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Facebook’s cloud gaming strategy is surprisingly laid-back

‘We’re farther away from every other cloud product [...] than they are from each other’

Cars leap through the air over a coastline track, chased by a Coast Guard chopper, in Asphalt 9: Legends Image: Gameloft
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Facebook is refreshing its aging gaming ecosystem, the company announced Monday. The social media giant is getting in on the cloud gaming trend, planning to use that technology to stream AAA free-to-play experiences directly to its users in browsers and on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. In so doing, Facebook joins Google, Microsoft, Sony, Nvidia, and Amazon, all of which already have cloud gaming services in development or on the market. Except Facebook’s cloud games will be free for anybody to try — so long as they have a Facebook account.

The beta launches Monday on Android devices and on the web.

Of course, none of this comes as much of a surprise. Facebook showed its hand in December 2019, when it purchased European cloud gaming provider PlayGiga for a reported €70 million ($78 million). This pivot to cloud gaming is a huge technological shift for Facebook, which has traditionally allowed developers to use on-platform technology like HTML5 to build and run games for its users. What is surprising is how much Jason Rubin, the company’s vice president of play, is downplaying the transition.

Polygon spoke with Rubin via Zoom in advance of Monday’s announcement. He emphasized that Facebook’s focus will initially be on free-to-play titles, like the racing game Asphalt 9: Legends. All of these cloud-based experiences, he said, were hand-picked to be “latency-tolerant,” meaning they’ll be games that don’t rely on rock-solid local infrastructure, clear connections, or nearby data centers.

“We’re farther away from every other cloud product in what we’re trying to do than they are from each other,” Rubin said.

He hopes people enjoy the experience, which will allow them to start playing alongside friends on their timeline simply by clicking on an advertisement for a given game. But, if it doesn’t work out, he says he’s not going to get bent out of shape about it.

“If you don’t like it, that’s fine,” Rubin said. “But, we think over time we’ll get better and better at delivering these games, we’ll have more and more facilities, and it’ll get more likely that people keep playing on our platform.”

Rubin emphasized that Facebook isn’t launching its own game-streaming service — like Google did with its Stadia platform — nor will it be building its own specialized controller. Players will be able to play these games using a mouse and keyboard, or the touchscreen on their phone. Facebook also won’t be bringing in marquee console titles from publishers like Bethesda, CD Projekt Red, or Ubisoft, and won’t be charging a subscription fee — unlike, say, Amazon’s newly announced Luna service, which will cost $5.99 a month when it rolls out in early access.

“No investment, no promises,” Rubin said.

The calculus is pretty simple. It’s all about getting these cloud-based experiences in front of Facebook’s millions of existing users here in the U.S. It will work for many people right out of the gate, and as new dedicated data centers come online in the States — and internationally — the experience will get better for the others. As a result, the quality of the games available on Facebook will get a lot better, and that enhancement will create more revenue across the platform, according to Rubin.

“It’s been 13 years” since Facebook made its big push into gaming, Rubin said, “and today, we have 30 million people a month that are still playing [Canvas/Flash] games. It’s literally the same 30 million people every month.”

(Facebook later clarified that while 30 million players are still exploring the Canvas and Flash-based experiences, there’s more than 380 million people Facebok Instant Games more broadly — representing an even larger addressable market for this new cloud technology.)

The cloud, he says, will allow newer and more exciting games to surface among Facebook users, either as advertisements in the News Feed or as clips within posts made by individual users. Rather than having to download a massive client or leave the Facebook platform, would-be gamers will be able to start playing in mere seconds.

Cloud-based applications will natively offer many quality-of-life improvements, Rubin said — especially on mobile devices. You’ll no longer need to clear up storage on your phone if you want to play a new game. If you drift away from a given title for a few months or even years, getting back into a game will be a cinch. If a friend on your timeline shares a clip of their recent playthrough, you can just click and go play it yourself. As the catalog expands, Facebook’s gaming page will become a diverse menu of free, instant delights that users will be able to browse — “Roman emperor-style,” as Rubin put it.

The new look of the Facebook gaming tab, including an for Ashpalt 9: Legends. Image: Facebook

“‘No, that one doesn’t please me,’” he said during our call, putting his hand on his chin and toying at the folds of his invisible toga. “It’s really low investment for them, so they’ll see a lot more games. And — you know how it is — you hate most games. And that’s fine. But they will find, at some point, some game they like, because we know everybody likes some games somewhere.”

For developers, Rubin said that Facebook is making sure that any game that a user develops an affinity for isn’t locked into the social media platform alone. Every game launching Monday will allow users to take their in-app purchases with them to other platforms. He says there’s nothing about the Facebook solution that will prevent other developers from following that same pro-consumer template.

“If we do something wrong,” Rubin said, “you have that optionality [to play these games elsewhere].”

“That means happier consumers,” Rubin continued, “and happier consumers, again, always goes back to happier developers. Because engaged, happy consumers spend or do whatever they need to do to enjoy that game. And so the ecosystem, we think, is better. And again, if they end up going to an app store [to download the game instead of playing it inside Facebook], three thumbs up. That’s great. We’ve now made a developer happy, and we’ve made a consumer happy. And ultimately, we ran the ads, the ads are more effective. And we’re an advertising business. That’s how free-to-play games find people.”

The mobile view of the new Facebook cloud gaming system. Image: Facebook

Rubin says that Facebook is taking a similarly generous approach when it comes to revenue sharing.

“I buy tires in Asphalt 9, 30% goes to Facebook, 70% goes to the developers,” Rubin said. “The developer sees a normal cut. If you’re playing this on Google Play — and that’s where most of our play will happen, because we’re mostly a mobile company — 30% goes to Google, 70% goes to the developer. A big zero comes to Facebook. We’re doing this because we believe in it, but we’re willing to give that 30% to Google on the Google platform. So this is not about money.”

Apple’s iOS is a different story, Rubin said. Facebook won’t be putting the energy into launching a beta of its cloud gaming solution there. That’s because there are lots of different rules that Apple has put in place that make the platform extremely challenging, both technically and financially. Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are all experiencing similar issues.

“We would be willing to give Apple the 30%,” Rubin said. “Even with that, we are barred [...] from making this a decent consumer experience on iOS. We are still exploring whether there’s a way to do it, but it’s hard.”

Update: We’ve updated this story with additional clarity on what kinds of games Facebook users are currently playing — and on the size of its overall player base.

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