Xbox’s Poker Play Hints at Future TV

Full House Poker is a humble new Xbox 360 game and before I explain why it may represent a path for the future of entertainment, I need to talk about monkeys.

Have you ever heard the theory about the monkeys and typewriters? The scenario goes like this: acquire an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters. Now tell those chimps to get to work. At some point, one lucky little simian will type out the collected works of Shakespeare. Or Danielle Steele. Or both, because that’s what happens when you’re dealing with infinity: remove all boundaries and nearly anything could happen.

The monkey scenario is challenging because humans tend to have a hard time with a concept so tremendously abstract. What if we dealt with a somewhat smaller number? How about 27 million? That’s the number of people who have played the Call of Duty games since the franchise first launched in 2003. Those people are responsible for 2 BILLION hours of gameplay. Human civilization is about 6,000 years old, but in less than a decade, Call of Duty players have spent more than 230,000 cumulative years in the game. And during every hour of gameplay, new stories were being told.

Most of the stories generated within those billions of Call of Duty games were undoubtedly chaotic, disjointed affairs and would be of little or no interest to a viewer who wasn’t also engaged in the game. But I guarantee there were exceptions. I refuse to believe you can go more than a few thousand years without a few fascinating moments of inspiration, valor or humor, even in a bombastic game in which the primary narrative elements are literally bombs. Ultimately, those intriguing moments must have surely transformed a disinterested observer into an engaged viewer.

Should we grieve the loss of those precious few moments that are now lost to the digital ether? Nah. There are easier ways to find and distribute great stories, especially when those moments of glowing narrative are so rare. But what if the content weren’t so polarizing? And what if there was a system in place that let a few savvy curators isolate and frame the best storylines? What if there were ways to generate more frequent narrative serendipity?

It might look a little like Full House Poker.

In addition to the human-vs-computer gameplay that provides the basis for much of the Full House Poker experience, the game features a regularly scheduled live event called Texas Heat. These half-hour tournaments that link players via Xbox Live will be focused according to theme (e.g., costume night, beginners night, pro night, etc.). And here’s how the live tournaments were described by Xbox Live games lead producer Sean O’Connor in a recent interview with Kotaku:

“We have an announcer who comes on, tells you about different things happening in the tournament. We tried to make it feel like a TV show. It’s more about camera angles and call outs.”

All the game is a stage, and in this case, the players are the players. From the Kotaku article: “While playing the tournament, gamers will hear when friends in the tournament do something spectacular, good or bad, O’Connor said. So if a friend plays a particularly bad hand, or bluffs his way to a big win, you’ll hear about it.” As it becomes easier to place a virtual and figurative spotlight on interesting players, it’s easy to imagine human interest stories being developed in an effort to pull the same sort of viewership currently dedicated to broadcast reality programming on TV.
It’s an enticing economic model for content creation. The “actors” (players) pay for the opportunity to compete against one another while serving as the stars of drama or comedy or thriller that unfolds in real time. There isn’t any shortage of game play from which to draw stories – game designer/trendwatcher Jane McGonigal estimates there are 3 billion hours of gaming every week.

Platform owners such as Microsoft and Sony will make increasing use of games-as-content, taking advantage of the human element to enhance additional storytelling through games that already include Hollywood blockbuster-quality sound and visuals.

However, real-time conversation curators and gamers aren’t going to replace directors and actors any time soon. There will be cost efficiencies in “found” content, but waiting to stumble across great content can’t replace all original storytelling methods. We don’t have the infinite time or the infinite monkeys.