Updating Discovery for Social Games on Facebook With Algorithms, Better New User Experience

Developers can expect to see virality restored to social games in the latter half of 2011 as the platform adjusts its discovery methods, Facebook Director of Game Partnerships Sean Ryan tells ISG.

At Casual Connect in Seattle last month, Ryan alluded to some API changes that would help surface game stories to the Facebook users that actually play social games as opposed to spamming the News Feeds of all players’ available friend. In a recent follow-up interview with us, he details an algorithmic solution that will not only show players more stories, but also filter out only those stories that players are likely to click on.

“Last year when we made the changes because of the spam issues, we really dialed back [virality],” Ryan says. “Now that we feel confident about our automatic [filter] systems, we can start dialing back up virality with better targeting and better quality. So that if your game is sending stories through the news feed that users don’t like — they don’t click on it — then over time, the algorithm adjusts and users see fewer of those stories. We want quality to be about whether or not users like it.”

The key to this system is social discovery, something that doesn’t work for new users on the Facebook platform. This is where Ryan’s team finds itself pulled in two directions — on the one hand, wanting that user’s social graph to determine what games that user sees; and on the other, needing a Games destination site to give a new user a place to start figuring out what (if any) games they like.

The reason Ryan shies away from a Games destination on Facebook, like the version currently available, is that users expect to see lists of the 10 most popular games on destination sites because that’s what they’re used to seeing in the App Store or Android Marketplace. Ryan says these lists tend to be self-fulfilling, and the idea of Facebook dictating to a new user what they should or shouldn’t play goes against the platform’s philosophy of social discovery. Even so, he admits that there needs to be a better new user experience available to those just now entering the social games ecosystem on the platform, though Facebook hasn’t found that answer yet.

As it stands, a new user can stumble on the destination site through the Games tab (which has made several moves around the default Facebook view in the last six months) or by clicking on a Games-related post in the Facebook.com landing page like the one pictured above. The developer-oriented Facebook+Games page is also functions as a discovery tool for games new to the platform.

Beyond the end of 2011, Ryan says the team will continue to look at new games platform features that will work for Facebook. By studying other games ecosystems like Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, or Kongregate, Ryan says there may be lessons to learn that could contribute to better discovery systems.

“We look at voice chat and text chat and other types of game platform features as we [plan] the next 6 to 18 months,” he says, “But we come back to our strength, which is discovery. Because it’s social.”

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