A couple years ago, I was on the set of a movie (sick brag, except it’s really not, as I was just a background extra) and struck up a conversation with someone who attended the same graduate school program that I did. When I told him that I was in the poker industry, he was fascinated and was convinced that the next big thing in online poker would be virtual reality. Now, virtual reality online poker hasn’t really become what I would call a “thing” yet, but it does exist and I just so happened to stumble upon it last week. I’ll tell you what: I want this to be a thing.
I have the Oculus Go virtual reality headset, which is a poor man’s Oculus Rift. Whereas the Rift costs $400 and needs a fairly pricey, souped-up PC to plug it into, the Oculus Go costs just $200-$250 (depending on memory) and requires no PC. It’s basically like a mobile phone VR setup, just all built into one device without the need for a phone and a separate headset. It’s not as powerful as the Rift, but it’s a fun entry point into VR.
I was searching through free apps and found something called Poker VR by Mega Particle, so naturally, I had to try it out. It is free-to-play with no real-money gambling of any kind.
The Poker Room Feels Like a Real Place
Upon entering the game, you are placed in a large living room or lounge, a list of tables, as well as an automatic “Play Now” button hovering in front of you. Above the fireplace is your screen name and chip balance, on the left side of the room are displays previewing upcoming tournaments, and to the right is the monthly leaderboard. Like a lot of online poker and social games, you can customize your avatar, which in this case is a full-scale person, not just a picture. Change the gender, hair, clothes, what have you. Some things cost in-game premium currency (I think it’s “gold,” if I recall correctly), which can be earning by leveling up or via real-money purchase. Additional chips can also be purchased with real money.
Once at a table, it is very much what you might expect from a VR poker game – it looks like you are really sitting at a six-handed poker table. There is no visible dealer, though there is the dealer’s position, and you can look around at all the other players. You can even turn all the way around and see the entire poker room; there are actually other tables with real people playing throughout the room.
Sit Down and Play Poker From First-Person Perspective
My first impression was that this is cool as hell. I look down and I see my chair – I can even see people’s feet under the table, as I normally might. My chip stack is to my left, cards are in front of me. To look at my cards, I can either look down or point my controller (the Oculus Go comes with one single-handed controller) at them. When it is my turn to act, a couple boxes float in front of me, giving me the option to check, fold, or call, as the case may be. Board cards are out in the middle of the table, as they are in a real game and if they are hard to see, I can point at them, making them levitate above the table for easier reading. At the end of the hand, the winning hand also levitates above the table, a big display shows who won, how much, and with what hand strength, and then an animation arcs the chips to the winner’s stack.
One neat thing, which I honestly haven’t used because I haven’t been social, is that you can talk to other players with a microphone (which is built-in on the Oculus Go). When players talk, it even moves the mouths of the avatars fairly accurately. I usually mute my mic and often mute others if they leave theirs on with noise in the background (muted players have tape over the avatars’ mouths, which is is a cute touch), but the other day I was watching two players carry on a very normal conversation. They were looking at each other, their mouths were moving, it was pretty clear, very neat.
Software Has Its Quirks
Poker VR isn’t the most robust poker software in the world; seasoned online poker players will be disappointed that it has almost none of the features you would find at PokerStars, partypoker, or the like. It is extremely basic. In tournaments, for example, there is no way (at least I couldn’t find it) to see any information about what is going on. There is no way to see the leaderboard, time remaining in the level, anything like that. You just get warning displays when the blinds are about to increase. You really don’t even know how many players remain – you can count the players around you in the room, but the room only shows so many tables, so if there are more players than the room around you can display, you won’t know how many players are left.
At the table, there are no buttons to select to auto-fold when it’s your turn, so you always have to wait to make your move. The only way to raise is to actually point your controller (hand) at your chip stack and move down the stack. As you slide down the stack, it will count off more chips, and when you press the trigger button on the controller, it makes the bet. This works ok, it’s mimics live play decently and is kind of like the equivalent of a bet slider online, but one problem I have had is that sometimes my hand moves ever so slightly when I press the trigger, so my bet ends up changing by a chip. I might slide down to, say, 200 chips, but when I pull the trigger, my virtual hand moves up, so I end up betting 150.
I also couldn’t figure out how to top off my stack at the cash-game tables, even though I know it is possible to do since I saw someone do it.
There are a couple fun little things at the table that one might find in a social network version of poker, as well. Each person’s level (which I think is essentially based on time played and winning hands) is displayed via a trophy at each seat. I’m at level three right now and my trophy looks suspiciously like the PokerStars logo. Players can also spend a few chips on goofy, animated chachkies that appear in front of them. There is no reason for these except to be fun.
The other problem I ran into was I did well enough in a tournament that my headset gave me the low-battery warning. Fortunately, the device stays on when plugged in and I had a long-enough USB cable that I could stay plugged in and play at the same time. I just had to remember than I was tethered, lest I move too much and break something. I also got a message saying the device was getting too hot and that I should let it rest a bit, but clearly I couldn’t do that mid-tournament.
As mentioned, the software is severely lacking in features that serious poker players would want; it is really just basic hold’em and it does that just fine. And you are not going to multi-table. You are playing one table and you are playing only a bit faster than regular, live speed (dealing and chip counting are obviously faster than in real life). But multi-tabling and speedy play aren’t the point of virtual reality poker. The point is to make it feel like real life. And for the most part, Poker VR does that. The avatars aren’t what I would call life-like, but they aren’t incredibly cartoony, either. Once I got settled in, I did lose myself in the game. The poker room surrounded me. I would watch my opponent as he pondered his move. I might nod at someone in acknowledgement.
Poker VR really is a lot of fun for someone who just wants to enjoy themselves playing fake money poker. With added features, some refinement, and perhaps better VR device battery life, I could definitely see something like this being the future of real-money online poker. For those of us who have to drive several hours to play in a real poker room, virtual reality poker could be the next best thing.