Poker and video games have been the closest of companions for decades, which makes a newest-tech approach feel inevitable. As simple as the pairing of virtual reality movement and Texas hold ‘em poker seems, PokerStars VR is a fascinating experiment in early access which showcases social interaction and the physicality of card-playing, and ends up much more than the sum of its apparent parts.
New PokerStars VR players enter an enormous lobby structure, with most expectant and obvious VR trappings intact. That means basic teleportation-style movement, disembodied hands, head-tracking, a customizable avatar, and a dearth of eye-popping graphics. From this basic hub, you can spin a large central prize wheel and obtain a stash of chips (later on, you can also spin this wheel every 8 hours for a re-up), then tap your virtual wristwatch to open a menu and search for a table to join.
There’s only one game in town in PokerStars VR, but the hold ‘em on offer is a stable, popular, and reliable poker variant which also inspires the most amount of conversation. That aspect is crucial, because the bulk of the game will find you shoulder to shoulder with internet strangers, all of whom will probably spend each hand yammering, cracking jokes, making lewd gestures, and playing with virtual props.
We’ll get back to those props in a moment, but the live chat functionality in PokerStars VR might be its most daunting and critical feature. It’s a thematically-linked gamble as to the quality of conversation you’ll encounter at a given table, with the VR aspect serving to make the close proximity of strangers even more unnerving and risky. Then again, there is the card game to focus on, and while there’s nothing stopping players from turning off their mic, muting others, and/or outright tuning out of live chat as much as they can, they’d also be missing on the game’s most alluring and chaotic feature, of ongoing commentary and discussion during the rounds of play.
Beyond this emergent dialogue, the props in the game are considerably whacked-out and distracting, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on a player's mood. If you’re hyper-focused on the outcome of each round of betting and the nervousness before the flop, a bouncing ball tossed into your hands or a suds-popping champagne cork flying into your visor could be taken as immersion-killing distractions. It’s all part of the manic feel which the game is trying to impart, though, and joins other random inclusions, like balloons and piñata explosions materializing for high-winning hands, a vibration feature which triggers when you “touch” or fondle another player, a myriad of outfits and hats, and even the weirdly disturbing ability to walk through the poker table itself like a ghost.
The Lucky VR Inc. team should be commended for their standards of oversight, which include close observation to monitor any potential racist or hostile language, promptly booting and outright banning players for shouting epithets or rambling their unwanted sexual advances to others. This means that PokerStars VR isn’t an example of an intensely social online experience where developers are choosing to stand far off to the side and shrug, expecting their community to police themselves, a dynamic which is especially relevant to VR engagements. In other words: the physicality of the augmented space which hosts this interactive community brings with it a potentially threatening and disturbing environment, and the developers seem aware of this challenge, and appear to be meeting it with the seriousness it requires.
Also, since PokerStars VR offers countless tables, there’s nothing wrong with cashing out and searching for another one if a group doesn’t gel or help you feel comfortable, and the playerbase seems large enough to support table-hopping. Once you do find the right group, it’s completely possible, if not expected, to burn through an hour in rapt amusement, throwing props at other players, cracking self-deprecatory jokes as to the quality of a deal, and feeling ceremoniously generous when you take a highly-contested pot. It even feels remarkably good to toss a fold on the table in disgust, or meet someone’s aggressive raise by bitterly throwing the chips directly at their smug cartoon face (don't worry, the chips eventually funnel back to the table properly).
So the physicality is constant, the chat has varying mileage depending on luck and personality, what about the underlying game itself? While there’s a limited tutorial that helps new players get their bearings and find a table, that's all you get, so you need to know the game in advance. Also, the RNG for the cards seems reasonable, while also feeling slightly thumbed to elicit more exciting hands. None of the money is "real" (the developers have tossed around the idea of introducing real-money variants, but this certainly isn’t in the current version) but, just like playing some low-stakes poker with friends, simply having a limited amount of chips to interact with adds an unmistakable immersion. Beyond that, players can interact with each other, lighting each other’s cigars or passing items back and forth, which prompts a surreal and intimate feel; at one of the tables, an apparent romantic couple spent the game caressing each other between turns, which felt like a scene right out of a real casino on a late night.
The different PokerStars VR environments are reasonably diverse, and the assets toe the line between slightly realistic furniture and architecture and cartoonish largesse. It’s clean and easily readable, but also lacks a distinctive personality outside of the aforementioned avatars’ kooky outfits and cosmetics. Essentially, if this wasn’t played in VR, it could be any of a hundred other three-dimensional poker games, and some backgrounds are composed primarily of darkened space surrounding a poker table, though it’s unclear if this is laziness in design or merely placeholder for incoming content.
For players who don’t want to just meander through the in-game menus looking for tables, the PokerStars VR community has been quite active on the game’s official Discord, offering their suggestions for changes, tracking updated leaderboards of top players, and even posting tables looking for others to join. As an Early Access project, the collaborative Discord makes sense, though the hope is that a more thorough integration of these basics with the live game itself will eventually come to pass in a later version.
It’s hard to determine the ideal direction in which PokerStars VR should be orienting on the route to full release. Additional card games of chance like blackjack, or possibly other versions of poker? More props and interactive toys, which would inevitably increase the table noise, but also ramp up the spirited and gleeful chaos? Some kind of an achievement-based tournament structure might give the game a greater sense of purpose but, as it stands, the PokerStars VR experience is surprisingly engrossing. It’s a poker video game where you can laugh directly in another player’s face, take them for all their worth, then celebrate the occasion by placing a tiny donkey down to munch the felt on the table.
PokerStars VR is available now in free-to-play Early Access, on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.