Many talk about Apple’s iPhone being the up and coming platform, one to contend with the big guns of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. It’s understandable why; recently I have been unable to move without one of my friends at work or news feeds online singing the praises of the pocket sized device. The freedom of the App Store, the unique interface and the variety of tools the iPhone has at its disposal makes for a very attractive piece of kit, both for developers and the end user.
There is, however, another player in the market that would be worth keeping an eye on: Facebook. The ubiquitous social website has been steadily growing over the past five years and can now boast over a quarter of a billion users every month, with gaming being the most popular way for those users to spend their time.
Those numbers staggered me. For a long time I had my opinion of Facebook’s games shaped by the early Vampire and Werewolf titles that plagued my message box. They seemed to consist of little more than a viral “how many other people can you bite”, a virtual game of tag and not involving one at that. Almost single-handed these experiences caused me to swear off of installing applications; there were enough quizzes and word scrambles doing the rounds and quite frankly I thought that I would do better not polluting my home page. Some may say I was snobbish, too dismissive of this them, but given what I was exposed too I don’t think I could have reacted any other way.
Facebook is not alone in having an initial wave of dross. My mind turns to the launch of the DS and its plethora of underwhelming launch titles that shoe horned touch screen functionality into their makeup in any way possible. Several hit the spot but so many others missed the mark by such a large margin it was almost embarrassing – I hold up Ping Pals as a case in point. Since then, Nintendo’s dual screened wonder has gone from strength to strength. There will always be those publishers who wish to cash in on its success but a good portion of developers have been able to step back and truly assess what features can enhance their game. Henry Hatsworth is a sterling example of this as it would be hard to imagine it appearing on any other platform without a lot of compromise.
For Facebook, however, the strengths are quite different.
Their primary asset is a gaming community and social network so vast that it dwarfs even World of Warcraft several times over. Whilst Blizzard’s unstoppable MMO may bring in 14 million users a month, the 25 most popular Facebook gaming applications have a combined player base of over 100 million.
The key to most of them is involving friends in a game, almost as though it were Xbox Live++. Whereas games like Shadow Complex and Trials HD have started informing you midlevel just how those on your friends list are doing, Facebook applications are taking it a step further by actually making your friends play a key role in your experience even if they aren’t online. From the more well known Mafia Wars to the raft of farming sims that can be found scattered throughout Facebook, all can be played solo or enhanced by having a group of friends aid you. Next time they log on they can pop into your farm to tidy up after the crows or send you an armoured car for your next raid.
These are both are extremely simple interactions but the knowledge that in your virtual world you have your pub quiz team living on neighbouring farms, or half your family and pets backing you up in your Mafia, are interesting twists that can draw many in; never underestimate what that connection can do to a prospective player. The knowledge that others you know are playing and progressing can be the trigger for you to try something for the first time, or even continuing if your commitment is wavering.
My personal favourite has been Crazy Planets, a cross between Worms and Mario Galaxy, that sees my family join me as the avatars in the game. Taking each of their profile pictures, they are cropped and rotated and become a character in my adventure.
Another important feature is Facebook’s accessibility. As it is hosted remotely then all anyone ever needs to jump onboard is an internet connection and a browser. With the price of admission so low the numbers signing up have proven vast.
Many games seemed tailored to usage patterns, too. People can check the site anywhere from a few times a day to a couple of times a month, depending on their nature, and it seems that most games have fallen into one of two categories: those that are there for an instant hit and those that need only a minute or two of your time every now and again.
In that former category are the word games, the block puzzles and the shooters of the world, the more tradition arcade like experience that will see high scores compared against your friends. The latter tend to be more management or RPG based, controlling stocks, gangs, farms or alike that just need a little prod in the right direction and they’ll tick over happily until you return next.
That second category of games I think demonstrates a real understanding of the user by the developer. There is an experience that has been specifically made for the site and shows a maturity of the platform as a whole.
But it’s not just on the user side that benefit from accessibility, developers also have a large amount of freedom. Facebook shares the ideal of Apple’s App Store in that there should be as few barriers as possible standing in the way of those that wish to develop for them. Scroll to the bottom of any Facebook page and you will find a Developers link advertising the ability to “build social applications on Facebook Platform”.
All the prospective developer then needs is an understanding of how to code together a game, have their own web space to host it on and then it can be unleashed onto the world. From Flash through to PHP, the only rule is if you can display it on a webpage then you can get it in Facebook.
As we have seen on the more publicised App Store, this kind of creative freedom can spawn all manner of projects – both good and bad – but most importantly it is also bringing back the notion of the bedroom programmer and give them a platform to show off their wares. During the 70s and 80s games could be developed with one or two people and for a while the industry lost that wonder as technology advanced apace. That period saw some of the most creative in gaming’s short history and projects that weren’t out to hit demographics but those that were labours of love, one man wanting to share his vision with the world. Whilst Parking Wars and PathWords may not be the gems of which I speak, all it takes is one and the whole image of the Facebook platform is turned on its head.
Already larger players such as Ubisoft and EA are entering the fray, trialling smaller games to test the waters. Whether this adds further credence that Facebook is a true gaming platform or that they just know where another potential revenue source is situated might be up for debate, but their future moves will be telling.
The strengths of Facebook’s social space, flexible design and freedom to develop are there for all to see. Many may call it a trend or the flavour of the moment, but it has definite momentum and given the segregation of Steam, Xbox Live, Nintendo’s friends codes and PSN, if there is one force that could unify them all it could be the book of faces. And quite frankly in the future I would much prefer to see proper names when I hit my guide button as opposed to “xX eLiT3 5n1pEr Xx”.