[Gamasutra recently got a chance to sit down with Facebook's Sean Ryan, the social network giant's director of games partnerships, to find out what the company is doing for developers now that it has a team dedicated to improving the infrastructure and fielding requests.]
Sean Ryan came to Facebook with a mission: head up games for the company. His goal is to make games more popular on Facebook, as well as better integrated. To do that, he intends to work more closely with developers to both grow their audiences and improve the platform.
"I came on six months ago to lead the games team and the games partnership team," Ryan told Gamasutra at an interview conducted at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters.
"No one is from the games business in the company at all, at the top," says Ryan, which is why he was brought in. He has a background in social media, having been CEO of blogging platform LiveJournal and EVP and GM of games at News Corporation, as well as traditional games and media -- having worked at Sega on the Dreamcast launch, as well as in book publishing, also at News Corporation.
While gaming is a "core and important part" of Facebook, these days, it obviously has not always been thus. "Mark did not start a game network. Mark started a social network," Ryan says. "Mark opened up the platform, and to everybody's surprise at Facebook, 98 percent of the usage was games.
"In classic Facebook style, no one really knew what was going to happen -- but it was all games. And then games grew so quickly that [developers] invested more in games... and so it kept growing faster and faster."
This, of course, lead to the notorious floods of game notification spam. This was, said Zuckerberg last year, "one of the biggest complaints that we get," and lead to some significant changes to the way things worked on the platform.
And that's where Ryan comes in. "Now that game spam is no longer an issue for our users, let's start growing it."
Games are a "highly engaging and very important vertical for us, and so that's why we broke out a separate team for it. That's why we increased both the engineering team and my team. It's a very important vertical for us, and we need to continue to grow it, because the users are highly engaged, highly happy, they refer their friends, and it drives a great deal of engagement and revenue for us."
The goal of his group is to "build a really killer game network system, because people who game on Facebook like Facebook better, because they game on Facebook."
And when it comes to developers, he asks, "how do we, for the bulk of developers with an open platform, provide them a better experience? And there's a vigorous debate. We take lots of input."
Why "Games Partnerships"?
Games partnerships, the slice of Facebook which Ryan heads, is so named because the goal is to work with developers, not just hand down edicts.
"This way we don't have to go down to the constraint level like we used to... We went through this whole thing before I was here last year, but it was quite painful for everybody involved -- our side, the developer side, everybody -- to have a continual set of changes, a manual of rules," said Ryan.
Games partnerships slots into the "functionally-driven" structure of Facebook. "The engineers and the platform team will build, with input from us, what we need to build to serve developers and users."
How to accomplish that? "At first what we do is, we go out to our top hundred developers, and then through other channels the next thousand, and make sure that we are communicating to them to the extent possible what the roadmap looks like."
Of course, he admits, "we don't always know what the roadmap will be," which is why the company has had trouble communicating in the past. Facebook is a "very fluid platform," he says.
"We're communicating out policy changes and working on our platform... What we do is collect information back from [developers] in a wide variety of ways, about things they would like to see, complaints they have, problems they have. We come back internally here and work through with the product team. What do we need to build? What do we need to change?"
Says Ryan, "We work with, as I said, probably a hundred partners directly, and the other thousand through more indirect means, and that's my question every single day. What feature are we missing on the platform?"
Ryan admits that not every developer can have a direct line to his team. "Realistically, you have to have some sort of success on the platform already... It doesn't have to be massive; it just has to be something that's working well."
Once you do have that line, the goal of the division is to "help you through the process of improving your game, monetizing your game, driving distribution for your game, those types of things," says Ryan.
The team has spent several moths "looking at the game platform holistically... Saying, 'Okay, now that we've fixed some of the issues we had before, gaming is one that's very important to us, so let's take a step back and look at what can we deliver to developers.
"We take a look holistically at how do developers acquire users. That's the first thing."
And a focus for Ryan is increasing the diversity of games on the platform. "What I really spend more time on these days is broadening the catalogue of games we have. It's more reaching out to people and saying, 'I know you think of our audience as a very likely FarmVille-style audience. Kabam is huge on us. Kabam is a core gaming company. It's not core in high graphics, because that's the console business, but those are core games. There's no other way to look at it."
There are two important facets of games on Facebook, he says: "we believe it's always better with friends," and despite its reputation as a casual platform, "it's actually for everybody," an assertion he says is backed by research.
How Facebook Communicates With Developers
Describing the current state of his team's communications with the development community as a "one to many program", Ryan discussed dinner meetings and presentations he has delivered both in the U.S. and globally.
"We really, historically, have been relatively inward-focused," he admits. "I think now we're starting a little more aggressive program, as we start to roll out new features for the games platform, making sure that people see the range of games and the success stories that we have, and the improvements that are coming."
Of course, it can't all be about face time. "Where possible, we put it in the documents. We're certainly more focused on that right now, translating the documents into as many languages as we can, making sure that, when we release new futures, that we are spreading the word of those features as quickly as we can, to make sure we have as level a playing field as possible."
What helps is the game development community itself. "Most of our developers actually cooperate," says Ryan. "We even have a special group for a set of developers that all talk to each other and compare notes, which we encourage."
These companies are "competing for the audience, but not necessarily mano-a-mano, so what we try to do is make sure that we're spreading best practices -- to the extent we can without confidential issues -- but best practices are certainly what our team is spending more time on."
Ryan believes all developers can find success on the platform, and he wants them to understand this. "It doesn't mean everything will be successful, just so we're clear, but in general we believe all types of games can be successful. How do we make sure we're out there explaining some of these case studies?"
Facebook Credits: Plus or Minus?
One area where the team has got "lots of feedback" was the switch to Facebook Credits; the payment option was made mandatory this month. "Depending on the developer, some have seen significant increases. Some are undergoing some transition pain right now, and we're working through it with them," says Ryan. "There's no question that it's a transition for some of them, but already we're seeing some significant improvements from a bunch of them."
His philosophy for the unified payment method is thus. "We should be able to take that -- no different than Apple does -- and get to scale in that business, so that developers hopefully can focus just on making great games. We should be able to get to where developers are thrilled they don't have to deal with this, just like with Apple."
He doesn't see the controversy as such a big deal. "The so-called 'controversy' was more about retrofitting something into an existing platform," he says.
Instead, he really sees only upside: "Over time, we can do a better job providing the service than individual developers can do themselves, particularly smaller ones."
New Features for Facebook Games
When he came on board and got his engineering team, the first priority was "basic performance." Facebook's games page "gets crushed, it gets hit all the time and we need to speed it up."
But now that this is underway, it's time to make more ambitious changes. Developers submit a lot of feature requests for the platform. "We're out with the developers pretty much every day, saying, 'What do we not have that's keeping you from building a killer game?'"
Taking those responses into account, Ryan and his team at Facebook HQ are making decisions on what will be added -- some simpler than others. And whether something gets tackled, of course, depends on how many developers ask for it.
"So for example, it turns out that we need better premium SMS payment methods in France. We've heard that from five developers, let's go fix that. As opposed to one developer telling us 'I'm unhappy.'"
Some changes are less simple. "How do we roll out more viral channels that allow different types of games? Like a scoreboard, for example, or things like that -- that would maybe favor an arcade game? Or it turns out that a core game needs to be able to notify you when you're being attacked. We don't have that option right now. Or you saw with the Skype deal" -- in which Facebook added Skype video chats last month -- "can we start looking at chat or video chat, or those types of things?"
However, he notes, it's "way too early" to talk about Skype integration on the games side.
"What about the platform is it that we need to build? Is it chat? Is it video chat? Is it real time notifications? Is it -- and, by the way, everybody gives different answers. So that's what we're now speccing out for the second half of this year, and next year. Because games is important. And it's important to us both domestically, and globally as well."
There's a tension that Ryan has to address when making decisions about what to add to the platform. "We don't want to make the platform so bare-bones that the developer has to put everything into the game. On the other hand, if we do it all ourselves, we don't allow the developer as much customization as we'd like them to do."
His goal is to "provide scale that enables developers to focus more on gameplay and less on worrying about some of the things that we do," as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network do on the consoles.
The question the team is asking itself is, says Ryan, "How do we make sure that to every extent possible we have feature parity, and the understanding that all developers can compete?"
One thing that the team is considering is the "concept of a lighter-weight social layer, that you and I can be friends without necessarily being friends." This is a response to a few things.
"What we don't want to do is have, 'I add you to my friend list just to play games with you,' and I've never met you before," says Ryan. On the other end of the spectrum, some users find the idea of branching out beyond close real-life social contacts to more casual friends is "harder," which can stunt game growth.
"That's why, for example, we spend a lot of time terminating fake accounts -- even if they're active accounts -- because we truly believe your actual identity is the key. It's not true in all games."
Says Ryan, "We're here to optimize around your ID and your set of friends. What can we layer on top of that, to kind of bridge that gap, is going to be the interesting issue, solely for gaming, almost more so than anything else."
Just the Beginning of the Boom
Ryan thinks that we're only in the early days of what Facebook can mean as a game platform -- "I think the cycle is 10, 12, 15 years," he says.
He also sees a huge breadth of content unexplored on the site. "When I look at this I almost get frustrated. I'm running up to my bosses, 'I may just leave to start a game company,' because I look at the landscape, from my point of view, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, there are so many options here that are not being touched.'"
Says Ryan, "When I look at my catalogue right now, realistically, my running joke is it's like the U.S. broadcast system 20 years ago.
"We had three channels. We have the farming channel, we have the city building channel, and we have the pet nurturing channel. I'm joking; it's more than that. If I look at other categories like fiction, or cable networks, there are 650 cable networks in the U.S. Most of them are incredibly profitable. They all address different audiences.
"Clearly there is room in every other media category to have lot of successful players," says Ryan, but the good news is that "we're starting to see a broadening out of the types of games that are available, as people understand that we have every type of audience."
Previously, Ryan worked at News Corporation. "I was with the book business and looking at Avon -- Avon is the romance group at News, owned by Harper Collins -- and there are seven genres of romance, all of them profitable, in the book business. We don't even have one romance game," he says. "If you look at any other more mature category, you have highly targeted, highly successful media offerings for them. We're just early."
He points to the developer Kixeye as a good example. "[CEO] Will [Harbin] is very blunt, and he's like, 'I make games for guys that are core guys, that on the weekend play Call of Duty, and during the week they play my games."
Still, says Ryan, there's room for more: "We're not even close on core right now." All the same, the company is not "walking away from Flash games and supporting those."
He points to Playdom's hidden object game Gardens of Time as a good example of a game that targets the casual Facebook audience in a surprising way. "These guys are killing it. Absolutely crushing it on DAU, monetization, engagement, virality, because they took what was formally a single player category and made it social."
Facebook is clearly taking off as a broader gaming platform, and his hope is that it will bring success to smaller developers with more targeted offerings. "I'm so excited to see the developer community starting to realize that, and that's my mantra is, 'Push something that you really, truly believe in,' and, as well, get better at monetization. You should be able to have a successful smaller game company on us."
The Challenge of Discoverability
Ask iOS developers what keeps them awake at night, and a large number of them will probably say that it's making the App Store's top 10 chart -- so anybody even knows their game exists.
Discoverability can be a problem on Facebook, too.
Says Ryan, "What we're looking at over the next six months -- and into the next year of course -- is really, how do we get better at surfacing high quality games for those people that want to play?"
He is confident of one thing: "If you make great games, you should be able to find an audience."
In his view, Facebook is "a distribution company, and we're there to provide lots and lots of users the types of games they want to play, and we just need to make sure the developers are making wholly different types of games, and making sure those games are surfacing."
Of course, he admits, "We can always do better about surfacing the right content to the right users, whether it's games, video, anything else. That's really, at the end of the day, our core focus, and there's a lot of improvement we can do there, and that's, I'd say, first and foremost. What that means is -- if we can do that in a way that high quality games of all types find audiences -- then we will be a better place for games to develop."
The reason Facebook wants to promote games properly is, says Ryan, "if your game reaches critical mass -- which is the key, whether it's 100,000 users or something like that, and you're profitable -- you will eventually pay us for more users at some point. It's worth your time to do so."
To that end, the team is "spending a huge amount of time" on improving recommendations, "making more intelligent usage" of user data, "and surfacing it in a way that is really valuable to the developer and to the user." Says Ryan, "there should be more to talk about that later this year."
Facebook sees itself as needing to maintain a "quality gate" for its users -- which is why viral spam was blocked. In response, "Hopefully, developers start to focus on the types of [news feed] stories that I think will be engaging and truly interesting."
Says Ryan, "What we look at is -- whether it's a game or not a game -- how does it send the story into the news feed that is interesting to your friends?"
He sees building these stories as "no different than when you build achievements for an Xbox game. You think a lot about them. You don't want the achievements to be meaningless. You want them to actually be something you're proud of that you put on your profile, that you message. That's where we are on this one."
And while he says that he hopes developers will buy ads, "if they don't", that's okay. "We have games in the top 25, where I don't think some of them have ever spent a dollar on ads. A lot of them have, just so we're clear.
"In general, that's not what we focus on. We're there to look at, 'How do they acquire users, how do we help them get them to come back, and how do we help to keep them engaged and introduce them to more friends?' Essentially that."
And while there have been a lot of requests for Facebook to branch out into curation -- it "comes up all the time", Ryan says -- he isn't so interested in it, despite Apple's success promoting games. "It's a very traditional approach. It's not generally our approach. Our approach first and foremost is about social, what are your friends doing. We can get better at that first.
"We have these much better automated systems" these days, says Ryan. The company's strategy "is less about the whole set of rules, and it's just saying, 'Make a great game, send stories you think are important, and we will do our best.' And that's what we're good at: distributing those types of stories to the right people."
Facebook simply doesn't have the manpower to check all of the stories that are being generated by its various apps and games. "What we're trying to move to as a company is not having constraints, and having it all done algorithmically on the backend."
And while the company doesn't market to consumers -- meaning it can't highlight games in TV commercials like Apple does -- it does have the Developer/Retailer Program, or DRP, to push interest in games.
It's a three-pronged approach: "We have Facebook cards in the big five retailers... About every six weeks we launch a co-marketing effort with them so that we promote the game through our marketing channels that we have on the site. [The developers], within the game, promote that if you go to Best Buy this month and buy a Facebook card, you will get a special item. So there are standing inserts in-store, or they put it in the circular, that type of stuff.
"We're starting to move down that path, where we work in conjunction to both drive sales of the card as well as drive installs of the game and drive overall awareness."
Things Have Changed
Marketing efforts like this are increasingly crucial. "The gold rush is over," admits Ryan.
He quickly clarifies that: "the gold rush, in terms of the easy days of just, put a game up there, have it expand, don't worry about monetization so much, just let it roll -- yeah, that's harder now. It's a more competitive market.
"It's no question it is harder to break into the top ten, just like it is in any business," says Ryan.
"What we're seeing is, I don't think you can, right now, put out a clone of a clone of a clone and be successful. There's no question. You need to put out a well-targeted, well-designed game."
All the same, he says, "people are able to find audiences and profit, building games."
Says Ryan, DAU (daily active users) isn't the metric it's cracked up to be. "I focus on either monetization -- total payment volume -- or I focus on engagement. But what I always come back to is engagement, which is really number of visits times length of the visit, and that equalizes out."
It's simple, says Ryan. "Eventually if you like it enough, you will pay. It's directly proportional to how many days out of a month they're in a game."
Even small audiences work these days, he says. "What we're seeing is those types of vertical games, that actually are quite profitable, and the developers being quite happy about it. But they don't get the news so much because they're not at a 50 million DAU, or whatever it is.
"If you look at our platform, I would argue that more people can be profitable on our platform than anything else," says Ryan.
He cites one example, a soccer management sim called Top Eleven. "All of a sudden I see it, and all of a sudden I see the numbers start moving on it, barely advertising, and it's now all of a sudden overtaken FIFA as the top soccer game we have, and it's five guys in Serbia."
But What of the Competition?
Of course, while Facebook claims over 750 million users worldwide, other companies are gunning hard for their own slices of that pie.
On mobile, there are two big social gaming networks vying for control of the space -- both Japanese with U.S. subsidiaries. GREE (which owns OpenFeint) leads its home market, and DeNA (which owns Ngmoco) is not far behind.
This does not concern Ryan. In fact, he sees opportunity. "At the end of the day, we're not so much about a game network. We're about the social graph, and everything you can do through it. So there's no reason we can't partner with everybody. We're a very partner-driven organization in general. It's just a matter of trying to figure out how that makes sense to both parties."
There's also a competitor a little closer to home: Google, with its newly-launched Google+ social network, which is set to introduce games at some point.
"I think Google's a viable competitor," Ryan says.
But when it comes to all of the above, "We don't worry too much about these things because we just focus. All we can focus on is making ourselves a better platform. At the end of the day, the developer has the choice, and that's what's great. And if we deliver the way we should, then I'm not that concerned about it. But it's up to us to continue to improve our offering."