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Shaping the Future of Facebook as a Game Platform

As Facebook's product manager for apps and games, Matt Wyndowe is a key part of how the platform changes itself to appeal more to game developers -- and in this interview, he talks about how the company approaches that task.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

October 4, 2012

21 Min Read

Once apps launched, Facebook grew into a game platform -- a huge one. This was a surprise of its founders. Since that time, the company has worked to embrace the medium, and has recruited for its games initiative, including Sean Ryan, its director of games partnerships, who helps bring developers in to the platform and works to find out what they need from Facebook.

But there is another important part of the Facebook equation: who is it that makes decisions about how the platform will be developed? Who has game developers' interests at heart? Or, to put it another way, who can game developers blame when things go wrong?

That man is Matt Wyndowe. As Facebook's product manager for apps and games, Wyndowe is a key part of how the platform changes itself to appeal more to game developers -- and in this interview, he talks about how the company approaches that task.

He also discusses the company's attitude toward the shift away from desktop and toward mobile use of Facebook, how it hopes to attract new developers, how his team balances the needs of app and game developers, and why they recruit from the game industry.

You work internally on the platform itself. You have to cater to different constituencies in terms of developers of games and non-games; how do you balance that?

Matt Wyndowe: Actually, one of the reasons we created a dedicated games team at Facebook was that we realized that the needs of game developers can differ from the regular developer community. A lot of the initiatives we work on on the games team overlap with the initiatives of the general app ecosystem; we just tend to prioritize things differently.

A good example is the App Center. The games team was the one who first came up with the idea and championed the App Center. Part of the reason was because we saw all of these great, high-quality games that maybe weren't using all the viral channels, and weren't getting as much distribution as they should, and we saw that as an opportunity to highlight the highest-quality games.

Do you have a particular schedule? How do you determine when you're going to start making changes to the platform, or is it a continuous process of evolution?

MW: As a lot of us are former developers ourselves -- virtually all of us are -- we're very sensitive to changes in the ecosystem that are going to affect developers. That said, we also know that you have to change and develop the ecosystem and the platform to make it better for users and developers. It's a trade-off that we are always trying to make on a case-by-case basis.

I would say that we do changes regularly on the ecosystem, but we recently established this new 90-day breaking change policy just to make sure that we're not busting anyone's great game or something like that. Those are a couple of things that we've brought onto the platform as we've matured a little bit that we just didn't have in the early days.

That policy; is that ultimately that you give people 90 days of notice on what's going to be changing and how it's going to affect them?

MW: If it's a breaking change. If it's something additive to the system, we don't wait 90 days to launch it, because it's actually not good for anyone; but, if it's something that's potentially going to break something, then we give a 90-day change. We've had that for a year now. That's been received well.

Since things evolve very quickly and people can want something very passionately, how do you determine this is a change that's actually going to be good in the long run versus something that's getting a lot of noise that might not actually be worth addressing because who knows how it's going to shake out?

MW: (Laughs) My job would be a lot easier if there were a generalized rule for that. I think we're getting reasonably good pattern recognition having been a platform now for five years. We try to prioritize correctly.

I will say that we don't tend to focus on very one-off, gimmicky kinds of things. The things that we build out tend to be core, long-term infrastructure things, like the Open Graph, where we just come up with a new way to put data into the system and read data out that we think is going to be impactful.

Because we focus a lot on the API, we don't have a ton of user-interfacing elements of the platform. I think we're privileged in a way to get to work with more pieces of core infrastructure to help empower developers.

Do you find that the needs of developers evolve more quickly than you can make changes to the platform? Are you hearing a lot from developers, "We want this, we want this, we want this"?

MW: No, I would say we think about it a little differently. We've made a lot of good strides. Developers are primarily looking to us as a way to distribute and grow their games to 900 million-plus users. That's a way a lot of developers find us initially appealing, and then they learn that, if they actually build the social dynamics in, they can build games with a lot higher engagement and monetization, etc. So a lot of the things that we're doing are basically trying to improve one of those three things, and there are so many things that we can do to help those value propositions. Those fundamental value propositions have not changed.

There's a lot of different ways those can manifest and a lot of different features that we can do, but, essentially, if we just build a good platform that delivers on those, that usually takes care of 80 percent of cases. Because a lot of people have gaming experience and, frankly, because there's so much left we have to do, we've only just scratched the surface of what gaming with Facebook can be like; so every time we free up resources we're like, "Okay, what's next on that list to do?" It hasn't changed that dramatically over the years. Developers tend to want the same kinds of things.

Do you find that people have been doing things with games like wanting to plug in, say, Unity or something, that you couldn't anticipate or didn't expect, and then it's difficult to deal with?

MW: Yeah! We sort of see it as one of the things that make this industry fun. Unity, for example, just started to emerge where we'd see great games using Unity, and we started to think, "How do we highlight these games for users?" Obviously, there are challenges in getting users to do a separate download. Then we'd go out and talk to Unity and talk to the developers who are developing it, and those emergent things to the ecosystem in a lot of ways make your job fun.

You work only as relates to games, or you work on the platform in general with all apps?

MW: Originally, I was product manager of apps; now I'm product manager of apps and games, so the purview of the stuff that I work on covers a lot of stuff. Those could possibly be split up into two again, but I focus a lot of time on games.

Do you find that the games stuff is more or less demanding than the app stuff? If you look at the charts, then obviously games have a tremendous amount of the users, but there still are apps that are a lot of users too.

MW: It's very rare that we'll build a feature that isn't benefitting the entire ecosystem and that we don't think of as both sets of features. For example, the App Center came up prioritized more heavily on the games engineering side but was useful for the entire app ecosystem. We also have a number of other product managers who work on the app side doing related stuff, so the titles do overlap a little bit.

Obviously, there are some major, 500-pound gorillas on the Facebook platform, but you've always been clear about wanting to attract all kinds of diversity. How do you get feedback from everyone? You never know what is going to be the next trend that could actually rocket up the charts. We never anticipated, for example, King.com, I think. It felt like they came out of nowhere even though they were established in the casual space.

MW: You're exactly right. The diversity in the ecosystem's incredible. I think a lot of people don't realize that, but this is not an ecosystem dominated by a couple of players; there is a huge medium- and long-tail of developers. For example, we have 130 games with over a million users. That's a lot. These games are incredibly varied in terms of genre and style of game; a lot of them target different niches, etc.

We have to spend a lot of time outreaching to developers to make sure we're hearing from not only the developers that have achieved success in the past but also the up-and-coming developers. It's one of the reasons we're here today and that we've invested so much in building up a partnership team for games. It's one of the largest cross-functional teams of Facebook. It's not because we like building big teams; it's because you need to get out there and talk with developers, see what kind of stuff they're building, and make sure you're meeting the needs of all of them.

Whenever things change, there tends to be a lot of kvetching about it. I think people just complain about change; it's not necessarily that the changes are wrong, but it's just human nature. Do you find that it creates a lot of static in your life?

MW: The harshest critics of things we do wrong are definitely ourselves. We try to hold ourselves really high bars, so we're really self-critical about all the things we do.

Our developer ecosystem, from my perspective, has been very understanding when we make changes. We hope that most of our changes are for the better, but they've been very understanding.

I think part of that has been because the ecosystem keeps growing. We have over 230 million people playing games right now on Facebook. Last year, it was closer to 200. Every year, when the ecosystem's developing that quickly, I think developers can stand a lot more change because they're just seeing so much value from it.

There are more and more people murmuring about wanting to do synchronous stuff and more synchronous games. Does that affect you -- the direction that developers want to take their games being more technically challenging? Does that affect decisions you make, or is that all on their end?

MW: Remember I mentioned that to-do list of things that we would love to help enable? That's absolutely one of them. We'd love to help enable synchronous gameplay. Obviously, developers can do a lot on their end, but there's a lot of features that we'd love to put in their API to help enable that kind of stuff. That's something that's just such a clear win for users and developers; it's absolutely something that we'd love to do. We have nothing to announce about it right now, but those are exactly the kinds of things that, when we hear a critical mass of developers talking about it, we push up the priority list.

I still don't think we, as an industry, know what the ultimate lifespan of a service game is. We really don't know how long a service game can last, because we still have ones that launched and haven't closed. You talked earlier about features that might break games, but do you think about the fact that some of these games might live indefinitely on the service. Does that impact the way you make decisions?

MW: Absolutely. We view the kind of games that are being built on Facebook as ones that will last a hundred years plus. That's the kind of service and the kind of thinking that we do at Facebook. In fact, I would be shocked if my grandkids did not hear about some of the brands that are being built today. That's the kind of ecosystem that we want to build and definitely the kind of thinking that we do.

I've been talking to different people who've been developing service-based games; some have histories developing games like EverQuest, which launched in '99 and is still going, or like World of Warcraft, which launched in 2004. Is it like a television show that just eventually runs out of steam? Or does it never end as long as there are enough subscribers or people playing?

MW: Yeah, absolutely. World of Warcraft is the quintessential example. It's hard to know. I think it comes down a lot to the brand. You mentioned Final Fantasy before [the interview began]. The World of Warcraft universe or the Battle Pirates universe or Total Domination, depending on how successful a game or franchise gets, could continue to live on. If Mario was built as a service game, what would it look like today? I think it's going to be fascinating.

Do performance issues of games that run on the Facebook platform all come down to how the developers made the game itself, or, when you're playing something in the browser, in Canvas, does that have anything to do with you? Is that entirely down to the way the developers made the game, or are there any changes you make that affect that for people?

MW: Well, we put in a lot of time and effort to make sure that we are not adversely affecting any game. One of the unanticipated downsides to having such an effective growth engine is that sometimes developers have a lot of trouble handling the volume.

SongPop was one of the recent examples with the numbers they raised. Getting to 3 million DAUs in a couple of months and 12 million-plus MAUs -- that's a lot of volume to handle, and that's tough to scale up from a lot of their points. I think the ecosystem's matured a lot, though, and we haven't seen sort of games that go down as much when they hit that growth curve.

I certainly don't think we can take all of the credit for it because most of this is on the developer side, but increasingly the ecosystem is getting much better at it, despite the fact that the growth is much faster now.

Do you make recommendations on partners and process for developers who are doing things like trying to scale?

MW: Like what kind of database to use, or...?

Yeah, exactly; like what kind of technology to use or what server provider is good at scaling.

MW: Yes, we do, in some informal ways. I actually am not up-to-date with it because it's mostly our partnership team who does that, and shares best practices, and occasionally does blog posts about it. But the community communicates a lot with each other, so just on various forums or even our stack overflow page people are sharing tips and stuff. It's been an area where our ecosystem has matured a lot.

People know how to deal with this kind of scale because they've just seen it happen enough times: 130 games with over a million MAU. There's a lot of people that deal with that scale and had to deal with it very quickly, so we're seeing a lot of back-end providers pop up who basically say, "Hey, we helped Draw Something grow; we helped SongPro grow. We helped whomever, and now we can help you guys."

Have you seen an uptick in HTML5 games on the platform? Do you support HTML5 games on the platform?

MW: We're really excited about HTML5 and the promise of it. I will say, on web, definitely Flash still predominates, and, on mobile, native still predominates. We're sort of agnostic about it. We would like to see the potential of HTML5 realized more, but certainly it's not currently dominant on either desktop or mobile.

It's nascent and growing more than that, I think.

MW: Our intuition is that it's going to be very exciting, but, right now, we're focused on developers' success today with all of our developers, regardless of platform.

You mentioned that a lot of games on mobile are native apps; that's how it works. Obviously, a bigger and bigger portion of Facebook users use Facebook primarily through mobile devices. This doesn't really touch on your work, but how does the company feel about that at the end of the day? Does the fact that people are more likely to be gaming on a native app on mobile affect things for Facebook?

MW: We find that a lot of what's going on in mobile for games really exciting, frankly. The kind of innovation that you're seeing for mobile games is really cool and interesting.

From our point of view, we want games to be social and distributed amongst your friends and social graph wherever they are, so we've basically pivoted a lot of our time and effort towards making all of our APIs available on mobile. In 2009, we launched our first series of APIs first for iOS and then for Android, and now, basically, we're at feature parity with our SDKs.

We are developing first and foremost for mobile because developers and users enjoy it so much. There's still an enormously thriving and successful desktop experience on Facebook.com, but we are both investing in that and the mobile because we are sort of agnostic for the platform.

When you see things like King.com, where they're trying to send people on a loop from the mobile to the desktop and back, persistent, is that something that you would have anticipated, and is that something that you help enable?

MW: Yeah, we definitely enable it. Today, if you build a game on desktop and then build the same game on mobile, your users on desktop will get a bookmark on Facebook mobile application for your mobile app.

I've noticed that.

MW: It's pretty awesome for devs and for users too because they want to be playing the same games on both and sharing the experience, so it's definitely something that we're really supportive of. Some developers develop for Canvas only or for Facebook.com only, and are seeing enormous success -- like a Kixeye -- and some developers develop only for mobile and use Facebook to power their growth there. You've increasingly got people building for both because they've got this great effect of getting the Canvas users on mobile and the mobile users back on Canvas. I don't think I would have anticipated so many devs doing it, but, now that you see the data and the numbers, it's clear why they do it.

Do you see a potential future where there are console-level games being played at scale in the Facebook platform?

MW: Yes. Absolutely. I think you're already seeing it with Unity and Flash upping the quality. We get to see a lot of games in beta, and I'll walk past and say, "Wow, that looks like a console game -- what is that?" about something that's running in Flash 11 or Unity. The performance -- obviously, we're working on pretty speedy PCs -- but the quality is just going to continue to rise on web generally and in mobile, where you're seeing great experiences.

From our perspective, console, mobile, and Web should all be able to take advantage of the growth of Facebook and the increased engagement of being social. In some ways, we are interesting observers of what goes on, and just try to make sure that our APIs support the platforms that make the most sense.

I'm actually a little bit surprised that more dedicated console games don't have more Facebook connectivity -- more ways to let people know what you're doing. The PlayStation 3 and I guess the Vita as well say what trophies you get or what you bought, but I don't see individual games making decisions to share. It's weird to me. Does that surprise you?

MW: We think there's a ton of potential. Hardcore console gamers want to share their achievements on their timeline or with their Facebook friends, and developers want to be able to distribute more through Facebook. We think there's a ton of potential. A lot of the ideas we have and the focus we have when we talk internally is on how do we make the console experience more social and get more distribution on the console developers.

That kind of brings me to another question, which is: when you build new features for developers, do you think outside of that box and think about who might come to Facebook if you can attract them?

MW: Absolutely. We really try to outreach to the game ecosystem at large. In our experience, the best games are not built by Facebook developers who then switch into games, but game developers who start using Facebook. So I think you're increasingly seeing that the really high-quality games are from people with deep, deep game backgrounds who see Facebook as simply the most efficient way to distribute their great-quality games.

Seeing yourselves as a platform, have you ever thought as a company, "We should have our own games"? Nintendo has its own games; Sony and Microsoft have their own games. Have you ever thought, "Maybe we should, too?"

MW: We're pretty committed to not making any games and staying as a platform that just spends all of our time and resources -- and, believe me, we've got enough work to do just as a platform (laughing) -- but we're committed not to.

One of the things that's interesting is that the games team at Facebook tend to be a lot of former game developers who are right now actively not making games, but building a platform to be the kind of platform that they would want to develop on.

That makes it really exciting, to have that kind of background. Because we don't make games and don't intend to make games, what we get excited about is seeing other people create great games for our platform and seeing businesses emerge that are massively successful by creating great games for our platform.

That brings up an interesting question: How do you recruit people to your team? How do you determine who you want to pick and what sort of experience do they have?

MW: If you look at the background of our team and the experiences, you'll see the background alumni of Xbox, Electronic Arts, PopCap, a bunch of people from Cryptic Studios, Linden Labs, a whole bunch of indie devs that you may or may not have heard of... So it really comes from a variety of places. We tend to highly prefer people with games background, and we are hiring actively.

Why do you appreciate people with a games background in particular?

MW: The people from a games background generally tend to understand the industry better and the ecosystem better, so for us to support game developers former game developers just tend to have better judgment as to what to build and when it can impact the product quicker. We have some great developers and great members of the team who have no games background, but we generally have more success with people who have a games background.

Facebook is growing in Japan, but maybe not quite yet as a games platform, given the success of mobile social games there, perhaps. It'd be interesting to see what would happen if DeNA decided to point its sights at Facebook. They run games on Mixi, but obviously their biggest target is smartphones right now.

MW: Yeah. What we'd like to see is for mobile devs like that to develop games on mobile or any platform, and use Facebook as the distribution channel for them. From our point of view, one way of looking at the way the games ecosystem works is that there's a huge user base out there who potentially wants to play and discover great games and great social games, and we've got this huge developer ecosystem out there, many of whom are developing for Facebook and some of which aren't. Sort of our job generally is to connect those two worlds and give people social gaming experiences that they love and allow developers to build hugely successful businesses. We've had some success there, but I think there's still potential to do a ton more, which makes it exciting to do what we do.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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