Some Ways That Facebook’s Platform Changes Will Affect Social Gaming

In the world of social gaming — an emerging part of the gaming industry where the features are designed around interacting with friends — Facebook has the single largest platform to develop on. So when Facebook makes changes to the platform, like it did yesterday, this world shakes.

The company announced a “roadmap” of many different upcoming changes to the platform that are going to affect social games, though the ways each developer will be affected will vary. A developer with an application that relies on lots of notifications or other very viral features to grow and retain users will certainly be more affected than one that has relied on the occasional friend invite.

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But how does it all add up? We get into some of the most significant changes below, but there are a lot of them: 19 items in the queue through early 2010 on Facebook’s official roadmap. Certain ones are going to impact some developers more than others. Depending on how an app has grown and stayed popular, some developers may soon face a “great recession” of sorts, loosely analogous to the multi-industry meltdown that hit the US and world economies in the last couple of years. Instead of industries, its communication channels melting down.

And meanwhile, Facebook appears to be creating a better user experience. We’ve heard “45% of all stream posts were games and a nearly equivalent amount were from quizzes,” at least from one source. Most users probably did not want that ratio of games and quizzes, compared to all of the other activities they might want to see their friends doing on the site — attending events, sharing photos, etc. With the new, “Top Stories” news feed introduced last Friday, the noise ratio from apps has gone way down; and, the news feed is due for more tweaking, Facebook said yesterday.

Facebook HomeThe roadmap announcement is only a day old, but based on our own observations, and from discussions we’ve had with leaders in the industry, we think that the platform will increase in value in the long-run. Facebook is headed in the right direction with these changes. That said, we also expect the changes to be painful for the ecosystem as a whole. Apps that lose their virality will also see drops in revenue, at least until they figure out the new features, and the offer, payment, and analytics companies that have risen to work with them will at least also be temporarily hurt as result.

Overall, though, we do not believe that a large portion of developers currently working on the platform are going to leave as a result of these changes, nor do we think that the new interest in social gaming from other parts of the gaming industry is going to dissipate. Sure, some Facebook’s changes don’t work so well — see recently re-altered March home page redesign, or Beacon for more on that. Still, the overall trend is that the company is making its platform an increasingly valuable place to do business. The last time Facebook made serious changes to its platform, in 2008, a whole set of poking and profile-box applications got hit hard. One news feed redesign late last year made it very difficult for applications to appear within a user’s home page news feed, for example. After the changes, the more complex social games of today have emerged.

Here is a closer look at some of the biggest viral mechanics that are changing, along with our analysis of how they will affect games.

From notifications and invites to the Facebook inbox:

This is one of the biggest changes for developers who’ve designed and optimized their applications for Facebook’s current communication channels. Notifications and invitations are going away, and are being split up and migrated into 1) inbox messages for user-to-user communication, and 2) emails for app-to-user communication.

Now, there is no more default-on application-to-user communication channel, though developers will be encouraged to establish email contact with users directly. This means the News Feed will become more important, as it is now the only default-on one-to-many channel. Facebook says the changes are expected to go live by the end of the year or early next. All developers should start making plans to rethink and reoptimize immediately.

Among other questions about the changes: How easy this new inbox will be for users to navigate? Or as one of our contributing writers, Eric von Coelln, puts it. “Just as today someone may ignore that they have ’76 Other Requests’ in the upper right corner of the Facebook homepage, just below Friend Requests, will that be any better if you have 76 inbox messages?”

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In November, look for the following relevant changes:

– New email permission API (developers can ask users to share their email address)
– Access point to invites will be moved “to either a filter in Inbox or surfaced in the Application and Games Dashboards”
– User-to-user Inbox APIs will be launched

And in by the end of the year, look for these changes:

– Notifications API (both app-to-user and user-to-user) will be removed (note: Facebook says this will happen “30 days after email permission is available”)

A new homepage interface, especially for games:

Facebook is moving apps from the bottom toolbar into the left-hand column, where they’ll appear within a dashboard of feeds from the news feed, as well as Facebook’s in-house apps including events, photos, groups and notes. There will be one feed for general apps, and, in a recognition of social gaming’s importance on the platform, a separate feed for games. From the early mock-up screenshots that Facebook is showing, the games tab will include a sub-feed for all of your games and another one for all of your friend’s games. You’ll also have the option to “bookmark” individual games to appear as their own item within the dashboard.

bookmarkdashboardIn other words, developers should consider ways of getting users to feature their own games separately, for maximum exposure on the homepage.
There’s also a “counter” for the number of new items within each. Facebook, per its more general plans to crack down on wayward apps, is also being very strict about how developers can use the counter — it has to be for real things. As Facebook platform leader Ethan Beard said yesterday during the roadmap presentation: “We expect the activity to be a real-world action, we expect that the count should be obvious — the user should have taken the action they always take. Users won’t like applications that always keep this on.”

Spamming the counter does not sound like the sort of viral action that Facebook will allow to happen.

In November:

– New “add bookmark” button
In November/December:

– Application bookmarks moving from the bottom menu bar to the left side of the home page
– Counter API launching (counts can appear on home page application bookmarks)
– Applications and Games dashboards launching

The new news feed is still changing:

Last week, Facebook introduced a new version of its news feed that defaults to “Top Stories,” an algorithmically determined assortment of items shared by your friends. The live stream, meanwhile, includes more types of stories, like groups, events and photos — the items that were in the now-gone “Highlights” section.

Although Facebook has already basically prohibited game players from being incentivized to publish to the stream (or to send invites or notifications, for that matter), it’s not clear exactly how this will be enforced. For example, the “Share the wealth” feature seen in Zynga’s FarmVille rewards any user who clicks, as well as the person who shared it, as this excellent post by social game entrepreneur Jussi Laakkonen notes, may be okay, or it may not be.

While we’ve already covered many of the larger changes in detail, Facebook has provided additional clarity about what some things to expect, and when.

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In November:
– Stream story formatting changes (1 image shown by default, few lines of text, 1 action link)

In November/December 2009

– Feed forms cannot be popped open without “explicit user intent” (note: this is a new Facebook policy)

On that last point, many quiz apps relied on the feed form to open, shall we say, without explicit user intent. We expect many of these apps to rapidly decline in usage, once this change rolls out.

Other changes:

The list of things apps can’t do is getting longer. Users cannot be forced to wade through the “invite friend” feature of an app before proceeding to the next page; meanwhile, Facebook also plans to introduce a more refined way of suggesting which friends will appear first within this box (no longer everyone whose last names starts with “A”).

Games can no longer reward players based on the number of friends they get playing. This is something the mafia genre of social games has historically relied on. As Laakkonen describes the situation for many developers: “It will be very painful to change these game mechanics as it means that every single players’ in-game standing and resources will change.”

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For those apps that still make use of profile boxes — not many, after Facebook forced most of them off users’ profiles last year — that option is about to end. Application tabs on profiles and pages are also narrowing from 760 pixel-width to 510.

However, pages are getting a little nicer. New application branding on canvas pages is expected to launch within the year, so apps can do things like change the look and feel of its interface. Long-term, developers should also watch what Facebook does with its Open Graph API. Due out in early 2010, it promises to let other web sites integrate key Facebook features, essentially blending pages with the rest of the web.

Conclusion:

Is Facebook going to stay a serious option for social game developers, if not the main option? The iPhone is now allowing free to play virtual goods. MySpace has already become a big platform for some companies, and we’re expecting the new management team to make some positive changes over there — although nothing has been announced yet. Twitter is an interesting venue for social games, although we have little evidence that viable social gaming businesses can currently survive on it.

We expect the next two months, especially to be very tough for many social game developers. But new features, from email to the dashboard to the more nebulous features like the Open Graph API, promise new and more meaningful ways of reaching users — and reach users in ways that users appreciate more than the polluted communication channels of the present and recent past.

Yes, other forms of growing will still favor the largest incumbents, such as advertising on Facebook or cross-promotion between apps. But for small developers, and for companies looking into social gaming on Facebook, these changes amount to a partial reset of the market, and a new opportunity for them to succeed.