Sports video games will always be better than poker video games.

Hello! It's been a while since I blogged, but today I had two ideas on my mind that seemed like they could be expressed well in a blog!  Here goes!
 

Fake Poker is Dumb

 
At first, I thought Full House Poker was free like 1 vs 100 was, as well as (for a time) the XBLA Texas Hold 'Em game. I watched the quick look and figured "this might be a decently enjoyable, easy way to get some achievements". Then I found out that it's 800 MSP. Then I remembered that I thought the exact same thing about one of those garbage-y World Series of Poker games and achievements. Turns out achievements that depend somewhat on luck totally aren't fun to try to get.
 
So, here's the thing: poker for fake money is nothing like real poker. It can't be. You have nothing to lose. Whereas games like Grand Theft Auto are more fun because you have nothing to lose in real life, decisions in poker become nearly meaningless by comparison if there is nothing for the player to lose in real life. If good games are a series of interesting decisions (like Sid Meier is often quoted to have said), then poker without real stakes is necessarily a bad game. I think poker is a really unique, interesting, and fun game, but--to pull another quote--Doyle Brunson (ten-time WSOP champion and legend of the game) once said that poker isn't a card game you play with people, that it's a people game you play with cards. This is so true. Writing effective poker AI is daunting at best and impossible at worst, and it only gets harder when the game is no-limit. Playing poker against people who have nothing to lose is simply not poker. You might as well roll a die with a friend and keep score. Bluffing and value betting are the decisions that make poker interesting and, when there is no material prize or penalty, both of these game mechanics go out the window. Nobody has a reason not to call because, whether they win or lose, every hand costs them the same amount of money: $0. There's virtually no reason not to lose your chips.
 
I think it's possible to make a free-to-play poker game that isn't totally meaningless, though. I thought FHP might be the game to do it by being a free game that rewards the occasional player with Microsoft Points (like 1 vs 100, which FHP has been said to be a successor to), but it turns out it's basically just a $10, Texas Hold 'Em-only version of the free clients you can get from the .net versions of popular real-money poker sites. The only out-of-game prizes for FHP seem to be avatar clothes. This isn't what free-to-play poker needs to be successful. There are tons of freeroll tournaments where you can win real-life goods and seats in real-money poker tournaments, so charging $10 for FHP just seems crazy to me. 
  

In Defense of Sports Games

 So, now that I've talked about one classic North American game (well, North American by evolution, I think poker was born in France...but I digress), I want to talk about more. Sports video games really don't get much respect among either games enthusiasts or games academics, unless the specific sport in question overlaps with their other interests. 
 
If you want to say that the industry practices surrounding sports games are scummy, that's one thing. Though it's rarely as simple as studios churning out a $60 roster update, it's definitely a model that compares awkwardly to other types of franchises. If you want to say that these studios aren't as creative as those who come up with more original concepts, that's a valid argument. 
 
What's harder to argue is that these games have no merit. First of all, we have to appreciate that just because these pieces of software are licensed by professional sports leagues, it doesn't make them non-games. They are digital representations of games that have stood the test of time. Obviously this doesn't mean that a chess game for DSiWare is a good video game, but sports games aren't exactly like that. 
 
For the past few years, I've gotten most of my gaming mileage out of EA's NHL series. Let me run down some of the games' strong suits, which are positives of any game: 
 
Incredible Controls - The series, culminating in the latest release NHL 11, has incredibly responsive and rewarding controls. The right-stick shooting and deking controls are superlatively immersive and are really in a league of their own when you compare them to any other action games. 
 
Great Graphics -  The games just look great! Who doesn't like a good-looking game?
 
Excellent Sound - The sound design of the past few NHL games has been superb. There's really no denying it unless you're deaf. The sounds of the crowd, glass, and posts are all very evocative.
 
Obviously I've gotten a lot of replay value out of the games, as I put dozens of hours into each doing practically the same thing over and over (which, keep in mind, you can say about fighting games, shooters, and strategy games). That's another plus. 
 
What's more controversial, however, is if these games have any narrative merit. I think they absolutely do! Even before EA Sports added the Be a Pro mode (which is actually less compelling than you might think), the course of your virtual NHL is its own narrative. It's not as cinematic as other games, but there's still a story there. Saying that sports games have no narrative is like saying that games of the Civilization series are without narrative. There aren't developer-determined arcs, but there are still interesting events happening in succession which affect the audience's emotions. Just like a game of Civilization procedurally generates thousands of years of history, so does an NHL game create years of fictional hockey lore. Whether that's more or less exciting than the story of any given first-person shooter is up to you. 
 
I'm personally more interested in the story of my Be a GM 2017-2018 NHL season than I am in what goes on in Gears of War. It doesn't make me a total philistine, though. I still enjoy more traditional game narrative like in Mass Effect. It can be argued, however, that NHL 11 succeeds more as a work of interactive fiction than Gears of War does. Indeed, Mass Effect has more in common with NHL 11 than it does with Gears of War in some respects. Similarly, Civilization has more in common with NHL 11 than it does with Starcraft. In Starcraft and Gears of War, the narratives are strictly linear. Your successful interaction with the software is rewarded with cinematic narrative. The two are separate. However, in NHL, Mass Effect, and Civilization, the gameplay and narrative are inseparable (less so in Mass Effect, admittedly).
 
Another example of quality sports gaming is EA's skate series. It's a little different than other sports in that it's not necessarily competitive (by some conceptions, it's actually more of an art than a sport), but it's similar enough in that it's taking an existing pastime and making a (roughly) literal translation of it as a piece of interactive entertainment. As someone who skateboarded a ton for three years of my adolescence, I can say that EA's skate series is rewarding in many of the same ways that real skateboarding is, without any of the negatives. You don't play Skate 3 for 4 hours and end up with bruised shins (at least, I hope not). The game worlds, though believable as real cities, are designed for you to find lines and do tricks. You don't have to hunt for spots and you (mostly) don't get harassed. Even if you do, there's no real loss to getting busted. It's safe, and that's ultimately why we play games: it's safe decision-making. 
 
Also, it's a lot easier to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal or do a 360 flip backside lipslide heelflip out down a 15-stair rail with an Xbox controller than in real life. So, there's that.
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Posted by DevWil

Hello! It's been a while since I blogged, but today I had two ideas on my mind that seemed like they could be expressed well in a blog!  Here goes!
 

Fake Poker is Dumb

 
At first, I thought Full House Poker was free like 1 vs 100 was, as well as (for a time) the XBLA Texas Hold 'Em game. I watched the quick look and figured "this might be a decently enjoyable, easy way to get some achievements". Then I found out that it's 800 MSP. Then I remembered that I thought the exact same thing about one of those garbage-y World Series of Poker games and achievements. Turns out achievements that depend somewhat on luck totally aren't fun to try to get.
 
So, here's the thing: poker for fake money is nothing like real poker. It can't be. You have nothing to lose. Whereas games like Grand Theft Auto are more fun because you have nothing to lose in real life, decisions in poker become nearly meaningless by comparison if there is nothing for the player to lose in real life. If good games are a series of interesting decisions (like Sid Meier is often quoted to have said), then poker without real stakes is necessarily a bad game. I think poker is a really unique, interesting, and fun game, but--to pull another quote--Doyle Brunson (ten-time WSOP champion and legend of the game) once said that poker isn't a card game you play with people, that it's a people game you play with cards. This is so true. Writing effective poker AI is daunting at best and impossible at worst, and it only gets harder when the game is no-limit. Playing poker against people who have nothing to lose is simply not poker. You might as well roll a die with a friend and keep score. Bluffing and value betting are the decisions that make poker interesting and, when there is no material prize or penalty, both of these game mechanics go out the window. Nobody has a reason not to call because, whether they win or lose, every hand costs them the same amount of money: $0. There's virtually no reason not to lose your chips.
 
I think it's possible to make a free-to-play poker game that isn't totally meaningless, though. I thought FHP might be the game to do it by being a free game that rewards the occasional player with Microsoft Points (like 1 vs 100, which FHP has been said to be a successor to), but it turns out it's basically just a $10, Texas Hold 'Em-only version of the free clients you can get from the .net versions of popular real-money poker sites. The only out-of-game prizes for FHP seem to be avatar clothes. This isn't what free-to-play poker needs to be successful. There are tons of freeroll tournaments where you can win real-life goods and seats in real-money poker tournaments, so charging $10 for FHP just seems crazy to me. 
  

In Defense of Sports Games

 So, now that I've talked about one classic North American game (well, North American by evolution, I think poker was born in France...but I digress), I want to talk about more. Sports video games really don't get much respect among either games enthusiasts or games academics, unless the specific sport in question overlaps with their other interests. 
 
If you want to say that the industry practices surrounding sports games are scummy, that's one thing. Though it's rarely as simple as studios churning out a $60 roster update, it's definitely a model that compares awkwardly to other types of franchises. If you want to say that these studios aren't as creative as those who come up with more original concepts, that's a valid argument. 
 
What's harder to argue is that these games have no merit. First of all, we have to appreciate that just because these pieces of software are licensed by professional sports leagues, it doesn't make them non-games. They are digital representations of games that have stood the test of time. Obviously this doesn't mean that a chess game for DSiWare is a good video game, but sports games aren't exactly like that. 
 
For the past few years, I've gotten most of my gaming mileage out of EA's NHL series. Let me run down some of the games' strong suits, which are positives of any game: 
 
Incredible Controls - The series, culminating in the latest release NHL 11, has incredibly responsive and rewarding controls. The right-stick shooting and deking controls are superlatively immersive and are really in a league of their own when you compare them to any other action games. 
 
Great Graphics -  The games just look great! Who doesn't like a good-looking game?
 
Excellent Sound - The sound design of the past few NHL games has been superb. There's really no denying it unless you're deaf. The sounds of the crowd, glass, and posts are all very evocative.
 
Obviously I've gotten a lot of replay value out of the games, as I put dozens of hours into each doing practically the same thing over and over (which, keep in mind, you can say about fighting games, shooters, and strategy games). That's another plus. 
 
What's more controversial, however, is if these games have any narrative merit. I think they absolutely do! Even before EA Sports added the Be a Pro mode (which is actually less compelling than you might think), the course of your virtual NHL is its own narrative. It's not as cinematic as other games, but there's still a story there. Saying that sports games have no narrative is like saying that games of the Civilization series are without narrative. There aren't developer-determined arcs, but there are still interesting events happening in succession which affect the audience's emotions. Just like a game of Civilization procedurally generates thousands of years of history, so does an NHL game create years of fictional hockey lore. Whether that's more or less exciting than the story of any given first-person shooter is up to you. 
 
I'm personally more interested in the story of my Be a GM 2017-2018 NHL season than I am in what goes on in Gears of War. It doesn't make me a total philistine, though. I still enjoy more traditional game narrative like in Mass Effect. It can be argued, however, that NHL 11 succeeds more as a work of interactive fiction than Gears of War does. Indeed, Mass Effect has more in common with NHL 11 than it does with Gears of War in some respects. Similarly, Civilization has more in common with NHL 11 than it does with Starcraft. In Starcraft and Gears of War, the narratives are strictly linear. Your successful interaction with the software is rewarded with cinematic narrative. The two are separate. However, in NHL, Mass Effect, and Civilization, the gameplay and narrative are inseparable (less so in Mass Effect, admittedly).
 
Another example of quality sports gaming is EA's skate series. It's a little different than other sports in that it's not necessarily competitive (by some conceptions, it's actually more of an art than a sport), but it's similar enough in that it's taking an existing pastime and making a (roughly) literal translation of it as a piece of interactive entertainment. As someone who skateboarded a ton for three years of my adolescence, I can say that EA's skate series is rewarding in many of the same ways that real skateboarding is, without any of the negatives. You don't play Skate 3 for 4 hours and end up with bruised shins (at least, I hope not). The game worlds, though believable as real cities, are designed for you to find lines and do tricks. You don't have to hunt for spots and you (mostly) don't get harassed. Even if you do, there's no real loss to getting busted. It's safe, and that's ultimately why we play games: it's safe decision-making. 
 
Also, it's a lot easier to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal or do a 360 flip backside lipslide heelflip out down a 15-stair rail with an Xbox controller than in real life. So, there's that.