Why old poker games rule in new video games

Jon Pill
Posted on: April 06, 2021 03:19 PDT

The latest release of Rust from Facepunch Games has three main additions.

The first is the introduction of gestures to the world of the survival-crafting MMO. These gestures now allow players to flip an enemy the bird right before gunning them down and stealing all their canned beans.

The second addition was an egg hunt just in time for Easter weekend. The third and final addition is the introduction of fully playable poker tables.

These tables allow you to gamble against other players, betting with "scrap" — the in-game currency and crafting material. Your opponents, as in the rest of the game, are real people. The game: a straightforward bout of no-limit hold'em.

"We've added Poker Tables to Bandit Town this month, completing our casino barge overhaul that we started last month," writes the developer on its website. "You'll find a variety of tables supporting anywhere from two to six players. [...] Once you're in a game, use the button prompts on the right of the screen to play. Standard Texas Hold 'Em rules apply. Be sure to take your winnings at the end of your session!"

So, players can mosy on up to the table, deposit at least 100 scrap in the storage box under their seat, and play cards for all the swag.

The whole experience plays out in first-person, with your avatar lifting the cards up and holding them in front of the POV camera. There is also a chatbox while you're at the table, so you can get some table talk going. Or if you want to go the extra mile, the chat is mic-compatible too.

Rust and relaxation

Rust poker tables are an immersive experience, like most of the game. The devs have done their best to make the game feel grounded firmly in a consistent reality. Away from the poker table, players must eat and drink regularly to keep their avatars from shuffling off their mortal coil. This realism is carried over into the realm of poker.

The addition works mostly because poker is a clever variation on the primary gameplay loop, which focuses on collecting scrap and crafting improved tools, weapons, and shelters.

Poker mini-games have been a part of video games for years. Far Cry 3 let you play cards with mercenaries on South Island with bottle caps as chips back in 2012. 2018's Red Dead Redemption 2 put an absurd level of detail into each opponent's tells, growls, and swears when they eventually call you a cheat and take you outside.

But the holy game of poker seems to be having a moment in the more modern world of video gaming.

Battle royale flush

Poker isn't always a straightforward part of some games.

Until Valve stepped in to kill the market, there were sites dedicated to poker games where the stakes were unique weapons, skins, and items for the game of CS:GO.

This week, just as Rust's April update goes live, Grit, a Western-themed Battle Royale game entered Early Access with its new upgrade system. The system is based around poker hands. Players don't play poker, but they collect cards and sort them into hands to increase their character buffs.

Other games, like PokerStars VR and Poker Club, focus exclusively on the game of poker, and simulating the feel of being at a real table. But these feel like niche games.

The appeal of a real poker game in the middle of a game world is far greater to most players than the more specialized poker simulator. There's no simulator with better graphics than your weekly kitchen table poker night.

In some ways, it is somewhat surprising that developers are still opting for poker games.

Gwent is an in-world card game playable in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It is vaguely reminiscent of the Pokemon or MTG card games. Gwent was a surprise hit, spawning its own stand-alone video game and an IRL card game. After that, you might have expected game developers to toss in minigames of their own devising in the hopes of catching a similar bolt of lightning in their own jars. Poker's public domain status puts limits on the marketability of a Grit-based poker site.

Poker has lasted for at least a few hundred years. So perhaps it is not surprising that game devs keep coming back to it when fleshing out the newest and latest games.

Featured image source: Facepunch Studios