There's something of an "everything old is new again" sense about Facebook's announcement this week of Instant Games, an initiative to deliver playable HTML5 games directly through the Facebook News Feed and in Facebook Messenger. Remember the heady days of 2009 or so, back when Farmville's player numbers were making jaws drop around the world and it looked like Facebook's platform was the future of gaming? That was before the App Store and mobile gaming came along to whisk the carpet out from under the feet of Facebook's model of social gaming; neither Facebook's gaming ambitions nor the business of some of its leading developers (including Farmville creators Zynga) have ever quite recovered from that sudden transition. It's hard to read Instant Games as anything other than an attempt to redress that balance.
On paper, it's an interesting if rather incomplete concept. Instant Games advances the concept of Facebook social games by making them into something that's served in-line with the site's social content - chats and news stories - rather than something with a separate app page all of its own. The long overdue demise of Flash and its replacement with HTML5 for rich web content makes that possible, while also ensuring compatibility across devices (the controversial, but in hindsight utterly justified, decision to bar Flash from iOS devices was another nail in the coffin of Facebook games at the time) and hopefully providing a smoother experience overall. From a technical standpoint, Facebook is definitely positioned to serve games more quickly, easily and smoothly than it ever could back at the peak of social gaming.
"Being able to play a quick game of something together in the context of a chat session does make sense - indeed, that's precisely the model that's been exploited to great effect by messaging platforms like Korea's Kakao and Japan's LINE"
The question marks, though, hang ominously over the large empty patches in the plans revealed by Facebook thus far. The company glosses over monetisation, emphasising instead the size of its installed base and the value of developing for that market. That's actually quite problematic, for the simple reason that Facebook has next to zero experience of monetising its userbase. Every attempt it's made at implementing some kind of billing or microtransaction system over the years has fallen flat; the company's revenue model remains stubbornly rooted in charging advertisers to access its users, rather than making money directly from users. That's not necessarily a show-stopper, since there remains a potentially interesting market for branded games designed to be part of advertising campaigns, but if that's what Instant Games ends up being used for, it's a fairly limited segment.
The other big question mark is over user experience. I can see the appeal of the system Facebook describes here, not least since one of the things lost when games made the leap from Facebook to mobile was the strongly social aspect. Many games on mobile devices still prompt you to send items or requests to Facebook friends; from my own experience, few people actually do this. We've all been strongly conditioned, I suspect, by the negativity that hung over social gaming in the early 2010s, when games like Farmville and Mafia Wars were filling up people's news feeds with constant spam. Facebook eventually introduced better controls and default settings to remove the flood of invites and messages, but the stigma remains to some degree. If Instant Games provide a more appealing, welcome way of sharing games with friends, this could be a really positive step towards recovering some of the ability to spread a game virally across a social network - the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater after early social titles utterly abused the potential of the news feed and the social graph.
The tricky part, though, will be making this into something that's actually appealing to do, and that makes sense in the context of a social network interaction. Being able to play a quick game of something together in the context of a chat session does make sense - indeed, that's precisely the model that's been exploited to great effect by messaging platforms like Korea's Kakao and Japan's LINE, both of which offer a range of successful games that integrate to some degree or another with the messaging system itself. On the other hand, crossing over the line into nuisance is all too easy. If games are permitted to generate messages in chat windows, for example, or if news feeds start filling up again with invites and notifications of high-scores or achievements, it won't take long for users to lose patience - and the web tech magic of being able to play the game instantly inside the notification won't change that.
There's no doubt that there's room in the market for a resurgence of some description of the kind of social network games that were popular around five years ago. The technological turmoil caused by the transition to mobile devices is largely over; Facebook, in particular, is now one of the most successful developers of mobile apps in the world, and its platform has made a successful jump from PC to mobile. If it can effectively take a mobile-first approach with Instant Games that captures the positive aspects of virality and using the social graph which boosted Facebook games in the past, it may be on to something with this initiative.
" Instant Games is not launching into a market that's bursting with anticipation for this kind of product platform; it's going to have to work extremely hard to establish itself as a valid, useful and desirable new way to play and share games"
The competition it faces, however, shouldn't be underestimated. LINE and Kakao aren't just interesting models for Instant Games to emulate; they're major competitors, whose command of their respective markets (two of the biggest mobile game markets on earth) has largely prevented Facebook Messenger from gaining any foothold there. Meanwhile, mobile games with dedicated apps on iOS and Android are the absolutely dominant paradigm of the moment, and the occasionally aired claim that HTML5 games are the future and native apps will inevitably decline is based on an airy version of tech utopianism that's taken a severe battering from real events in the industry in the past decade. Instant Games is not launching into a market that's bursting with anticipation for this kind of product platform; it's going to have to work extremely hard to establish itself as a valid, useful and desirable new way to play and share games, in a world that's already got rather a lot of those.
It's entirely unsurprising that Facebook hasn't forgotten its moment in the sun with regard to gaming. Indeed, the company owed much of its explosive growth during that period to the vastly popular social games that relied upon its platform. While games moved on to new pastures and Facebook grew and developed in different directions, there's always been a part of the company's DNA that's connected with gaming - a part which no doubt helped to drive its interest in Oculus - and it clearly still believes firmly in the value of its social graph and audience to gaming, and vice versa. Instant Games is a clever technology and some of its ideas are definitely interesting; especially in the absence of major parts of the plan like monetisation, however, it's hard to characterise it as the masterstroke that will return Facebook to major relevance in gaming. It feels a little too much like trying to set the clock back to 2009; if Facebook wants to climb back to its former position in this sector, it needs to have a much more comprehensive vision for the future, not just a wish to recapture the past.