We’re weeks away from getting our first new generation of consoles in seven years. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft are making big plays to stream 4k games, no console required. It doesn’t seem like an ideal moment for Facebook to cut in with a new cloud gaming service, but for reasons unknown, that’s exactly what it’s planning to do with Facebook Gaming.
If you were regularly on the web back in the early aughts, you probably played a browser-based Flash game at some point or another—think Bloons or Cookie Clicker. That genre never quite died out, it just found a home on Facebook. In a blog post on Monday, the social networking giant claimed that 380 million of its users play games on its platform each month. But those games are looking more and more dated, so Facebook is taking things up a notch with cloud gaming offerings that can pack a bit more performance.
If you already like playing Facebook games, not much is changing. The company said that it is still focused on free-to-play games that are accessed directly on Facebook. There’s no new controller to buy or subscription fee to pay for, just a redesigned portal and a handful of new games that rely on the cloud for processing.
The biggest thing that Facebook is focused on is the ability to play a game directly inside an ad. Jason Rubin, Facebook’s VP of Play, told Protocol that he sees it as a frictionless opportunity for discoverability and new ad revenue. According to Rubin, a user might just stumble onto an ad for a game that they want to jump into, or they could get a sponsored post saying that a friend is currently playing a game that you can jump right into.
Anyone following the increasingly petty dustups between Facebook and Apple will not be shocked to learn Facebook Gaming will be available on Android and desktop, but not iOS. Over the summer, Apple’s policies also proved to be a sticking point for new cloud streaming apps like Stadia and xCloud because of the App Store requirement that every game and update be submitted for review and listed in the App Store. Apple offered a compromise for that situation that’s still a huge pain in the ass for developers; Microsoft and Amazon have reportedly decided to move ahead with creating content for iOS. Facebook’s interest is more in waging a PR war than compromising, for now.
Apple wants Facebook to route games through the app store, Rubin told Protocol, which is antithetical to the social network’s goal of making everything contained within Facebook and geared toward impulse-plays. It’s less about money (something both companies have plenty of) than it is a war of walled gardens. Apple also treats games differently than other web content and attempting to stream one of Facebook’s cloud-based offerings in a browser on iOS leads to a warning saying the content isn’t available. “I’m not allowed to have a cloud game inside Facebook [on iOS],” Rubin said. “Oh, I can do it on the open web, great, but I can’t point to that game from Facebook, so all of my discoverability is now out.”
Apple did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment but a spokesperson for the Cupertino-based company told TechCrunch that it will continue to work with Facebook to find a resolution to the problem.
Rubin did tell Protocol that Facebook is getting along with Microsoft just fine right now and they are working on a deal to stream demos of Xbox games on Facebook in the future.
Cloud gaming might be a weird shift for Facebook, but the timing checks out. Facebook’s biggest hit in the gaming space, FarmVille, is set to shut down on December 31 of this year—the same time Adobe will stop supporting or distributing Flash Player. Flash’s wind-down has been known since at least July of 2017, and last December, Facebook purchased the cloud gaming startup PlayGiga. Less than a year later: Facebook Gaming.
But no one should expect cloud gaming to be another pillar of Facebook’s power anytime soon. There are 3 billion people on the planet who use at least one of the company’s products, and for some categories, it just needs to get a small portion of that userbase to engage. For now, Facebook just seems to be happy to have another cudgel for its newfound Apple-beating hobby.