The other night HDouble mentioned that he had forwarded a link to my post about how poor online poker software is to one of his co-workers at FullTilt. In addition to being somewhat flattered, it started me thinking that perhaps I should take a different approach. While my gripes might make for interesting reading (highly unlikely) it’s too easy to complain. What actually might be useful is to describe the perfect poker client.

Before I launch into that though, I want to establish some ground rules. First off, this description is never finished. It’s more of a living document that will be updated as I either think of new things or people post comments with their suggestions. Whenever possible I will try to note any updates to the document and, of course, give any contributors proper attribution. And to answer the question before it’s asked; Yes, I hope folks from the poker sites come and rip off my ideas. I encourage you to steal as many ideas from here as possible. Consider it open source product planning :-)

Second, the goal isn’t to build some sort of super-duper client that displays your odds and tells you when to call, bet, raise or fold. I’m not really interested in helping fish learn to play better :-) The goal is to describe a poker room that concentrates on ease of use and increased customer satisfaction/loyalty. Lastly, I’m not writing a software requirements spec so things that most sites get right aren’t listed here as I’m assuming them to be standard.

Now, the first thing that needs to happen is we need to define the major sections of this fantasy online poker site. Here’s a macro level look:

Lobby Features
Table/Game Features
Chat and Buddy Lists
Marketing

Let’s start off with the lobby. The lobby should be your information hub. The default screen should be customizable to only display the games and limits you’ve pre-selected (in a user options area). Party allows you to define favorites but I guess they couldn’t figure out how to make your favorites the default setting so you have to select it every time you log in.

Chris Halverson adds that the game sorting should be more intelligent. In Chris’ words:

“What would be good is to have it totally split up by game type (Limit, NL, PL), then BB, then num seats (or do BB, game type, # seats).”

I completely agree. I overlooked this one but I did mention it in my original poker room post referenced earlier.

Proto adds:

Statistics popup windows should have different categories for different games. Hold’em type stats don’t do me much good in Omaha. Add split pots, high pots, low pots won etc.

abulafia adds:

Perhaps, in addition to customisable lobby search paramaters, it’d be possible to use a messaging client to give live alerts when a table matching your customised criterion became available.

The information in the game selection list should be accurate within 5 seconds. As I mentioned in my first post on this, it’s very frustrating to click on a game that shows only 8 or 10 players seated and to find a table where ten players are actively engaged in a hand. Obviously the information in the lobby was incorrect which makes even listing the information pointless if you have to double-check anyway.

Chris Halverson adds:

“On a related note, waiting lists should, you know, actually work. Full Tilt’s are terrible as you have to join on a per table basis. Party pretty much works, although there are times it gives you a seat but you can’t choose it. Crypto’s sucks. Once you’re at a table you cannot join a general (ie. “200NL with > 8 players”) list, you have to go on a table specific list.”

Tournaments should be searchable. Typical search parameters might be:

By Name
By Buy-In Amount
Prize (for WSOP qualifiers and other satellite prizes)
Start Date
Start Time
Start Window (i.e. within 24 hours)

I’m sure there are others but starting with these would be good first step. For instance, you might even have a search for tournaments starting within the next half hour with an overlay. It’s a win-win because the poker room might actually fill up the tournament or minimize the amount they have to throw into the prize pool and the player can quickly find +EV opportunities.

Anyway, back to the standard searches. The tournament searches should include the option to save the search parameters. For instance, if you create a search for the following:

All tournaments starting within a half hour with a $25 or less buy-in and are satellite entries for WPT events.

Now every time you log in you can run a quick search and find all tournaments fitting your parameters.

But to take this one step further, the player should be able to set up a saved search agent that emails the player at some user defined interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc) with tournaments fitting that criteria. This could be used to allow serious players to plan out their schedule at the start of every week using the saved search email.

The saved search agents could even be configured to scroll across the bottom of the lobby window and/or replace the pop-up window on sign-in that many poker rooms use (cough . . . Party skins . . . cough).

Now, let’s take a look at the table and gaming action. First off, users should be able to have as many as 8 tables open at any time. User should be able to configure the multi-table features to include things such as whether or not they want to hear sounds from just the table in focus or from all tables. For instance, for me it’s a little frustrating at times when you have multiple tables open and it’s your turn to act at another table but since it’s not active it stays silent and unless you glance over and see the countdown timer you could miss your turn.

Chris Halverson adds:

“Also, make the damn buttons work. Party STILL has trouble with buttons needing to be clicked 3 times sometimes (yes, I know 1 of those is to bring it in focus so you don’t do it by accident).”

Another nice feature would be if users could click a button multi-table button and have tables launch. The user would pre-configure this but say for instance my normal session is playing 4 tables of $5/$10 6-max. You could configure a user option that when I clicked on a “Multi-Table” button four $5/$10 6-max tables would open that have at least 1 seat open for me. It would be even nicer if you could select more criteria like pot size or % seeing the flop and if the table automatically seated you (or at least reserved a seat) at each table.

Chris Halverson adds:

“Mini-view. All sites should have it. UB and TGC have it right here. If I don’t want avatars, there’s a good chance I’ll want a small table. Give me my desktop back! The whole thing is already client/server, just decouple the UI from the game engine. This is Computer Science 101. I know this would piss off some graphics designer, but the multitablers would love it (I know I would).”

Speaking of which, when a player clicks on a seat to reserve it, the seat should be held for them until they either decline it or time out after some reasonable amount of time. This suggestion comes mostly from the way Party skins used to allow you to click on a seat but while you were typing in how much to sit down at the table with another player could steal the seat.

Joe (via email) suggests allowing players to change seats like you might in a b&m casino. It’s an idea he’s posted about on 2+2.

Bill adds: Also, the FullTilt feature that allows you to rotate the table so you can always appear in the same location is pretty cool. It’s especially useful if you multi-table and want to be in a certain location at all your tables so you can quickly glance at a table and see the action to you.

Ron adds

GameGrid has this feature and it does help with multitabling, however if you use Pokertracker and the Gametime + overlay… it will not overlay stats in the proper seat. I suspect that it is because Gametime + only knows that your in seat 3 and then puts the overlay in seat 3 spot, not knowing that you have rotated the view around.

Players should also be able to set up default settings on the tables for things like:

Auto-Post Blinds
Chat Settings (all, none, summary, etc)
Post Now / Wait for BB

Avatars should be easily customizable. Provide not only a set of default avatars but avatar templates to allow PhotoShop wizards to design their own.

When a player goes all-in and no further betting action is available to the remaining players, all cards should be flipped up immediately. Having to wait for each card to be slowly peeled off doesn’t accomplish anything other than adding a delay to the game which is frustrating for users and a money loser for the poker room.

My personal pet peeve is when you have players who go into countdown nearly every turn. You’re sitting there playing and the guy in seat six always takes up the regular time and then the clock comes out and counts down from 20 to 10 before he acts. It’s not a connection problem because whenever he picks up a ramming and jamming hand he has no problem whatsoever acting quickly. Some players will even use the countdown to annoy other players, perhaps in an attempt to put them on tilt. They’ll act normally and then when they get popped with a raise they let the clock count down to 1 before calling. Then when the raiser bets into them on the flop they let the clock run down to 1 again before calling. Bottom line is that it slows down the play which is annoying for most users and costs the poker room money.

Each player should be given a time bank of 60 seconds. Once the normal 5 seconds to act have expired the 20 second clock comes out but the 20 second clock starts eating into their 60 second bank. When they run out of time in the 60 second bank their hand should be folded immediately upon expiration of the normal 5 seconds to act. To keep it fair, one second should be added to the bank for every orbit so players who have a temporary connection problem can earn back their time while players who are clock abusers will be forced to abandon their wicked ways :-)

Speaking of annoying players, you should be able to right-click on any player and have the options to report the player to management or to disable chat from that player. Expecting players to go hunt down the customer service email and then try to type in the screen name “1l0*%1~1#0akd939” seems like a burden on the users and allows abusive or cheating players to continue their actions.

Stats should be accurate. Listen, I’m no math wizard but if I’ve folded 80% of my hands pre-flop, my flops seen stat can’t be 23%! It would also be nice to have stats for the current table and for all tables.

One of the cool little features FullTilt has is the “Last Hand” window. If they could add a hand playback feature to that I think that would be very useful.

The chat and buddy lists on all major poker sites need a little improvement. Despite this being a relatively easy technology to implement no site does it worth a damn. People should be able to group players by whatever criteria they desire. Players should be able to create “Friends” lists, “Fish” lists, and even “Tough Player” lists.

The buddy lists should reside on the player’s machine so that future versions of PokerTracker can output to the file and auto create the buddy lists for you.

Right clicking on a buddy should bring up a list of tables where he’s playing at and clicking on one of those tables should take you to the table.

Players should be allowed private chats as long as they are not playing at the same table. This sort of player to player chat should be in a new window similar to most IM clients.

What about marketing you say? I think most of the major online poker rooms have really screwed up the marketing aspect of the business. Yes, sites like Party have grown into massive cash cows but one could also argue that if they were smarter about it they would be even more profitable. Right now, the growth of the entire industry is helping mask the problems created by dotcom-like marketing schemes that rely mostly on giving away lots of money.

Offering bonuses is an effective marketing tool. I’m sure the conversion rate for new players is much higher with bonuses than it is without. However, creating an environment where people are earning more on the bonuses than they are at the tables is fiscally irresponsible. Empire has over-reacted and is closing down accounts but a more effective strategy might have been to just create a system that only offer re-load bonuses to certain players. Bonus whores would not be on that list and would either move on themselves or would realize that the Party skins are so fishy that it’s in their best interest to suck it up and play there.

Rakeback [what is rakeback?] is another area getting a lot of attention these days. It’s also another disaster created by the poker rooms themselves. On one side they’ve created a cottage industry of affiliates who expect to be paid for life on every player they bring in and on the other side you have players who are generating serious rake and want some of it back.

It’s not going to be an easy problem to solve but I think the online poker rooms are going to need to eliminate the lifetime affiliate payouts. The acquisition costs are simply way too high. It would be far better for the poker rooms to channel those funds back into loyalty programs for players than trying to keep affiliates happy. I’m wouldn’t suggest cutting out all affiliate programs but perhaps a 6 or 12 month payout rather than lifetime would make more sense. For instance, let’s say XYZ Poker decides to pay out to affiliates for 6 months and then channel that into a loyalty program. Months 1 – 6 the affiliate gets 20% of the MGR. On month 7 the player is then eligable for getting part of his rake back. Here’s a sample tiered program:

7 – 12 months as a customer OR $2000 a month in rake = 10% rakeback.

12 – 18 months as a customer OR $5000 a month in rake = 15% rakeback.

18+ months as a customer OR $10,000 a month in rake = 20% rakeback.

These numbers are totally made up but they illustrate that the poker room can assure a lower churn rate by pumping this money they were paying to affiliates back into loyalty programs.

Will the affiliates go for it? Not sure but once one major site does it, the rest will follow suit. It might mean some angry affiliates but how long were these guys really expecting to make a living off of simply getting people to use a referral code?

And as much as bonus whores and affiliates hate hearing the above, I’m not advocating it, I’m predicting it. Businesses have certain pressures and the cold hard truth is that bonus whores cost poker rooms money and as poker becomes more and more mainstream (and perhaps even legal at some point) the value proposition offered by affiliates is going to decrease.

Of course getting and retaining customers is important but when the poker boom starts to level out a bit the poker rooms are going to need to increase the profitability per customer. One way to do that is to learn a little something about data mining. Based on the offers that get flashed up to me at places like Party and PokerStars, they’ve got a loooooooong way to go here. I mean, just offering the saved search feature I mentioned above would provide a wealth of marketing information. Instead of telling some guy who plays $25 NL Hold ‘Em tournaments about a $300 tourney is a waste of both the poker site’s and the player’s time. Data mining can point you to what players already want and also create profiles that can be used to segment customers. Players who spend X amount of months at the micro-limits are unlikely to graduate into better players who generate any sort of substantial rake. Once you know that, you can tailor marketing campaigns around it.

That’s it for now. If anybody has any predictions, recommendations or suggestions, please email me or post a comment.

12 thoughts to “Designing The Perfect Online Poker Room

  • iopq

    I like PokerChamps’ rakeback program
    That’s how it should be

  • Royal Vegas Online Poker

    Most of the Prima Poker Rooms allow you to minimise amd maximise the on screen chat. They also offer a mini screen version so you can have multiple table open at the same time and optimise your screen space. I play at 2 or 3 different Prima rooms, Royal Vegas Online Poker Room is where i spend most my time…

  • ChezJ

    Sites should provide the option to ELIMINATE the chat box which takes up tons of valuable screen real estate and provides almost no value. Chat should take place in a separate, resizable window with configurable fonts, not in a 0.5 inch high slot that is impossible to read live and twice as impossible to read when attempting to scrollback. This is my #1 pet peeve about all sites.

  • OtterChaos

    I wonder if online poker rooms accept that players have accounts at multiple sites, or if they really expect to get 100% of the player’s action and think that’s an achievable objective.

    Further, do they want to own the whole “experience” or are they open to the notion that there may be non-core activities that can safely be left to third parties? Stats and PokerTracker being an obvious area.

    I’m thinking that there are a number of areas in which the sites could standardize, perhaps starting with hand histories. If each site wrote hand histories in a common standard format (let’s face it, it’s not that complicated) and stored them similarly, then life would become a lot easier for all concerned: the sites could stop spending money on their (mostly crappy) stats and history components and the players would be able to choose the level of tool (and cost) they wanted – there’d be a lot more to choose from if developers didn’t have to fool around figuring ou how to parse various crummy formats (and weird database structures, like pokerroom’s).

    I suspect that the idea of “opening up” is something that’s still anathema to the sites, but I wonder how well they understand their clientele or the market in which they’re operating?

  • Bill Rini

    The resizing of windows would be a good idea but I have a feeling that it’s an intential software design consideration. I could be wrong but I’m assuming that the windows have to be a standard size because the software has been designed to send information about something changing at X and Y coordinates to the client rather than sending a completely updated view of the window. In other words, it would increase the amount of network overhead for the client and, for obvious reasons, the poker rooms are trying to minimize the bandwidth requirements.

  • abulafia

    First time poster, longtime stalker….erm lurker I mean.

    Interesting post, and its cool to think that someone at fulltilt might take on board some thoughtful feedback.

    Resizeable windows. Its a hellovalot easier to multitable if I can control the size of each window.

    Perhaps, in addition to customisable lobby search paramaters, it’d be possible to use a messaging client to give live alerts when a table matching your customised criterion became available.

    Several of the clients I use advertise themselves at me. Popups when I enter the site. Pop ups when I leave. Pop ups when I check out the promotions. Pop ups when I deposit. I don’t use them any more. Quick note to the hired geeks from marketing. I’m already at your goddamn site. And I’ve probably a;lready decided to pay my share of rake. Relentless shilling makes me feel that you think I’m an idiot.

    Telling me I’m an idiot is a guaranteed way to make me keep my money to myself.

  • Proto

    Statistics popup windows should have different categories for different games. Hold’em type stats don’t do me much good in Omaha. Add split pots, high pots, low pots won etc.

  • BuckwheatOne

    It would be great to be able to switch seats in a ring game with my whole stack rather than having to get up, get back into the room, and hope the seat I wanted is still there. Even if it is, I’m back to the original buy-in.

  • Drizztdj

    It seems a lot of those ideas are currently in use at different sites. I wish someone had the insight and drive to COMBINE them. Full Tilt has the right idea by combining B & M players and Online players in the development and improvement of their cardroom.

    Throw in Bill’s suggestion of a loyality program that makes it worth while to stick to one site and you’ll have the next PartyPoker of online poker gaming.

    Great post once again Bill :)

  • Easycure

    Great post….It makes me want to leave work, go home and fire up some tables.

  • Chris Halverson

    One thing I would like in the lobby would be a better split of the games. Party almost has it right, but not quite and most sites have it totally wrong.

    What would be good is to have it totally split up by game type (Limit, NL, PL), then BB, then num seats (or do BB, game type, # seats). Crypto is almost worse because they have multiple currencies. Gaming Club tried to fix it by breaking up the games based on BB size, but they lump limit and NL into the same screen which makes it really difficult to find because you can only sort on one field.

    Also, make the damn buttons work. Party STILL has trouble with buttons needing to be clicked 3 times sometimes (yes, I know 1 of those is to bring it in focus so you don’t do it by accident).

    Mini-view. All sites should have it. UB and TGC have it right here. If I don’t want avatars, there’s a good chance I’ll want a small table. Give me my desktop back! The whole thing is already client/server, just decouple the UI from the game engine. This is Computer Science 101. I know this would piss off some graphics designer, but the multitablers would love it (I know I would).

    I like the concept of the loyalty program. This is similar to Poker Mountain’s program IIRC. We just need a mainstream site to implement it and it would spread like crazy. I agree that the current bonus structure cannot last.

    The lobby updates is a huge one too. I too hate thinking there’s a spot on a table when in reality there’s not. I’ve got to the point where I don’t even look, I just join a waitlist and select it for 8 players (since I play full tables). Many times it will immediately give me a table.

    On a related note, waiting lists should, you know, actually work. Full Tilt’s are terrible as you have to join on a per table basis. Party pretty much works, although there are times it gives you a seat but you can’t choose it. Crypto’s sucks. Once you’re at a table you cannot join a general (ie. “200NL with > 8 players”) list, you have to go on a table specific list.

    I’m sure I can come up with more, but this is a great start! Hopefully somebody will learn from it.

  • Human Head

    This was a really good post. The seat reservation BS at Party is a big one, but I think the biggest thing is the issue of loyalty programs. I will be more inclined to play at a site with a few software annoyances if they have a kickass loyalty program, and I don’t just mean FPP’s.

    As this document progresses, one suggestion would be to rate the importance of each issue to you. Or, organize each separate issue into numbered subheading or something and everyone could rate each issue–this would give a better idea of what most would like to see (at least as far as the WPBT goes :))

    It’s gold, Jerry. Gold!

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