Kim Lund explains how his new project Playhem Poker could be a revolutionary step forward for the online poker market
When it comes to the current state of the poker industry, there are few analysts who have been as vocal as InsidePoker Business columnist Kim Lund. For months, Lund has been railing about the ‘de- gamification’ of poker through his blog Infinite Edge Gaming, bemoaning that poker sites have been sucking the joy from the game. But instead of just venting, the PokerRoom and bwin veteran has decided to practice what he’s been preaching, working on a project which he believes could be a game-changer.
According to Lund, Playhem Poker fuses the best parts of social poker and competitive real-money gaming to create a product which is going to have mass appeal. Crucially, the game is specifically constructed to work in a US market, regulated or not. We spoke to Lund, the newly appointed acting head of poker at Playhem Poker, about the product launch and what it could mean for online poker.
InsidePoker Business: What is Playhem Poker?
Kim Lund: Playhem is a platform for competitive gaming, it already features games like Starcraft and Fifa 2012. Playhem hosts official qualifiers to big e-sports events like Activision-Blizzard’s Starcraft World Championship Series and IGN Pro League events. In US states where competitive video gaming is considered a skill-based activity running these games with real money is legal. Playhem Poker is a poker game designed to fit under this common competitive gaming umbrella. It’s a competitive version of social gaming poker featuring real money prizes.
IPB: Why do you feel a product like Playhem is necessary?
KL: The Playhem poker model, which draws its inspiration from the company’s existing know-how of competitive video gaming and e-sports, is aimed at targeting a distinct gap in the current online poker market. It plans to address the millions of players who enjoy social poker games like Zynga Poker but don’t find the action meaningful enough, and it hopes to speak to the tens of thousands of dedicated players who want to play poker for real money online but are exempt from doing so by current US law.
IPB: Is the model ready to roll out in the US?
KL: We have spent a lot of time with lawyers outlining a freemium model that would be acceptable under existing sweepstakes laws. We believe we’ve made a significant breakthrough, but only time will tell when monetisation will be ready for roll out. The important part is to roll out the underlying gameplay which isn’t particularly affected by the differences between free play and cash play environments.
IPB: What exactly is a freemium game?
KL: It means we take micro-payments for things connected to the game. In Playhem Poker these aren’t connected to gameplay and do not affect the outcome of the game. An example would be to charge for a nickname change or if you wanted to change the representation of you inside the game. We aim for a different kind of freemium model than Zynga. Many of their more popular games are whale-dependent as a few users make up the bulk of the profit by spending, in my opinion, outrageous amounts. I have no desire to help build a game where someone feels inclined or pressured to pay $1,000 a week to play.
IPB: Are you trying to get Zynga players to migrate to your site?
KL: Not really, because the demographics are very different. The demographics of Zynga Poker aligns more with the demographics of slots players and the demographics of gamers align more with the demographics of poker. This is a dilemma for any serious poker operation looking to establish a foothold in the US market. You can definitely partner up and launch a freeplay social poker competitor to Zynga and harness e-mails. But once you switch to real money, your demographics are off. Our partners will be in a much better position to convert. Firstly because of attracting more relevant freeplay customers and secondly because the competitive gameplay mechanics featured in Playhem Poker can handle the transition to full real money play. Players will not wake up the next day and find themselves playing a new poker game under totally new conditions.
IPB: If the US regulates, are you concerned about being swamped by real money sites?
KL: We have many concerns about being a small player in a regulated market but in essence, while they will have a real money game where players play to take each other’s money, we will have a real money game overlaid with all sorts of motivational (like character progression) drives which have proven incredibly successful in other games. And while they run their tired old live events where players have to transition from playing online to live, we run streamed championships where players get to compete live in the game they actually signed up to play: online poker.
IPB: How do will the B2B side work?
KL: We can supply a more entertaining and relevant freeplay experience in advance of regulation. And we can offer a more immersive real money product. In order to compete in the real money market we obviously need established casino partners. But those partnerships could take any number of forms. We could network players, or simply run separate gaming clusters. For a number of reasons, Playhem Poker is less liquidity-dependent than other poker solutions. We can’t offer the mountains of cash some competitors can, but we hope to offer a game and a platform that delivers twice the fun and produces more reasons for players to come back and play. We don’t want to try and take on Caesars Interactive on their own turf and we don’t see why anyone else would want to either since that turf has proven to be quite tricky to navigate.
IPB: On your blog you’ve been quite vocal about the de-gamification of poker. Why have you been so passionate about that?
KL: Because that’s where it’s all gone wrong. You could say the game isn’t suffering because PokerStars is doing great, but PokerStars too is suffering from the flaws built into the fabric of the rake model and the industry’s general approach to the game. That’s why they’ve lately introduced some radical changes, I and others have been proposing for years. Like adapting their loyalty rewards system and going after Poker Table Ratings. I don’t view poker as a gambling game. I view it as an MMO (massively multi-player online) game that just happens to feature brilliantly integrated gambling elements. When the gamification craze hit last year and I started hearing about gamification consultants being invited to all sorts of industry events to sing their gospel that was the last straw for me. The fact that the poker industry feels it needs to listen to gamification experts instead of being those experts says a lot about why the industry is struggling.
IPB: Do you expect people to be able to make a living from this game model?
KL: That’s a question I cannot compute. I stopped optimising poker sites for the benefit of the few who can crush it many years ago. If someone can make a ton of money, without disrupting the gaming experience I want to deliver, that is awesome. And hopefully enough players will respond to this model in order for us to offer some great promo prizes. But never ever is that my goal. Entertainment is a goal. Fulfilment is a goal. Accolade and sense of achievement are the goals.
IPB: So you’re not necessarily trying to attract the likes of Tom Dwan?
KL: Any pro poker player who likes to play poker for its competitive nature and wants to prove they are as good as people think they are should be intrigued. We offer a uniquely level-playing field so there really is no way around simply being a superb poker player. The event side of Playhem Poker will also introduce new forms of competitive poker playing tailored for the e-sports stage and for massive broadcasts. We definitely think we will be crowning a new breed of poker champions. Those just looking primarily to optimise their win rates and exploit weak players using HUDs may not find a home in Playhem Poker.
IPB: Playhem Poker is browser-based gaming as opposed to a downloadable client. Did you feel that was important to have?
KL: Yes, I believe it’s the first poker solution out there which is built completely in HTML5. So it works on virtually any device. I realise the challenges we will face due to this decision but not really technically qualified to discuss any of it. I simply relish in the opportunities HTML5 presents to stand out.
IPB: Are you worried about other poker sites stealing the basic concepts upon which Playhem Poker is built?
KL: Even if any poker company out there sees this angle and likes it, they are not in the position Playhem is. They don’t know the e-sports industry. They don’t have an existing suite of products already built around it. They don’t understand it. Add some amazing software prototypes that should debut later this year and I’m comfortable we’re not easy to clone.