Following Facebook’s Most Recent Changes, Developers Worry About Virality

Earlier today, Facebook announced new algorithms for news feed and user communication and an updated games dashboard. These are the biggest app-related changes Facebook has made to its platform since May, when it began minimizing the appearance of app feed items.

Overall, the update is great for users who don’t want to deal with games on Facebook. Social gamers and developers, though, will need to get used to a number of changes — some of which they may like more than others.

The changes can be boiled down to six major points (further explained in our earlier post and live blog):

  • Automatic app bookmarking
  • New left-hand side dashboard navigation for games
  • Collapsed stories about apps will be expanded back into multiple feed items for gamers
  • Updated policies
  • No more feed items about apps for non-gamers
  • A new feed item about games, called discovery stories

Most of the developers at Facebook’s announcement event, which we also attended, seemed positive about the first three points, which all support user engagement. Users who already play games will see more feed items from those games, get better notifications when action is required, and have an easier time getting back to their favorite apps.

“Facebook has sometimes been accused of hindering the system. But they seem to be thoughtful about these changes, and a lot of what they said on a high level made sense,” said Frederic Descamps, CEO of A Bit Lucky. “Quality will become more and more of a factor in these games.”

The change noted in the last two bullet points above, though, was nagging at most of the developers I spoke with. One of the first I talked with, Lolapps CEO Arjun Sethi, summarized the big worry of the day: “One thing we’re worried about is, how do you find new gamers? How do they know if they will like the game or not?”

To explain the worry in more depth, consider the popular strategy of having users pump out as many feed items as possible to drive up virality, which Mark Zuckerberg said “burns out” core users during his on-stage talk. Even developers that don’t use that strategy still see traffic growth from feed stories, which expose new users to their games.

Facebook’s motivation in concealing feed items from non-gamers, according to Zuckerberg, is the extreme reaction the company sees to games: most users either love or hate them. So in the interest of keeping both groups placated, Facebook has moved to hide games entirely from a large set of users.

But now developers are worried that many of Facebook’s 300 million or so users that aren’t currently playing a game have totally been cut off, whether or not those users actually hate games.

Facebook’s response to these worries is that it has not totally removed the feed channel as a growth driver. If several friends of a specific user have begun using a game, that user will receive a generic notification that their friends are playing, called the “discovery story”.

Going forward, discovery stories will be a big part of Facebook’s growth strategy. However, there are a lot of uncertainties for developers in the discovery story.

One worry is that these stories won’t inspire users to give the app a try. Developers have put a great deal of effort into optimizing the feed stories they send out. The discovery story Facebook showed off on stage (shown below) may not do as well.

More importantly, Facebook hasn’t explained the algorithm behind the discovery story. What they showed off appears to require that several friends are active users of the same game, which sets a high bar.

I caught up with the head of Facebook’s new games team, Jared Morgenstern, to see if he could offer any more details. For now, according to Morgenstern, most users are in fact bucketed into two clear groups, gamers and non-gamers. But over time, he said, Facebook will customize for individuals, leaving only those who are absolutely opposed to games in the current non-gamer group.

What developers have to work with for now is a user acquisition flow that has reverted almost entirely to invites between users and advertising, with a small contribution from discovery stories. But Morgenstern says that Facebook is keeping an eye on the channels, and will make sure that smaller developers, who can’t necessarily afford much advertising, still have a chance.

“When you’re considering a new gaming platform, that needs to be Facebook,” he said. That statement in itself is a big change from a year ago, when Facebook seemed unhappy with its growing popularity as a gaming destination.

We’ll be covering some of the more specific changes in depth tomorrow, including the policy updates, over at Inside Facebook.