In an interesting move, Amaya has decided to make an effort to get the .NET (i.e. play money) version of its Full Tilt poker client distributed through the Steam gaming platform. The announcement went out this morning that the Full Tilt software has been submitted to Steam’s Greenlight program, where it will be voted on by the community of Steam users.
What are Steam and Greenlight?
Steam is a distribution platform created by the video game company Valve, producers of a number of hit games, mostly in the first-person genre, including among other things the Half-Life series and its offshoots Counterstrike, Portal and Team Fortress.
The simplest way to explain Steam is as a sort of dedicated “app store” for games, but it’s actually more than that. Steam represents an evolution in the way games are consumed, a sort of halfway point between the games-as-product model which has existed through out most of the digital era, and the games-as-service model that has become increasingly popular in recent years, and thought of by many in the industry as the way of the future.
Most games on Steam are still one-time purchases (though so-called Free-to-Play games with in-app purchases exist there as well), but are now tied to a user’s account rather than a particular machine. On the one hand, this means that users cannot resell their games and must at least occasionally log into Steam with an internet connection in order to continue using their games. What the user gets in return for that limitation is that their username and password can be used to download and play their games anywhere, at any time, not just on their home computer and without the need for individual activation codes.
The other thing about Steam is that it’s heavily curated. Whereas most other distribution services only require a product to be relatively bug-free and to operate as described in order to be accepted, the Steam approval process takes a game’s quality into account. In the early days, approval or rejection of a given game was decided internally, but as of 2012, that has been replaced by the Greenlight program, which leaves the decision to the user base.
With the Greenlight program, the developer submits a written pitch for a completed or partially-completed game, along with gameplay videos and static screenshots, and Steam users are then asked to vote on whether they would be interested in playing or buying the game if it were available on Steam. Games which receive sufficient interest are then pre-approved for sale on the platform once development has been completed.
The Steam user base
Whereas the general public tends to consume either high production value games from major studios (so-called “AAA games”) or else free or inexpensive games played either on mobile devices or in-browser (“casual games”), the Steam community consists largely of “core” and “hardcore” gamers who play a much wider variety of games, many of them from small and mid-sized independent studios.
Crucially, when it comes to the possibility of Steam as a distribution platform for Full Tilt, the Steam demographic tends to be especially interested in direct competition with other gamers. In particular, there’s a big overlap between Steam and the eSports world, especially because the parent company, Valve, is responsible for some of the games most commonly played as eSports, such as Counterstrike and Defense of the Ancients 2.
Meanwhile, there is an increasing crossover between poker and video games these days, with many of the newer, younger players getting into poker by way of eSports. For example, Doug Polk’s screen name “WCGRider” refers to the World Cyber Games, while players like Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier and Randy “nanonoko” Lew were also well-known in the video and computer gaming world before they were known as poker players. The crossover is beginning to work the other way as well, with even more veteran poker players like Daniel Negreanu beginning to dabble in competitive video games such as, in his case, Hearthstone.
New ground, in more ways than one
Assuming Full Tilt earns sufficient votes on Greenlight to get onto Steam, it will be the first cross-platform player-vs.-player poker client available there. There are plenty of poker games on Steam – Texas Hold’em in particular – but the vast majority of them are single-player, and with the poker portion of the game tending to be packaged within some other kind of context, be it an animated comedy as in “Poker Night at the Inventory,” or a casual management simulation as in “Governor of Poker 2.”
Generally speaking, .NET play money sites are not as important to the online poker business model as they once were. During the Hold’em boom, it was a scramble to attract as much of the constant influx of new players to one’s own site as possible, and .NET sites were a convenient way to get around many countries’ restrictions on the advertising of gambling. Since Black Friday, however, the stream of new casual users has mostly dried up, and the real money sites are instead competing with one another for existing players and those finding their way into the game via alternative routes. Meanwhile, Zynga Poker has more or less become the go-to platform for casual play-money players with its flashy interface and the ability to play through Facebook.
It’s easy to see what the goal is in trying to get Full Tilt Poker onto Steam, however, when you consider the timing. After all, Amaya has just earned itself the go-ahead to reintroduce its poker services in the state of New Jersey. Everyone is focusing on PokerStars, as the world’s overwhelmingly dominant poker site, but it’s important to remember that Full Tilt is an Amaya property as well, and one for which they seem to be struggling to find a niche.
One thing Full Tilt has going for it is visual appeal. In terms of functionality, most experienced poker players would say that PokerStars has the better client, but there’s no denying that at first glance, Full Tilt looks like more fun. Clearly, having gotten a foot back into the door in the U.S., Amaya will be hoping that more states follow New Jersey’s lead in regulating online poker in general, and Amaya’s offerings in particular. They’ve been gone long enough, meanwhile, that there are now several years worth of potential players who were still too young to play back when PokerStars and FullTilt served the U.S., and those players are smack dab in the middle of the curve for Steam’s user base.
And then there’s Twitch
It’s also easy to imagine that the rise in popularity of poker streams on Twitch has something to do with the decision. After all, we know that Amaya has its finger on that particular pulse, having been quick to sponsor players like Jason Somerville and Jaime Staples, who are at the forefront of the Twitch poker boom. Needless to say, Twitch viewers are a demographic that falls almost entirely within the category of core/hardcore gamers, and overlaps very heavily with eSports and the Steam user base.
This is also the basis for my one hesitation about this move. There are definitely a huge number of potential new poker players within the demographic we’re talking about, and getting Full Tilt onto Steam seems like it would be an amazing way to expose those potential customers to the product… but this assumes that they aren’t already well-aware of online poker and the various options available. Between the already-large overlap between the online poker and core gamer communities, the importance of word-of-mouth (or word-of-keyboard, rather) in the latter community and the degree to which poker has established itself on Twitch, I find it hard to believe that there are many new eyeballs to be found on Steam.
That said, where I could see it helping a bit is in terms of ease of access. After all, one of the most appealing things about Steam is that it’s one-stop-shopping for games. As a Steam user myself, I can say that once you start using Steam for acquiring games for your desktop computer, you tend not to go hunting for them elsewhere, because it’s so easy just to browse the new releases or allow it to suggest games based on other things you’ve played. In that regard, I can imagine some subset of gamers aware of and potentially interested in online poker, but not so much so that they’re willing to visit a separate website to go download a client; for those users, seeing Full Tilt pop up as a suggestion in Steam, and immediately available with just a couple of clicks may be enough to persuade them to give it a try.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.