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The Mobile Transition: Why Facebook Developers Are Making the Shift

As companies like King.com and Wooga are finding that their chart-topping Facebook games become smash successes on iOS, Gamasutra talks to them, and to Facebook, about how this shift from PCs to tablets and smartphones is shaking out.

The Facebook market is transitioning; its power players have reached out and embraced mobile and tablet versions of their games. Buoyed by an opening of the floodgates on the viral channels enabled by Facebook itself earlier this year, today's top-tier developers now say it's essential to support these platforms with native apps that hook into the Facebook versions of their games.

"From a user perspective, seamless play, I believe, is going to be a standard of the future," says Riccardo Zacconi, CEO of Facebook's number two developer, King.com. Meanwhile, Jens Begemann, CEO of number three developer Wooga, tells Gamasutra that "now, we have roughly 60 percent of our employees working on mobile, 40 percent on Canvas."

"It's not about 'either/or', it's about 'and.' With the platform we've deployed on iOS, and certainly Android as well, we now have the same platform available across all three channels, and that's where we're focusing," said Facebook's director of Game Partnerships, Sean Ryan, at a recent event Gamasutra attended at the company's headquarters.

How did this happen, and why is it taking off so quickly? Clearly, smartphones and tablets are reaching ever-larger audiences; as long ago as last December, half of Facebook's user base was accessing the social network via phones.

The problem is that, at that time, Facebook games could only be played on desktop PCs via browser. But in January of this year, Facebook enabled developers to more fully hook their native mobile games into its Open Graph -- to allow them to post from within games and send invites to friends, features that had been blocked on mobile since users could not play games from within the Facebook app on iOS or Android. That opened up Facebook developers to creating mobile versions of games that could talk to the platform.

Now, Facebook users are directed to the iOS and Android app stores to download the native versions of the games that generated the posts. This has elevated interest in these titles -- driving downloads of the mobile versions, say both Facebook and developers. "It generally creates lift because in a lot of cases, like with King, they've built up a strong desktop presence," Ryan tells Gamasutra.

Zacconi has repeatedly credited the success of Bubble Witch Saga on iOS to Facebook. "We launched it with zero marketing, and we went in the Top 10 on iPhone and iPad in all the European App Stores. This was purely because of the integration with Facebook, because suddenly a player who actually was playing the game on Canvas would see the game also on their phone," Zacconi says.

Begemann, meanwhile, attributes the staying power of the iOS version of Diamond Dash to Facebook, too. "Usually when you have mobile apps, usually you have a lot of downloads in the first few weeks and then it kind of flattens out, right?" Diamond Dash, however, is growing "by almost 100,000 downloads a day, and is very constant," Begemann says.

"How can a game that is out since 10 months still have almost 100,000 downloads per day? And that is obviously, yes, it's word of mouth. People love it, and they are passionate about it, and they talk to their friends about it. But definitely Facebook virality plays an important role in that."

Becoming Multiplatform

This success has lead King.com from experimentation to a rock-solid requirement -- games must launch on both Facebook and mobile now, says Zacconi.

"The reason why I said 'Facebook and mobile' rather than 'Facebook or mobile' is that from a user perspective, seamless play, I believe, is going to be a standard of the future," he tells Gamasutra.

To facilitate this, King.com has reorganized its teams, says Zacconi. "Before, the company was divided in an organization which was in charge for the Canvas, and an organization which was in charge for the mobile. And now, we have structured it differently. We are organizing by title, whereby every title has a mobile team and has a social team."

Wooga's Begemann, on the other hand, advocates a mobile-first approach. "The teams think with a mobile mindset for the new games. It's not about transitioning the games from one to another," he says. "For new games, we start the teams on mobile first," says Begemann. 

"We made this decision a year ago," he says. "A year ago we only had 10 people working on mobile. Now it's over half of the 250-people company. I think 2013 will be the year where, at least for us, mobile will be significantly bigger than Canvas."

Facebook's Ryan approves of these moves, showing that his team -- which works with all game developers hoping to bring their titles to the platform -- sees the value in consistency. "What you don't want to do, generally, is make a game that feels like a port," he says.


Bubble Island

Wooga's strategy seems to have arisen as the developer discovered some tweaking was necessary to adapt its Facebook games for iOS. Discussing Bubble Island, Begemann points out that the mobile edition is quite different from its Facebook iteration.  

"The scoring has to be adapted, because you play this in a different way. The levels have to be adapted, so this is more fast-paced, it's less [reliant] on accuracy," says Begemann. "So what this means is it's not exactly the same game on the three platforms. Tablet, phone, and Facebook, it's not exactly the same game, because if it would be exactly the same game, it wouldn't be as good, right?"

King.com's current lineup also started out on PC, but Zacconi has a totally different take. "I think that every device has to be rethought, but the game itself is exactly the same game... We want to have a seamless, same experience."

However, they both agree that synchronizing progression -- and purchases, as these games are free-to-play -- across the platforms is essential to this new reality. "The progression is exactly the same progression, and the friends are exactly the same wherever you are. So the game experience and the game is actually the same, but the way the interface looks is different," says Zacconi. "So what we do here is, with the Facebook version that you operate with a mouse, progress, in-app purchases, everything is totally synchronized," Begemann says.

Even Spooky Cool Labs, which recently launched its first game, Wizard of Oz, on Facebook Canvas -- a 3D, Unity-powered city builder based on the classic movie, which is much more complicated play than Wooga's Bubble Island or King.com's Bubble Witch Saga -- sees the need to move to mobile, though this is something the company has not yet announced.

"We think that it's very important that the player be able to play wherever they are," says the company's chief technical officer, Chuck Hess. "When they're sitting at their computer, they can play the game on the computer, and when they are out doing whatever, then they have an option to play, and they can play the same game."


What Kind of Boost Can You Get from Open Graph?

This mobile transition for Facebook games can only thrive in an environment where the platform holder supports it. So far, developers seem satisfied with the changes that Facebook launched in January. "I think that what Facebook is doing is completely right. We're embracing and using the Facebook platform inside our apps. That works extremely well," says Begemann.

Working with Facebook is essential, says Zacconi. "You have synergies which you don't have if you are only available on the phone. If you're focused on purely on building your games business on mobile, discoverability is a big problem, and also retention."

"Trying to get discovered, and downloaded, and installed, and paid for is the hardest problem," says Facebook's Ryan. He proposes Open Graph as the solution, as you'd expect -- but the developers seem to agree.

"Open Graph is a valuable extension to social game play on mobile devices, as it enables an easy way to share game progress and player interactions. It also works as a discovery tool, but for us, its primary benefit is strengthening the social experience in the game," says Greg Harper, general manager for the North American division of Clash of Clans and Hay Day developer Supercell.

"For example, we introduced an Open Graph feature that lets players 'like' other farms in Hay Day," Harper says. "In just a few months, one of our in-game characters got nearly half a million likes without any kind of promotion or incentives in the game." It's worth noting that Supercell's games are not available on Canvas. 

While Wooga doesn't require Facebook connectivity for its mobile games, many Diamond Dash players choose to use it anyway. "Out of daily active users, 68 percent connect with Facebook, and they do that because it's a better game, right?" says Begemann. "If you just play it alone it's good, but if you can compete against your friends, and if you have the thrill of beating your friends, it's a much, much, much better game."

"Those who connect with Facebook play twice as long; they are eight times more likely to spend money," says Begemann.

"Our goal is to develop games with deep interactions between the players. Although we don't want to make using Facebook a requirement, many of our players want to play with their friends, and using Facebook is a very convenient way to do that," says Supercell's Harper.

Of course, the appeal of playing with friends is central to these notifications reeling new players in.

"For me, I think it's unthinkable of having a singular experience like the download experience of the past," says Zacconi. "Where Facebook actually can play a very important role is because Facebook actually knows what other players are around you, who also love that game, and are as good as you are."

Begemann credits notifications on the Facebook mobile app as the most relevant factor for driving players to the mobile versions of Wooga's games, not other forms of viral communication. 

"You get a lift of using our channels. That these messages, through our social channels -- whether it's mobile, App Center, or through the newsfeed -- now show up, where before we were suppressing them, because there was nothing you could link to. Now you can link to the game and go play it. So that's where you see the lift take place," says Ryan.

Ryan has nothing but praise for Hay Day's social interactions. Facebook believes that stronger, more meaningful interactions are key to the "lift" he describes. "At level seven, you unlock the ability to trade or buy and sell materials and items with your friends, and it uses Facebook for that functionality -- and that's when all of a sudden the game really unlocks in a way that's really fun," he says.


Hay Day

Following on from that, Ryan wants to see more, newer, and better social mechanics in the next crop of games. "So I think when we talk to developers, what we talk to them about is it's not about how many requests you send, and how many times you ask somebody for a life; we talk to the developers about, 'Are there new mechanics that we can talk about?' The borrowing, the trading, that seem to be a much more natural part of the game and really make it more fun -- as opposed to just, 'Can I get something from you for free, if I just keep asking you enough?'"

Facebook's director of user growth, Alex Schultz, sees the mobile transition as powering the social engine of apps. "When you sign up to a social game and only two or three of your friends are playing it, it is not fun. As more and more of your friends join the game, more opportunities come for it to be social," he said at that Facebook event in October. Mobile, he said, is "bringing this, too."

As for whether or not Facebook is where it needs to be on supporting games via the mobile app, Ryan is satisfied. "Last year, I think we were behind," he admits. "With mobile install product, we're giving them what we think is the best way in the business to help users discover and install new games."

Supercell agrees, though it does see some room for improvement. "Although it is still early, Facebook is taking several steps to increasing the value it delivers to mobile game developers," says Harper.


What's the Future of Canvas?

So far, we agree that there's a transition of players onto the mobile version of Facebook; many of these players are now playing the native app versions of Facebook games; and that Facebook itself has recognized and supported this transition. So what's the future of Canvas? Still pretty bright, say these big players. It won't be completely eclipsed anytime soon.

"We still see growth on Canvas and obviously it's still bigger, but the growth on mobile is extremely fast," says Begemann. "The PC will become less important, and with that the browser, and with that Canvas. But that's really mid-term."

Ryan is even more blunt. "What we find in general is everybody who thinks the PC market is declining hasn't looked at the research," he says.

Out of all of those interviewed, Begemann is the biggest believer in a permanent shift. "I think that really, if you look long term, tablets are replacing the PC for consumers. I think this is the third computer revolution," he says, after the 1980s transition to desktop PCs, and the 1990s shift to GUIs.

Zacconi also thinks the move to tablets is real. "I believe this shift is happening, yeah," he says. But he also sees it as a gradual move. "If you think that the projection is that 20 percent is going to be substituted, this means basically that computers will stay around for a long time still," he said, speaking of reports that suggest even this relatively small shift will not occur until late 2014.

"Interestingly, what we have seen now, people who start playing on their computer and then continue their gameplay on their smartphone, actually, the smartphone usage is extending their gameplay rather than cannibalizing on the PC usage," says Zacconi.

Begemann agrees, but feels that pattern can't last forever. "So far it's more additional, but as this grows and becomes the default device, it's a substitute," he says, while indicating an iPad.

"In two years or so, maybe the laptop is broken, or it's kind of outdated, and I believe they won't replace it. I think that people who are buying a tablet now, as a private person, won't replace their laptop. They will phase out their existing laptop and they will maybe upgrade in two years to the next generations of tablets," says Begemann. "I think that's what's happening."

Ryan's less sure. "And that's the funny thing -- is we all sit around and we say, 'You know what, mobile is taking over the world. It's growing like crazy,' but if you look at the most recent research, whether it's Gartner or IDC or others, it's that the PC market generally continues to expand for games. And it's a big, big market," he says.

Not everyone buys this, though. "We do believe the tablet is the ultimate game platform with the only true mass-market audience that combines both casual and core gamers," says Harper. "I'm not sure at what point in the future we will see the greatest amount of revenue or largest player base on tablet, but that day will most certainly come."

"When we talk to developers, which we spend most of our days doing, their general feeling is that in this current stage of the market it's incremental, but I think we've seen this in other market segments where the early days seem incremental," Ryan says, drawing a comparison to Netflix, which has come to dominate streamed video, and has destroyed the brick and mortar video rental industry. "You never know until hindsight when that becomes cannibalistic, but in the short to medium term early stage lifecycle, everything expands."

Still, even with his rosy outlook for the PC, Facebook is preparing for a future in which the casual players who make up the bread and butter of its audience are playing primarily on mobile devices. "I think Canvas will become more heavily concentrated in higher-end games that are more immersive. So we're spending a great deal of time working with Adobe on Flash 11 and with Unity on Unity, as we see the rise of 3D gaming that is generally better on a larger screen then on a smaller screen," says Ryan.

Feeling the Pressure

An answer to the question, if one can be found, may be in who feels the most pressure to move to a new platform right now.

"As a company, we are big believers in focus on tablets. The key to the success of our Tablet First strategy is that all of our energies are focused on creating the absolute best experience possible on tablets," says Supercell's Harper. "We are not distracted by the different requirements and demands of other platforms. So, for the foreseeable future, we remain committed to tablets."

On the other hand, Spooky Cool Labs, which just released Wizard of Oz for Facebook Canvas, doesn't have quite the same attitude. "We're showing you the official Facebook game for The Wizard of Oz," the company's director of marketing, Bob Holtzman told Gamasutra during a recent meeting, "but we're absolutely in line with what you're saying. We believe in iOS, and we believe that Android will also be an important platform. We want to go where we can find a great audience for these kinds of games."

Despite his aggressive push for mobile deveopment, Begemann still plits the difference. "I'm not really viewing it as this pressure," he says. "It's more like that we're pushing ourselves because we see this big opportunity there, you know?"

In the end, there are two stories here. As the audience for tablet and smartphone games grows, Facebook is shifting from a play platform to a social enabler for game discovery. At the same time, its key developers are now starting to see mobile as their target, not Canvas. Caught in the middle, Facebook is trying to adapt to the change in the wind by making sure that -- whether you started as a Facebook developer or as a mobile studio -- it's to your advantage to stay hooked to their feeds. If the profound success of Supercell is any indication, the advantages for doing so are real. 

For some, it may not be a matter of transition, but merely expansion. "I think that our category of games is a category of games which is predestined to be played everywhere," Zacconi says.

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