Facebook And Games: Can The Social Network Turn All Of Us Into “Gamers,” Or Are We Already?

Yesterday, I spent some time with the folks who bring games to life on Facebook. Love ’em or hate ’em, there are a lot of people who like to hang out on the social network and play turn-based games. Sure, it can get annoying, with all of the notifications and requests, but Facebook is apparently trying to do something more than annoy you. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that games weren’t doing as well as he’d like on the platform, but all hands are on deck to change that.

What Facebook thinks is that everyone is a “gamer” given the right people are involved with the right game. Be it a word game or an in-depth one like Zynga’s Ville’s that make me want to kick someone’s pig, The idea of turning everyone into a gamer isn’t new, Nintendo has been doing this for years and years. In fact, my Mom and Stepdad are pretty darn good at Wii Bowling. Really good, actually. More than 251M people are playing games on Facebook each month, which is a 10% growth since last year. Currently there are 130 games with more than 1M monthly active players each. Take that, consoles.

During a game developer’s meetup in its headquarters in Menlo Park, Facebook discussed some of the latest and greatest stats and trends that will help incentivize and excite folks to crank out new types of games, in different genres, to get Facebook’s social juice. It was quite an impressive turnout, and after the talks, I got to sit down with a few very key members of the Games team.

Going into Facebook, I let them know that I’m not a gamer. I don’t really have the time or the attention span to play FarmVille. In fact, I find it quite annoying. Knowing that, a lot of the questions that I asked had to do with how Facebook can turn people who don’t consider themselves into gamers as people who casually play a social game now and then.

Clearly, this is something Facebook is working very hard on.

Sean Ryan, Director of Games Partnerships at Facebook, used to work at Sega, News Corp Games and started a few small companies focusing on virtual world categories of games. The man has done this his whole career, and we talked about how Facebook is adopting that legacy approach to games as well as starting over with its own new fresh approach.

We play a lot of games

Yes, the Facebook Games team is definitely ingrained in the gaming culture, playing tons of games in many different genres. The team is distributed, Ryan tells me, holding these sessions with developers in Moscow, Tel Aviv, Singapore and Dublin. They get around.

How do you get a gig working with Facebook Games? Simple, Ryan explains:

The key thing is do you love to play games? The metric we follow is that people play 10 different games each week to see what’s new and hot. Different people are matched up with genres based on their interests. It’s fun but they’re not always good games, they “different” games. We’re not here to tell developers how to build the games, but we help them with how to fit in the social layers and put in monetization. Also to get feedback on how we can improve our platform.

Facebook has shifted from being a wild west for games to a more structured source for things that might interest you. One big way was with the App Center, a place where people can go to browse games, read reviews and find out which ones their friends are playing. For me, those are the only games I end up trying…the ones they vouch for, and don’t obsessively play. I asked Ryan about the App Center, and Facebook’s reasoning for it:

App center came from our core game developers. Our users don’t like to share as much in their feed, so we thought about how can people help developers’ games get found? Strategy games and hardcore games fit a very small niche, people that know what they’re looking for, but we needed to help them on how discover them better. App Center has high quality referrals, basic block and tackle stuff. We want to enable all types of games.

All types of games, he mentions. That means that Zynga shouldn’t own the social network gaming penetration like it has for the past few years. I personally find all of Zynga’s games to be annoying and similar to that of a shady casino. The company isn’t shy about trying to hook you for life until all you do is water your virtual flowers. But there are other games. The games that excite me are ones I can collaboratively tinker around with when I have a few moments, within groups of my friends.

That’s why Facebook recently announced a new feature for developers to integrate into games, the ability to set up and maintain Facebook Groups for all different sorts of genres. Ryan explains:

Games with friends are great for groups, raids and such. The classic Warcraft clans have 150 people in them, we look at the platform in that way. The team is spending a lot of time on unity right now, how we can be better ourselves as partners for developers, and make sure that they have a greater integration with all Facebook channels. Thats what we spend a lot of time on as well as playing a lot of games

How to keep away from App Center gaming

Gaming an app store is nothing new, just ask Apple. The company has had to deal with people literally building companies that focus on helping apps drive up the charts “artificially” through incentivized download programs for consumers. It’s annoying and it’s something that Apple needs to fix.

The way around making the experience better for Facebook users is providing and surfacing real, awesome context around why they might like a certain game:

We do our best with putting social context on everything that we do. We have the rating system that is something that’s not easily gamed. Great indie games and great big games are finding an audience. As long as you speak authentically with the audience, things will work out. Engagement is essential.

Working side-by-side with game developers

The way to get game developers to adopt new features is to keep them in the loop at all times and not drop new things in their lap with minimal instructions or obnoxiously long documentation. Facebook tries to avoid this by keeping in contact with developers all of the time. In fact, the entire team makes itself available whenever they’re around to answer a question.

The Product Manager of Games at Facebook, Gareth Davis, gave me a bit of insight on how he works with those developers, having been one himself since an early age, then going on to EA, and developing titles for Sega. He shared:

I’ve worked in games for most of my career, the only time I wasn’t when I was in movies. I started out as a game developer, taught myself how to code when I was a kid, and then developed a game as a teenager. It was a game called “Suspicious Cargo: Out of luck in outer space.” Gremlin published it in Europe. I got hooked on the industry, relocated to Silicon Valley, where games grew up and worked for a bunch of companies here, and I even worked with the guy who built Tetris. Pretty much every Summer I had as a kid was lost in a game. I played Tetris on a Gameboy all day every day.

Davis has been at Facebook for 4 1/2 years, and for a while he was the “Games team.” He truly wants developers to be able to take their time and make something fun, with small or large teams involved, and then find a way to make money from it so that they can do it again. Only a game developer could think in that way, and that’s Davis.

Facebook changes the gaming industry by injecting social functionality into it, and Davis was there from day 1:

In ’08/’09 a new industry was created, people were really excited about it. We had a ton of new games. It became a big industry and ecosystem with millions of players, and it was an incredible experience. Having been in the shoes of the game developers, staying up late and putting your heart and soul into a creative a product, to empathize with game developers, bringing games to the masses like this is a dream come true.

It’s not just Davis anymore, as he told me that Facebook has a “small team with large impact” all over the world working with all teams at the company, as well as those game developers that work so hard. His primary focus is to see what’s working for games, gather feedback and then continually iterate on the platform to make sure that everyone gets to see the same success:

We work very very fast and ship things every week and in some cases every day. Because we’re a web service we can iterate quickly using the feedback from our partners. In terms of adoption, every developer will look at the feature-set out there, some make sense for some games and some don’t. If you have a game with clans and alliances it’s a no-brainer to integrate groups. These groups are being created already, but how do we link it into the game and drive people to the game? That’s why we built it.

How can Facebook keep moving so quickly without losing the attention and adoption from its more than one billion users? Davis says that the majority of the users, especially ones that play games, are used to the change and that he feels like Facebook does a good job of making it a really great experience and not a pain when something new pops up:

Everything is a living-breathing product that we’re iterating on, and a ton of discovery on Facebook comes through people. We’ve had all of these channels in the system since day one, that’s why we can get audiences of tens of millions playing a game. App Center, for example, is just an additional way to do that. If you’re looking for a game to play, this is a place to go where you can discover them.

But how can the entire world be gamers if they’re not?

As I stated, I’m not a gamer. I don’t consider myself who can even say that playing games is a hobby. But I will admit that spending a few minutes, or hours, sometimes on a new game is rewarding and fun. Sure, I work really hard and I’m an edge case, but I know a lot of other people in the same boat.

Davis suggests:

The big thing that Facebook introduced to the world is that everybody likes to play games but most people don’t consider themselves a gamer. The beauty of many Facebook games, you ask them if they’re playing a game, and they say no I’m just hanging out and talking and having fun. A lot of games on Facebook have made that experience prominent.

Hanging out and having fun. On Facebook. Sounds like something that a lot of people do. Are you playing a game while you’re hanging out? You might be, but you might not consider yourself a gamer. That’s ok. We all like to have fun. Will i start playing a ton of games? Probably not, but I might hang out in a group chat while others do. And who knows, maybe I’ll stop being so shy and go play with them.

[Photo credit: Flickr]