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MMObility: How Facebook's recent changes affect MMOs


As you might be aware, Facebook is officially changing its policy on how an embedded MMO interacts with the famous social network. I'm no fan of reading through lines of policy changes and attempting to interpret them exactly, namely because reading about changes and fully experiencing them are two different things. Both can lead to different conclusions, as well. I want to know how these changes affect MMO developers.

I would also like to clear up what Facebook is. I've covered it many times before, but there is always a section of players and readers who have no idea or have only heard what Facebook is and what it does. To many of them, Facebook is FarmVille and spam, period. While I will not deny the existence of either of those things, I'd rather take this week to break down what Facebook is to developers, how it actually works, and how recent changes might affect players like yours truly who enjoy playing games through, on, or by utilizing Facebook.

Facebook MMO screenshot
I think the first thing to clear up is how Facebook works, especially with MMOs. I also write for concerning "core" gaming; gaming that is more than casual, social games. Core titles offer that "just right" balance of challenge and time constraints. MMOs on Facebook work in similar fashion to core games in some basic ways. They both use Facebook as a platform or launchpad. The difference is that a social game will use more of Facebook's tools, like sharing information or joining up with Facebook friends, while an MMO will usually just use Facebook as a sign-in or host for embedding the title.

"While I know that most people probably have a clear idea what that term means when they say it, to others who experience all types of games from all sorts of genres while playing on Facebook, 'Facebook game' can mean almost anything."

This is why "Facebook gaming" does not work as a game description. While I know that most people probably have a clear idea what that term means when they say it, to others who experience all types of games from all sorts of genres while playing on Facebook, "Facebook game" can mean almost anything. "Social" gaming is a more apt description, meaning a game that uses Facebook's social features. Many MMOs use Facebook as a sign-in option and possibly even allow players to share information from in-game on their Facebook pages, although sharing from a game that is not embedded on Facebook will no longer be allowed (one of the first changes I we're talking about).

While I will save the recent discussions over Facebook's mobile concerns for another column, I wanted to point out that the 5th of December was the deadline for MMOs to adapt to another new rule. This time the rule essentially mandates that if a developer wants to allow its players to sign into a game using a Facebook account, then almost nothing will change. I can still go to a game like RuneScape, for example, and use my Facebook account to sign in.

Ikariam login screenshot
Now, here's the catch: If you, as a developer, want to allow players to sign in while on Facebook, the website will not allow that player to be forwarded to an outside client or embedded game. If I am on Facebook and I find a new game and want to sign in and try it out, it will now have to port me to an embedded version of the game. An ad-supported version, of course, one that does not pay developers from the ad revenue. This also means a developer now needs two versions of its game -- one for embedding and one for outside of Facebook -- with size restrictions being different for both. The game can go to fullscreen mode and avoid the ads, but only if the client supports it.

What's the problem? There isn't one if you are a player signing in at the game's official website. You will continue to play as normal unless you want to share. If you are a developer and want to continue to offer a Facebook app, however, you might have to change how that app looks and plays. That means changing the parameters of the design or reworking the interface or UI to fit within the new parameters and the ad-supported window of Facebook. Also, an embedded developer must now use Facebook credits for in-game purchases with a 30% cut taken by Facebook, compared to Google or PayPal's 3%.

I've now seen a few MMOs decide to dump their official Facebook app, most likely because of this change. Ikariam, a very successful browser-based MMORTS, posted this on its wall:
Dear players, due to changes in Facebook policies, unfortunately, we will have to shut down our Ikariam App on Facebook in the next days. However, Facebook Connect will still be available for you to use on start pages and accounts linked over Facebook will still be playable using the Facebook Connect button on every Ikariam start page. We would like to apologize for any inconvenience caused, but this is something that we cannot prevent from happening. - Your Ikariam Team
No one can really blame Facebook for wanting to force games that use the social network in some way to be surrounded by ads that support Facebook. While it might be very hip to call Facebook out about its evil plans, the company is doing what many other companies would do in an attempt to keep the money flowing. What makes Facebook's situation different is the size of the site's userbase and how dependent many games are on the traffic that funnels through the site.

"What we are seeing, judging by some of the reaction from developers over these new policies, might be some of the first changes that force Facebook to re-think the business it is in."

At the same time, MMOs lived and breathed before Facebook and can still do so. What we are seeing, judging by some of the reaction from developers over these new policies, might be some of the first changes that force Facebook to re-think the business it is in. Is it a gaming platform? Is it a social sharing site? While it is clearly all sorts of things, enough changes in policy can force developers and players alike to give up on the site. As I showed earlier, I write about games that are hosted on Facebook games for a site that covers social gaming, but I tend to avoid the site. I prefer Twitter for so many reasons.

But I will not deny how important Facebook has been to MMO gaming. It has given many smaller MMOs a chance at success and has opened up many MMOs to new players while also showing non-players what the world of MMOs can offer. Facebook has done more for multiplayer gaming than anything else I can think of.

Will more developers abandon Facebook due to recent changes? Can Facebook or these developers survive after all of this? My guess is that, yes, both will adapt and continue to live. Heck, MySpace is still around. My guess is that developers will change their UIs and adapt their clients to fit within the new parameters, but Facebook will have to give a little as well. It's a rough process but one we'll probably continue to see. Even if Facebook decides to concentrate on mobile in the future, the social-sharing aspect of the site will probably keep it viable for a long time. As long as it's a place for millions of people to gather, developers will want a part of that.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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