Interview with John Earner of Playfish on Using Facebook’s In-App Like Buttons

Electronic Arts’ Playfish was recently the first of the four major social game developers to implement in-app Like buttons which Facebook released 3 weeks ago. The change allowed developers to place Like buttons on specific content within their games, such as virtual goods. The Like buttons generate news feed stories which a user’s friends can click to check out the virtual good, and from there decide whether to play the game.

We sat down with John Earner, General Manager of Playfish’s European studio to discuss the company’s strategy for taking advantage of new viral channels, how in-app Like buttons are affecting Playfish’s bottom line, what kind of Liked content drives clicks from news feed stories, and the future of virtual goods.

Inside Facebook: What is Playfish’s strategy in regards to implementing new viral channels provided by Facebook?

John Earner: Test quickly. You don’t know what you don’t know. The faster you try a channel, the more likely you’ll ride a wave of virality. There’s a wild west period where you can experiment with a viral channel before other people get on it. We do things as fast as Facebook lets us.

IF: How has the implementation of in-app Like buttons gone for Playfish?

JE: Tons of people are Liking things in Pet Society – over 1 million Likes in 9 days, and more than a half a million Likes of players in FIFA Superstars. We’re still waiting to see it impact the bottom line of Pet Society. Lots of people are Liking but it’s not driving our numbers. In FIFA we’re seeing lift. Folks see [the Like stories] in their stream and are clicking, driving daily active user counts up.

IF: What kinds of content are seeing the best response?

JE: People tend to resonate with real life content. Liking a [fictional] cherry tree in Pet Society isn’t as compelling as Liking real life soccer players. It’s a pretty normal act to Like Ronaldinho, whereas Liking a cherry tree is less normal. It’s harder to get people to click through the [news feed stories]. The best way to solve for that is have it be real world content – like [soccer team] Arsenal, versus [generic] cherry trees and wigs.

We’re still learning how the feature works. We’re trying to have a reason in the game to Like the object. We’re running a Halloween contest where what virtual goods we make will be based on if people Like one thing or another. However, we have to steer clear of Facebook policy. You don’t want to incentivize but you want to make them compelling, like creating a competition where people can say what they Like more.

IF: Why do you think other major developers have been slower to implement the in-app Like button?

JE: People are focused on the immediate changes with feed stories and the bookmarking system, rather than this. We’re focused on those things too. We’ve got to be nimble.

IF: Is Playfish considering extending the in-app Like button into its other games?

JE: Absolutely. We have some improvements to make to prove the product – it has got to move the bottom line. With FIFA we’ll keep going, but we need to make the call to action on Pet Society Likes more compelling. If it’s working then, we’ll roll it out.

IF: Are you considering putting Like buttons in any other places other than virtual goods, such as leaderboards?

JE: We don’t have any plans with leaderboards. With content you have a lot higher volume of things to Like. People connect to content, people don’t emotionally connect to [infrastructure] of the game. If we can’t make it work for content, we can’t make it work for anything.

IF: Have you seen any specific demographics clicking the in-app Like buttons more?

JE: Nothing has popped out. You don’t see women doing the Liking disproportionate to how many women play the game. The likers mirror the demographics of the game.

IF: Do you think there’s a specific format of feed story for Likes that works best?

JE: You don’t guess, you just test. A lot of times intuition falls short. Any type of shift in terms of one story or another is going to be based on data.

IF: Why did you choose to point the Pet Society Like buttons to landing pages for the virtual goods, which don’t require users to install the app to see the content?

JE: This version one implementation was more about technical feasibility than any strategic undertaking. Also, seeing content on a landing page is a nice way of trying to get users who haven’t been previously compelled to look into the app to check it out.

IF: How do you see virtual goods evolving in the coming years? Do you expect there to be more rich media virtual goods, which include animation, video, or music?

JE: Animation dramatically increases purchases. Even more compelling than animation is a functional benefit. Basically if the item comes associated with an ability – you’re faster, stronger, you can dig better, a better fishing pole – it sells significantly better than its non-functional counterpart.

It might not be about the virtual good at all, but about getting a temporary buff (benefit or power-up). It might get to the place where the virtual good is decoupled from the purchase [of a buff]. Asian video game players are much more accustomed to this.

People treat the freemium business model too simply. There’s lots of ways to monetize a game. Functional goods are the next step.

IF: Do you see the average social game player maturing as a gamer, and wanting more complexity?

JE: It’s going to spread out. Developers are increasingly understanding what people enjoy in their game and putting their monetization layer there. Make purchases give a competitive advantage if people enjoy winning, make them decorative if they enjoy shopping. Some see selling content as sacrilegious, but but consoles games are sold for $60. We’re giving it away for free.