Lou Castle from Shuffle Master asks if online poker needs to change
In March, Las Vegas firm Shuffle Master agreed to buy the Ongame Network from bwin.party for €19.5 million. The purchase was intriguing with Shuffle Master joining the growing ranks of US companies gearing up for regulation with a further €10m payment due to bwin.party if and when the US doors open to regulation. One of the key men overseeing the deal is Shuffle Master’s chief strategy officer Lou Castle.
If Castle’s name seems familiar, it could be because he co-founded video game developer Westwood Studios, which created the legendary Command and Conquer series and sold over 10 million copies worldwide. In this exclusive interview he looks at the current online poker industry and suggests how it may be in need of radical change. You can read the full interview in the lastest issue of InsidePoker Business.
InsidePoker Business: Most online poker operators now have the stated aim to cater for recreational players. Is that Shuffle Master’s strategy as well?
Lou Castle: My personal belief is that it’s not about fish and sharks, it’s about really simple, really easy, really obvious entry into the game and playing against people who are a similar skill-set to your own. It’s about feeling like you got a good entertainment experience regardless of whether you win or lose. I truly believe accessibility to a large variety of customers is the most important thing to address as an industry. As proof I look to Zynga Poker and I say there are millions of people who want to play poker. There are lots of people that would love to play the game and wouldn’t mind losing a little bit of money for the chance to win as long as they weren’t playing against people who were literally taking their money.
IPB: Do you feel like the industry hasn’t made enough of the power of poker as a game in the purest sense?
LC: There’s certainly a lot more fun to be had in the game, it generally takes itself quite seriously, and that’s okay. The best games I’ve made are those that superficially are entertaining and don’t need much commitment to understand but have an extremely deep element to them, where you continue to dig and it becomes more complex. From my experience as a video game maker and having been involved with many sequels, when you have a product that is constantly being pushed to a market, if you continue to cater to the most hardcore of your audience you tend to shrink the audience and create a feedback loop. To make that smaller audience more happy you have to do more things that make only the smaller audience happier. My observation of poker as an industry is that it’s suffered from this. The move to downloadable clients instead of web-based, open architecture creates a lot of friction to actually get into the game. It makes playing a friendly game of poker look like flying a 747.
IPB: Does it amaze you that poker lobbies still look the way they do?
LC: Most poker clients, even good ones, do seem quite dated from an interface-design and a visual-presentation point of view. But I temper that with the idea that making too radical a change too quickly might lose the core of the audience. I’ve been guilty in my career of making too many changes to a product sequel. Bing Gordon, chief creative officer at EA, used to say you want one third predictable, one third evolutionary and one third novel where you have new features that seem exciting. In the past, I’ve gone two thirds novel and that has not worked out so well.
IPB: You were previously CEO of Instant Action, a browser-based gaming site. Do you really think that if all poker clients were browser-based, that would have a dramatic effect?
LC: I would make the assertion that downloading clients is empirically removing customers from the mix. There’s no doubt in my mind, it’s not a maybe, it’s absolutely, positively true. There are many people who will not play poker online as long as they have to download a client. It simply comes down to metrics, if you watch your funnel of acquisition that’s always the problem. Can you get over the trust issues, the performance issues? Those are separate, technical issues, they’re not marketing or sales problems.
IPB: Do you think the poker industry understands the one-click mentality?
LC: There are some people who have argued that I don’t understand the poker market, that they are more sophisticated and to that I would say, yes they are. But if I had a restaurant at the top of a hill that required you to climb 150 steps, I’m not going to have anybody who can’t climb 150 steps so there’s a selection bias!
IPB: Is instant action something you’re going to try to bring to Ongame?
LC: Right now I’m deeply respectful of the market that we have, we are a B2B business and we have B2C customers of ours who directly address the market so all the stuff I’m talking about is not something that we’re going to necessarily initiate, it’s going to be things we recommend to our customers. In the free-to-play space where we are more in control of the actual experience, for our table games we are absolutely going to be introducing these concepts. Experience tells me people want fun and if you can give it to them fast and for free, that’s a pretty big combination.