Facebook builds European social games team following startups' success
Facebook is creating a dedicated gaming team in Europe, matching the one it has in the US, to work more closely with social games developers across Europe.
"In the US, we have a team of engineers, product managers and partnerships folks who only do gaming, from Zynga down to two-person shops. Now we're creating that same unit in Europe too," says Christian Hernandez, director of EMEA director of business development and partnerships at Facebook.
The move is the result of the recent success for several European social games companies on Facebook, including Wooga, King.com, Supercell and Nordeus. Hernandez says these companies have all managed to build healthy audiences on the social network by focusing on different kinds of games to giants like Zynga.
"We're in the third generation of the Facebook platform for gaming," says Hernandez. The first generation was a "mad scramble for what the heck this platform was, with not-very high-quality games", while the second generation was focused on world-building games like FarmVille, and competitive social/casual titles like brain training.
"Now we're in the third evolution of the gaming platform, as the world-building and social/casual space has begun to consolidate," says Hernandez.
"Newer players are coming into untapped areas and satisfying new types of users, who don't want to play FarmVille but might want to play strategy or shooter games, or free games around jackpot, slots or blackjack. This is the fastest growing and most interesting area."
Hernandez also cites EA bringing Monopoly and Risk to Facebook; Rovio's launch of Angry Birds; and social football management game Top Eleven as good examples of social games mining new (for Facebook) genres, as well as hidden object games like Gardens of Time and Hidden Chronicles.
"King.com was a highly successful casual gaming company doing quite well, but they have changed the whole company strategy to focus on social gaming," he says.
"They went from not being on Facebook at all to being in the top developers. And Wooga came onto the platform after Zynga was big, but focused very specifically on social casual games, and managed to become the number two player on the platform – all from Berlin, rather than from Silicon Valley."
Hernandez believes that Europe is "the most interesting region in terms of the innovation on top of the Facebook platform in gaming", although he adds that his job would hardly allow him to think otherwise.
A recent report from Deloitte claimed that Facebook's app economy had generated £467m of economic activity in the UK, and created 7,000 jobs.
He adds that Wooga is also a good example of a company competing with the likes of Zynga not through a barrage of Facebook ads, but through organic growth and user referrals.
In February, the company's chief executive Jens Begemann said that only 5% of its new users come through paid ads, with 40% coming through viral features and the remainder from cross-promotions in Wooga's existing games.
Mobile will be a big focus for Facebook's new European games team, bolstered by the company's extension of its applications platform to mobile devices in October 2011.
People can now discover games through Facebook's mobile apps and website, while developers can make money from in-game transactions across web and mobile, using a combination of Facebook Credits and native in-app purchases.
"You'll see a lot of investment from us in teaching developers how to use those channels in mobile," says Hernandez.
"In March we're bringing a group of engineers across and doing a tour of Europe around just the mobile platform, and how to build great apps with it. We'll have 250-300 people per event in three of the most interesting hubs for gaming in Europe: Stockholm, London and Tel Aviv."
Rovio's launch of Angry Birds on Facebook has been an important moment for the social network, not least because the company put more effort in than simply porting its game across and wrapping leaderboards around it.
Angry Birds' Facebook incarnation features new power-ups – earned, gifted or bought – as well as features designed to spark competition between friends playing the game. A week after its release, it already has 1.5m monthly active users (MAUs) and 530,000 daily active users (DAUs).
"We spent a lot of time working with them," says Hernandez. "A key focus is adding new layers of conversation around the game, to generate stories – whether that's 'Christian just got three stars on this level', 'Christian just beat your score' or 'Christian invoked the Mighty Eagle on this level'."
What areas are still under-targeted in Facebook gaming? Hernandez suggests watching the combination of "commerce and gaming" – titles using game mechanics to make online shopping more fun and social.
"There's one startup based in Birmingham building a very girl-centric game called Fantasy Shopper, around building your own store, and going shopping effectively with fake money for real goods," he says.
"It's an interesting dynamic: teenage girls going and actually building an interest board around what they'd like to buy, even though they don't have the money. And then they can do special offers around that."
How about branded social games? Agency BBH has launched a division to make social games with the company behind lollipop brand Chupa Chups, for example. Are we likely to see more of this kind of thing?
"We've seen it on and off, where brands want to build social dynamics into some of their campaigns. The question is whether it is really going to be a game," he says.
"FarmVille and other titles are still quite strong, but how do you really do that with a brand? What game would lead you to come back over and over again, so the brand becomes a permanent fixture of your life, as opposed to just a launch campaign?"
The message coming from Hernandez and Facebook is clear though: the social network is very keen to convince developers that its platform is not a closed shop, off limits to new startups due to the marketing might of dominant publishers like Zynga.
"As a gaming platform we're just getting started," he says.
"Companies that came onto the platform fairly recently have become very popular very quickly, because they focused on the users and distribution channels. I still think there's a big opportunity for others to come in."