Interview: PKR's Jez San on blending online poker with The Sims
PKR.com has been described as a mixture of online poker and The Sims, which is as good a reference point as any. It’s a real-money online poker site, except instead of a top-down view with thumbnail cartoons to represent the players, PKR has fully 3D avatars who wouldn’t look out of place on an Xbox 360 game.
That’s not surprising, considering the site was founded by games industry luminary Jez San, who previously headed up developer Argonaut Software. The idea came from playing on a bunch of online poker sites, and realising the experience was lacking something.
“Although it was fun to play online, it was nowhere near as much fun as playing in real life,” he says. “They used a clinical top-down vewpoint which was very diagrammatic, without the social aspects, the body language, the people and table banter. They were just a technical version of the game, rather than the actual experience of playing.”
So in late 2004, San began plotting how to make something more social, yet which retained the successful business model used by existing poker sites. Since this co-incided with the closure of Argonaut, he was able to recruit some of his old staff to set up a new studio, Crunchy Frog, to work on the idea.
“I wanted it to be 3D, featuring real people with real actions, tells and taunting,” he says. “We’ve learned from television, and how they’ve made poker a spectator sport, so we use the same camera angles and same language of predicting the game, but we’ve made it fully interactive.”
Characters on PKR can show emotion – whether they’re happy or sad – taunt each other, and use their body language to try and intimidate or mislead other players. Your avatar even looks at its cards when you do – a key ‘tell’ in real-world poker. PLR launched less than six months ago, yet already has over 500,000 registered users, which San says is on course to break a million by the end of its first year of existence.
Interestingly, PKR has been influenced by online games like World Of Warcraft – apparently an office fave at Crunchy Frog. That comes through in the character-building aspects of PKR, where you earn RPG-style experience points the more you play, which you can spend on learning ‘chip tricks’ for your character, as well as the game’s non-cash economy, allowing characters to be pimped out with accessories – stuff like sunglasses and watches at the moment, with iPods and headphones coming in the next update.
“Players can choose how they look, and completely mould and sculpt the face,” says San. “The next level is to use your points to buy what we call a ‘face gen’, where you supply a photo of yourself – or anyone – and our technicians will convert it to a 3D image for use in the game.”
There are strong community aspects to PKR too, with players able to run their own blogs on the game’s website, with a profile system that’s a little bit MySpace-ish, with tournament wins listed on the page. San says there are even clans springing up within PKR – a phenomenon more usually seen in first-person shooter games.
I’m quite interested in the emoting that PKR characters do, and whether it’s always voluntary. For example, think about a real poker game: you have deliberate body language that you use to try and mislead your opponents, and then by contrast the accidental tells that you can’t control, but might give your poor/great hand away.
Does PKR have both of those? It’d be really frustrating if the latter was in there – your character giving away your hand through no fault of your own. Thankfully, San says not.
“The emotes are all completely under the user’s control,” he says. “They never happen when you haven’t asked for them to happen. There’s nothing that happens automatically to give away what your hand is, like making your character look nervous, as that wouldn’t be on.”
San says one important aspect of PKR has been stressing that even though it looks more like a console game, that doesn’t mean it’s for under-18s. As a fully licensed gambling site, it can’t be. San says PKR doesn’t go out of its way to target console gamers, but accepts that they’ll form a significant part of the site’s player-base.
“Think of the hundreds of millions of people who are used to playing games on a graphics-accelerated PC or PlayStation,” he says. “They’ll look at most online poker sites and say ‘wow, that looks like my Spectrum games used to’. Those people won’t accept a big downgrade in graphics just to play poker. They’ll want similar quality graphics to World Of Warcraft, Quake and Second Life.”
This leads to another question though. Could PKR make the leap back to the latest generation of connected consoles – PS3 and Xbox 360? After all, Sony has already announced plans for its own PS3 virtual world, called Home, so it’s not inconceivable to see PKR slotting into that. Or could there be a boxed game for these consoles allowing players to gamble real money online?
“When I came up with the idea, the intention was to do it on games consoles,” says San. “But the problem is that games consoles still have this horrible stigma among the ignorant public that they’re for kids. People who own games know that’s not true, but the people who’ve never played a game in their life think different.”
For this reason, San hasn’t yet tried to take PKR back to the console world, reasoning that the industry has enough on its plate addressing controversies around violent games without having to deal with real-money gambling too. That could change in the future.
“One day, the games console companies will allow play-for-money games, and when they do, we’ll probably be there,” he says. “We know there’s a huge market for it.”
In the meantime, how does he see PKR developing? Some kind of mobile version is possible in the future, says San, although not until there are more phones capable of delivering a 3D experience that’ll do PKR justice. Instead, he’s focusing on broadening the range of games offered using Crunchy Frog’s technology.
“We can take it to the next level, whether it’s roulette, craps, or slot machines through to bingo, lotteries and Keno,” he says. “Any game played for money could be something that we do. Think about craps, which is a real people game, with people standing round a craps game shouting at each other. And that’s what we’re good at: the people.”
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While PKR is the most advanced 3D Poker software on the market, a game console version would turn what’s becoming a very good online poker room into an allin fest amongst kids.