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PlayTable: Multi-screen Texas Hold’em

Brand strategy, visual design, and game design

Neil Shankar
Dec 26, 2016 · Unlisted

Client: PlayTable

Timeframe: 1 week, August 2016

Collaborators: James Taylor, John Dempsey

Tools: Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Unity

Overview: Near the tail-end of my contract with PlayTable, a tabletop gaming platform, I was tasked with designing a deck of digital playing cards to better represent the PlayTable brand.

I was really excited to work on this project. I’ve always loved playing card designs, and I have a spade tattooed on my wrist. I was so happy with the final product that I put the suit symbols on the back of my business cards.

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Interaction design

Poker provides a great demonstration of device-pairing on PlayTable. The central console is the table felt. The user’s smartphone or tablet is his/her personal hand. There is a natural allocation of shared space and personal space. The user can flick a card from his/her personal device to the central console, creating the sensation of an invisible tether, Bot & Dolly style.

The gif below showcases the core interaction paradigms. The cards shown were used before the redesign.

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Texas Hold’em on PlayTable, before the redesign

Brand strategy

As the lead designer at PlayTable, I was responsible for charting a brand strategy that extended beyond the visual language. Upon seeing PlayTable for the first time, whether it was at Victory Point Cafe, our Dogpatch studio, or the viral NowThis spotlight, many users said something along the lines of, “This looks like something out of a movie.” With the playing cards and the overarching brand strategy, I wanted to capture this dishy wow-factor, while resisting the futuristic component.

It’s dangerous to associate PlayTable with sci-fi, because the goal was to drive purchases. I wanted people to envision PlayTable in their living rooms, not in a movie theater. So, I designed the playing cards to embody the excitement for a new wave of technology while maintaining roots in the 8-bit aesthetic of classic arcade games.

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Final design

Suit symbols

I began by designing the suit symbols on a rotated 4x4 block grid. Beyond aesthetics, I wanted to ensure that the symbols would scale and render crisply across all devices.

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Suit symbols

Full card grid

The suit symbol grid constitutes the foundation of the larger grid system for the entire card. Below, the cyan blocks stand in for suit symbol outlines, in order to establish strong theming for each card. Cyan and magenta are two of the four primary PlayTable brand colors.

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Card grid

Alphanumerics

The alphanumeric identifier deviates from the standard 4x4 rotated grid. To allow for more flexibility with the characters, I created an 8x8 block grid within the rotated square. For this limited typeface, I drew inspiration from LED and dot grid signage systems.

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Alphanumeric identifiers

Face cards

The last challenge was to design the face cards. I wanted to reduce the complexity of the traditional graphics while staying true to their rich histories. My approach was to represent the royals by their headgear — a knave’s hat for the jack, crowns for the queen and king.

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Face cards

Full deck

Enjoy.

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Handoff

The primary time constraint was an upcoming ad shoot, during which actors would be filmed playing Texas Hold’em. Accordingly, the developers had their hands full preparing other games for the shoot, and couldn’t afford to spend more time on Hold’em. So, I mapped the new deck to the existing sprite sheet and handed off the assets.

Improving the game

With more time, I would have taken PlayTable poker in a very different direction. Watching cards travel across devices is cool, but this take on poker doesn’t add any value to the game beyond the user experience.

It’s inherently skeuomorphic: the digital rendition aims to replicate the physical game in a digital system. On PlayTable, we have access to digital screens and physical pieces. Digital screens include the central console and handheld devices, which can be paired via Bluetooth. Physical pieces include figurines, tokens, cards — anything you can slap an NFC or RFID tag on. Because we have access to both digital and physical components, we can evade skeuomorphism entirely. Let’s keep the digital digital, the physical physical.

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Users can place NFC tags on physical pieces.

Redefining the constraints

The most elegant solution to digital poker isn’t a well-designed deck of cards. It isn’t a deck of cards at all.

There are several intrinsic properties of playing cards. Each card contains a suit and a value. There are four suits, 13 cards of each suit, and 52 cards total. Each card needs to be unique on one side, and uniform on the reverse. Finally, cards must be immutable. A card can be replaced by any container with these properties.

In addition to properties, a digital alternative must have the affordances of playing cards — that is, the interactions that cards support. Cards afford shuffling, sliding, tossing, rearranging. A player can peek at his/her hand by bending the cards slightly. This is more difficult to capture in a digital system.

Solution: town car poker

Imagine an animated fleet of 52 identical black town cars with tinted windows. Inside each car is one or more people, or characters. This allows the characters have unique values, and personalities, but remain uniform from the outside. For instance, a car can seat one queen, or can be packed with ten townspeople. The characters belong to four families.

A user can peek at his/her hand by asking the character to crack the window. To show a hand, ask those two characters to step out of their cars. To shuffle, the cars go could drive into a garage and emerge in a different order. The game can even lend itself to extensions. In town car poker, perhaps players can attack one another with flat tires (reshuffle) and faulty windows (blind). Rather than black town cars, this could be played with space shuttles, hand baskets, or even Poké Balls.

Feedback

I pitched town car poker to the lead game designer, now a design prototyper at Microsoft Hololens. In response, he wrote me the following.

I really like how you’re breaking the game down to its essential bits of information, and then re-building it from there… what I like about what you’re suggesting is that it’s not just a product, or a game, but it’s a way of thinking that has the fixings of a design movement. A wave that academics could read about years in the future.

I’m a creative consultant in the Bay Area. Let’s discuss your design needs! Drop me a line at neil.s.shankar@gmail.com.

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