Gaming on Facebook isn't new — since the day FarmVille took off, millions of players have been using the social network to get their video game fix. But for the most part, those games have fallen into just a few categories, like farming or city building. Sean Ryan wants to change that. As Facebook's head of game partnerships, Ryan has been working at expanding the types of games available on the platform. It started with new categories like arcade and casino games, which have steadily grown in popularity, but in 2013 Ryan is aiming to do something much more ambitious: get people playing Starcraft and Call of Duty-style games on Facebook. Before that can happen, he'll need to convince a highly skeptical audience that it's even possible to play high-end games on a social network.
"They have shown that they're keen to raise the bar a little bit."
Shooters and strategy games aren't an entirely new concept on the platform, but with its new initiative Facebook is hoping to entice more developers to bring these kinds of experiences to the network. "We spent part of last year and into 2013 working with developers, and working on our platform features, to see what would we need to do to ensure a better supply of great games for this category," Ryan explains. Improved technologies like the latest version of the Unity game engine, released in November, and Flash 11, have helped make 3D browser games not only better technically, but also more accessible thanks largely to their sheer ubiquity. The process has already started: late last year the first person shooter Offensive Combat launched in open beta, though Ryan says it's too early to tell whether or not the game is a success. But soon Offensive Combat will be joined by a number of other titles aimed at the same demographic. Plenty of new games will launch on Facebook this year, but the company is working with around ten developers to help promote what Ryan describes as "best of breed examples" of more hardcore game experiences.
One such game is nWay's ChronoBlade, a Diablo-style action role playing game set to debut on Facebook later this spring. nWay CCO Dave Jones — who has previously worked on games ranging from the original Grand Theft Auto to Crackdown on the Xbox 360 — says that the studio has been in close contact with Facebook throughout the development process. "They have shown that they're keen to raise the bar a little bit and broaden the breadth of gaming that's available on the platform," says Jones. "But at the same time, they acknowledge that there are challenges there, and so do we."
Among those challenges is the issue of discoverability, as finding new games can often be a difficult task — and finding good games on Facebook is even harder. Facebook is attempting to remedy this through improvements to its App Center, where it can not only highlight quality new releases, but also allow players to browse games in specific genres. While shooters may not have caught on quite yet, Ryan believes that there's definitely an audience amongst Facebook's claimed quarter of a billion gamers. "The first focus we always have is making sure our partners are delivering great games. That, at the end of the day, is what drives all adoption adoption," Ryan explains. "But the second part of that is making sure that they have the ability to find games themselves."
"If you have a really good game, I think gamers will go to it."
But the biggest issue might be just audience itself: many of the players Facebook is hoping to attract are skeptical of the social network as a gaming platform. It's an issue both Facebook and developers are aware of, and both seem to believe that quality is the key to getting through to these players. "I don't think there's anything we can say to change that," says Jones of Facebook's perception amongst many traditional gamers. "I think at the end of the day, if you have a really good game, I think gamers will go to it. I fully expect there to be some vocal naysayers, but I do think they'll be in the minority."
"Maybe it's time to try and take them to the next level."
Like the rest of Facebook, the new initiative will focus not only on the desktop side of the network, but also on mobile. ChronoBlade, for instance, will debut on Facebook in the spring before making its way to smartphones and tablets later on. Ryan cites the success of the saccharine puzzle game Candy Crush Saga as an example of a game that managed to become popular on Facebook first, before eventually spreading to both Android and iOS, where it regularly sits near the top of the highest grossing app charts. He says that this success happened "not just because it's a great game — which it is — but because they had all of those users on Facebook who could now connect to their friends on mobile. We expect to see the same thing in core and mid-core."
Despite being home to millions of gamers and titles that have become household names, there's still a stigma attached to gaming on Facebook for many — and the steady decline of its biggest name, Zynga, isn't helping. But by actively bringing quality releases to the social network, Facebook may be able to change the way the platform is perceived, while simultaneously attracting a lucrative new audience. Of course, it will take some time before we can determine whether or not the experiment is a success. With games that are free-to-play in a web browser, Facebook has managed to build a large audience of players. And now that the audience is there, the question is whether or not they want to do something more than tend crops. "Now that everybody's playing games, and we know everybody enjoys games," says Jones, "maybe it's time to try and take them to the next level."