Earlier this month, word leaked that Facebook was on the cusp of launching a new initiative to offer games playable directly in Messenger or the Facebook News Feed. Today, the social behemoth did indeed confirm the launch of its Instant Games program, which kicks things off with 17 titles, including old-school favorites like Pac-Man, Galaga (Bandai Namco), Space Invaders, and Arkanoid (Taito) along with new games like The Tribez: Puzzle Rush (Game Insight), Words with Friends: Frenzy (Zynga), Endless Lake (Spilgames) and more.
As noted by Alissa Ju, Product Manager of Games at Facebook, Facebook users can access Instant Games on either web or mobile and don't need to install any new apps to play a game; they simply click on the game controller icon just below where people type a message to get started. That then "offers a fun and social experience featuring score-based games, leaderboards, and group thread conversations to challenge and compete against anyone on Messenger."
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Leo Olebe, director of global games partnerships, to find out more about the strategy behind Instant Games. "This is something as a company that we've been almost bursting at the seams to talk about," he said. "From a developer's perspective you build your game in HTML5 and it's not only the billion people a month who use Messenger but it's also a massive audience that's in the Facebook News Feed as well. We've just unlocked a very, very big gaming platform for developers and publishers around the world."
Social network games have been in steep decline since the glory days of Farmville and companies like Zynga have had to pivot, transitioning their focus to where the players largely are - on mobile. Olebe, however, counters the notion that social gaming needs to be revived. He simply sees Instant Games as a natural progression for Facebook to enable games to be played anywhere.
"If somebody called me up on the phone and said 'Hey I have the opportunity to put your brand or game in front of a massive audience of people, would you be interested?' the answer's yes"
"Social gaming on Facebook is still a massive opportunity space for us and a massive business. We announced that we paid out over $2.5 billion to developers in 2015 and if you step back and think about it, that makes us one of the top 10 gaming platforms in the world," Olebe remarked.
"And that's from this supposedly small [base] of people playing casual games on the web. Well, guess what? That's just not true - people are active, they're playing, over 15% of people's time on Facebook.com is playing games. There are people like Zynga, like Playtika and other companies that have these big businesses that still exist and thrive on Facebook.com and those are things we're very supportive of. Then if you think about companies transitioning to mobile and mobile phones being the primary destination where people are playing games, Facebook is still there as well," he continued.
"Many of them are using Facebook Connect, they're using Sharing, they're using Analytics, they're using Friend Finder... so if the question is in the context of where are a lot of people playing games today, number one, there are still a lot of people playing games on Facebook.com, and number two, there are of course many, many millions of people playing games on mobile devices but they're still connecting to Facebook and still highly engaged members of the broader Facebook community."
SuperData CEO Joost van Dreunen thinks that Facebook's Instant Games initiative makes a lot of sense. "Social gaming has been in decline for a while now, exactly because of that move to mobile. We currently value social network-based gaming at around $8 billion a year globally and find that it is particularly popular in emerging markets. With Instant Games, Facebook is looking to return some of the cream on top, but is most likely making an effort to improve stickiness. As the popularity of the platform among several distinct audience segments starts to soften, expanding its offering is a solid way to rejuvenate its offering and double-down on its existing customer base," he explained.
For Olebe, stickiness is definitely important. Players need to keep coming back and engaging with Facebook and Instant Games everyday. Olebe wouldn't get into nitty gritty details on monetization, but he believes the advantages of a huge platform like Facebook speak for itself.
"First, it's early days and we're still figuring it out," he admitted. "The second thing is to step back and really think about how Facebook builds products across the board, which is build something which is really compelling, which is highly engaging and something people can fall in love with. Once we've achieved that stuff we'll figure out monetization later. And from day one, that's been the core of how Facebook has thought about bringing new things to the platform across the board.
"I'll answer a question with a question, which is 'What is the value of being a first mover on a platform with over a billion people a month on Messenger and 1.8 billion people on Facebook.com?' If you think about that question it's probably easy to derive the answer right? There's a lot of work that we do everyday to engage with developers and publishers and help them grow their brand and expose their games to new people and if I put my marketing hat on, which is what I used to do in the games business for quite some time, if somebody called me up on the phone and said 'Hey I have the opportunity to put your brand or game in front of a massive audience of people, would you be interested?' the answer's yes. So there's a balance. At the end of the day we always want to deliver value to both the people on the platform as well as the developers and publishers that are engaged. It's just really early days for us. We'll be building that value over time."
Unlike the heyday of social gaming when the stereotypical player was a mom in her 40s or 50s, Olebe sees players of all types on Facebook, which is why several arcade favorites made the list of launch titles. "All types of gamers exist on the platform and they are all engaging in different ways, whether it's me sharing Overwatch directly from my News Feed or it's somebody playing a Match 3 title or you can just go down the line, so we wanted to make sure we provided experiences that a whole variety of people would be interested in. If you think about where the gaming world has gone, it's always about great gameplay right? There's something to be said for graphics, there's something to be said for sound, but it always ties back to being able to play great gameplay experiences and share those with people," he said.
"Some of the earliest games when you're working on 8-bit tech and you're working with very limited memory footprint you really had to focus on gameplay and interaction and that's where you see things like Pac-Man and Space Invaders and that kind of thing... So let's bring those to maybe whole new audiences and also reenergize some of the existing audience of gamers who are really passionate about those things."
Looking at the future of Instant Games, Olebe did not rule out real-time multiplayer or even more complex games that could support controllers. Imagine recreating the arcade experience of Street Fighter II within Messenger for example. "I'll answer the question by stealing a phrase from a great programmer friend of mine, who loves to say, 'You know what? With software you can do anything.' The sky's the limit. What you described would be a really good time - is that something that Capcom wants to do and the players want to play? I don't know. With software and ever increasing technology... all we do is have new opportunities unlocked everyday as the technology gets better and better and people get more and more creative about how to take advantage of it," he said.
"As devices become more and more powerful, and people become more and more connected, the opportunity to play in a multitude of spaces becomes almost exponentially greater"
Developers on board at launch seem encouraged by the Instant Games program. Anatoly Ropotov, CEO at Game Insight commented, "Facebook, like Game Insight, has always placed tremendous importance on connecting with gamers wherever they are. And it's becoming increasingly clear that the future of messaging apps is about much more than just chat and video. Messaging apps are a platform now; a blank canvas with a billion users waiting to see what comes next. Facebook's Instant Games expands that canvas even further, allowing for a wide range of gameplay experiences built from the ground up for the new consumption paradigm, and reachable in an instant."
"We are always looking for ways to reduce player friction, and Instant Games on Facebook News Feed and Messenger is a wonderful solution that allows players to jump right in and immediately start playing. We know our players well, and we know that they will love this new easy, streamlined approach to gaming on Facebook and Messenger too," added Johan Persson, Vice President of Product at MAG Interactive (Wordalot Express).
For Olebe and Facebook, Instant Games is just the next step to make gaming truly ubiquitous. "As devices become more and more powerful, and people become more and more connected, the opportunity to play in a multitude of spaces becomes almost exponentially greater," he said. "That's just going to happen over time more and more. We start off with the idea that you can now play Pac-Man in Messenger, and it's crazy awesome... I go back to some of the most social game experiences I had as a kid where you're dropping quarters at the arcade and talking smack to your friends. Bringing back that social component to gameplay and really emphasizing that stuff is really powerful."