The potential for Facebook to be a massive platform for game development seems difficult to understate as of mid-2009. Already, it's host to a huge number of games, several of which pull in millions of users on a regular basis.
In fact, several game on Facebook have surpassed World of Warcraft's subscriber base in terms of monthly unique players, as recent charts have shown. Of course, none of the social network-based MMOs charge $15 a month to play -- and many of the players never buy virtual items, which monetize these games. But many do, as the landscape rapidly evolves, and it's becoming clear that you can build userbase for online games incredibly fast using social networks.
It's been just over two years since Facebook was opened up as a platform to application developers. Companies have been founded, have released games, have become profitable, and most recently, have begun to hire talent from the mainstream development of console and PC packaged software.
What does the future hold? What does the platform offer? Gamasutra decided that the best person to answer this question is Gareth Davis, Facebook's platform manager.
We first encountered Davis at the recent Social Games Summit, where he spoke on a panel about social gaming from Facebook's perspective. He promised more than we can currently imagine for the future of Facebook Connect's Xbox 360 and Nintendo DSi integration, and talked about the stability and appeal of the platform and its 200 million-plus users, approximately half of whom access the site each day.
Here, Davis expands on those points and answers Gamasutra's questions about the present and future of Facebook and games, in an extensive interview conducted this month at Facebook's Palo Alto, California headquarters.
I've heard you have a background in the game industry. Can you elaborate?
Gareth Davis: Right. So, I worked for many years in the game industry, primarily as a game producer. I also did some work as a game designer and a game programmer. I had the privilege of working with a number of game developers and publishers, including Sega and Electronic Arts. My last position in that industry was as a game producer in the Maxis studio working on The Sims.
The feeling that I get is that when Facebook started having apps available, there wasn't this anticipation that games were going to be such a large part of the success of the apps. Was that a surprise?
GD: I think we knew that when we opened that platform, there would be many different kinds of applications. I think "surprise" is too strong a word. I think we're excited that games have become such... I think they're the largest category of apps on Facebook today, and have very high engagement levels.
People love to play them, and they're having a great time doing it. I mean, our gaming audience is in the tens of millions. And that's something that we're seeing, this kind of emergent behavior on the platform that we're really interested and excited by.
When you say "our gaming audience", do you feel that the majority of users on Facebook are a potential gaming audience or are an engaged gaming audience? Or do you feel like there are audience questions in terms of who is and who's not interested in that segment?
GD: I think that everyone is interested in playing games. Today, 70 percent of our users use applications, and the largest application category is games. And if you look at the top ten apps on Facebook, many of them are games. By monthly active, certainly. You understand monthly and daily, how we think about them? So, monthly is audience, it's kind of the size and scale of the app, and then daily is engagement. If you rank the dailies, the top few tend to be games.
What defines a game in the context of Facebook? It's a little bit different, right? Some things are very overtly games in the way that traditional console/PC games are games. Pet Society has very obvious game-y overtones, while something like Friends for Sale has a gamey-ness, but it's not exactly the same. It's not the trappings necessarily. Do you think about that? Or do you just leave that up to the developers?
GD: Yeah, it's really up to the developers. I think what we're seeing on Facebook is a new audience. We have 200 million monthly active users and tens of millions playing games every month. I think that breaks out into a few different groups or categories. You have people that love to play games and play games on other platforms and are playing games on Facebook.
And I think you have a large category of people who want to spend time with their friends, they're spending time on Facebook, and a game is a wonderful way for them to interact with their friends and family and spend time together, interact. So that's kind of what people are doing on Facebook.
In terms of what is a game and what isn't, I think that's really up to developers and users. And I think we have many people today on Facebook that are playing games that don't identify themselves as gamers and wouldn't consider themselves playing games, when in fact they are.
I think the classic definition of gaming is as kind of an environment or a set of rules that we can interact and have fun with, and if you think about it at that abstract level, many of the applications on Facebook are either clearly games or have game-like aspects to them.
We often get the question, "Is Facebook a game?" I think there are many elements in Facebook that are game-like in behavior that make it so compelling and why we have 50 percent of our audience come back every single day. So, over a hundred million users every single day, and they're coming back to hang out with their friends and engage with them.