What's the Future of Canvas?
So far, we agree that there's a transition of players onto the mobile version of Facebook; many of these players are now playing the native app versions of Facebook games; and that Facebook itself has recognized and supported this transition. So what's the future of Canvas? Still pretty bright, say these big players. It won't be completely eclipsed anytime soon.
"We still see growth on Canvas and obviously it's still bigger, but the growth on mobile is extremely fast," says Begemann. "The PC will become less important, and with that the browser, and with that Canvas. But that's really mid-term."
Ryan is even more blunt. "What we find in general is everybody who thinks the PC market is declining hasn't looked at the research," he says.
Out of all of those interviewed, Begemann is the biggest believer in a permanent shift. "I think that really, if you look long term, tablets are replacing the PC for consumers. I think this is the third computer revolution," he says, after the 1980s transition to desktop PCs, and the 1990s shift to GUIs.
Zacconi also thinks the move to tablets is real. "I believe this shift is happening, yeah," he says. But he also sees it as a gradual move. "If you think that the projection is that 20 percent is going to be substituted, this means basically that computers will stay around for a long time still," he said, speaking of reports that suggest even this relatively small shift will not occur until late 2014.
"Interestingly, what we have seen now, people who start playing on their computer and then continue their gameplay on their smartphone, actually, the smartphone usage is extending their gameplay rather than cannibalizing on the PC usage," says Zacconi.
Begemann agrees, but feels that pattern can't last forever. "So far it's more additional, but as this grows and becomes the default device, it's a substitute," he says, while indicating an iPad.
"In two years or so, maybe the laptop is broken, or it's kind of outdated, and I believe they won't replace it. I think that people who are buying a tablet now, as a private person, won't replace their laptop. They will phase out their existing laptop and they will maybe upgrade in two years to the next generations of tablets," says Begemann. "I think that's what's happening."
Ryan's less sure. "And that's the funny thing -- is we all sit around and we say, 'You know what, mobile is taking over the world. It's growing like crazy,' but if you look at the most recent research, whether it's Gartner or IDC or others, it's that the PC market generally continues to expand for games. And it's a big, big market," he says.
Not everyone buys this, though. "We do believe the tablet is the ultimate game platform with the only true mass-market audience that combines both casual and core gamers," says Harper. "I'm not sure at what point in the future we will see the greatest amount of revenue or largest player base on tablet, but that day will most certainly come."
"When we talk to developers, which we spend most of our days doing, their general feeling is that in this current stage of the market it's incremental, but I think we've seen this in other market segments where the early days seem incremental," Ryan says, drawing a comparison to Netflix, which has come to dominate streamed video, and has destroyed the brick and mortar video rental industry. "You never know until hindsight when that becomes cannibalistic, but in the short to medium term early stage lifecycle, everything expands."
Still, even with his rosy outlook for the PC, Facebook is preparing for a future in which the casual players who make up the bread and butter of its audience are playing primarily on mobile devices. "I think Canvas will become more heavily concentrated in higher-end games that are more immersive. So we're spending a great deal of time working with Adobe on Flash 11 and with Unity on Unity, as we see the rise of 3D gaming that is generally better on a larger screen then on a smaller screen," says Ryan.
Feeling the Pressure
An answer to the question, if one can be found, may be in who feels the most pressure to move to a new platform right now.
"As a company, we are big believers in focus on tablets. The key to the success of our Tablet First strategy is that all of our energies are focused on creating the absolute best experience possible on tablets," says Supercell's Harper. "We are not distracted by the different requirements and demands of other platforms. So, for the foreseeable future, we remain committed to tablets."
On the other hand, Spooky Cool Labs, which just released Wizard of Oz for Facebook Canvas, doesn't have quite the same attitude. "We're showing you the official Facebook game for The Wizard of Oz," the company's director of marketing, Bob Holtzman told Gamasutra during a recent meeting, "but we're absolutely in line with what you're saying. We believe in iOS, and we believe that Android will also be an important platform. We want to go where we can find a great audience for these kinds of games."
Despite his aggressive push for mobile deveopment, Begemann still plits the difference. "I'm not really viewing it as this pressure," he says. "It's more like that we're pushing ourselves because we see this big opportunity there, you know?"
In the end, there are two stories here. As the audience for tablet and smartphone games grows, Facebook is shifting from a play platform to a social enabler for game discovery. At the same time, its key developers are now starting to see mobile as their target, not Canvas. Caught in the middle, Facebook is trying to adapt to the change in the wind by making sure that -- whether you started as a Facebook developer or as a mobile studio -- it's to your advantage to stay hooked to their feeds. If the profound success of Supercell is any indication, the advantages for doing so are real.
For some, it may not be a matter of transition, but merely expansion. "I think that our category of games is a category of games which is predestined to be played everywhere," Zacconi says.