Facebook avoids Apple with cloud-gaming launch

Facebook avoids Apple with cloud-gaming launch

Facebook has launched its first “cloud-streamed” video games but is not offering them to iPhones or iPads.

Initially, only five titles already available as standalone smartphone apps will be accessible – via the main Facebook and Facebook Gaming apps on Android and Facebook’s website on PCs.

Later, it may add “all types of games”.

But it is not offering the product on Apple’s iOS mobile operating system because “we don’t know if launching on the App Store is a viable path”.

The two US technology giants clashed earlier this year, when Apple prevented Facebook from offering more basic “mini-games” via the iOS version of its Facebook Gaming app on the grounds this broke its App Store rules.

Apple has since clarified it is possible to offer cloud-based games via its mobile Safari browser instead – the route Microsoft’s Xbox xCloud and Amazon’s Luna cloud-gaming services are pursuing.

But Facebook said “there are limitations to what we can offer” via this route and made clear it was unhappy with the current state of affairs.

“While our iOS path is uncertain, one thing is clear,” blogged Jason Rubin, Facebook’s vice-president of Play.

“Apple treats games differently and continues to exert control over a very precious resource.”

Even so, one industry watcher suggested Facebook would be keen to resolve the matter before it rolled the service out more widely.

“iOS device owners are, on average, the highest-spending mobile-games users,” said George Jijiashvili, from games market research company Omdia.

“Therefore, cloud-gaming providers cannot afford to miss out on them.”

Facebook has long offered games via its platforms, most notably Farmville, Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans.

But until now, these have all been based on Flash or HMTL5 technologies, run locally on a user’s device.

By contrast, the cloud-based service runs the games on Facebook’s computer servers and then streams the graphics to players, who control the action from afar.

By doing so, the company says, it can offer more advanced gameplay.

But to begin with, its line-up is limited to five free-to-play games already available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store:

Mr Rubin said Facebook had chosen not to “overpromise and under-deliver”.

In time, the company plans to add more demanding PC titles.

But this soft launch could help it avoid some of the criticisms rivals have faced.

Reviews have highlighted Google’s Stadia cloud gaming service delivers “choppy gameplay” if users do not have a strong, fast internet connection.

And they have also have remarked on the minute-long waits for titles to load on Microsoft’s xCloud platform.

By focusing on games designed for handsets rather than consoles or PCs, Facebook also noted users would not need to buy add-on controllers or other special hardware at this point.

“Cloud game streaming for the masses still has a way to go,” Mr Rubin said.

“And it’s important to embrace both the advantages and the reality of the technology rather than try to oversell where it’ll be in the future.”

One consequence of this approach is some early adopters may not even realise they are using the service.

“The launch titles themselves are very underwhelming and will fail to excite dedicated console console and PC gamers – but it really doesn’t matter,” Mr Jijiashvili said.

“Facebook’s ultimate goal is to use gaming to increase user engagement.

“And I think in most cases, the kinds of users that will play these casual games will not even realise that they are doing it via cloud gaming.

“It will just seem like they are gaming as normal on Facebook.”

A Facebook spokesman said it intended to bring the service to the UK and other countries but declined to say when.

Facebook’s foray into cloud gaming makes sense as far as the current gaming landscape is concerned.

Lots of industry observers regard game-streaming as the future. But the most important couple of words in that last sentence are “the future”.

Right now, game-streaming doesn’t feel like a technology that’s ready for prime time. The experience, while great when it works, can often be plagued by connectivity or performance issues that frustrate players.

Facebook’s focus on streaming mobile games is a smart one as these are the sorts of titles that tend to be less performance intensive.

But a big question mark hangs over the perception of Facebook as a serious gaming platform.

The social media giant of course owns virtual reality outfit Oculus, which has a healthy gaming scene of its own.

But with everyone from Amazon to Microsoft and Google taking a bet on cloud gaming, the jury is out on Facebook’s further aspirations to grab gamers’ eyeballs.

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