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Building social games on Facebook vs. off Facebook

Social games built on Facebook may not provide the best user experience, but how do brands make the jump to stand-alone sites?

I few months back I wrote about Ohai!, a relatively new social gaming company founded with the goals of making social gaming more fun and accessible.

One of the things that has struck me in the past is whether or not game companies should build directly on Facebook (or other sites) or go stand-alone. Fortunately, Ohai CEO Susan Wu spent a great deal of time thinking about that very topic and posted her thoughts in a recent blog post.

Ohai! is supporting both on-Facebook and off-Facebook experiences for their first MMO, City of Eternals. And as you can see below, they look a bit different.

City of Eternals on Facebook
City of Eternals on Facebook Ohai
City of Eternals stand-alone
City of Eternals stand-alone Ohai

According to Wu, when people play the game embedded through Facebook, their usage pattern tends to be bite sized: five- to six-minute sessions about eight to 10 times a day. When people play directly at the City of Eternals site, they'll play for 20-plus-minute sessions two to three times a day.

And the experience is a bit different, as gameplay on the direct site is more immersive than in Facebook. The stand-alone site has a theoretically better playing experience, since it's full-screen, which can also lead to different types of behavioral patterns in the game.

Data so far suggests that on-site players may be more likely to partake in longer missions, and more interested in joining groups and performing group activities. Players may also be more likely to participate in exploratory vs. discrete goal-oriented behaviors, such as completing specific missions.

The full-screen experience also has fewer distractions, leading to a different type of relationship between user and product. For example, players might be more likely to become "citizens" of the world we've built, rather than just tourists, who come in and out to complete short, discrete tasks.

But, you can't discount the Facebook "form" factor of being very proximate to the social context where people already naturally live. Facebook itself provides benefits around higher conversion rates with lower barriers to entry.

According to Wu, Facebook has done "an amazing job of building a site that people log into religiously--daily, multiple times per day" making it easier to attach a new service to an existing behavior than to ask users to form a new daily relationship with a new behavior--such as going to CityofEternals.com and logging in.

You also have to consider whether or not users are open to new behaviors, such as logging on to yet another site. Every second in your service is a new potential conversion point, whereas on Facebook, the value proposition for logging in every day and returning has already been well established.

In summary there are benefits to both approaches, and while being attached to Facebook has some inherent positives, there are some important considerations that make the stand-alone site very appealing.

  • The stand-alone site has a better chance of building a strong brand relationship with customers/
  • With a stand-alone site you have more control over the user experience.
  • With a stand-alone site you have to deal with a conversion rate hit of the first "try."
  • With a stand-alone site you have less optimal access to user communication flows that are already prevalent in the on-Facebook experience.
  • With a stand-alone site, you may be subjected to less volatility in your base platform (since the Facebook APIs have some external volatility that you can't control).
  • With a stand-alone site, you're going to have to work harder at facilitating daily usage patterns.

Ultimately, Wu suggests that social sites need their users to become citizens--someone who is deeply engaged; someone who has a strong emotional connection with the community and the social software they're participating in.