Facebook launches free cloud gaming: Facebook’s head of gaming talks through their strategy

Facebook cloud gaming Asphalt 9-White

Facebook is launching a cloud gaming service to compete with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Nvidia, Stream, and all the other cloud gaming services.

In this TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with head of Facebook Gaming Vivek Sharma about what makes Facebook’s cloud gaming service unique and, in his opinion, better than other options. This is a crowded field, with competition from almost all the big tech company, almost all the big gaming companies, and literally dozens of other players.

Facebook is, however, bringing a slightly different cloud gaming service to market.

See my story on Forbes here.

Scroll down for full audio, video, and a transcript of our conversation …

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Read: Facebook’s head of gaming shares what’s unique and interesting about Facebook’s new cloud gaming product

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).

John Koetsier: So Facebook is launching free cloud gaming, and it might just be a smarter strategy than all the other players. Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

Google has cloud gaming. Microsoft has cloud gaming. Amazon has cloud gaming. Sony PlayStation is there … Steam, Nvidia, GeForce, and many other smaller players. Now Facebook is launching cloud gaming as well. But the strategy and execution are quite different … as is the monetization.

To get the story right from the source, we’re chatting with the head of gaming at Facebook, Vivek Sharma. Vivek, welcome! 

Vivek Sharma: Thank you, John. Great to be here. 

John Koetsier: Really, really good to have you here. You’re in Seattle. I’m near Vancouver. We’re both on a rainy day, which you said is perfect time for gaming. So, let’s talk some gaming. 

Vivek Sharma: Absolutely. You know, I love that you were listing such luminaries, and just being in that group is great for us.

I think the main thing, which is really interesting in this space in cloud gaming, is the fact that you can’t throw a stone without hitting somebody else doing car gaming. Right? So like, obviously, why is Facebook in it?

Other than the fact that we want to be a part of this great list of luminaries, you know, we’ve been a part of this instant gaming experience for a very long time. You’re going to chuckle now, John, because I’m going to mention everybody’s favorite Facebook game of all time … 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Vivek Sharma: FarmVille. 

John Koetsier: FarmVille. Invite! Your crops need attention! 

Vivek Sharma: That’s right. That’s right. So here’s the thing, like we lovingly look at that moment and it brings a smile to everybody’s faces for a good reason.

Because in one fell swoop, we went from like 40 million really hardcore amazing players on PC, to — in this web era — flash games being embedded directly in the most social website of all time, and then suddenly 400 million people. Right? Now of course that’s a transition of web to mobile, things changed, technology changed, and you can’t play that same game again of taking people’s color and embedding it. Right?

So it took a while before we got to 2016. HTML5 with WebKit  supporting HTML5, we were able to bring instant game experiences to Messenger and Facebook. You know, and that was a whole new era. WeChat of course took off. I think we’ll talk about this, but like, you know, the mobile app stores are a little bit different. But now, with cloud gaming, we can go back to our roots. We can bring the immersive game experience to the masses. And that is also a part of the difference in our strategy versus a lot of the others.

John Koetsier: Well that’s interesting, and we’re going to talk about it, and we’re going to show some of the things that you’re doing. But you’re launching with some pretty big titles right out of the gate. Can you share a few of your favorites? 

Vivek Sharma: Yeah, and of course, this is going to beg the question of ‘Why these titles?’ but I love Asphalt 9. One of the things that’s magical about Asphalt 9, is that it is just the raw action. One of the things that we do on our team is every Friday we’ll get together and do play tests, and like repeatedly, everybody just starts with Asphalt 9. Right?

John Koetsier: I like your Fridays. Wow! 

Vivek Sharma: It’s, you know, it’s cool to be in gaming. But I also, personally, I also love Solitaire: Arthur’s Tale because it’s a little bit more of a progression oriented game.  That’s a game that speaks to me, just kind of like turn my brain off and just play … and it’s very, very beautifully built, the game loop. So those two games I’m very much looking forward to. But, you know, we have RollerCoaster Tycoon and others coming over the next few weeks and months. So very, very excited about the lineup. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. It’s impressive. It’s also interesting because you’ve picked games that you think will work best with cloud gaming.

And it’s kind of interesting, I looked at your press release which I’ve seen, and you’re very open about the core challenge of cloud gaming.

It’s not like some of the others I’ve seen — I won’t mention any names — they might have used multi colored logos, you know, but that it’s going to be perfect, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful. Well you’re pretty clear, hey, it’s cloud gaming … latency is an issue. We’re picking games on purpose that will work with that.

Can you talk about that a little bit?

Vivek Sharma: Yep. That’s exactly right. And I think top to bottom, our chief concern and product strategy, and also just consideration is, look, we are a mass market company. This is not about locking this into a subscription model and already raising your expectations so highly, you know, and then you’re going to hit the subscription fatigue of having something that doesn’t deliver the value that you want.

Now that’s not me saying that we can’t deliver the value … all I’m saying is that we want the casual people who might not even consider themselves to be gamers to pick this up and start playing.

You know, speaking frankly — and this is probably giving you some details of our development process, but on the back of the 380 million people that already play games on Facebook — one of the ways that we have built confidence in this product is we actually already have people playing it well before our launch.

John Koetsier: Yes, yes.

Vivek Sharma: And so we have upwards of 200,000 people already playing the game, not knowing it’s cloud gaming. And so the best test for us—

John Koetsier: Wow.

Vivek Sharma: Is when people are playing it, and they don’t even know what’s driving the experience. 

John Koetsier: Wow! 

Vivek Sharma: So, that’s actually a really like interesting way—

John Koetsier: Sneaky!

Vivek Sharma: Yeah. It’s a very — so like, I know we told you, you were one of the first ones to find out, but technically there’s people playing these games right now. 200,000 weekly and growing by the day. So it’s very, very exciting.

But to your point, in a philosophy that really orients itself from top to bottom around the mass market, the choice of games we have, the experience that we’re going to show people, it’s really oriented towards that mass market. So if you ever encounter a problem, we’re going to say, ‘Hey look, we saved you a shortcut, you can come back and play later when you’re in a wifi connection.’ We’ll tell you up front if the connection is not strong enough. But all that being said, 4G, wifi in your home, anything that’s one megabit and above, it’s all perfect for our solution.

We’re U.S. only for now, you know, again, really thinking about how we want to start this journey in a nice way for the developers and players alike, and that focus also gives us the ability to deliver the experience that we want. 

John Koetsier: That makes a lot of sense, and makes a lot of sense that you’re not starting with a subscription product. You’re doing free, you’ve talked about why a little bit there, and you’ve got a massive community already using it. In fact, as you told, you’ve got people using cloud gaming who don’t know that they’re using cloud gaming. 

Vivek Sharma: Yep.

John Koetsier: You are doing some monetization, and it’s funny because we’ve seen playable ads, right? We’ve seen them on our phones and you get to play a game and, oh, I like that and I’ll try it. And sometimes it’s like the game, sometimes it’s not. But you’re doing playable ads. I mean, they’re kind of “adable plays.” I mean, they’re—

Vivek Sharma: Yes.

John Koetsier: They’re almost game demos. How’s that working? What should we expect from that? 

Vivek Sharma: Yeah, that’s a really packed observation. You know, from top to bottom, from your observation that we’re not doing subscription business, yes, free to play. Free to play is the most massive movement. Right? Second to perhaps let’s call it cross play. And these two things interlocking together across multiple devices has led to amazing cross-generational games like Fortnite, Fall Guys, Among Us has taken — actually a Seattle company — Among Us, and like— 

John Koetsier: Among Us is huge! 

Vivek Sharma: Among Us is huge. 

John Koetsier: They’re doing amazing things right now. 

Vivek Sharma: Huge. I think the next format, one of these conversations could be Among Us, but like, you know, it’s changing the world.

But what is unique about these? Anybody can access them. There’s no gateway, right? No subscription wall. It’s cross play across multiple devices.

So we are really listening to how people are playing today. Not trying to orient ourselves on like this classical sense of money making. And when money making is involved, we’re going to orient it towards the place where developer value is really demonstrably possible, right? So, in our worldview, developers should make money from their games through in-app purchases, in-app ads. And if we have to do something about monetization, we’ll do it as part of the regular ads model that everybody’s familiar with today.

The enhancement that we’re providing is unlike the world of today where these playable ads, or addable plays, are written in JavaScript — which is very different than the actual game — and many times you see a playable ad and you’re like, ah, yeahhh, not quite. I mean, I get it. It’s the game, and I thank you for giving me the experience … but it’s not the game.

But think about it from a developer’s perspective.Now, they produce the game binary, they give Facebook maybe the first level, don’t have to change the code.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Vivek Sharma: The users and the players see the exact experience as they would in the game itself. So it’s high integrity, high quality. 

And that magical connection gives discovery, gives all of the attention to the game quality experience. And of course it benefits Facebook and the developer alike. So it’s a very different model than trying to take money directly from users, which I don’t think is the right way of doing things.

John Koetsier: Yeah. Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about platforms, because that is a hot button topic right now. You’re launching Android, and from what I could see from the release, it looks like desktop web. It looks like no iOS, including a browser on iOS. Is that correct, first of all? And secondly, why? 

Vivek Sharma: That’s correct.

And, you know, John, speaking  from a perspective of a developer, it is just an untenable situation currently on iOS. We’ve had this experience ourselves as a developer, and our game developer community is experiencing it as well.

I’m sure you know fully well of the controversies that are going on right now around the developer store policies. It’s unfortunate, and it’s a shared pain across the industry. One of the things that I reluctantly bring up is a fact that throughout our history of gaming on Facebook, we’ve actually not been able to provide in-app purchases to our developers building instant game experiences on iOS.

And that actually is a very scary thing, because as from a developer’s perspective, yes, it’s okay for Apple to say, ‘Well, you can do it on Google.’ But remember, our developer has to write a game with a game loop that monetizes.  So imagine building a game loop that works on Android, but then you can’t use it on iOS … which then destabilizes their cross-platform strategy, which leads to lower quality games, which leads to a less successful ecosystem for everybody.

So this time around, we learned from our unfortunate lessons, and we said, ‘Look, like we’re just going to focus on developers, making them whole the best we can.’ And honestly, that’s on Android, on web, so they can build games with proper game loops with monetization for themselves.

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Vivek Sharma: Not possible in iOS.

And actually we’ve gone and talked to Apple about just let us do the IAP monetization. We don’t have to take a cut, take the 30% … just take all of it.

But still, we are in a bad situation. In fact, the Facebook Gaming app that we released in the early part of the year, it released on Android without a problem, but it took us over five attempts on iOS and ultimately we had to pull the ability to play games completely out of the app. So the Facebook Gaming app can not play the games on iOS.

John Koetsier: That’s a bit of a challenge. 

Vivek Sharma: It’s a bit of a challenge. So that’s the — and so we really are just orienting ourselves around developers, quality content, and how can they make money. And if they’re successful, everybody else will be successful. 

John Koetsier: This is a big deal. And it is a real, real challenge here. I just reported on Apple killing a browser app that enabled Google Stadia. And so clearly you’re feeling like you cannot deliver — even in a browser on iOS — the experience that you want to deliver, and have access to the things that you want.

I know on the desktop you’re allowing keyboard and mouse. Which I love, I’m excited about. I suck at these little … [laughter]. That’s good news.

But that is interesting, it’s a big message to Apple. It really is. Because there’s going to be people saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got games from Facebook. I can play them here. I can play them there. I can’t play them there.’ And Apple’s going through this, they’re being sued by Epic. There is antitrust … visibility, let’s say. And this is another point for them to consider.

What do you hope will happen over the next three, six, nine months? 

Vivek Sharma: Yeah, and this is a very important point, because it’s really easy to point to web and say, ‘Look, these companies are smart. Go build something for web.’ But we all know that the experience, if it’s not great, people will just shut off that scenario.

And in our experience like it’s, you know, a webpage with HTML-based or JavaScript things just doesn’t do some things, where it like automatically rotates at the right time, finger touch controls … and so I applaud Amazon and others who are trying valiantly. But, ultimately, it’s going to make the entire experience suffer more.

And we’re going to continue seeing people being disbelievers in cloud, which then makes it easy for people to say, ‘Oh, by the way, it wasn’t Apple. It’s the fact that cloud sucks.’

John Koetsier: Yes.

Vivek Sharma:  But that’s not where we want to go. We’re going to provide a great experience in the places where you can have that great experience. And if we can’t do that, we’re staying out of it, because it’s not … you know, we don’t want to sink the entire industry here. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Vivek Sharma: So I think what I hope is that people recognize that this is a movement that’s an industrial movement way beyond one company. And the thing I worry about more than anything else when it comes to cloud, is the fact that it’s future innovation that’s going to get blocked. Tim’s real argument here is not about, you know, I think people will see as like two rich guys fighting. That’s not the important part, and I think, as you heard from me, the 30% — go ahead and take it Apple. But the issue is: gaming is fundamental to how people are spending time together, especially in the pandemic. 

I cannot imagine a world where you have deep immersive experiences where you require 200 gigabytes of download just to experience it. Other than buying more, bigger hard drives for Apple iPhone, which is not possible, so you have to upgrade your iPhone every year. Like, it’s not going to be a tenable model for the immersion we need. So the Metaverse … you can count that out.

And in this world where free to play and cross play are dramatically important, when you have one of the dominant operating systems not supporting that, then the entire industry gets crushed. So I actually worry about the future innovation more than anything else here. And so, a half-capable web experience is not a standard that I want to live up to. That is not the thing that we, that our players deserve, or where anybody in this market deserves. 

John Koetsier: Very interesting. We’ll see what Apple’s response will be. Hopefully we’ll see some movement there as well. One other aspect I want to touch on, you’re building in some safety aspects for gamers. So we’ve seen things in the past where people are getting harassed, or frankly abused in certain ways. You’re building in some safety aspects like they can use a handle, a fake avatar, that sort of thing.

Can you talk a little bit about that?

Vivek Sharma: That’s a critical part of the way we imagine how we expand the market. Right? So the Facebook philosophy from always, from time immemorial, has been around building communities. And you can’t build a community unless you have some connective tissue. Now, amazing thing about gaming is that you can have a community that has nothing in common, except the act of playing games together.

But here’s the thing, as we all know, when you don’t have anything else in common except that shared activity itself, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, look. I’m John. I live in …’ You know, of course we talked about it here, because we’re in a professional setting, right? But like, you’re not going to do that in a game.

And so we want to reduce friction. This goes in the same way as what we talked about cloud and instant games from Facebook, which is one click, get in there and start playing. Now if I have to imagine myself doing some filtering this and that to try and join this community … boy, that’s more additional friction.

So, the reason for that is, yes, it’s safety. But it just makes sense because you are building a connection and community around a shared interest, and not so much about knowing somebody personally. Right? And so removing that as a consideration, but making it nice and positive, gives you lots of freedom to interact in cool ways. We see this today on the platform where you’ll invite your grandma to play Words With Friends, and grandma has a funny name. And boy, is that a good topic of conversation next Thanksgiving. So it opens up even things for friends as well. 

John Koetsier: It is really interesting because games have gotten so social, and had such a community impact. And you play Fortnite maybe, or something like that, because your friends are playing there, right? We’ve even seen that some games that are truly immersive, people started having work meetings in them, right?

Vivek Sharma: Yes.

John Koetsier:  Bringing their avatars into them.  And that’s something that is increasingly important. We’re seeing that gaming is a place even where we can have a concert or watch a movie together. Those sorts of things that we can’t quite do in this COVID time. So, very interesting to be building that in. Anything else? This has been a real pleasure. 

Vivek Sharma: Yeah, it’s actually, we covered so much. Thank you so much, John, for how much of like a density of quality of content that you’ve provided.

But the thing I’d say is, this is a landmark moment in the industry where so many of us are working together. And I think that’s the most exciting thing. We want to be the place where developers can make a full earning, where players can not just experience our games, but be an introduction to xCloud, be an introduction to Sony. Like, we are opening up the ground for all kinds of innovation and opening the market for everybody involved … and that’s what’s really important for us. 

John Koetsier: Very cool. I want to thank you for your time. It’s been a real pleasure. 

Vivek Sharma: Thank you so much, John. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. Appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this in a few days, maybe half a week, at JohnKoetsier.com. And the story at Forbes will come up when it’s possible — I believe it’s Monday — we’ll check the embargo on that. Plus the full video will be available after that point on my YouTube channel.

Thank you for joining, maybe share with a friend. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.