Sayest Thou Poker?

I have some thoughts on branding, naming, and pitching your game to others that have been culminating for some time. Though this is a specific case study, I think what I've learned here will apply to your project as well, so give this a read and tell me what you think.

We've been struggling to choose a final name for Hocus Poker for a few months now. I think we have a final candidate, but we've really gone back and forth to arrive at that point. Really, much of it revolves around the inclusion of Poker in our name.

Despite it being a key component of our origin story, Poker has really become a liability for our little game. For those not aware, Hocus began its life one afternoon when I asked "would Poker be more fun with Spells?" I have immense respect for the game of poker, but I don't often enjoy my experience playing it. There seemed to be fertile ground as a designer to manipulate. Plus, it seemed easy. You shouldn't be surprised to find that I'm stupid.

I, and soon after we, sought to change a few things with Poker while adding in Spells:

  • In most hands, your best play is to Fold. That's not fun.
  • Poker requires money. No entry fees here!
  • Poker requires a group of 4-6 players to be fun. We sought to support lower player numbers.
  • Poker takes a long time to play. We wanted to fit well within a lunch period.
  • Poker features elimination. Everyone's in until the end for us.

One of the things I love about looking to peer designs is that it becomes easy to quickly create a base line. When you first begin a project the possibilities are overly vast. That list above pointed us in a healthy direction. However, we saw a few strengths with Poker to build the other half of our base line:

  • It's built around the classic deck. This deck is a wondrous thing. I love a deck of cards. 4 suits, some ranks, go.
  • The classic hands have a really great statistical lineup. The distribution of rarity is quite excellent.
  • The classic hands are reasonably well known by many people. Not all, as we've discovered. And holy <divinity of your choice>, do not change them. In any way. Ever.

We saw a good framework here to tinker with. We had our base line. However, framework is one thing. In some ways, it became a big part of our presentation, which wasn't ideal in hindsight.

Lesson: If you aren't sure of a name, perhaps consider a super random code name. Don't look first to your mechanisms.

Perhaps we should have just called Hocus "Project Wozzle" until we had a final name ready?

Poker has been a problem at almost every stage of the pitch for us. I've had doors closed in my face as soon as the "ckkkk" leaves me lips, but we've also seen wild, angry men rage when they discover what they've done to "their" game. The problem with an elevator pitch is that you only have a floor or two, then your listener is either holding the door open or escaping that rapidly ascending box car.

Here are some of my favorite responses:

  • "Oh, I don't like Poker." At this point I've lost them. They aren't going to care to hear us discuss the fundamental differences.
  • "Uh, that's not Poker." They want Hold 'Em. They'll only accept Hold 'Em. Unlike people who like worker placement, and therefore lots of worker placement poker players don't want a twist.
  • "Ah, so it's a variant." Ouch! This one burns in the third degree. Nothing like spending over a year of your design life on a variant! The other challenge is convincing someone to spend money on something they perceive as a variant.

Lesson: People have very strong expectations for so many things.

You see this with many genres and themes. I hate zombies. I am so sick of deckbuilders. Ugh, abstracts aren't for me. You aren't lying to people by not using these labels. It's somewhat like how you trick a 5 year old to take a bite of their dinner. They enjoy the food...until you tell them it's <hated ingredient>. Same with players. Don't trigger their Pavlovian response if you don't have to.

Affixing Poker to our name was misleading, driving inaccurate expectations, and for some, giving our game an unfair reputation. I started thinking about how other games handle this. Agricola doesn't call itself Farming Caylus. Diamonds isn't called Diamond Trick Taker. And I'm not sure anyone loves Ra Bidding Set Collector as much as I love Ra. I'm leveraging some extreme examples here because it amuses me. But, hopefully you get my point.

Lesson: You can be influenced by a thing without needing to put it on the letter head.

Texas Hold 'Em is what most people think about when they hear "Poker." It's on television, on your smart phone, and many of us have enjoyed a Poker night in our lives. Truth be told, we share very few things with that game, most notable of which is the classic Poker hands. But, the player decisions, structure of the game, and strategies are all unique to Hocus. Therefore, the game deserved a divorce.

So, we knew that the poker moniker had issues. We saw that it was not giving our game a chance to stand on its own. Then, I read this blog post on BGG. I really liked this post. It got me thinking. You can disagree with her examples and precise ordering recommendations, but overall, my key takeaway was that you need to present the experience of the game, what makes it unique, and not just append genre labels.

Lesson: Beyond your name, mechanisms, and easy labels, define your game such that it stands out uniquely and conveys its experience.

For Hocus, this is creating opportunities with your limited cards, choosing the right spell at the right moment, and deceiving and foiling your opponents where possible. That's broad! What I just said doesn't really make Hocus sound unique. That's fine, we can fix that. But, you can also see that we didn't restrict ourselves to pattern recognition, hand management, poker hands, and alternate player powers.

Keep all of these lessons and thoughts in your mind. I'm a big proponent of developing publicly, but I'm trying to be smarter about it. As much as I want discuss things in the most casual and lax of manners, first impressions matter. How you deliver and pitch things matter. Once you make a first impression, it's tough to rescind.

Moving forward with my designs, I'll be more careful to consider project names that are safe and don't build assumptions. I'll think about what I'm borrowing to form my baseline, but also more immediately what I'm pushing that's unique. In the end, I hope it leads to more exciting and thrilling pitches from the start. That's the hope! This is all one big lesson I keep consuming one spoonful at a time.

Hopefully, this spoon was useful. Tell me what you think in the credits!