Facebook is joining the game streaming world, taking on the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Nvidia. All now offer ways for people to play visually complex console and PC games over the internet, using technology similar to how Netflix streams movies. While most companies are focused on the top-tier games like Take-Two's action game Grand Theft Auto V or Ubisoft's upcoming Assassin's Creed Valhalla historical fiction title, Facebook says it's going to focus on mobile games instead.
Facebook's new service, which is part of its Facebook Gaming project, will offer people access to smartphone games like Gameloft's Asphalt 9: Legends racing title without the need to download or install an app. Instead, Facebook said people can play these games on a computer through its Facebook Gaming website or through its Facebook app on devices powered by Google's Android software.
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While Facebook will make its technology available to computers and Android-powered phones, the company said Apple's restrictions requiring cloud gaming providers to submit each game to its review team, among other things, means it won't work with iPhones for now.
"While our iOS path is uncertain, one thing is clear. Apple treats games differently and continues to exert control over a very precious resource," Jason Rubin, VP of Play at Facebook, wrote in a blog post Monday announcing the move.
Facebook's move marks the latest effort by the social networking giant to grow the number of people looking to it for games, one of the largest and fastest growing entertainment industries around the world. Part of the reason for that success is the explosion of internet-connected games, allowing titles like Fortnite to attract hundreds of millions of players to compete against one another in a last-man-standing battle royale.
The (game) streaming wars
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- How to stream Xbox One games on your Android phone
The games aren't just about playing though. People also watch one another play and compete on YouTube and live streaming services like Amazon's Twitch and Facebook's own streaming service too. And when they're not doing that, people also use games to digitally meet up with friends, turning them into a new kind of social network.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 42 million people around the world and killed more than 1.1 million people, has led to series of government-ordered lockdowns. People have increasingly turned to video games as an outlet, pushing usage up significantly, game makers and internet service providers say.
That's where Facebook fits in. It's already one of the most popular internet destinations around the world, and it's increasingly been trying to grow its influence in the gaming world. Most recently, the company overhauled its game streaming and game playing service, now called Facebook Gaming.
"As crazy as it sounds, the values of Facebook's social games from 2010 are nearly identical to the promise of cloud games in 2020: instant access to games on any browser and playable with your friends wherever they are," Rubin said in his post.
Facebook's cloud gaming service will begin as a "beta" with access to four games including Gameloft's Asphalt racing game. It'll be free to use as well.
Taking it to Apple
While Facebook's move into cloud gaming itself is newsworthy, its decision to leave out iPhones and iPads and publicly criticize Apple over its app store policies is notable as well.
Apple's increasingly been criticized by other tech and gaming giants over the way it manages its App Store. Apple only permits people to download iPhone and iPad apps through its app store. In return, the company promises safety and security, which it ensures by requiring developers to adhere to a list of guidelines and to submit each program for review before it's made broadly available. In-app payments must also be processed through Apple.
Microsoft, Google, Fortnite maker Epic and now Facebook say those rules are too onerous, allowing Apple too much control over other company's products and finances.
"Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass," Microsoft said in August, when it slammed Apple over its app store rules.
Apple's continued to defend itself, even from a lawsuit filed by Epic accusing it of being a monopoly.
"We created the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers," Apple said on an app store explainer page it posted last year. "We take responsibility for ensuring that apps are held to a high standard for privacy, security and content because nothing is more important than maintaining the trust of our users."
Facebook said iPhone users will get to use the feature when it's part of an ad meant to offer a demo of a mobile game.
Expanding the web
A decade ago, Facebook was at the heart of a new breed of "social" games. Titles like Zynga's FarmVille became cultural phenomenon, in part because they were free to start playing and were built into Facebook. If you needed to do something in the game, it would alert you on Facebook. You could also invite Facebook friends to play with you.
As smartphones became more powerful, though, many games migrated to Apple's App Store and Google Play. That's not to say Facebook's gaming is unpopular; the company said 380 million people play games through its service each month.
Nowadays, mobile games can take up a lot of space on your smartphone. Fortnite can reach as high as nearly 3 gigabytes in size on a person's phone, a hefty ask if someone wants to download their game to play while on the go. 5G wireless technology and smart download tricks by developers are expected to help, but Facebook says its newest gaming feature will help too.
By effectively making it easier to play mobile games by removing the need to download and install them on a phone, Facebook could take back its mantel as a key destination for gaming.
Facebook signaled it has bigger hopes for its cloud gaming efforts but wants to focus on mobile games for now in part because its executives believe game streaming technology isn't broadly ready yet for graphically intense console and PC games.
"Cloud game streaming for the masses still has a way to go, 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," Rubin wrote.