At SXSWi, Facebook flexes its gaming muscle

The social network's annual developer get-together as part of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival focused on how it can bring its Facebook Connect technology to gamers on disparate platforms.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Facebook envisions its technology as a powerful unifying force in the gaming world, games program manager Gareth Davis said to a packed house of eager coders at the social network's "Developer Garage" event on Sunday afternoon here. The get-together was held as part of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), which drew developers and other tech enthusiasts from all over the world to Austin for the week.

"Facebook is a service that enables developers, like you, to make applications social everywhere, on as many platforms as possible, and we get some very interesting cross-platform properties," Davis said at the beginning of his talk. The company's Facebook Connect technology has been extended from third-party Web sites to the iPhone and now gaming consoles like the Xbox 360.

"We're working very closely with the console makers--Sony, Xbox, and Nintendo--and we've done integrations with all three of them," Davis said. He envisions a world in which thanks to Facebook Connect, a multiplayer game can be played by gamers on consoles, PCs, Facebook, and mobile devices simultaneously, effectively ending the longstanding problem of not enough game platform interoperability.

About 200 million people play games on Facebook every month, Davis said. Many of these are relatively basic social games--Farmville, Mafia Wars, Pet Society, and the like.

Davis says that will change as Facebook Connect grows more sophisticated, and he hinted at the widespread reports that geolocation, the Silicon Valley crowd's current hot fad, will be coming to Facebook.

"We can build a new kind of game around identity, and friends, and augmented reality, and location," Davis said. "It's going to be a really exciting 12 months," he added, referring to the fact that Facebook Connect for the iPhone had been launched exactly one year prior, bringing the capabilities of the "social graph" to hundreds of iPhone and iPod Touch games.

Games have become a key focus of Facebook as it became clear that they were far and away the most successful applications to be built on the social network's developer platform: companies like Zynga and Playfish (now owned by Electronic Arts) have become hugely profitable sensations. They also served to elevate Facebook's own revenues, as millions of avid social gamers spent hours at a time on the site and led to a significant boost in ad impressions.

Gaming companies have been snapping up Facebook's ad inventory themselves as they lobby to get even more of the social network's 400 million users on board.

Speaking later on Sunday at the Developer Garage, Playfish co-founder Sebastian de Halleux spoke of "the brave new world beyond Facebook.com," something that undoubtedly has concerned Facebook as it attempts to keep benefiting from the gaming craze. So now, it's courting game developers to see Facebook Connect as a tool, not a tether: play with more friends, reach bigger audiences, and eventually pull once-disparate platforms together.

"We're talking about bringing you the game experience to the platform that you prefer the most, and for many people that is an Xbox or a PlayStation," de Halleux said.