The most popular app on Facebook is a video game.
Though the casual browser-based MMO Pet Society is tailored with bold colours and cutesy creatures, behind the popular title is a solid and lucrative business model that shows no signs of dissipating
Developers Playfish certainly weren’t the earliest group to catch onto the game industry’s substantial swing towards social, casual gaming, but the group has clearly accelerated the industry's expansion into wider markets. Founded in 2007, the San Francisco-based group has now served around eighty million games to customers worldwide.
Facebook's new Open Stream API now gives developers unprecedented access to user data and, with permission, personal information from Facebook accounts. With this in mind, Develop sat down with Playfish co-founder Sebastian de Halleux (pictured) to discuss the new opportunities available on the emerging games platform.
In what ways can Facebook’s Open Stream API specifically aid game developers?
It’s one of the core Facebook components so granting access to partners like ourselves is something that’s just fantastic, a sign of Facebook’s commitment to openness, which is important to us. The viability of a constant input system on platforms is really enhanced if the platforms are open.
Also, it allows us to access the whole stream and repurpose it. As a game developer we are experts at creating environments for users to interact with, and so now being able to extract the meaningful portions of Facebook user streams and repurpose them, our games can be more relevant to users.
For example, in our game Pet Society you inhabit this living social world with your friend’s pets. Those pets publish lots of things in the stream, from pictures of their house, to activities, and so on.
Now, however, because we can access the stream, we can find portions of it that are relevant to Pet Society users and display it right inside the game. So that’s really cool.
I think that Facebook is often criticized for changing around the way it displays the output of social activities on their site, adding new profiles and so on. I think that their thinking is that the best solutions will probably not come from Facebook, they’ll probably come from other developers, which is why we’ve been given access to core assets of the site.
Let’s see what people can come up with; this won’t be about one application, you can have desktop applications that will access a mini Facebook on your desktop. You can have widgets, you can have games.
The beauty of this is that it allows developers to find meaningful portions of the stream and allowing them to display it in different ways. Potentially, there’s thousands of ways that that people can display portions of the stream, the ways that are most interesting to users.
You mentioned that you’ll be able to take “meaningful” portions of the stream. As a developer, what do you consider to be meaningful portions?
I don’t think we have the full answer right now, but there’s some obvious stuff, like updates about the happenings in a game.
Using Pet Society as an example, one of the key things in that game is decorating your house; we have a function where you can take a picture of your redecorated house for Christmas or for Easter or for whatever event and then publish it through your stream.
For people in the game world, it would be cool to get a better view of what other people are doing inside the game. So in this instance a meaningful portion of the stream is what other people are doing with their houses, which we can then publish to otherpeople to spread ideas an allow people to get a better sense of the game world.
You could go further. That idea is object-centric but the meaningful portions of the stream could be user-centric. If we see that you really care about ive other users of the game – because for instance those are the five people you visit most often with your pets, or those are the five biggest recipients of your gifts, and so on – we could take a section of the stream pertaining to those people.
We could tell users, hey, did you know that this pet their house is in the Bahamas right now? Did you know that this person’s birthday is tomorrow?
That’s an important piece of information that you’d love to know about.
So it might be object-centric, it might be people-centric, but there’s no limit in terms of the right level of filtering that’s appropriate. Meaningful portions of the stream could even be format-centric; say a user only wants to see videos, we could repurpose them to show on our Pet Society wide screen TVs which users have in their homes.
Wouldn’t that be cool if you could watch videos of your friends in real time coming on your TVs? Those are the kind of things which have suddenly become possible.
I’m not saying that any of this is going to come true because it requires serious implementation on our side, but it’s become possible and that’s the reason why this is great.
It seems like what most excites you is the platform's heightened potential in creating ways of connecting people.
That’s right. Suddenly there’s this greater interaction. That’s just hugely exciting.
Playfish is well-known as the keystone game developer for Facebook. How are you looking to expand beyond?
Our view is that there’s a systemic shift happening in the videogames industry. The way people discover games, the way that people consume games, and what games are about; it’s all changing right now because of essentially social activities like Facebook.
Obviously, we’re also using Myspace and MyYahoo and Google as well. Our mission is broader than building games for Facebook; it’s also to change the way people make games.
We want to shift from the solitary experiences – which generate emotions such as fear, suspense and achievement – to experiences that are much more about your friends, which generates emotions like love, friendship, anger, pride; emotions you typically only feel between people and that you feel more strongly if those people are related to you.
You also have said in the past that social network game will drive down the costs of traditional marketing.
I think it will get to zero, yeah.
But is there a danger in that? If you focus marketing into one area – such as social networks – there’s little opportunity to expand outwards because because you’re closed in with your target market already. Is this process too insular?
Let’s compare two products. Grand Theft Auto cost millions upon millions to develop and targeted the same audience as all other hardcore console owners, whereas Wii Sports focused on different markets.
Both spent a lot of money and both were seen as very successful in sales and both used traditional marketing means to promote the message and drive people to stores.
Compare this with what we have done at Playfish. We went no users to around eighty million copies of our games distributed. The only thing we did in terms of marketing is send the first game to a hundred of our friends in December 2007.
Most of the people who played these games have never even played Pac Man. They are non-gamers. They are grandmothers playing with their grandsons and teenagers playing amongst themselves and professionals playing against their colleagues at the office.
We have a lot of users, and the funny thing is we know those people spend a lot of time on our games and yet most of them say they don’t play games.
That’s usually what casual gamers say; they’re not ‘playing games’, according to them. They’re actually playing with their friends. The same way they do when they have an evening playing Monopoly.
You don’t really recall the evening by the monopoly highlights; who bought what property when. You recall the evening because you were all having a drink around the board game and chatting and having a good time together.
That’s why board games are very good because when you think about it, what’s Monopoly but just a piece of paper or cardboard in a box, right? So there’s not much technology to it but yet it’s there after all these years you don’t need to market the game so much, you don’t need a certain message to push aggressively to tell people about the game, you just need to put the game in the hands of people and they will encourage each other to play the game.
My point is that when you turn to social network distribution your audience goes from the real world to a capped number of people on online social networks.
That’s absolutely true, let’s talk about that for one second.
There was, what, about 150 million PS2s sold? Facebook alone has announced two hundred million users, and that’s not install-base, that’s mostly active users.
So you’re right, there is a cap, but you know…
The cap is so high.
You mentioned Grand Theft Auto IV; that game had massive murals and giant posters spread across places like Manhattan. My point about social network games is that they, by nature, cannot penetrate the conscience of non-gamers the way a building-sized poster can. So is there an issue with expanding the audience if games remain seated in social networks?
That’s partially true, but if you to put the social network userbase together our posters are less tangible, but they are very much bigger.
If you go to our Playfish forums and look at how many posts there are, you’ll see something like five million posts every month. Try to get five million letters sent to Rockstar, it just doesn’t happen.