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Facebook has unveiled a free-to-play cloud gaming service for sharing and playing games. The service is part of Facebook Gaming and is now in a beta test for a limited number of people.
The move takes Facebook deeper into the distribution of games, in addition to Instant Games people can play via its messaging service and News Feed. The cloud gaming service will launch with just five games. That may sound like a timid way for a tech giant to expand its presence in gaming. But the service already has 200,000 users, which is more than most challengers to the traditional game platforms can manage, even with their official launches.
While Facebook’s existing Instant Games are lightweight titles for casual players and their friends, the new service will let people play more sophisticated cloud-based games, such as Gameloft’s Asphalt 9: Legends, Facebook’s Jason Rubin said in an interview with GamesBeat.
“We’re not trying to stream games, and we’re not trying to compete with consoles and mobile devices,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to be part of the ecosystem. We’re letting people play wherever they want. We’re really excited to get started with a light experience. The install process is a single click.”
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More than 700 million Facebook users play games, out of 2.7 billion monthly active users on the platform. The new rollout of the cloud service is a baby step into games, but one Facebook hopes will help it learn. Facebook’s Instant Games, which are based on the HTML5 web format, currently reach around 350 million players.
Of the five games, four can be played in select regions in the U.S. Rubin said he didn’t consider this to be in its formal launch phase yet. But he explained the company is making the announcement now because it’s expanding the beta test to more people and figured the press was going to find out about it soon enough.
The service was born out of a deal initiated last year, when Facebook acquired Madrid-based cloud gaming startup PlayGiga for $78 million. PlayGiga launched in 2013 and developed a gaming-as-a-service platform based on Intel’s Visual Cloud. All told, Facebook has been working on this cloud-gaming effort for around 18 months.
“Facebook is about communities, and every year the time spent in gaming communities keeps growing,” Rubin said. “It’s obvious gaming is becoming a bigger community. Only about half of our gaming users play games on Facebook, and this will help close the gap. There’s a big difference because of the kind of games we offer. People can play more games without ever leaving Facebook.”
Games like Asphalt 9: Legends exist on both Google Play and the App Store, but it wasn’t possible to play many of them on Facebook without cloud-streaming tech. I tried out Asphalt 9 on my PC, and it was fine. It loaded instantly and I was playing within seconds. It looked like high-definition quality in a window on my PC. Facebook enables the game to run on a PC by running the Android title in emulation on the cloud gaming service.
“Facebook is dipping a toe in the cloud-streamed gaming pool with this beta,” market researcher IDC’s Lewis Ward said in an email to GamesBeat. “A lot more needs to be done before it can be compared to [Microsoft’s] xCloud or [Sony’s] PlayStation Now, etc. Interestingly, Facebook is focused on free-to-play mobile games and will have in-game ads integrated across Android and PC screens out of the gate, and that’s unique.”
He added, “Success will look like getting millions of Americans to try out games offered on the service over the next 12 months and spend money on them and watch ads on them, basically in line with how those games are working through the traditional download model. Just doing that would be a solid first-year outcome in my book.”
Ward thinks Facebook intends to blend cloud-streamed games seamlessly with Instant Games (based on HTML5 technology) and legacy web games — where people won’t realize what kind of game they are playing.
“Facebook can certainly ramp up distribution through this tech and over time offer games that Instant Games couldn’t,” Ward said. “My understanding is that online multiplayer games will enter the mix before the end of this year. So they could move out of casual and into mid-core games, but that’s a longer-term proposition. I think they’ve been working toward this for years, so I don’t think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to recent news relating to Apple or anyone else.”
I also tried out Moonton’s Mobile Legends: Adventure, an idle role-playing game. It has cartoon graphics and controls that are obviously designed for a smartphone touchscreen. None of the games so far work with controllers, Rubin said. The two games are available in expanded regions starting Monday — on the desktop and on Android.
Once again, the game was nothing to write home about at a time when Sony and Microsoft are launching their next-generation consoles and cloud gaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft Project xCloud are available. But it does get Facebook involved in easy-to-access gaming that bypasses the friction of waiting for big downloads, paying for a game, or dealing with other barriers, Rubin said.
“We aren’t going out there and competing with anybody,” Rubin said. “We are just offering developers and consumers ways to find each other more efficiently and play. You can do this without ever leaving Facebook.”
Other games available this week are PGA Tour Golf Shootout by Concrete Software, Solitaire: Arthur’s Tale by Qublix Games, and WWE SuperCard from 2K Games. Dirt Bike Unchained by Red Bull is coming soon, and Facebook will continue to test more games.
Facebook noted earlier that it isn’t making game distribution available on its Facebook Gaming app on iOS, as Apple has put a number of restrictions in its way. In a blog post, Rubin said about iOS, “While our iOS path is uncertain, one thing is clear. Apple treats games differently and continues to exert control over a very precious resource. Stay tuned as we work out the best way for people to play games when and how they want, regardless of what device they bought.”
Rubin also said Facebook is not going to overpromise and under-deliver, and it’s not trying to replace your favorite gaming hardware.
The games will all be playable on the web with a mouse and keyboard or on Android with touchscreen devices. These games are “latency tolerant,” meaning they don’t require extremely fast interaction or super-fast internet connections to function, Rubin said.
He said Facebook isn’t requiring developers to rewrite their games for specific hardware to get more performance. Rubin added that the service will evolve, but it’s not meant to deliver exclusive titles or triple-A titles and will instead focus on simple free-to-play games. The games are launching with in-app purchases and ads enabled, depending on game format and the developer’s choice. Facebook is introducing cloud-based playable ads, where players can try out games easily.
Players will be able to use Player Names, or fictitious names instead of their full names and profile picture. These aren’t a replacement for real names across Facebook and are used in the context of playing games. Player names and gaming activity will appear alongside a player’s real name when they choose to connect with friends or fellow players from a game. Developers who integrate Facebook Login for Gaming can enable cross-play between the downloaded version of their game and the cloud version on Facebook.
I asked Rubin if he wanted to get old classic arcade games on the system, but he said that isn’t a current target for Facebook, as most of those games weren’t designed as free-to-play titles. More games will debut in 2021, with the addition of action and adventure games.
“There aren’t many triple-A games that we are going after because that’s not our market and they require ultra-low latency,” Rubin said. “We are not trying to pitch this as an alternative to anything else.”
Gameloft’s Guilherme Lachaut said in an email that Asphalt 9: Legends has had success on a lot of platforms and that is testimony to the fact that it can be enjoyed by many different audiences, as long as it can reach them.
But in the past, the game has not been able to run on the lowest-end devices and it has required longer download times.
“Finding frictionless ways for people to enjoy our games is becoming more of a reality each day,” Lachaut said. “At Gameloft, we want everyone to play, and Facebook cloud gaming is a fantastic opportunity to reach new audiences, that are already engaged within the Facebook ecosystem, and that will be able to instantly play on PC and mobile, while not having to worry about hardware or loading constraints.”
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