over $25 during such mini-sessions.

In MMOGs, a few minutes are seldom enough to do anything that seems worthwhile. As a result, I seldom log in unless I have at least an hour available. And even when I do, I can still opt for poker. Maybe I already played a couple of short sessions that day, and either want to keep my momentum going if I ran well, or catch up if I didn't.

The important point here is that poker does a better job of being flexible to fit my time and schedule. To help bring more people into MMOGs, I'd definitely like to see more release that are designed so they're faster and easier to get into and to start enjoying, regardless of the revenue models they employ. It's a generalization, F2Ps are leading the way - not all of them, but more so the advanced casual and casual ones, which are expanding the overall market by aiming beyond hardcores and grognards.

I fully appreciate that the idea of games intended for other audience segments is anathema to some readers. A few years ago, I felt the same way, or at least similarly. However, I have learned - partly from observing the poker scene - that the industry can benefit and grow more rapidly by adopting and adapting some of the lessons that are available by thinking at least a little outside the box.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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