Reality CheckTechnology wiz and PKR.com front man Jez San reveals why he felt compelled to make online poker more real, more social and, most importantly, more fun.
Jez San is the president of PKR Technologies, the brains behind the popular 3D poker website PKR.com. You may not know Jez by name, but if you played computer games in the 1980s and 1990s, you’ve very probably come across his work.
A self-confessed childhood geek and head-down computer introvert, Jez was a hacker during his early teens, but, at 16, decided to change his ways, feeling that computer hacking was not the adult thing to do. He quickly found work in computer security, using his knowledge to advise British Telecom about the hacking tricks he’d learned as well as help fix holes in their security to prevent other hackers breaking through.
Within a year Jez started his own company, Argonaut Software, a vehicle through which he released his first game Skyline Attack. But it wasn’t until two years later, when Jez started to play around with 3D graphics technology, that things really started happening. Starglider, one of the first 3D computer games, was released in 1986 and sold hundreds of thousand of copies, earning Jez a small fortune. “It took a few years to develop in my bedroom, but the royalties allowed me to build Argonaut into a team of people,” he says.
With his star shining brightly, Jez was hot property in the computer games industry. Soon enough, console giants Nintendo got in touch. Argonaut signed a deal to license them 3D technology and teach them how to make 3D games. “We would actually hold classes inside Nintendo teaching their game designers how to make 3D games,” Jez says proudly.
Argonaut went on to develop the 3D game, Star Fox (Star Wing in UK), which was a huge hit, selling three million copies, allowing Argonaut to grow from 15 people to over 100. “Not only did we build the software for the programming inside Star Fox, but we also invented the computer chip that did the 3D graphics technology, which was inside the cartridge,” he continues.
Building on Momentum
Star Fox was followed up by another hit, Croc, the first 3D platform game. But as the technology boom kicked in, Argonaut was under increasing pressure to go public. They did so, raising a lot of money, but they grew too fast. “We had such a massive machine cranking out computer games, and with the markets expecting growth, we had to take big risks,” says Jez. “We took too many and it all came crashing down.”
But there was no stopping Jez. He went on to make another fortune from his involvement with technology company ARC International, among other projects, before becoming increasingly disillusioned with computer games. “I saw many changes in the industry,” he says, “and one of the things that I didn’t like was the shift in power and emphasis from the people who made the computer games to the people that distributed them. So the public never heard about the developers.”
Despite his disillusionment, Jez was awarded an OBE in 2002 for services to the computer games industry—“a huge honour, and important for the video game industry,” he says—but with computer games leaving him cold, he needed a new idea to get his teeth into.
Already a keen poker player, both live and online, he enjoyed the social, fun aspect of the game. But he was frustrated by the weak technology that was powering the online poker rooms. “It was like computer games 20 years ago,” he says. “It was all 2D, lots of text, a very clinical form of the game. It was all about numbers.”
Feeling that online poker was a poor relation to the real-life game—starved of bluffs, taunts, teases and tells—Jez was struck by an idea: what if online poker could be combined with computer game technology? And so he and a talented team of expert friends and former Argonaut staff set about creating a realistic 3D poker game—focusing on making it look like televised poker. They went as far as possible to bring in realism, fun and a strong social element and created a prototype that would go on to become PKR.com.
On PKR, you play as an avatar at a virtual poker table and you can design your character to resemble yourself, a famous person, or even get tactical and design a player that might help your game. Aggressive players might want a feeble, pathetic looking avatar, while cagey, defensive players might want huge, crazy hair and a Hawaiian shirt—whatever suits the image that you want to promote and the information you want to give out (or conceal).
The industry initially dismissed PKR as a gimmick, believing that 3D poker wouldn’t catch on. “Look at what happened in computer games,” says Jez. “We were one of the first doing them in 3D, and people said it was a flash in the pan. And now they’re all 3D, many of them extremely realistic. That’s the way that online gaming is going to go.”
Getting the Word Out
Jez is convinced making online poker more realistic and fun is the right way forward. He likens the approach of other popular poker sites to the way companies market brands of washing powder: “They’re all identical. The only way you can tell the difference between one and another is through good marketing. It was the same for online poker. They all have the same product, just with a few bells and whistles different.”
He strongly believed that until someone actually proved that a better product could make a dent in the market, no one in the existing market was going to imagine it was possible. But PKR has changed all that, due in part to Jez’s emphasis on the entertainment value of the product. The site now has around one million registered players.
“Generally, people don’t play poker to win and they don’t play casino games to win,” he says. “They play it because it’s a leisure activity; because it’s fun and they enjoy doing it. Winning is a bonus, not the goal.” But does this emphasis on fun advertise that PKR is for vulnerable fish? Jez concurs, but isn’t worried as the complex nature of the site makes it harder for pros to use some of the sneaky tricks associated with other sites. “The sharks can come if they want, and I agree, the more fish there are, the more sharks are attracted. But if you read the bulletin boards, the pros like the 2D games where they can have 10 tables open at a time, and fleece as many people as possible using sophisticated tools like Poker Tracker to record every hand. This unlimited memory is practically cheating. Because it’s not just the pro at the table—it’s them plus their arsenal of weaponry.”
Poker-tracking software can’t handle the 3D nature of PKR, and neither can the artificial intelligence of the growing number of bots that play on other sites. For these reasons, Jez feels that PKR offers a more level playing field—one reason why the site has caused such a stir and managed to break even in its first year. “In the tech world, they’d call PKR a ‘disruptive technology’, in that it’s something completely new and different,” he says. “We’ve been growing at about 10 percent a month, which is incredible.”
Home Away From Home
Community is important on PKR too. Parts of the site are styled on social networking websites, with every user having their own homepage showing friend lists, tournaments wins, pictures and blogs. “It’s all integral to the PKR experience,” says Jez. “If anything, we are the gaming social network.” So things are going very nicely with Jez’s first venture into the online gaming world—no doubt he’s the only one in the gambling industry with an OBE as well. But despite being president of PKR, he’s just an investor now. He’s not even on the board. That’s how he likes it. So what’s next for Mr San? “Who knows?” he says. “I always look around and if I see an opportunity, I’ll give people my money and experience and help them succeed with it. I’m an angel investor, or a serial entrepreneur, whatever you want to call it. My job is to help people succeed with companies, not run companies. There are much more talented people to do that.”
And how about the battle for his affections between video games and poker—where does his heart lie now? Firmly with poker it would seem. The self-confessed computer geek has a new first love. “I play poker almost all the time,” he says “I’ll play the odd video game so I stay in touch with it, but it’s poker 99 percent of the time for me now.”
And so if Jez’s business model for PKR continues as it is, he’s much like everybody else playing on the site: fun-seeking, poker enthusiasts, looking for a highly enjoyable game of poker rather than a cold, mathematical way of making money. And there are plenty of us who can relate to that. Poker is a gloriously rich and complex game, and a great way of bringing people together. If PKR helps translate these qualities into the online domain, it can only be a positive step.