You can learn a lot about developing an elite poker site from the biggest failure online poker has ever seen.
It would be easy to write an article about what Full Tilt Poker did wrong. One could fill untold issues of CEM with even a casually detailed account of the once-mighty online poker room’s epic collapse. What often gets lost is that Full Tilt developed one of the most innovative and, for a time, successful products in the industry.
Emulating Full Tilt feels counterintuitive. But with the U.S. online poker market evolving in a highly fragmented and hyper-competitive direction, any opportunity to skip a step or two on the learning curve is worth investigating—and Full Tilt turns out to offer a better opportunity than average. Following are five things that Full Tilt got right, and that any other operator ought to, too.
1. Online poker is not just live poker played online.
Full Tilt excelled at leveraging the unique characteristics of online poker (primarily a player’s ability to occupy multiple seats simultaneously) into wholly new and exciting ways of playing the same old game. Rush Poker, where players are drawn from a cloud and tables are formed on the fly, generated intense interest among players and spawned an industry of imitators. Smaller twists like multi-entry tournaments were more novelty in nature but were still evidence that Full Tilt was always thinking about ways to embrace—heck, to assert—the online in online poker.
American operators will do well to adopt a similar attitude, eschewing attempts to simply recreate the live poker experience in a virtual setting. Effectively free of constraints like place and space, online poker is astoundingly more flexible than live poker. The rooms that test this flexibility to the fullest will be the rooms providing players with the most engaging overall experience.
2. Poker players want to feel cool.
A significant part of poker’s appeal is the (highly idealized) archetype of a successful poker player: an autonomous risk-taker relying on wit and courage to carve out a living on their own terms. What Full Tilt understood better than every other room was the power this image holds over a broad spectrum of players.
At Full Tilt, pros weren’t just successful—they were extremely cool. Aided by the steady aesthetic of Full Tilt’s marketing materials (a mashup of noir, old Vegas and Reservoir Dogs), photogenic site pros such as Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen and Patrik Antonius provided a veneer that made the whole outfit seem closer to Patek Philippe than to PokerStars.
But putting good-looking people in black suits is hardly revolutionary. The secret sauce was not giving players a vague aspirational goal à la “I want to be Phil Ivey.” It was giving them a multitude of ways to, at least theoretically, advance toward that goal. You want to be Ivey? Well, you could dress like him—just purchase his jersey from the Full Tilt rewards shop. Or you could learn to play like him—hop on Full Tilt’s virtual rail for a front row view of Ivey and his opponents swapping six-figure pots. You could even learn to think like him—just watch Full Tilt’s commercials featuring Ivey’s internal monologues. And the ultimate step in the mythic journey was often hovering only a few clicks away: you could challenge the man himself.
“Learn, chat and play with the pros.” Full Tilt’s original slogan says it all. After all, to be the best, you have to challenge the best. And Full Tilt was where the best played. That was the highly persuasive, if not altogether accurate, narrative the old Full Tilt Poker advanced at every opportunity.
The takeaway for operators: A brand that incorporates an idealized version of the professional poker player is a good first step, but providing players ways to engage with and adopt that image for themselves is what elevates the brand into a culture.
3. High-stakes games are highly leverageable.
No online poker room made more out of its nosebleed action than Full Tilt Poker. The benefits of steady high-stakes action at an online poker site are largely obvious, but worth repeating nonetheless:
• Just like Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio, high-stakes online games provide a tangible aspirational target for players at lower stakes.
• High-stakes games generate storylines for the narrative-starved poker media. The best of these arcs (such as Guy Laliberté’s rumored stint at the Full Tilt nosebleeds) can dominate the conversation for weeks at a time.
• On occasion, high-stakes games produce marketable stars (such as Viktor “Isildur1” Blom or Tom “durrrr” Dwan) with a very compelling pitch: “I got here, and so could you.”
• High-stakes games provide the closest thing online poker has to a highlight reel, a key component for garnering mainstream interest.
High-stakes games aren’t all upside and may prove more difficult to support in a tightly regulated market. But their benefits are too substantial to ignore outright.
4. There is no liquidity without risk.
It’s easy to forget that Full Tilt Poker was a mid-tier room before the UIGEA passed, battling now-defunct networks like Paradise and Cryptologic for Party Poker and PokerStars’ leftovers. Staying in the U.S. market post-UIGEA—a risk that competitors like Party Poker deemed excessive—nearly doubled Full Tilt’s market share overnight and sparked a growth spurt that lasted right up until April 2011.
The battle for players in a post-regulation U.S. market will be fierce. A solid product combined with a strong brand and high-level celebrity endorsements won’t be enough to win the day. Obviously, I’m not suggesting operators charge aggressively into the darker-shaded gray areas of the law (although PokerStars might disagree on that point). What I am saying: Operators with a minimum-risk plan for online poker that relies on strong fundamentals to drive steady player base growth over the long term are already in trouble.
To put it in motivational poster speak: Go big or go home.
5. Be many rooms for many people.
Full Tilt Poker did a good job of building a room that simultaneously appealed to players of many skill and experience levels. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Build a room too obviously targeted at casual players, and you turn off those who view themselves as “serious” players. Build a room too centered around hardcore players, and you might overwhelm and alienate the casual crowd.
There are a number of ways to solve this riddle; Full Tilt did it primarily through a combination of upfront simplicity and readily accessible depth. Their lobby was a good example. You could easily jump right into games with a few clicks, but you could also access powerful filters and additional tools for a more customized, and more complex, lobby experience.
A less direct, but still interesting, example of how Full Tilt catered to multiple audiences with conflicting desires simultaneously is player avatars. At Full Tilt, players could choose from a range of cartoony avatars ostensibly aimed at recreational players (such as a ninja, a Venus fly trap and a mummy) with a selection of expressions (angry, confused, happy, etc.) that could be used in-game. The avatars were free, easy to use and easy to ignore.
But Full Tilt also used the humble avatar to appeal to the hardcore player. If you won a special tournament event, you were rewarded with an exclusive avatar, and custom avatars were available in the rewards shop only to players who had paid massive amounts of rake.
Full Tilt Poker is likely to remembered for Black Friday above all else. And while that is a part of the site’s history—not to mention a valuable cautionary tale—the legacy of a business is generally not a zero-sum game.
American operators looking to mine online poker’s past for valuable insights would be wise to keep this fact in mind. Failing to do so risks wasting time and resources relearning crucial lessons one could easily glean by analyzing the first incarnation of Full Tilt Poker.