Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Facebook is the latest tech giant to get into the world of cloud gaming — but the company’s offering is quite a bit different than the competition. Unlike Amazon or Google, which both offer standalone cloud gaming services for a fee, Facebook is introducing cloud games to its existing app — several of which are playable right now.
“We’re doing free-to-play games, we’re doing games that are latency-tolerant, at least to start,” says Jason Rubin, Facebook’s vice president of play. “We’re not promising 4K, 60fps, so you pay us $6.99 per month. We’re not trying to get you to buy a piece of hardware, like a controller.”
According to Rubin, the reason Facebook is exploring the cloud is because it opens up the types of games it can offer. The company started out in games more than a decade ago with Flash-based hits like FarmVille before moving to HTML5 for its Instant Games platform, but both of those technologies are relatively limited to smaller, simpler experiences.
Rubin says expanding to the cloud means more complex games that the company can still offer in a fast, seamless way. Those HTML5 games aren’t going away but will instead sit alongside the new cloud offerings inside the Facebook app. (It should be noted that Facebook acquired Spanish cloud gaming service PlayGiga last year, paving the way for this rollout.)
“The platform is going to allow the 300 million players that we have to continue to play the games they like, but we think they’ll branch out and play more complex games as well,” Rubin says. Free-to-play cloud games are launching on Facebook in beta starting today, and the initial crop of titles includes mostly Android ports, like the 3D racer Asphalt 9 and the idle roleplaying game Mobile Legends: Adventure.
They’re rolling out in the US to start — Facebook says that will include California, Texas, and states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. And they’ll be available both via the web and the Facebook app on Android. “We’re not on iOS right now, which is a big problem for us,” says Rubin. “We are barred from having Facebook launch the browser and play the game.” (It’s also something of a theme for cloud gaming on iOS.)
Aside from the types of games available, the core experience won’t be very different for Facebook users. You go to Facebook, see a game you like, click on it, and start playing straight away. But today’s rollout also comes with some useful features, including a new cross-progression system tied to your Facebook login. If you start playing Asphalt 9 through Facebook, for instance, and then decide to download the mobile app, all of your progression will carry over as it’s tied to your login.
Facebook’s approach to cloud gaming is quite different philosophically from competitors like Google Stadia or Amazon’s Luna. The company isn’t hyping up its technology or trying to secure big exclusive games. Instead, it feels like more of an extension of what Facebook already offers: quick, easy-to-pick-up titles that can fill up some idle moments in your day.
That said, Rubin seems optimistic that the service will grow to the point where that could change. When it comes to exclusives, for instance, he says:
We’re not trying to lock people in. We don’t need to because we’re not charging a fee to try these games and you’re on Facebook already. An exclusive in the classic sense — i.e. you can only play this game on the platform — probably doesn’t make sense for us.
What I think is going to happen, is once the platform has a large userbase, some of these developers are going to go ‘I think we should add some features that take advantage of these capabilities we never had before.’ We’ll see those games do really well on the platform, and other developers will say ‘That was an idea, we should follow along with that.’ And then somewhere along the line, some game company will say ‘We should build a game that can’t exist anywhere else.’
I think that game will eventually exist. I think exclusives will happen, but it’s not something we need.
Similarly, while the focus right now is on free-to-play games, he says, “there may come a day when it makes sense for us to offer a premium game.” But the company wanted to start out by making it as easy as possible to play these games. Free is usually pretty easy.
And while it’s still theoretical right now, there could eventually be some integration with Facebook Gaming, the company’s Twitch-style streaming service. “What if a streamer was playing a game that’s playable on Facebook, and that streamer says ‘I want to play with one of you, who wants to play.’ He picks one of those people, sends them a URL, and there’s Jill playing with him on stream,” Rubin says. “That is cool. There’s really no reason that stuff can’t happen.”
That’s a lot of ifs, and right now Facebook’s cloud offering isn’t exactly the most exciting service. But it also doesn’t have to be. One of the big differences between this and competitors is that Facebook isn’t trying to sell you games. The business model is very different. On the web, Facebook takes a standard 30 percent cut of in-app purchases, while on Android it takes nothing. It also takes a cut of money earned through advertising. The goal of these cloud games isn’t to sell you a subscription: it’s to keep you on Facebook.
“We give away a lot of stuff for free, because that is a business for us,” says Rubin. “Don’t undervalue just having people engage with communities on Facebook. That is what we do.”