Telegram levels up its bot platform with competitive games that live inside chats

The messaging wars are really a battle for attention. It’s all about which comms app giant can embed the stickiest and most addictive features into their platform to keep users inside their own well-tended garden, rather than peering over the wall at rivals’ plots.

In Facebook’s case today, that means launching a pared down version of its Messenger app to try to extend the edges of its messaging empire to markets where users may not have great Internet and/or a high end smartphone.

But, also today, messaging app Telegram is going the other way: announcing it’s powering up on the chatbot front with the launch of what it dubs a “bot-powered gaming platform” in a bid to try to drive more engagement via addictive new features.

The v3.13 update is now live for Android Telegram users to download, and will also land in the App Store for iOS users today.

Integrated HTML 5 games inside chats

While devs building for Telegram’s open platform could already make text-based bot games for the app — see, for example, PokerBot or WerewolfBot —visually appealing games to live inside chats on the platform.

“You can now use bots to play games in your chats, complete with graphics and sound,” Telegram writes in a blog post announcing the new feature.

Examples it showcases in the post include a math based challenge game, called MathBattle, that it says its own developers built in three hours, and a football game called Football Star, built by a third party.

Other examples shown in the post include time-challenge games — such as Corsairs, where you have to see how long you can avoid being shot, or, in the case of Lumberjack, avoid being crushed by falling tree branches.

Telegram bot gaming platform Corsairs

So basically this is super simple mobile games embedded into the chat window and made inherently competitive thanks to an automatic running tally of your contacts’ scores that Telegram’s API enables.

“The best part of the Telegram Gaming Platform is the competition across all your existing chats. We save high scores for every game played in every chat, and you can instantly check out how you and your friends are doing against each other. Every time there’s a new leader in the game, other playing members of the chat are notified that they need to step it up,” it notes.

There’s about 30 games at launch, with the vast majority made by third party games developer Gamee. Albeit Telegram is obviously hoping for lots more to flood in — suggesting today that “hundreds” are in the pipeline.

“While these demos look basic, Telegram games can be anything from simple arcades and puzzles to multiplayer 3D-shooters and real-time strategy games,” it adds.

Betting big on bots

Telegram was a relatively early mover in the chatbot space, launching a bot platform back in June 2015 — months before the likes of Facebook and Line got in on the action, although lagging China’s WeChat platform (which has had automated accounts since 2013).

The question of how popular bots end up being with users of messaging apps in the Western world remains to be definitively answered at this nascent stage. Really that depends on whether bot makers can prove their creations have staying power and offer more than a bit of gimmicky novelty. And so far, despite all the hype, bots have been fairly underwhelming.

Telegram hasn’t quantified user engagement with bots via any solid metrics as yet. And it’s fair to say that Facebook Messenger’s early clutch of chatbots roundly failed to impress — it’s since tried to hone the user experience to dial down user confusion, so a fairly inauspicious start there.

Add to that Telegram, and most recently Line, has been actively trying to encourage developers to build “useful bots”, offering cash prizes as a lure. So it seems safe to file much of this chatbot activity under ‘work in progress’ at this stage.

That said, combining bots with gaming seems a smart move — with the potential to convert group chats into competitive, multiplayer gaming sessions with minimal effort (with the caveat that it might also get really annoying, a la FarmVille Facebook spam, from back in the day) — and thereby ramp up messaging engagement as friends battle it out to see who has the fastest mental arithmetic or dodging skills or history knowledge or whatnot.

Telegram is pitching developers to port existing HTML5 games to its platform to quickly build out the number of games its hosting — touting the process as quick and easy.

“The new API is pretty straightforward, so any developer of an existing HTML5-based game can integrate it with the Telegram social graph and competitive leaderboard in a matter of a few hours,” co-founder Pavel Durov tells TechCrunch.

On the user side, to access gaming bots within a chat a user needs to @ the relevant bot to get instructions on how to start playing. For example, to launch the MathBattle bot a Telegram user types @gamebot into any chat and then selects ‘MathBattle’.

The platform automatically keeps tabs on scoring, maintaining a competitive leaderboard across all their contacts and gaming titles in play. And this is where Durov reckons things will get really sticky.

“I think the competitive factor is a game changer here,” he says. “Since every group chat can now be instantly turned into a competition in anything. It can even become a competition in History or Math.”

Let’s just hope things don’t get really spammy. Choose your games (and your Telegram contacts) wisely.

Gamee’s CEO and co-founder Bozena Rezab side-steps a question about how long it took the company to reincarnate 23 of its existing HTML5 titles as Telegram bots, noting only that it already had a lot of experience with social gaming. But she was happy to talk up the potential of melding bots and games — dubbing it a “new era in casual gaming”.

“It is very exciting to play games in the environment, where communication with friends happens,” she said via email. “Telegram has the most advanced inline bot API, which makes it possible to play and compete with groups of friends directly in the chat, no barriers.”

How is Gamee intending to monetize its Telegram gaming bots? The short answer is it’s not — at least not right now. “We do not focus on monetization here at this point,” she said.

So that’s another question mark over the longevity of bots — at least until a mechanism arrives for monetizing them. However Durov has previously said a payments mechanism is coming for Telegram bots this year, and he confirms to TechCrunch that the team is still on track for a 2016 launch. So devs will be hoping they won’t have too long to wait.

Telegram also claims its new gaming platform doesn’t bloat the platform — requiring in its words “0 bytes of disk space”. “The underlying technology is HTML5, so games are loaded on-demand as needed, just like ordinary webpages,” it adds.

Support wise, the new chatbot-powered games will work on iPhones 4 and newer and on Android 4.4 devices and newer. Users will need Telegram v3.13 to be able to play.

This post was updated to correct the version number supporting bot games to v3.13