The Facebook market is transitioning; its power players have reached out and embraced mobile and tablet versions of their games. Buoyed by an opening of the floodgates on the viral channels enabled by Facebook itself earlier this year, today's top-tier developers now say it's essential to support these platforms with native apps that hook into the Facebook versions of their games.
"From a user perspective, seamless play, I believe, is going to be a standard of the future," says Riccardo Zacconi, CEO of Facebook's number two developer, King.com. Meanwhile, Jens Begemann, CEO of number three developer Wooga, tells Gamasutra that "now, we have roughly 60 percent of our employees working on mobile, 40 percent on Canvas."
"It's not about 'either/or', it's about 'and.' With the platform we've deployed on iOS, and certainly Android as well, we now have the same platform available across all three channels, and that's where we're focusing," said Facebook's director of Game Partnerships, Sean Ryan, at a recent event Gamasutra attended at the company's headquarters.
How did this happen, and why is it taking off so quickly? Clearly, smartphones and tablets are reaching ever-larger audiences; as long ago as last December, half of Facebook's user base was accessing the social network via phones.
The problem is that, at that time, Facebook games could only be played on desktop PCs via browser. But in January of this year, Facebook enabled developers to more fully hook their native mobile games into its Open Graph -- to allow them to post from within games and send invites to friends, features that had been blocked on mobile since users could not play games from within the Facebook app on iOS or Android. That opened up Facebook developers to creating mobile versions of games that could talk to the platform.
Now, Facebook users are directed to the iOS and Android app stores to download the native versions of the games that generated the posts. This has elevated interest in these titles -- driving downloads of the mobile versions, say both Facebook and developers. "It generally creates lift because in a lot of cases, like with King, they've built up a strong desktop presence," Ryan tells Gamasutra.
Zacconi has repeatedly credited the success of Bubble Witch Saga on iOS to Facebook. "We launched it with zero marketing, and we went in the Top 10 on iPhone and iPad in all the European App Stores. This was purely because of the integration with Facebook, because suddenly a player who actually was playing the game on Canvas would see the game also on their phone," Zacconi says.
Begemann, meanwhile, attributes the staying power of the iOS version of Diamond Dash to Facebook, too. "Usually when you have mobile apps, usually you have a lot of downloads in the first few weeks and then it kind of flattens out, right?" Diamond Dash, however, is growing "by almost 100,000 downloads a day, and is very constant," Begemann says.
"How can a game that is out since 10 months still have almost 100,000 downloads per day? And that is obviously, yes, it's word of mouth. People love it, and they are passionate about it, and they talk to their friends about it. But definitely Facebook virality plays an important role in that."
This success has lead King.com from experimentation to a rock-solid requirement -- games must launch on both Facebook and mobile now, says Zacconi.
"The reason why I said 'Facebook and mobile' rather than 'Facebook or mobile' is that from a user perspective, seamless play, I believe, is going to be a standard of the future," he tells Gamasutra.
To facilitate this, King.com has reorganized its teams, says Zacconi. "Before, the company was divided in an organization which was in charge for the Canvas, and an organization which was in charge for the mobile. And now, we have structured it differently. We are organizing by title, whereby every title has a mobile team and has a social team."
Wooga's Begemann, on the other hand, advocates a mobile-first approach. "The teams think with a mobile mindset for the new games. It's not about transitioning the games from one to another," he says. "For new games, we start the teams on mobile first," says Begemann.
"We made this decision a year ago," he says. "A year ago we only had 10 people working on mobile. Now it's over half of the 250-people company. I think 2013 will be the year where, at least for us, mobile will be significantly bigger than Canvas."
Facebook's Ryan approves of these moves, showing that his team -- which works with all game developers hoping to bring their titles to the platform -- sees the value in consistency. "What you don't want to do, generally, is make a game that feels like a port," he says.
Wooga's strategy seems to have arisen as the developer discovered some tweaking was necessary to adapt its Facebook games for iOS. Discussing Bubble Island, Begemann points out that the mobile edition is quite different from its Facebook iteration.
"The scoring has to be adapted, because you play this in a different way. The levels have to be adapted, so this is more fast-paced, it's less [reliant] on accuracy," says Begemann. "So what this means is it's not exactly the same game on the three platforms. Tablet, phone, and Facebook, it's not exactly the same game, because if it would be exactly the same game, it wouldn't be as good, right?"
King.com's current lineup also started out on PC, but Zacconi has a totally different take. "I think that every device has to be rethought, but the game itself is exactly the same game... We want to have a seamless, same experience."
However, they both agree that synchronizing progression -- and purchases, as these games are free-to-play -- across the platforms is essential to this new reality. "The progression is exactly the same progression, and the friends are exactly the same wherever you are. So the game experience and the game is actually the same, but the way the interface looks is different," says Zacconi. "So what we do here is, with the Facebook version that you operate with a mouse, progress, in-app purchases, everything is totally synchronized," Begemann says.
Even Spooky Cool Labs, which recently launched its first game, Wizard of Oz, on Facebook Canvas -- a 3D, Unity-powered city builder based on the classic movie, which is much more complicated play than Wooga's Bubble Island or King.com's Bubble Witch Saga -- sees the need to move to mobile, though this is something the company has not yet announced.
"We think that it's very important that the player be able to play wherever they are," says the company's chief technical officer, Chuck Hess. "When they're sitting at their computer, they can play the game on the computer, and when they are out doing whatever, then they have an option to play, and they can play the same game."