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Inventerprising discusses the current challenges facing indie Facebook app developers and compares the recent launch of their "Lord Word Worm" game with the launch of "The Button" back in 2007.

Nigel Griffiths, Blogger

March 28, 2011

6 Min Read


The Button logo

In 2007 – less than 12 months after Facebook opened their social network platform to third-party application developers – Inventerprising, our Australian-based IT firm, launched "The Button". It was, well, a button. The description read:

"Do you think the world could be better? We certainly do. That's why we built The Button. But it's no ordinary button... Help us make the world a better place!"

Our application consisted of a huge button (a red clothing button, no less) that, when pressed, took you to a new page thanking you for pressing the button and informing you that “every little click counts”. As you can probably guess, the application was primarily a joke (we know we have a quirky sense of humour!).  However, it also had a second purpose. Following a flood of reports on how application usage was exploding on Facebook and the tales of how particular applications had seen amazing growth, this was a quick experiment to see for ourselves how well applications in general could spread on Facebook, using an application with zero functionality as the baseline. The application took us the better part of two hours to develop.

The incredible thing was that the application was a success, at least for an application that did nothing! Usage grew organically to several thousand users in less than a fortnight, without any promotion or effort on our part. We had a whole range of users too; some who just didn't “get it” and commented the application doesn't do what it claims, and others who understood the tongue-in-cheek humour and helped propagate it with comments such as “thank you Button, you are the greatest… I love you!” It even had Fans and all!

At the time of The Button's launch, Facebook had a measly 20 million users. Back then, users weren't overwhelmed by an overload of applications, and they weren't overwhelmed by application spam. Facebook was also very relaxed about the applications' rules of user interaction, providing many options and opportunities to rapidly expand your user base.

Fast-forward almost 4 years to now.


Lord Word Worm logo

In March 2011, we launched Lord Word Worm. It's a Facebook game where you place wooden tiles to create a worm of words by changing one letter at a time. It's fun, very original and addictive (at least according to some players). It was designed to appeal to players looking for a deeper alternative to the typical Facebook games on offer. It has a high acceptance rate and also seems to have gained a high level of respect and loyalty amongst its users. Some players have even suggested it could become one of those “top games”. So you may be thinking “Wow! I bet this game has several million users!” Right? Wrong!

Facebook currently boasts more than 550,000 active applications. Understandably, Facebook has locked down application interactions to reduce the spam and privacy concerns that were quickly gaining negative media attention. Research indicates the average application now has a K-factor (the average number of new users an existing user will draw to install an application) of 0.7. Any value less than 1 does not generate viral growth, a value of 1 represents linear growth, and values greater than one indicate viral growth (aka The Holy Grail). So even though Facebook now has over 600 million users, the potential for organic viral growth has been almost completely eliminated.

These days the independent application developers ("indie developers") are facing an uphill battle against the Facebook developer giants. Zynga, the greatest of them all, released CityVille and within two months it peaked at 101 million monthly active users. 101 million! Compare this to the typical indie developer that struggles to gather monthly active users over the “hundreds” and you'll see there's a huge discrepancy.

Don't get me wrong – I think there are some great Facebook games out there by the big guys, and they certainly deserve their hard-earned successes, but that doesn't change the fact that in the current setup of Facebook indie developers are finding it increasingly difficult to gain any sort of foothold. Of course Facebook would prefer more developers to purchase Facebook advertising, especially considering it's a bid-based system. But how many small developers can compete with Zynga's $50 million annual Facebook advertising budget?  Moreover, the giants can leverage their existing apps to advertise their new creations, a luxury indie developers can only dream of.


Lord Word Worm screenshot

So where is this all heading?

Will Facebook go back to encouraging fresh ideas from new application developers? Wouldn't it be wonderful if they helped kick-start new applications that showed potential by prioritizing them in their “recommended lists” rather than promoting the already successful ones?

My guess is that over time, we will see a decrease in the number of new Facebook application developers, and an increase in the size of the large, already established ones. Indie developers will be less inclined to design their applications for Facebook pages/canvases. Their games will still accept Facebook users using the Facebook Connect authentication, but may then be extended to accept other authentication systems such as Twitter Oauth, Yahoo, Google Friend Connect or even OpenID. And perhaps this is a good thing? Only time will tell.

Irrespective of exactly how this plays out, in the long-run this is not good news for Facebook. Innovation and competition is the lifeblood of change, adaption and success. With an environment which now naturally biases in favour of established actors and against new developers, the Facebook platform is becoming rather stagnant – it is no longer a platform where innovation can thrive. As history has taught us time and again, once any entity or process becomes stagnant, in time, new entities more amenable to competition, change and innovation will replace them.  

Epilogue: The Button enjoyed several years of success before retiring. Since then, there have been many imitations, but none have compared to the original, one and only, “The Button”. Lord Word Worm still continues to grow (slowly but surely) and is loved by its players.

Inventerprising is a forward-thinking Australian company delivering excellence in Information Technology (IT) services since 1999. Inventerprising has worked with governments, businesses and organisations providing superior-quality customised database and application solutions in Australia, USA, India, Mexico and Canada.

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