If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em: Using Facebook For The Games Industry

You may remember Threewave Software best for the original "Capture The Flag" Quake mod. These days, the studio's known for developing the multiplayer component of several major titles, most recently Touchstone's Turok and EA's Army of Two, and is currently developing the multiplayer for Activision's upcoming Wolfenstein title.

As you may have noticed, many of the devs to which we turn for our hardcore fix seem to be making full-tilt sprints for social networks like Facebook and the casual space. In today's ultra high-risk game development environment, Threewave also thought it'd be prudent to get on the burgeoning social media train, founding Gnosis Games, a casual subdivision with titles like Paparazzi, which according to the studio is a chart-topper on RealArcade, Gamehouse and other casual portals.

Now, Threewave's Gnosis has turned to Facebook. In this case, though, there's a surprising and interesting ulterior motive that's more in line with the hardcore audience than you might guess.

For someone like CEO Dan Irish, whose career in the industry began way back in the Spectrum Holobyte days and led him through Relic to Threewave, what's up with this casual migration?

Apparently, Facebook is just a hop, skip and a jump from what Irish is used to. He calls the early days of multiplayer FPS "one of the first small social networks," in that the primary draw for users was to play online with friends. The desire to stay connected with pals is also what's driving the success of Facebook and other social media spaces.

"We see the opportunity on the social networks as paralleling some of the things from the early multiplayer gaming days in the mid-to-late '90s," said Irish. "We looked at this as an opportunity where I think some other game developers are not quite sure what to do with it."

Irish's attention to the social networking space echoes recent sentiments by Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, who suggested the growing Facebook infestation might be a stiff competitor for his company's games: "Figuring out how to make the game experience more fun than any one of a hundred Facebook applications is going to be a challenge," Kotick said.

Electronic Arts' former chief creative officer Bing Gordon also sees Facebook-style tools as the next big thing: he recently departed the company where he's worked almost since EA's inception to pursue what he called "a new round of invention" in social media. "I realized that I really, really, really wanted to be in the middle of that," said Gordon.

Elsewhere, stirrings on the fringe of the game industry's core have taken notice of the spread of social media, but it's also clear that the industry's eyeing that space warily, unsure how to make the best use of it.

Gnosis Games thinks it has an idea, though. "We're a bit ahead of the curve, because we're bringing a new set of tactics," said Irish. "How do you monetize and leverage social network applications on the social networking platforms?"

In other words, the Gnosis Games studio is Threewave's "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy. Irish says that using Facebook is helping the company create better games - and better retail sales. Gnosis has created a series of simple casual titles that can be played directly on Facebook, and then studies the feedback and user behavior around these simple little embeddables to glean information that's useful in the creation of more complex titles.

Gnosis sees who's installing and uninstalling the games, how long they play, the ratings users give the games and other types of both positive and negative feedback, and uses that data to inform their game development. It lets the studio's developers access the huge mainstream user base on Facebook and learn from their tastes and behavior.

"We refer to that approach as a 'focused social testing,'" said Irish. "Essentially, what it does is it allows us to test game mechanics, test IPs and test characters, and integrate user feedback into a full retail product."

"For a company like us, that's great, because instead of spending $1 million or $2 million coming up with a new IP and then pitching it to publishers and hoping they like it - and then, being happy or grateful that we get a 20 percent royalty - we can do it for a lot less cost, attach an audience to it, make sure that it's fun and then take it to a publisher."

"All of that information is very helpful, and it wasn't really available to content developers like us unless we had big amounts of money and working with a publisher to do a focus group."

Games built on user feedback will not only be more enjoyable to the audience, goes the theory, but will also be lower-risk investments and permit more creativity and innovation - a formula that hopefully translates to better success at retail, something that PC games in particular especially need at the moment.

"The other benefit is it kind of levels the playing field for game developers," Irish said. "Now we have a more direct connection to the end user and the customer than we ever had before. What business is not going to benefit from a more direct connection to the customer?"

Quite a lot has been made over the past year of "Facebook as the next platform for gaming." Its viral spread and swelling user numbers are both attractive and intimidating to the games industry - but largely the social network has proven a less-than-desirable platform for the majority of final-product games. A rash of new media companies have hinged their business on Facebook games with brief fad appeal, but objectively, Gnosis' Facebook test concepts seem to reflect that there's actual game development experience behind the simple minigames, compared to some of their peers.

Leveraging Facebook's huge user base as a testing ground for game concepts is a fairly new strategic approach, and whether or not it's a successful tactic remains to be seen. But as the game industry enters an increasingly high-risk environment and looks for new ways to innovate and reach users at lower cost, it's likely we can expect to see more studios consider how best to use social media to benefit the games industry.