Earlier this year, Facebook Messenger took a tentative step into mobile gaming with the launch of a simple basketball game. Shoot a basketball emoji to a friend who taps on that emoji to play a little one-on-one inside the popular messaging app.
When the game racked up more than 1.2 billion plays in three months, Messenger quit playing around.
Starting Tuesday, friends can face off in titles from arcade classics such as PAC-MAN to more modern favorites such as EverWing. How it works: Start a conversation in the latest version of the iOS or Android Messenger app, tap the game controller icon and choose a game. After a round is finished, people in the conversation can see your score and challenge you back. Messenger users can search for games on Messenger or on Facebook News Feed where they can play solo or challenge friends back in Messenger without downloading any apps.
“We were shocked by how successful this was and how people really enjoyed not only playing games on Messenger but also challenging their friends,” Messenger chief David Marcus said. “That`s when we decided we needed to build a better gaming experience for people on Messenger and actually let the pros build games, the real game developers instead of us.”
It`s game on at Facebook — again. The giant social network, whose popularity soared as addicted users whiled away the hours on FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga, is doubling down on gaming.
On Tuesday, Facebook unveiled a new initiative called Facebook Instant Games, an HTML5 gaming platform to play games on Messenger and in the Facebook News Feed on the Web and on mobile.
Messenger has a game controller icon. The Facebook app has a game bookmark. Seventeen titles are available on both including Words with Friends: Frenzy, SPACE INVADERS and Galaga.
This is all part of Facebook`s multi-pronged gaming strategy, says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. Games played a key role in the early days of Facebook on the Web but lost momentum with the mass consumer shift to smartphones. More recently, Facebook released a new desktop gaming platform called GameRoom and its Oculus unit is investing heavily in gaming.
“It is a content type that many people relate to, and when you have a new platform, games are almost always one of the first app types that make an appearance, and that`s what we are seeing with Messenger,” Blau said.
Instant Games is the latest effort from Facebook Messenger to entice its 1 billion users to spend more time on the service — and create opportunities to generate revenue down the line. Messenger is taking a page from the playbook of Asian messaging apps such as Tencent`s WeChat and Japan`s Line that have large libraries of money-making mobile games for users to play with friends.
At the outset, games will be free and there will be no in-game purchases or advertising, Facebook Messenger says.
Marcus says it`s “TBD” (to be determined) if and how Messenger makes money from mobile gaming. But eventually Facebook could take up to a 30% cut.
Facebook makes about $45 million a month in revenue from gaming, according to Piper Jaffray. At the peak in December 2011, it made $65 million a month.
Facebook famously says its mission is to connect everyone on the planet. It`s also intent on gobbling up every minute you spend online from streaming live video to chatting with businesses to hailing rides. Gaming is a key way to hook people for longer stretches by pushing them to do far more than chat inside the Facebook app and the Facebook Messenger app.
“Users in general really take to games. They love them as a pastime,” Blau said. “From the younger generations to millennials, they expect that entertainment to be at their fingertips.”
That said, games are a “hit-driven business,” he said. The success of Instant Games will depend “on the content, the user interface and other things, too. It`s hard to say how popular it`s going to be,” Blau said.