Mark Zuckerberg’s college project, Facebook, occupies a curious position in video gaming. The social network – or the company behind it – has simultaneously invested heavily in interactive experiences yet seems to have made almost no mark on the industry at all, other than earning the ire of anybody who has ever been on the receiving end of multiple Candy Crush game requests. So, just what, if anything, is Facebook up to in terms of gaming?
Let’s ignore Facebook’s own gaming portal for a moment and take a look at some of its more high-profile tech investments in recent years. The company acquired virtual reality (VR) pioneer Oculus Rift for $2 billion in 2014, in what many commentators described as a “surprise.” Facebook, after all, had never ventured much further than Flash-style games in its own space. Via Oculus, Facebook then bought Beat Games, another VR-oriented studio.
These two related purchases have an easy explanation – Facebook is building a VR social network called Horizon in order to meet its rather optimistic goal of creating 1bn VR users. However, its most recent acquisition, of Spanish company PlayGiga, perhaps speaks more to an immediate concern of Zuckerberg and company – making no-download gaming popular on Facebook once again in the face of competition from archnemesis Google.
While Google’s Stadia platform launched to average reviews, no-download or “cloud” gaming is one possible future of the gaming industry. It’s also something that Facebook has only a tenuous grasp on compared to Microsoft, Google, Sony, and its other major entertainment rivals. PlayGiga currently offers 300 console games from 60 publishers, all of which can be streamed without the usual hardware, which immediately places Facebook in Google’s backyard.
For such a sought-after technology, no-download gaming is far from a new idea, though. Popular casino game developer NetEnt, for example, has pioneered instant-access slot and table games, and currently allows all their slot games to be played with no login or software requirements. The company has also successfully avoided the input lag and other latency issues that plagued Google Stadia’s launch, though processing requirements are admittedly lower for slot titles than console games.
It’s worth noting that Facebook already has a grasp on the casual player so a move into a more conventional gaming space may not be as adventuresome as it seems. Much like Google, though, the company lacks the same cachet among gamers that Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft take for granted, so whatever it chooses to offer as a cloud gaming service will likely have to be something special. There’s potential for cloud-based VR gaming with the Oculus Rift but adoption rates are still low.
Facebook has to find a way to reduce its reliance on advertising funds and the gaming industry, which is already worth $120bn worldwide, looks like a fresh opportunity for Mark Zuckerberg’s creative energies. As a (very) late starter though, it’s debatable whether even the mightiest wallet can crack a market increasingly dominated by just a handful of companies. Facebook has already failed to carve out a niche for itself as a smartphone creator, after all.