Facebook is set to become the latest big tech company to move into cloud-based gaming, marking its biggest push to position itself as a destination for playing video games since the heyday of FarmVille a decade ago.
Users of Facebook’s website and main Android app will be able to play a new game instantly, without first having to download software as they would on Apple’s App Store or Google Play.
Zynga’s FarmVille and a range of other social games were wildly popular on Facebook’s desktop website in 2009-10 but failed to make the jump to the social network’s mobile app. In the years since, Facebook has ceded its position as the main portal for casual gaming to Apple and Google.
“If you want to build communities, you have to be involved in games,” said Jason Rubin, who is leading the new initiative at Facebook, pointing to the hundreds of millions of its users who watch or chat about games today and the lucrative ad business that targets them.
In recent years, Facebook has offered only very simple mini-games through its mobile apps, including what it calls “instant games” on Messenger and its new standalone Gaming app.
Facebook’s latest push will offer developers the ability to offer more sophisticated games — such as puzzles, sports simulators and racing games — largely in the casual, free-to-play style most commonly found on mobile platforms.
The games are aimed at the hundreds of millions of mainstream players who use the company’s main app, as well as the more dedicated fans who use the Gaming app, which has until now been focused on watching gameplay.
However, as it unveils its first handful of titles, the social network is once again clashing with Apple over restrictions to the iPhone’s App Store, which Facebook claims prevent it from matching its offering on Android and the web.
“It’s very inconvenient,” said Mr Rubin. “It’s going to be really consumer friendly on Google Play so we don’t understand why we can’t just do the same thing [on iOS].”
Relations between Facebook and Apple have become increasingly antagonistic, over issues ranging from data privacy to App Store fees.
As Facebook has with its new Gaming app, Google and Microsoft have also struggled to overcome Apple’s rules that require games to be submitted to its App Store review team individually, rather than offered as a bundle through the two companies’ Stadia and xCloud cloud gaming services.
“We are barred for many other reasons from bringing this out on iOS,” said Mr Rubin. “They [Apple] are actually getting in the way of new games being created to take advantage of [new] technologies by being so inflexible with their rules.”
Facebook is using similar underlying technology to Google and Microsoft to “stream” games from a central server, much like a Spotify song or Netflix movie. At launch, Facebook is limiting cloud gaming’s availability to just over a dozen US states, because of the data centre upgrades required to make streaming work.
But Facebook’s slate of content differs from its rivals and, rather than requiring a subscription, it will not charge users to start playing.
Stadia and xCloud generally cater to more dedicated players with console-quality graphics and software. Facebook Gaming’s launch titles — which include Asphalt 9: Legends, a racing game, a version of the card game Solitaire and PGA Tour Golf Shootout — have more in common with the software typically found on mobile app stores.
Mr Rubin said he did not want to “over-promise” Facebook Gaming’s capabilities early on, adding that PC-style games would come online in future.
Publishers and developers working with Facebook on cloud gaming include 2K, Gameloft, Glu and Rovio. As well as making it faster for Facebook users to get into their games, Mr Rubin hopes that companies such as these will be more likely to buy “playable” ads for their titles with the new distribution system in place.
“We have a very, very large advertising business for free-to-play games,” he said.