The Serious Potential of Facebook Gaming


(This is another installment of </RANT>.exe, a weekly PC-gaming focused opinion column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

It should come as no surprise to anybody with a lick of common sense that Facebook gaming is not quite the guaranteed moneymaker some had assumed it to be. In fact, its honeymoon period may be over, with the latest figures suggesting that Facebook users have gotten over the novelty by now. According to a report on MCV, the number of Facebook users playing games has seen a sharp decline, with a significant yearly drop. In 2010, over half of Facebook users played games on the social network, which decreased to roughly 25% in 2011.

Naturally, the usual suspects have cropped up as reasons for the decline. Mobile gaming is a big contributing factor, according to researchers. There’s also little doubt that intense saturation of the platform has turned many users off. More interestingly, however, is the suggestion that users are sick of “casual” experiences like Farmville and want something with a little more challenge. I think all of these factors are important, of course, but while we “hardcore” gamers celebrate the downfall of social gaming, it would be unwise to write Facebook off completely. In fact, I think it’s an exciting platform we ought to encourage, especially now that the mainstream users appear to have gotten bored of it.

I feel Facebook game developers went wrong by targeting just casual users and expecting them to stick around. The mainstream consumer loves a fad, but doesn’t love it forever. Huge crazes are fueled by intense, obsessive love of a product, but it’s a love so hot it burns as swiftly as it does brightly. It’s not a sustainable business model to build your future around that kind of consumer craze, and that’s why there are now a bunch of developers facing an ever-dwindling audience. Facebook users are, by their very nature, easily weary and highly distracted. That’s why we have Facebook accounts — because we so easily get bored and need new information to fill our empty heads. Right now, the Facebook gaming scene is saturated with studios, all trying to copy each other and attract the attention of people who are already looking for the next big waste of time. Right now is the time to change one’s target audience … and start going after actual gamers.

It may be popular to ignore Facebook gaming as a casual waste of time, but for quite a while I’ve sensed some real potential in it, and there are surprisingly solid game concepts already on the platform that demonstrate how traditional gamers can be brought into the loop. One shining example would be N.O.V.A, a free-to-play multiplayer FPS from Gameloft. I’ve played the Facebook version of N.O.V.A a few times and, while it could be a little laggy, I was surprised by how competent it actually was. It boasted a full-on XP system, character customization, a good selection of maps and the actual combat was solid, if fairly straightforward and unremarkable. It wasn’t a game to set the world of shooters on fire, but it was definitely worthy evidence of what can be done on Facebook with a studio that takes it seriously.

Unfortunately for N.O.V.A, it didn’t seem to have succeeded too well, and the game recently closed shop. It still exists on other platforms, but Gameloft clearly didn’t see it exploding on Facebook. Maybe it simply expected Farmville-levels of success and was disappointed, maybe it didn’t have enough people spending Facebook credits. Who knows? Maybe, had so many of us not written Facebook off as simply a place where Zynga lives, it would have lasted. It’s hard to say, but I enjoyed the shooter while it was there.

We also have the recently released War Commander. Like N.O.V.A, it’s fairly derivative, but it works to show what could be done on Facebook. It’s a real-time strategy in the same vein as Command & Conquer, and nobly attempts to bring a complete, full RTS experience to the humble platform. From battles to building to resource management, everything an RTS player expects is there. It truly is impressive when you consider how simple Facebook games have evolved into full-fledged experiences based on deeper console ideas. Hopefully it fares better than N.O.V.A did.

Major publishers have begun to take note about the potential Facebook has. Electronic Arts, for all its evil, was one of the early large companies to produce spin-off games on the platform, with games tied into Dragon Age: Origins. As much as I dislike EA, I do love how it’s always managed to use multiple platforms to create a unified gaming experience, and Facebook is the perfect medium through which to do that. We also have games like FFXII-2 and Dance Central 2, actually integrating Facebook into the full game experience. There are many ideas to exploit and play with, and I have a feeling those developers that evolve these ideas will be the ultimate victors on the Facebook battleground.

It’s a two-way street, however, and I think we cynical gamers need to embrace the platform a little more. It’s easy to dismiss Facebook, and all social gaming, as a waste of time suited only to stereotypical “soccer moms” and the like. It’s easy to lose interest in a game as soon as you hear that it’s going to be played on a browser. But when you look at how far we’ve gone from simple puzzles and simulators to ambitious, console-esque experiences, I think there’s something very exciting going on. I think it’s something we need to take an interest in if we want to expand our horizons and look for unique gaming experiences. Yes, a lot of the games on offer right now are either rudimentary or simple copies of existing games, but I definitely suggest you keep an eye on the platform, and try out some of the more interesting games.

It’s sad that N.O.V.A went away and I hope that it means similar games simply cannot survive on the platform. N.O.V.A worked on Facebook, and that was a real eye-opener for me. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step toward showing that the platform was capable of more than just Words With Friends. Maybe we need some bigger players in the FPS market stepping up to the plate and getting some real attention. We need to move away from the idea that Facebook is only good for shitty clones and casual rubbish, because it’s capable of a lot more than that.

Facebook gaming may have lost a lot of favor with the casual crowd, but I believe that makes it ripe for a studio that wants to appeal to those proven to stick around — people like us. If both sides are willing to show an interest, I think Facebook could be an amazing gaming space.

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