Friday, November 16, 2012

Design Portfolio - Edge Loyalty Program

'Edge' Loyalty Program
Full Tilt Poker
Q4 2011 to Q2 2012

One of the first things that I wanted to accomplish after I joined the Full Tilt Poker team in February 2011 was to revamp and simplify the loyalty schemes that the company offered to its players. When I joined, the loyalty program consisted of several diverse elements that had evolved over time, and were somewhat fragmented and distinct from each other.

The existing scheme consisted of:

  • The Iron Man Challenge, which rewarded players for playing on a regular basis. Unlike many other promotions, Iron Man didn't simply focus on high-volume play, but also rewarded players for coming back to the site frequently, even if they only played a little.
  • Rakeback, which was a form of cashback promotion, with the amount of rakeback generally set at 27% of the net revenue generated by the player. Rakeback was enormously complex because of the non-transparent way in which revenue was calculated (with a complicated rake attribution mechanism and numerous deductions from the gross revenue). It was impossible for a player to reliably estimate their rakeback in advance because of these complications. In addition, rakeback was only given to players who had joined the site through certain affiliates, meaning that the majority of players did not have access to it. Rakeback was also the root cause of some common security problems.
  • Full Tilt Points (FTPs), which were a reward that players could spend on various items in a loyalty store.
  • Black Card, a relatively new promotion that rewarded very high-volume players with bonus points and other benefits, based on the number of FTPs they earned during a rolling 100-day period.

I felt that the many separate elements made the overall rewards scheme difficult to understand and advocated switching to a unified system based on rolling averages, like Black Card.

As we were planning to relaunch the Full Tilt Poker brand under the new ownership of Groupe Bernard Tapie in late 2011, we had a unique opportunity to change the rewards system, and so we began to design a unified system based around extending Black Card downwards. The system had to compete effectively against our anticipated closest competitors.

We identified several weaknesses in competing loyalty programs and aimed to address them in our own. The competing programs had several traps for players which could cause them to lose out on value - a common trap being that the system was based on calendar months and years, meaning that if you started playing late in the month or year it was much harder to qualify for a VIP status than it was if you started early. Since the majority of people are paid in the last week of the month and this is when most deposits are made, this meant that many players felt disenfranchised by such programs. We decided to base our own system around the rolling periods, which had worked well for Black Card and avoided this problem.

Another common trap in competing programs is that in order to get any cash for your play, you must spend the points you have earned through playing on cash rewards in the VIP store. If you spend your points on the 'wrong' items, you get significantly less cash value than you would otherwise. We decided to avoid this issue in our own program, by not requiring players to spend points in the store to get their cash rewards.

Our new system was divided into several tiers. To keep the nice aspect of Iron Man, where you could qualify by playing little and often or by playing a lot but less often, you could qualify for each tier in the new program by maintaining an average level of play over 7, 30, or 100 days.

Once you reached the appropriate tier, you would begin earning a cash reward which would be paid on a weekly basis - much like rakeback, except available to all players and without any deductions. The size of the cash reward varied depending on how much you played and your tier within the program, and you could track it in real time in the client as it accumulated. We were the first poker site to allow the player to choose the day of the week on which their weekly reward was paid, and the first to provide detailed tools allowing the player to measure their past level of play, and make projections about what level they would reach in the future.

My working title 'Edge' (which is a synonym for 'advantage' in poker terminology) was selected as the name for the program, with 'Edge Reward' becoming the name for the weekly cashback reward.

With Edge, we were actually able to increase the rewards on offer (the highest tier offered cashback of 25% of gross revenue plus FTPs, which was significantly higher than the 27% of net revenue offered previously) while simultaneously making cash rewards available to all players, and not just a select few.

I'm very proud of the product that Edge became - we made very few compromises to bring it to market*, and in my opinion it improved significantly on the existing Iron Man and rakeback systems while also competing effectively against the other loyalty programs in the marketplace.

More information:

*Some minor changes were made to Edge after my departure Full Tilt Poker was acquired by the Rational Group, but for reasons of confidentiality they cannot be discussed here.

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Design Portfolio - One Click Colour Coding

One-Click Colour Coding
Full Tilt Poker
Q2 2011

Almost all online poker sites allow you to take notes on your opponents, so you can remember how they play from session to session. Along with the Ongame network, Full Tilt Poker was one of the first poker sites to offer a category selection feature (in the form of colours) that allowed you to quickly get a feel for the opponents you were facing.

The system worked from a modeless pop-up accessed via the right-click menu of your opponent, and required at least three clicks in total - one to open the dialog, another to select the colour from a drop-down menu, and a further click to save and exit. Over time it became very common for players to simply categorise players without making an accompanying text note, so we decided to improve the user experience by making it possible to easily colour code a player without needing the pop-up dialog.

My idea was to place all of the colours in a grid within the right-click menu itself, meaning that only a single click of the mouse was required to select a category for your opponent. This simple solution had virtually no risk and yet improved the user experience dramatically for those who regularly colour-code their opponents.

More Information:

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Design Portfolio - Robocap (Dynamic Table Limits)

Robocap (Dynamic Table Limits)
Q1 2010

In a live poker game, you can usually only play at one table at any given time for reasons that should be evident. However, online there is no such restriction. You can play two, four, eight or even twenty-four tables at the same time if you wish. In fact it is fairly common for players on sites like PokerStars to 'multi-table' - on average, 10% of active unique players are playing 2 or more tables at any given time. This has obvious benefits for both the operator and the player (as long as the player is a winner).

However, early on in my time at PokerStars it became obvious that multi-tabling would be a driving force behind many of the usability improvements and new features that I would design, because of one unavoidable fact - multi-tabling is hard! The 10% of players who are multi-tablers slow down the games for the 90% of players who play only one table, making the game less fun. This is not to say that every person who multi-tables significantly slows down the game

The severity of the problem was highlighted by a comparison that I performed between PokerStars (which limited players to a maximum of 24 tables by default) and it's nearest rival Full Tilt Poker (which limited players to a maximum of 8 tables by default, with this increased to 16 on request). For standard No Limit Hold'em full-ring games, Full Tilt Poker dealt 33% more hands per hour, despite the fact that more players saw the flop on average (meaning that more events occurred per hand). In fact, a 'normal' speed table on Full Tilt Poker dealt slightly more hands per hour than a 'fast' speed table on PokerStars. This was a startling statistic which needed to be explained.

Some of the discrepancy could be explained by differences in software. For example, Full Tilt Poker allowed players less time to act, and had faster card-dealing animation. Accordingly, during my time at PokerStars I designed a number of changes to the software to speed up the games (and these were continued by my successors after I left). But clearly differences in software alone could not account for such a major variation in game speed - nor could they explain the many complaints that we would receive from recreational players who wanted to introduce games where multi-tablers weren't allowed, because of slow play.

The answer was rooted in the Peter Principle. Multi-tablers typically push themselves too far, increasing the number of tables they are playing until they are playing more than they could really handle. Once somebody feels comfortable at, say 8 tables, it is very difficult to convince them that they should play fewer. Often they won't realise that they are slowing the game down, and even if they do, human selfishness means that they are unlikely to give up the possibility of extra profit or rewards and cut back on their tables to improve the experience of others. On the other hand, there were a few multi-tablers who were able to play 24 tables without causing delays, and were capable of playing even more, but were limited to a maximum of 24.

The problem was that the existing 24-table limit was fixed in stone, and bore no relation whatsoever to how capable a multi-tabler a person actually was. People are different - one player might struggle to play 4 tables without slowing the game, while another can play 24 tables easily without causing a significant delay. The only real solution, therefore, is to have a table cap that is different for each player, and which takes into account how capable the player is of multi-tabling without causing delays.

It turns out that the average time it takes for a player to respond (to take an action when it is their turn) is about 4.5 seconds. Clearly, if somebody can maintain that speed or better while playing at 24 tables, they should be allowed to play more. However, if somebody is exceeding that time by a significant margin on a regular basis, chances are that they are playing more tables than they can really handle and their table cap should be reduced so that they don't make the game an unpleasant experience for their opponents.

Because nothing like this had been done before in online poker, I designed a configurable rules-based system. Administrators could define a rule like 'If a player's action time is greater than 11000 milliseconds, and they are playing at 10 or more tables, and their existing cap is 10 or higher, then decrease their table cap by 2'. This allowed the company to roll out the system gradually and silently so that they could see the effect that the changes would have in advance of them actually being implemented.

Dynamic Table Limits were rolled out at PokerStars after I left the company in July 2010, and at the time of writing it appears that they are being used quite conservatively (understandable, since some players are not going to like having their table limits reduced). However I expect the system to have a major positive impact on the quality and speed of ring games online in the coming years.

More Information:

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Design Portfolio - Sit & Go Registration Improvements

Sit & Go Registration Improvements
Q1-Q2 2008

A common problem that occurred on PokerStars in 2008 was that you would try to enter a tournament that had a maximum number of entrants (for example, a Sit & Go with a maximum of 9 players), but by the time you had completed the registration process, the tournament had filled up and started, so your registration failed. This was very frustrating for customers who were interested in tournaments that filled very quickly, such as low-stakes or play money STTs.

To counter this problem, I designed a feature whereby the player was offered the opportunity to register in the next available identical event if the tournament had filled up by the time they completed their registration. This allowed the customer to register for a game on the first attempt every time, a huge improvement to usability.

More Information:

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Thursday, November 01, 2012

Design Portfolio - Text Filtering

Text Filtering
Q2 2008

PokerStars Tournament Filter with Text Filter at the Top

It's mid-2008. PokerStars is well-known for its wide selection of tournaments. In fact, there are now thousands of different tournaments every single day, and it is becoming difficult to easily find the ones that interest you in amongst the rabble of tournaments that don't. The simplest way to find the week's flagship event is to scroll through the list of 'Special' tournaments, looking out for an entry with the name 'Sunday Million'.

At the time, PokerStars already had a basic filtering system in place so that users could hide specific games they weren't interested in. For example, to hide Omaha games the user could uncheck the box marked 'Omaha', and users could check another box so that only tournaments that were currently registering or upcoming were shown. But with thousands of upcoming tournaments at any one time, this was of limited use.

While designing the upgraded filter, I made obvious improvements such as allowing the user to filter out specific game formats that didn't interest them (like Turbo tournaments), and some less obvious ones like preventing the player from being able to enter filtering combinations which would have always returned no results. But possibly the biggest lightbulb moment came as a result of playing around with Windows Vista's search feature.

In Windows Vista, the start menu has an integrated search function. You can open the start menu and start typing, and results are shown in real time as you press each key. Microsoft has improved this further in Windows 7 and 8, to the point where you can now open a program or file with as little as three key strokes (for example, opening Word is as simple as pressing the Windows key, followed by 'W' and then Enter).

Many tournaments on PokerStars, including all of the flagship events, have names. I realised that with a similar type of search mechanism to Windows Vista, you could find a specific tournament like the Sunday Million with trivial ease. All you'd have to do is start typing the word 'Sunday', and voilĂ , there was your tournament. With the addition of a boolean NOT to remove keywords that you were not interested in, this became a very powerful feature.

More information:

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Design Portfolio - Index of Features


This is the index for a series of posts which will come together to form a portfolio of the features I have worked on over the course of my career in software design. In my time in the industry, I have led the development of new software features at PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, the two largest poker rooms in the world. The features I have designed reach an audience of hundreds of thousands of unique customers every day.

Although I've been designing and programming games my whole life (starting with text-based adventure games in BASIC and then side-scrolling platform games in Klik & Play and The Games Factory as a kid), I fell into designing features for PokerStars by accident. I'd shown an interest in new software features and had experience in interaction design from University, so I was given the opportunity to design a number of small features - which eventually developed into a career.

Over the course of my career I have worked on hundreds of software features for PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and others. However, for some of these features I simply led the design team. I'm only including features in this index if I conceived the idea myself, or was substantially involved the design and/or implementation of the product.

One final note - due to the unfortunate events of 2011, many of the features that I conceived and designed at Full Tilt Poker have not yet been released. To preserve the confidentiality of these projects they will not be included here until they are publicly announced.

Features I Conceived and Designed

The following features were my own original creations:

Features I Designed

The following features were designed by me:

  • Several not-yet-released features - Full Tilt Poker - Q1 2011 to Q3 2012
  • 'Edge' Loyalty Program - Full Tilt Poker -  Q4 2011 to Q2 2012
  • Double and Triple Chance Tournaments - Full Tilt Poker - Q1 2011
  • Cap Tables - PokerStars - Q2 2010 to Q3 2011
  • Detached Chat - PokerStars - Q3 2009 to Q3 2010 
  • Synchronised Tournament Breaks - PokerStars - Q3 2009
  • Game Speed Improvements - PokerStars - Q3 2009
  • Notes Improvements (Colour Coding and Visibility) - PokerStars - Q3 2009
  • Show Hole Cards When All-In Option (Ring Games) - PokerStars - Q2 2009
  • Sit & Go Rematch - PokerStars - Q2 2009
  • Auto Add-On (Tournaments) - PokerStars - Q2 2009
  • Milestone Hands Countdown - PokerStars - Q1 2009
  • Team Pro Visibility - PokerStars - Q4 2008 to Q3 2009
  • Bounty Tournaments - PokerStars - Q4 2008 to Q3 2009
  • Multi-Currency Accounts and Games - PokerStars - Q4 2008 to Q1 2010
  • Datamining Control - PokerStars - Q4 2008
  • Auto Rebuy and Add-On (Ring Games) - PokerStars - Q3 2008
  • Fold and Show - PokerStars - Q2 2008 to Q3 2011
  • Time Zone Support - PokerStars - Q2 2008
  • Ring Game Highlighting - PokerStars - Q1 2008 to Q1 2009
  • Black Lobby Theme - PokerStars - Q4 2007 to Q1 2008