Is Facebook Connect a Big Deal for Social Games Developers?

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about what Facebook Connect might mean for social games developers, particularly those who are building games that reside primarily on social networks and leverage the social graph provided by Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and others. I’ve read a few articles of late, including this good one by Bret Terrill and this one by Justin Smith that have helped me get a handle on some disparate thoughts I have about whether Facebook Connect will be a big deal for social games developers.

The net conclusion is that I’m not sure as the product hasn’t even shipped yet. But I do think it means different things for those who are on Facebook today versus those who aren’t.

    Game developers who live off-Facebook

When I first heard about Facebook Connect, my immediate thought was that it had the most to offer those who don’t already have a meaningful presence on one of the major social networks that offer a platform. For folks who are building more traditional MMOs, casual games, virtual worlds, or other web-based games, Facebook Connect could open the door for some really interesting integration opportunities that would allow these developers to bring the social graph to their applications without having to move them to the social network.

The core question I have is whether people who play games that don’t live on Facebook want to link their in-world and real world (for lack of a more elegant term) identities. I don’t think there is a universal answer, but I’d be willing to wager that there is a good chunk of games where users are not interested in linking their worlds and a good chunk where users would welcome the opportunity. Broadly speaking, I would expect games where the play style is more casual to be ones where the users are more interested in connecting worlds – the more fringe the topic / site appears to be, the less likely the average user will probably be to connect up their in-world and real world networks.

A small but important additional caveat. Aside from the nature of the game, the impact of FB Connect on these developers will also be a function of the nature of their users’ social networks. Do they have lots of friends on Facebook? Do those friends like to play games? Are they active users of Facebook or just lurkers?

I think Bret’s article did a good job of highlighting some of the tension with having games live on Facebook and other social networks. Many good games create bonds between and among players and players nowadays want a way to express those in-game relationships. Perhaps the Facebook social graph is not the right way to place to express those relationships. If it isn’t the place where Facebook would like to see those relationships reflected and expressed, it would be cool if FB Connect allows application developers to create “shadow networks” that express their in-game relationships. This is not just true for games – I can see that being of value to any application developer who wants to be able to facilitate in-world / in-application social networks without having to build them from scratch. I am not geeky enough to be able to dig deep into the details of FB Connect to understand what options, if any, FB is offering app developers who want to enhance a user’s existing social graph of connections by adding in relationships that exist on their application.

The last potential opportunity I see for Facebook Connect in this use case is the opportunity to make paid customer acquisition much more cost-effective, especially for free-to-play gaming companies. Many free-to-play companies have fairly low ARPUs for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here – suffice it to say that having a large audience where a relatively rabid core of users pays and many users do not has the effect of making the average revenue per user both small and meaningless. If, however, acquiring a user who signs in using his or her Facebook credentials invites more users because having his or her real world social graph at his or her disposal, the economics of off-Facebook customer acquisition would change in meaningful ways. If, for example, a non-Facebook Connect user doesn’t bring any other users along with him or her when you acquire said, user, that user has to deliver the full value of what was paid to acquire that user. However, if a Facebook Connect user brings 1-2 additional friends because FB Connect makes it easy to bring them in, suddenly a user acquired through a paid channel doesn’t look so expensive – he or she only needs to pay for a fraction of the freight.

    Game developers who live on Facebook

Many other bloggers, particularly those focused on gaming apps on social networks, have remarked about how unstable life on social networking platforms can be – the rules are fluid and changes can have real impacts on how well a given app fares in terms of traffic, visibility, and ultimately monetization. And, while the Facebook Platform has been great in terms of driving traffic on Facebook, it hasn’t been great for them in terms of monetization. To operate on the Facebook platform and not have at least a healthy amount of concern as to what would happen if a) the Platform is no longer core to their future strategy or b) the rules change such that games are no longer viable doesn’t seem like a good strategy to me.

For those who are nervous about life on the platform, Facebook Connect is a way to build an off-platform solution that leverages the social graph that Facebook provides. But part of what makes the Facebook Platform attractive is the massive amounts of traffic that Facebook gets, combined with the presence of an easy to access social graph. Using Facebook Connect as an opportunity to build an off-Facebook solution means you have to confront the thorny issue of building meaningful traffic to a standalone website. These are not insurmountable hurdles, but building traffic and an audience on the web is hard stuff and not a task to be undertaken lightly.

One potentially interesting opportunity is the ability to create different experiences off-platform and on-platform. To be clear, you don’t need Facebook Connect to do this – a game developer could have an app-style experience on Facebook that connects to a richer web experience today. Facebook Connect should make that much easier to effect, though. I think this will prove to be much harder in practice than it sounds in theory. You’ll need to create both a compelling Facebook and a compelling web experience and a good way to shuttle users between the two. I’m skeptical that this can be done easily or quickly.

For companies with sufficient resources and sufficiently-compelling game concepts, there will be opportunities to do interesting multi-platform things along the lines of what Zynga is doing with Poker on the iPhone. For this to work, though, a company will have to have the resources to support multiple platforms (web, social network, mobile, etc) and a game that travels well to other places. Not every game that works on a social network would work well on an iPhone or on the open web. That being said, though, this multi-platform approach will allow publishers to wring more revenue / traffic / opportunity out of titles that are successful by putting them in front of more people in more places.

That’s it for now. I know I’ve missed a ton of stuff here so feel free to help me figure this stuff out by leaving a comment with your thoughts.