Why Twitter Is (Probably) Not the Right Place for Games Today

I have been thinking a lot about whether Twitter will ultimately become as fertile a place for social games as Facebook has become over the past 18 months. I have to preface this article by saying that I am not actively involved in building games on the Twitter platform nor do I have any firsthand knowledge as to what’s working on the Twitter platform with respect to games. Below are a set of hypotheses I have about why Facebook is still a better place for social games developers than Twitter:

1. Facebook has much higher engagement than Twitter, whether you measure it by time spent, frequency of login / usage, intensity of interaction, or any other meaningful metric. This makes sense – social networks have more opportunities to engage users than communication utilities do. Rightly or wrongly, my perception is that Facebook users spend a lot more time on Facebook and engage more deeply on that platform than Twitter users do on average. Why do I believe this? Well, I think that one of the primary reasons people continue to hang out on Facebook for ungodly amounts of time is that Facebook does an amazing job of creating context out of content via the use of metadata. For example, looking at pictures on Facebook is often times more interesting than looking at them in other places because you’re likely to get photos that are tagged with socially-useful information (names of people, links to those people’s profiles, comments from other people etc). The same can be said of posted items, status updates, videos, or just about any other type of web content. While Twitpic and other services are great for sharing photos on Twitter, I don’t believe those services create the same kind of social metadata that a well tagged Facebook photo album does. Part of the cool part of consuming content on Facebook is that it offers the opportunity to discover new people who are friends of friends and to better understand your friends’ social patterns.

Another somewhat subtle difference is the way in which both networks make use of passive or casual users. On Twitter, if you’re not tweeting or people aren’t @replying to you, you’re effectively invisible to many people on the service. To some degree, Facebook gets around this problem (to a limited degree) by allowing users to create metadata that involves users who are not active users of the service. For example, tagging a full photo album with friends of yours who are not active on Facebook creates an opportunity for them to be re-engaged when they’re notified about being tagged or when someone else comments to them directly.

Why is this relevant to games? Well, at the end of the day, games (free-to-play games in particular) need engaged users to work. If you have a platform with a lot of registered users who do not engage regularly, that does not strike me as the most fertile place in which to create a games ecosystem.

2. Facebook has an incredibly short loop between discovering games and engaging with them – games can be played “in-stream” in the current Facebook UI. One of the best thing for social games developers working on the Facebook platform is the opportunity to leverage all of Facebook’s communication channels to acquire users. Whether it’s the newsfeed, a notification, or an invite, there are tons of ways to engage game players on social networks. What’s even better, though, is that those users are one click away from playing your game in what looks and feels like the same native experience. Playing Facebook games doesn’t require you to leave Facebook – you just click from within Facebook to an iFrame or other page that looks and feels like you’re still in Facebook (including the Facebook header and nav bar), play until you’re bored or out of energy, and then go back to browsing your news feed or chatting with friends. This both makes user acquisition fairly easy for developers and makes game discovery easy for consumers.

Twitter does not today have this luxury. People access Twitter through a variety of ways (mobile, desktop applications, web apps, IM, etc), none of which provide a consistent UI or discover paradigm. And there isn’t any way to play Twitter games in-stream – most of the games that I’ve seen show up in my Twitter stream require the player to go to a 3rd party site to create an account or otherwise perform game actions. Having to click away from what you’re doing to play or interact with a game introduces more friction than is found on the Facebook platform. It also makes content discovery more difficult – without a graphically rich news feed in which players can “brag” or show what they’re doing, I have to believe it’s harder to show prospective users what the game is like and why they should play.

On a related note, it’s taken Facebook developers a long time to figure out the right balance between invites, notifications, and newsfeed items as promotional channels for their applications. Twitter really gives you three options right now – @replies, twitter “status” updates, and DMs. I’m not sure either any of these is necessarily appropriate. I can see the value in DMs as a user-to-user notification system for players who are in games. And I can see why @replies would be a good channel to leverage if you’re a game developer. But do most users want game-related @reply messages? I don’t know. For games like foursquare where the information being published in status updates (location) is generally consistent with what users share naturally, maybe that works.

Feel free to add your thoughts below. Thanks for reading.