PokerUpdate: Steven, how did you get your start in the industry? Tell us about your role at PokerTracker.
Steven McLoughlin: Although I have been playing poker for 11 years, it was only six years ago that I joined the management team at Two Plus Two Interactive, where I was instrumental in the growth of the popular poker forum. PokerTracker was one of my advertising clients at the time and we developed a close working relationship, which carried on after I left Two Plus Two. I have been a part of the PokerTracker executive team ever since. I am the voice of the company, but the real strength of PokerTracker is in our team of developers and support representatives—they are the lifeblood of our business, the backbone of the platform.
PU: When PokerTracker 3 was released it was burdened with problems. It was glitchy and only a handful of sites supported the first versions.
PokerAce HUD had bought out PokerTracker between the release of PT2 and PT3. With competing products in play, PT3 was rushed to market. Has the development and release of PT4 been smoother?
SM: PokerTracker 3 was brand new code. Nothing from PokerTracker 2 could be retained as we moved to a unified C++ development platform in preparation for cross-platform compatibility (Windows & OS X). Because we were using a new code, we did not discover many bugs until after the application was released. Finding solutions for the initial bugs was complicated by the requests for new features. This was an issue we did not have during our beta testing process for PT4.
Over time these problems were all solved, but we fully acknowledge that this left some of our active users with a sub-optimal initial experience. We learned from these errors, and we assured ourselves and our users that we would not make the same mistakes again with the release of PokerTracker 4. The company has since grown to be the No. 1 selling poker software application in the world. We have changed our development and testing process with the release of PokerTracker 4, and it’s fair to say that the rock-solid stability of PT4 has been welcomed by all facets of the poker community.
PT4 was built using the modular code we developed for PT3 as the foundation. This allowed us to focus our attention on new tools and user interface, rather than recreate the wheel. We had a very lengthy public beta release where we incorporated more than 16,000 players who were providing regular feedback on the stability of our software, along with ideas for improvements. This is the primary reason why PokerTracker 4 works so well; we would not be here today without the input of our beta testers. It is interesting to note that the beta test was only available through hidden links in forums, Facebook, and Twitter. There was no link to the beta on our homepage.
PU: Interesting. Why the hidden beta testing? Explain this approach.
SM: A pre-release beta is only suited for users who have the patience and experience to work with our developers to improve the application. We intentionally limited the number of potential users because we wanted to only encourage testers that understood the risks of a beta and were willing to provide good feedback. There were times during the beta where our testers were required to completely re-import their databases as we made structural changes to the backend SQL server queries. This process is not suited for most players. I think it is safe to say that we could have exceeded 100,000 testers if we promoted it on our homepage. The buzz around PokerTracker 4 was very positive even during the beta stage.
PU: What’s been your biggest surprise and disappointment since release?
SM: The biggest surprise is how many users have switched to PokerTracker 4 from Holdem Manager. We expected some movement, but were caught off-guard by the numbers we have seen. Another surprise is how quiet some of our support threads on places like Two Plus Two have been, even though sales have exceeded all of our expectations. If you make an application that doesn’t need as much support, then naturally the requests for support will be diminished, but we could not have predicted this. As for disappointments, I think we can work to improve the website interface to provide easier access to our support guides at PokerTracker.com. This is on our upcoming agenda.
PU: How was PokerTracker able to get support for PokerStars’ Zoom immediately, while Hold’em Manager initially struggled? Same for Microgaming’s anonymous tables.
SM: It would be fun to claim that we have some secret technology, but in reality it’s just because PokerTracker has a fantastic development team that does its homework. We can support any currency, including play money, which allowed us to gain a first-to-market advantage for Zoom. This differs from our biggest competitor, which only supports the primary currencies and at times requires separate stats/fields for each one. PokerTracker 4’s currency system incorporates “Game Currency” that can be separate from the system-wide “My Currency”. We can then convert on the fly using the daily bank rate. Additionally, we have worked hard to develop close relationships with all of the networks we support. This lets us ask critical questions when necessary, and send bug reports directly to their developers when we find issues that affect HUD and tracking integration.
PU: PokerTracker 4 finally includes a range of currencies other than USD. Have you seen an increase in use on European networks?
SM: The difference between PokerTracker 3 and PokerTracker 4 is the full integration of My Currency conversion into the reports. PokerTracker 3 also included a full range of currency options, but they required the addition of a stat to the report. One of the major changes we made to PokerTracker 4 was to assure that our end users did not have to spend as much customizing their workspace. We do all the hard work for you now. We learned this from our experience with PokerTracker 3: keep the interface simple and productive—players just want to play, not tweak with settings.
Our currency strategy allows us to support players around the world. For example, a user in Russia can play using the Game Currency of Rubles, US Dollars, or Euros over multiple skins, yet have all My Currency accounting in his or her native Rubles. PokerTracker is the only tracking application that has this ability, and we do it in a totally seamless way so the user doesn’t need to think about these issues. Although the US dollar continues to be the dominant currency for online poker, that will not always be the case as more markets become regulated. PokerTracker is ready. For example, we already are starting to work with Chinese poker rooms.
PU: Commenting on 888’s eighth successive quarter of revenue growth, chief executive Brian Mattingley said:
“Our poker product is attractive to the casual player, and that’s our market…we actually encourage the fish to come into our pool and we dissuade sharks, or professional poker players.”
You’re famous for taking feedback, integrating ideas from poker pros. But forget the grinders for a minute. How do you expand your appeal to “the casual player”?
SM: In many ways Brian Mattingley shares a similar mindset with us. Our software is designed to encourage casual players to become more engaged and learn from their own mistakes through post-game review. The best players poker rooms can attract are net-depositing recreational ones that continue to be major rake generators even as they continue to lose.
Where we disagree is the “sharks” category. This is a fictitious concept that the industry has embraced, and players misunderstand. For the average poker room, winning players represent only 5-to-6% of the player pool. If these sharks are removed from the equation then nothing will change; all we will see is a new group of sharks emerge. The percentage of winning players will remain roughly the same.
We feel that networks should focus on keeping losing players active and engaged rather than on penalizing winning players. Overprotective policies help in the short-term, but do more harm than good for the network’s liquidity in the long run. This type of policy is generally trumpeted by networks that, while offering poker, are primarily casino operators. Their real goal is to assure that fewer players withdraw because that increases the network’s bottom line. Notice that this type of policy is not supported by the big poker-only rooms such as PokerStars or Full Tilt. They understand that the ideal ecology is one where the players naturally push money around the system without interference from the network.
PU: PT4 is designed to be more user-friendly and intuitive. With two clicks you can export hand histories to files, forums and social media.
Are you seeing players upload hands to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? Talk to us about your expansion into the social sphere.
SM: We see PokerTracker as the front line of any operator’s marketing strategy. It allows players to brand a poker room just by uploading a hand replayed to YouTube. We have more social networking functionality that will be added in the coming months. We rarely disclose our future development plans, but it is no secret that we intend to continue to build additional tools for players to communicate with one another via social media outlets. What you see now is just the foundation. Our long-term goal is to empower players to communicate and share their poker experience.
Of course there is more to the future than just social networking. PokerTracker 4 has a multi-year development plan in store, including the release of the OS X version of PT4 as a public beta, which we will be available before the end of this year. In addition, we have interest in quite a few other areas such as:
1) Autotagging will someday replace AutoRating, which was removed in PokerTracker 4. AutoRating was primarily used by beginning players, but if our vision is correct AutoTagging will be used by all players the same way they currently use NoteTracker.
2) Database synchronization in the cloud.
3) The new Overall Results graph to display both cash and tournament play for the first time. We hope to further expand on this concept; for example, we are looking into ways to track player rewards and rakeback that assures long-term accuracy. If we discover the optimal way to implement this data, then we will incorporate it into PokerTracker 4, for sure.
We look forward to the New Year.
PU: Steven, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
SM: Thank you.