The problem with Facebook as a game platform is that most of the games running on it are slow. For hardcore gamers, as well as impatient casual gamers, a lot of titles just don’t work that well on Facebook.
Will that change? Will Facebook be able to run fast-action games with a lot of cool graphics? Over time, yes. Facebook can take advantage of improvements in web technology that will make outstanding graphics much easier to deliver, making Facebook more of a threat to the multibillion-dollar console game business. But in the near future, the answer is complicated.
The performance of a game on Facebook depends not only on how fast Facebook’s servers in distant data centers operate. It also depends on the speed of the internet and the servers of the developer hosting the game. While console games and PC games are installed on local machines or use disk-based subsystems, Facebook games are played across the web.
The game developers often depend on another entity, like cloud service provider Amazon, to compute the game changes and then feed them back to a user’s computer. If any one of the parties in this chain has a problem, the game can come grinding to a halt. For gamers who are used to fast-action console games, Facebook games move in slow motion.
That’s something Facebook is working on, said Carl Sojgreen, product manager at Facebook, in a press gathering at Facebook on Friday where the company talked about improvements for games.
“We always try to make the platform better,” Sojgreen said.
Right now, the platform really isn’t that good. In games such as Zynga’s Empires & Allies, you frequently have to refresh the screen because the game has crashed or somehow gone out of sync with the server. The best you can hope for sometimes is not a game with pretty graphics but a game that simply runs correctly.
Apps on Facebook run on what it calls a Canvas Page, which is a Facebook page with borders that are rendered by Facebook and its servers. The Canvas page has Facebook’s ads on the side and other common features such as the top menu and a big banner across the top. Games run within the Canvas Page in a window that takes up most of the screen.
“We are doing a ground-up rewrite of the Canvas Page to enable fast application switching,” Sojgreen said. “But we are not involved in the game play. We render our border. If there are performance problems in the game, that is usually a server or Flash limitation,” which is the responsibility of the game maker.
That means that when there is a slowdown in something moving in a game, it is less likely that it is Facebook’s fault. On the other hand, developers often depend on Amazon, which acknowledged this week that it had an outage that affected the speed of applications. If Facebook has to handle something within the game that interacts with Facebook’s infrastructure, such as sending messages to your list of friends, that can actually slow down a game. And in that case, the slowdown is Facebook’s fault. Facebook is trying to take itself out of the equation there and enable game makers to handle those tasks through something called “frictionless requests,” Sojgreen said.
Most developers rely on Adobe Flash to create their games. That makes development easy, but it means they have to accept the technological limitations of Flash, such as the inability to capitalize on 3D graphics hardware in any given machine. Those game developers who rely on Flash don’t even try to create a fast action game such as a racing title or a first-person shooter.
Some companies have figured out how to make faster games. 6waves Lolapps, one of the biggest Facebook game publishers, purchased Sean Cooper Games to get its hands on the Fliso game engine, which allows developers to create games (such as the upcoming Ravenshire Castle, pictured right) that run 100 times faster than typical Flash games. Arjun Sethi, a top executive at 6waves Lolapps, said the faster, richer games are his company’s competitive advantage.
Most game makers who don’t have a special engine have created asynchronous games, where one player moves and then waits for the other player to move. They take a while to play, but they also fit the habits of social gamers, who are online for maybe 10 minutes at a time and aren’t constantly checking to see whether they have to make a move.
But Sojgreen said that Facebook is trying to enable more synchronous games, where players act together or make moves at the same time while both are in a game session. The company unveiled this week a real-time game ticker, which displays on the upper right hand side of your screen when you are playing a game. It shows what games your friends are playing so you can jump in too.
Of course, the complexity of Facebook games lies more in their scale, not in their graphics. Zynga has to synchronize games across a user base of hundreds of millions of users. And Kabam, maker of hardcore games such as Glory of Rome, has to synchronize its games in real-time, since hundreds of players can participate in pitched battles simultaneously. Kabam has to compute all of the interactions among players at once. But it can’t yet graphically display animations that reflect those changes on the screen. When Facebook had some slowdowns this week, Kabam’s new game Edgeworld slowed down. But by and large, the responsibility for making a synchronous game run fast lies with the developer, said Kevin Chou, chief executive of Kabam.
Kixeye, meanwhile, is working on a game called War Commander that resembles the real-time strategy games such as Command & Conquer. In such games, there is fast-and-furious action as users control lots of military units from a birds-eye view. The game has a high degree of realism compared to Kixeye’s previous Battle Pirates and Backyard Monsters games.
Some emerging technologies worth watching include Stage3D, previously code-named Molehill, from Adobe. That is a version of Flash that take advantage of a computer’s graphics chip and render advanced 2D and 3D graphics. In one demo, Adobe shows how a Stage3D game can run a 3D scene with more than 500 zombies moving around at once.
Another technology is WebGL, a standard that will make 3D a feature of HTML5-based web pages. That technology has been in development for some time and isn’t written in stone as a standard yet.
Unity Technologies is another technology that started with browser-based 3D games and is now being adapted to run in Facebook-based games. Gameloft used Unity to adapt its sci-fi shooter game N.O.V.A Elite to Facebook earlier this spring.
Cmune has also created a couple of cool 3D first-person shooter games on Facebook: Paintball Paradise and UberStrike (pictured). UberStrike has more than 650,000 users on Facebook and MySpace. It is a full 3D game (Unity compatible) that runs in the browser and is a massively multiplayer online game.
Games like this are hard to do because they are very sensitive to lag, says Benjamin Joffe, a partner at Cmune. The company had to develop networking technology, create special algorithms and optimize the real-time 3D game for Facebook in order to make it work smoothly on a variety of older PCs.
But the company also had to build a social layer so that friends were more likely to play together. The company relied on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud to host its database servers. On Amazon, Cmune built a variety of servers for its game lobby, messaging, and game execution. Cmune had to deploy servers at Amazon facilities around the world in order to make sure the action stayed fast as players from across the globe played against each other.
While the game’s visuals are good, it doesn’t live up to the highest quality games on the PC or the consoles. To get there, it may take cloud-based game streaming technologies such as OnLive and Gaikai, both of which have shown off the ability to play fast-action 3D games inside a Facebook game window or web link. With OnLive, you can share a scene from your favorite game — showing off a video, or Brag Clip, of your latest exploit — and embed that as a link in Facebook. Friends can click on that link and see the Brag Clip play.
Gaikai, meanwhile, has shown the ability to play a high-end game within the Facebook iFrame, or Canvas Page, itself. Earlier this year, it showed the ability to play Electronic Arts’ Dead Space 2 game (pictured) inside Facebook. With these game-streaming technologies, the game is being computed in server farms owned by OnLive or Gaikai, and video is sent back over the web into the user’s computer.
These advances could push Facebook a long way toward higher-quality graphics. And Facebook itself is making its own progress. The company has now given game developers the ability to use much more of the screen for near-full-screen games, allowing them to show off the better technology they have developed.
“If you look at what we had just four years ago, with primitive graphics, you can see that we have moved a big leap forward,” said Sean Ryan, director of game partnerships at Facebook.
But he cautions against the view that masses of game players will be attracted to Facebook because of better graphics. Rather, he says, “It’s the social experience that matters. The user’s expectations of quality will always go up. And we’ll see games with new polish with rich-looking experiences. That doesn’t have to mean that those games will be the most popular.”