Developers still game for Facebook

Constant rule changes and implementation of Credits scheme by Facebook may have angered some game developers, but industry watchers think they are unlikely to leave en masse.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Game developers that have made a name on the Facebook platform but are now considering leaving the social-networking site may end up losing more than if they stayed, according to an IDC analyst.

IDC's principal for emerging technology advisory services (ETAS) and digital marketplace and new media, Claus Mortensen, said that established game developers such as Zynga, which recently threatened to move its popular online games to its own social games network, are now in a position to leave.

However, despite the popularity of games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars and Cafe World, Zynga and other big game developers may face a challenge in keeping and expanding their membership base, he cautioned.

"Even with the present popularity of some of these games, [leaving Facebook] might prove hard to do if developers want to keep or grow their user base," noted Mortensen in his e-mail to ZDNet Asia.

"Zynga and perhaps one or two other developers might be in a position to make such a move, but for smaller developers--and especially start-ups--it might be a question of Facebook or nothing."

Developers seek alternative platforms
U.S.-based social game developer Zynga had reportedly threatened to leave the social networking site after discussions between both parties regarding the use of Facebook's virtual currency system, Credits, broke down. The former was said to be chafing at the thought of paying 30 percent of all revenue earned from using Credits, which is applicable to all developers, to the site operator.

A blog post by online tech news site, TechCrunch, quoted an anonymous e-mail as saying: "Facebook and Zynga have been negotiating on Facebook Credits and the talks turned for the worst. In the negotiation process, Facebook shut off Zynga's feeds and threatened to shut down [its] games. Zynga, in the process, threatened to completely leave Facebook and [is] prepared to do so in the upcoming weeks."

The blog post also noted that Zynga had already been planning for the eventuality of a separation by moving its Farmville game to another Web site, Farmville.com, while readying itself to launch a new social game network called Zynga Live.

Facebook's virtual currency scheme isn't the only factor stoking developer angst. Singapore-based online game developer, Tyler Project, noted that the recent makeover of the social networking Web site as well as the removal of notifications and the bookmark bar have affected membership numbers.

According to Leonard Lin, CEO of Tyler Projects, "most existing Facebook games" have experienced a drop in membership numbers since the removal of notifications, the option to filter news feeds, and the bookmark bar.

"The Facebook platform has never been easy to develop for; the rules and dynamics of the platform change very frequently...and developers have to constantly think of new methods to make use of the API (application programming interface) to create viral growth for their apps," he noted.

So, by reducing the "viralness" of the platform, added Lin, this makes it more difficult for developers to justify paying for Facebook ads, which have very low click-through rates anyway. Furthermore, click-through rates alone do not guarantee membership growth, the CEO pointed out.

He also revealed how most developers probably did have some contingency plans in case they had to leave Facebook. But now, faced with the "double whammy" of reduced viralness and having to lose 30 percent of online revenue, he and his counterparts are seeing those plans as a "necessity rather than an afterthought".

Besides possibly noticing more developers leave for other platforms, IDC's Mortensen also noted that the social networking site may experience more regulatory oversight if it continues to "strong-arm" game makers.

He pointed out that Facebook is fast becoming a dominant player in the field of social media, and dominant players tend to attract scrutiny from regulatory bodies. If the company continues to introduce rules that may be construed as "abuse" because of its dominant position, the analyst thinks antitrust proceedings are bound to follow.

Changes reflect maturing sector
Fellow popular game developer, PopCap Games, which introduced Bejeweled to gamers, has a different view of the situation.

PopCap Games Co-founder, John Vechey, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that changes made by Facebook are simply part of the "maturing of the [casual games] sector". He went on to add that the latter's new policy changes have the potential to improve user experience over time and, ultimately, attract more dedicated gamers to the fold.

"Certainly, some of Facebook's policy changes come with challenges, but none that cannot be overcome and that will hurt the social game developer community in the long run," said Vechey.

The PopCap executive also mentioned that his company is already using Faebook's virtual currency scheme and is seeing "excellent results" in terms of conversion of credits. He added that PopCap is very optimistic that the Credits scheme will prove to be "most effective for content providers and most convenient and straightforward for consumers".

When asked if Facebook would see a mass exodus of developers, Vechey poured cold water over such a notion.

"We don't anticipate a significant [number of] abandonment of Facebook by makers of social games. One could well argue that those that abandon Facebook are cutting off their nose to spite their face," he said.

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