Second Step For Fixing The Online Poker Ecosystem Problem: Fixing It

Six Months After Lobby Overhaul, Full Tilt Still Reeling

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Changes to the Full Tilt lobby and loyalty scheme have done little to reverse the site’s multi-year downswing.

That’s per the latest Scouting Report, a twice-weekly analysis publication published by

Full Tilt falls out of top 10

Full Tilt’s decline since relaunching as a Rational Group brand in late 2012 has been nothing short of momentous, vastly exceeding the falloff of the dot-com industry as a whole.

Full Tilt Rankings

Although liquidity on the site declined heavily following an initial marketing blitz, Full Tilt managed to hover around the top 3 online poker sites and networks well into 2014, only briefly falling to sixth (and occasionally seventh place) during the slow summer months.

Matters took a turn for the worse the following year. As the Scouting Report states, “the 2015 seasonal decline was unkind to the site as liquidity dropped a staggering 43% in the first few months of the year,” – a falloff that may have been fueled in part by a 20 percent reduction in reward points for UK customers, not to mention an increase in the amount of monthly rake players needed to generate to maintain/reach VIP levels.

That summer, Full Tilt fell to eighth place for the first time in the Rational era. Around the same time, Full Tilt’s managing director Dominic Mansour announced that the site would be heading in a radical new direction. Among the listed changes were a revamp of the cash game lobby, a rake hike at the micro and high stakes levels and the introduction of a new rewards scheme.

The cash game lobby overhaul went live on July 28, and in the following two weeks, liquidity dipped an additional 20 percent, ultimately resulting in Full Tilt finding a new floor as the tenth most popular online poker site.

Although the elimination of less popular poker variants and high stakes games undoubtedly played a significant role in the sharp decline, Full Tilt’s liquidity troubles were likely compounded by disgruntled regulars abandoning the site for greener pastures.

Full Tilt implemented the second phase of its revamp in August, when it split its existing loyalty program into two tiers: the Players Club, which was geared toward recreational and net depositing players, and the retooled Edge Rewards program, which saw its rakeback capped at 20 percent, and required regulars to maintain higher rolling points averages.

The changeover initially sparked some renewed interest in the site, as cash game traffic leaped 7 percent from late August to the end of September. Any gains were short-lived however, as liquidity declined slightly throughout most of the seasonal growth period.

As per the Scouting Report, since the loyalty changes went live “traffic is down an additional 4%, compared to industry growth of 17%.”

At the time of the report’s writing last Friday, Full Tilt resided in twelfth place. It currently sits in thirteenth behind U.S.-facing WPN.

So what went wrong?

Although Full Tilt’s stance against bumhunting and mass multi-tabling was generally tolerated by the hardcore poker community (and revered by many net depositing players), the changes to Edge Rewards and the rake structure were highly unattractive.

Granted, the rake cap hike at the highest stakes shouldn’t have surprised. Increases of this nature have become the preferred choice of operators, as they only have a minimal impact on a small segment of players, all the while freeing up funds that can be spent on new promotional and marketing vehicles.

However, because the hike was paired with the odd decision to raise the rake percentage at the penny stakes from 5 percent to between 5.56 percent and 6.25 percent, the increases came off as a sheer money grab, especially considering that Full Tilt’s rake was already high compared to other operators.

Together with the decrease in Edge Rewards rakeback/cashback and increase in loyalty tier requirements, the revamp had regulars crying foul.

And rightfully so. Compare the changes on Full Tilt to the loyalty scheme changes on PokerStars that currently have players up in arms. Even after the changes, PokerStars has a far more lucrative loyalty program, a lower rake, tons more liquidity and gaming options and more net depositing player-friendly promotions.

Lets “not” make a deal

Yet despite all the negative changes on Full Tilt, I’d argue that the overhaul could have worked if the site had concocted a better plan to attract and retain players new to the game.

Instead, its grand revelation was The Deal – a progressive jackpot card game that allowed Players Club members to exchange their Coins (earned at a rate of 1 Coin per dollar paid in rake/entry fees) for spins.

Problem was, the majority of the time players who spun the wheel would come up empty, effectively reducing their rakeback to 0 percent, but more importantly, dissuading them from trying again.

In fact, the odds are so stacked against players that The Deal, like the rake increases at the micros and the rakeback caps, comes across as a money making vehicle – not a means by which to infuse “fun” into online poker.

Even if the consolation prize were, say, a satellite ticket valued at $0.02, it would incentivize players to continue playing the game, as they would be guaranteed some sort of material reward.

Not that the new loyalty perks are being advertised anyhow. There are various accounts from players that the Full Tilt marketing team is inundating player inboxes with casino flyers, yet poker-focused emails are nearly non-existent.

None of this is to say that Full Tilt hasn’t been at least slightly successful at catering to net depositing players. Case in point: The Weekly Windfall, which awards $5k freeroll tickets and randomized mystery prizes to players who frequent the tables, is a clever incentive program with very playing manageable requirements.

But it’s just a start.

Still too early to call overhaul a failure

Given that the industry has been reeling for the better part of five years now, six months is hardly an adequate timeline to gauge the ultimate success or failure of a significant paradigm shift.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise if the industry took another two years just to reach a stabilization point.

That being said, unless smaller operators are content to cede the poker arm of their business in favor of casino and sportsbook, they must go further than merely recognizing that the online poker ecosystem is out of whack.

Give Full Tilt credit for crossing that threshold. Yet, the narrative here is that the approach to balancing the poker ecosystem is even more crucial to the sustainability of the industry than the acknowledgement that there is a problem.

- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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