At a recent session at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters, Facebook director of user growth Alex Schultz apparently solved the riddle to improving user retention in social games:
Make social games social.
Ok, that sounds obvious, but more than a few game designers and pundits have expressed their disdain with social games that aren't really all that social. And a lot of Facebook games even today suffer from that same un-social problem.
Schultz said Facebook is looking forward to games that are "fundamentally better with friends, and fundamentally impossible to play without your friends."
He added, "We're really excited by games we see that are better with friends the whole way through."
He turned to non-Facebook online games like Mojang's Minecraft
and Blizzard's StarCraft
as examples of games that engage users socially. StarCraft
"has social context against it... We know that [social context] drives more people to engage and convert wherever Facebook does it."
Another issue with retention is that most games, including Facebook games, are hit-driven. They start off with a huge audience that tapers off in the long run. Some others manage to remain steady with a small but loyal audience, so the curve doesn't trend downward.
But a new trend is emerging, said Schultz. Some games get new bumps upward.
"Mobile is bringing this, too," Schultz said. "When you sign up to a social game and only two or three of your friends are playing it, it is not fun. As more and more of your friends join the game, more opportunities come for it to be social," he said. Mobile platforms can drive a delayed bump in users -- and increased engagement -- if, for example, a previously iOS-specific game is ported to Android. Players' friends can see via Facebook that a game that they were interested in is now on their mobile platform of choice, and help boost engagement for everyone by joining in.
"The most exciting thing that's happening on the Facebook platform today is Open Graph," Schultz said. That's because it's driven by "shares that are intentional by the user."
Schultz singled out Playdom's Marvel Adventures
as a game that is doing a great job of utilizing the Open Graph, which tailors content to users' specific interest. Games like this "have these custom actions and custom creations in the news feed [and] are getting clickthroughs that are an order of magnitude better" than auto-generated spam of the "lost duck" variety.
"Long term, if people are visiting their friends' profiles -- which they do -- you have these aggregation units that say 'Alex defeated five enemies this week', or whatever," he said. That kind of data -- seeing what their friends like to play, and the progress they're making -- gets users excited to try a game.
New channels drive growth
Sean Ryan, director of Facebook's games partnerships team, agrees. The "secret sauce" to user retention, according to Facebook game partnership director Sean Ryan, is to effectively use the social channels that Facebook provides. Over the last couple of years, Facebook saw major changes to its social (okay, viral) channels, which took some getting used to for game developers. Now, the options for virality are more targeted towards people with similar interests (such as games), which make for a generally less spammy user experience.
This can have a practical, overall effect on the platform as one for games. Ryan shared some statistics about player growth: on September 30, 2011 the company had 226 million players; on September 30, 2012 that has climbed to an audience of 251 million.
He also shared a slide showing the increased diversity of genres on the platform as compared to a year ago, while talking up the success of Kixeye (Battle Pirates
) in bringing core gamers and King.com (Bubble Witch Saga
) in enlivening the arcade game genre. These numbers are by daily active users.
He also talked up Facebook's best picks for the games of fourth quarter 2012 -- on both Facebook Canvas and mobile:
Games on Facebook.com
Stormfall: Age of War
Wizard of Oz
(Spooky Cool Labs)
Fresh Deck Poker
Social Mobile games
Live Hold 'em Pro
NFL Pro 2013
Ticket to Ride
(Days of Wonder)