Game Design: When the Least Intuitive Becomes The Most Intuitive

Today might be one of the happiest days of my professional life. We’ve just launched PokerPad — our first game — and it’s on its way to an App Store near you.

The idea behind the game is very simple: you use one iPad like a Texas Hold’em table for a game with up to four players. Each player sits facing one side of the iPad, the cards are dealt, and the game begins.

When I first started working on this game I thought the design and development was going to be pretty straightforward. Mainly because I had very little experience in design and development. And I loved games. Video games, mobile games, board games, backyard games, I loved them all. I quickly learned that this passion wasn’t going to be enough for me to actually build a game, but it gave me enough fuel to try again and again, for several years.

I’m by no means an expert, but I’d like to share some stories about how PokerPad was made and what we learned from this process. This first post is a short analysis of what was probably the most important decision that was made in the development of the game.

If you’ve ever played any kind of card game, you’ll know that players usually need to cover their cards to keep them hidden from the other players; otherwise the game is pointless. So how exactly could we pull that off on an iPad?

There are basically three answers to that question. I’ve called them The Lazy, The Sexy and The Crazy.

The Lazy
“Just make it pass-n-play”

Pass and play, as the name suggests, means you check your cards, play your turn and then pass the iPad to the next player so he or she can do the same. The main problem with this type of gameplay though is that it makes the game feel less engaging because players are constantly disconnected from the overall experience. Although a few board games do pull this off quite decently, we believe it makes for a mediocre experience in the majority of cases.

So if pass and play works badly for most other games; how does it fare with Poker? Even worse actually. In Texas Hold’em you are constantly checking your cards and the cards on the table as well as checking how much money you and your opponents have left. If you need to keep passing the iPad around, you can’t do any of these things.

The Sexy
“Pair the iPad with iPhones. That would be so cool.”

This seemed like a good solution, and several people we told about our game came up with the same idea. It’s tempting and it feels innovative. But there were some key problems with it.

First of all, as our current team consists only of my partner and myself working part-time on this, we needed to be very smart about the decisions we made in terms of functionality. Otherwise, the game would never see the light. In a previous attempt to create this game, my partners at the time insisted on adding a companion mobile app for players to check their cards. It looked like it could work, but we never got it quite right (I have seen some apps do this quite nicely, although I’m still not convinced about this solution). Trying to get this right would mean investing a lot of time and effort so we decided to look for a simpler answer. Contrary to what many people believe, killing features is a much bigger challenge than coming up with new ones. We had plenty of great ideas we wanted to implement, but at some point you need to decide which ones can bring the most value, and put the rest to sleep.

Secondly, the game requires an iPad, the larger the better, and if we went with this solution, each player would also need an iPhone, with all five devices sharing the same Wi-Fi connection. This setup is not too complicated, but it does limit the people who can play to iPhone users, and also limits the places they can play in (at home, basically). All these factors reduce the number of people who would buy the game. Again, not the simple setup we were looking for.

Finally, when you add multiple devices and an internet connection, you open up new potential complications. What if one phone dies? What if the Wi-Fi stops working? The experience can easily become frustrating.

In general, this idea is not bad (again, some games have pulled it off), but in our opinion it’s not the best either. It feels too cumbersome. We wanted something that would allow anyone to buy the game and start playing immediately with no limitations.

The Crazy
“What if we don’t change anything?”

It started with a simple question: What if you just cover your cards as you would on a real table? Well, it would feel a bit awkward. The iPad could get a little crowded. But it might actually work… right?

I was never 100% sure, and I don’t think my partner was either, but we decided to go with it. To be honest, I was terrified that when the final version of the game was finished I was going to play it and realize we’d made a big mistake. Luckily that didn’t happen.

Now that we’ve created a whole game around this simple interaction, we know for a fact that it works and it makes the game a lot of fun. You use one hand to cover your cards; then turn them with a simple touch by the other hand, effectively mimicking what you would do with real cards. When you stop touching the cards, they turn back and you can remove the other hand. Our new challenge is to get people to give it a try.

It’s still surprising to us that covering your cards with your hands on the iPad seemed like the least intuitive approach at first. Checking your cards as closely as you would on a real table was the “crazy” option. Going through all the possibilities and looking at every pro and con made us realize we’d made a false assumption just because other games weren’t doing this. Not because it couldn’t work.

Let’s Play

I’m sure you can imagine the rest. You just need to set the iPad on a table, and one player can play on each side; making it a game for up to four players. The setup is quick, and you can determine the number of players, the size of the initial chips, and the players’ names.

After that, it’s Texas Hold’em just as you would play it on a regular table. The cards are shuffled and dealt, the blinds are raised every few hands, and you just need to focus on enjoying the game.

Here’s a quick video of PokerPad in action:

What’s next

Since the beginning, we’ve really wanted to make the game feel like an actual table. We want you to forget you’re using the same device you use to take notes and buy stuff from Amazon. We believe we’ve come pretty close to that now and we’ll be updating and improving the game in response to users’ feedback.

If you like Poker and own an iPad or iPad Pro, I encourage you to download the game and try it out with your friends. All comments and suggestions are welcome. If you would like to get in touch with us, please visit Hebitat Games.

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