Can You Game the Facebook Games Dashboard?

02/11/2010
Courtesy of Flickr's Shovelling Son

Courtesy of Flickr’s Shovelling Son

Friend-of-the-blog John F. Gray asked us on Twitter about our thoughts on the Facebook Games Dashboard. John: your timing is excellent…I’ve been working on this post for a few days.

The Games Dashboard is the latest attempt by Facebook to find the right balance among various factors. On the one hand, they wish to allow games to spread “virally”. But on the other hand, they do not want games to constantly harass or spam non-players. Similarly, there is a tension between promoting established games (which are somewhat “proven” by virtue of their popularity) and promoting up-and-coming games that might be the Next Big Thing. Complicating all of that is a bit of a conflict of interest: Facebook gets paid when game developers advertise using traditional, rather than viral, channels, like Facebook social ads.

The Games Dashboard represents the first time Facebook has explicitly treated applications in the “games” category differently than other applications. Depending on your take on the issues above, you could say that the Dashboard is a showcase for games, or a ghetto for them. Did Facebook create a special “games area” because spammy games were annoying disinterested Facebook users? Or because games are important enough to deserve their own features and user interface? Maybe both.

One important feature of the Dashboard is that it directly answers the question: “What games are my friends playing?” The “Friends’ Recent Activity” section serves as a latent games recommendation system. Like any other social recommendation system, this will both help to reinforce dominance (“Everyone else saw Avatar…I guess I should too”) and to promote innovative under-dogs (“You’re the third person to recommend the Big Lebowski to me this week”). In other words, it does not necessarily shift the balance between the corporate behemoths and the scrappy upstarts.

The key question, however, is how the applications will be ranked in that “Friends’ Recent Activity” section. Game developers have had many conflicts with Facebook over their inscrutable ranking and filtering algorithms. Speaking anecdotally I currently see a nice mix of very established and up-and-coming games in my “Friends’ Recent Activity” list. So far, so good. We’ll have to watch carefully how that mix evolves.

(I will admit that Victoria’s implicit recommendation of the “Brazilian Men” game (via my Dashboard) does not particularly entice me to install it. So the basics of game naming, positioning and targeting remain important.)

The algorithm for selecting how applications are ranked in the “Your Games” section is a bit clearer. There are some mysteries and bugs that confuse somewhat, but the gist is that your most recently played applications will show up there and games you have not played recently will be shuffled off to a secondary page (once the bugs are fixed!). So you’ll maintain relevance on that page by getting your players to play frequently. And if you maintain relevance of that page then your players will play more frequently. It’s like capitalism: you need to have money to make money. Ayogo has several ways of cutting this Gordian knot that we’ll discuss in future blog posts.

Once you do get yourself onto the Your Games list, you’ll want to take full advantage of it. Do not squander your opportunity to fully utilize your own real estate there. Counters and actions are the “neon signs” of the Dashboard and you can either use them informatively or squander them with uninteresting blather. I’ll explore each of these features in more detail in upcoming articles, but summarize my thoughts on them here:

The most valuable communications channels are active (like the wall, or the personal message system) and not passive. Passive channels are invariably overwhelmed with noise. The notifications feature was overwhelmed. The Dashboard is replacing it and is also in danger of being overwhelmed. There is one key difference however: the Dashboard notifications are grouped and limited by application, so no application can overpower another through sheer volume. Applications will risk diluting their own message by filling up their application-specific activity stream with junk.

So what’s the bottom line on the new dashboard? Honestly it’s a bit hard to muster much passion about it one way or the other. Most likely by the time we really come to love or hate it, Facebook will change it. As a Facebook or smart phone game developer you just need to deal with the fact that constant change is inevitable. We complain about it, as Vancouverites complain about the rain, but just as the weather is the only thing preventing Canadians from overrunning Canada’s best city, Facebook’s constant design churn separates those who are serious about the social games business from those who view the social aspects as an afterthought.