Facebook marked its first foray into the publishing business last week. Can it compete?

Vehemently dismissed purely as a social gaming haven, Facebook is reserved for the Zynga sort: games that, for the most part, are accessible to a wide audience but marred by repetition and foolhardy payment systems. They require daily check-ins and often shortchange their communities by hindering play time. They also pride themselves on veering addictiveness into simplicity.

The lawlessness with which Facebook moderates its gaming scene is enough to scare off most gaming fans, but that has never been the market. Young children (even though Facebook has an over 13 policy) and middle-aged moms are the targeted lot, to whom these games are effortless fun, and easy to keep up with in their chaotic lives. FarmVille, Zynga’s too-popular Harvest Moon lookalike, became the go-to scapegoat for haters and dissidents, a role now firmly belonging to Candy Crush Saga (not a Zynga game, incidentally).

But the rise of mobile put a sting in those plans. Middle-aged moms are a fraction of Facebook’s reach, and now a fraction of the total audience. I see everyone from hardline MMO players to the most hardcore Call of Duty-heads delving into Facebook’s gooey gaming center every so often, unable to refute their stated hatred for everything social gaming. Some view this as an interruption for consoles to rule the world, some stay hidden in their Valve-adorned PC rooms, but most, as in the general public, consider Facebook a major platform for virtual entertainment.

And now that reach may get further than ever before.

Last week, Facebook paired up with Unity to make games on the social platform more inclusive. For over a million developers that use Unity, the partnership allows seamless integration of Facebook features into games. If Facebook wants to take over the planet, Unity is an ideal partner. The game engine covers PC, consoles and mobile, and at Unity Technologies’ recent Unite conference, it announced the expansion into 3D game development.

Unity’s versatility is impressive:

  • with a new development kit, developers can easily integrate Facebook invites into a game, regardless of the programming language used;
  • Unity’s cloud service lets studios promote their old games and trade installs with other developers effortlessly;
  • moving mobile games to Facebook is a one-click process;
  • and when interacting with Facebook features, games stay full-screen if the player so desires.

Facebook took a beginning step in July. Announcing Mobile Games Publishing, the social site stepped up its effort to better acclimate mobile gaming into its platform. As the growth of smaller studios has been steady, the initiative gives less advertised games a chance. Through this, companies like Zynga can no longer drown out the competition. Added exposure means studios are likelier to invest in mobile gaming, a trend Facebook desperately wants to grow as it’s proven to be a reliable revenue stream.

Diversity may have been in Facebook’s best interest anyway, given Zynga ended their two-way contract last November. The deal was a lovely cash cow for both parties, but Zynga felt held back by Facebook’s insistence that Zynga games remain exclusive to the social platform. If Facebook wanted to stay competitive in the mobile business, games are the best approach. Without Zynga though, it had no dominant name to attract audiences. The site hopes to change that.

Facebook’s tardiness is a major obstacle. As comfortable as perching with Zynga was, mobile gaming grew dramatically in that time. Facebook is just now adhering to changing technologies, while Google and Apple have had App stores open for five years. Each system has a downside: Google Play introduced games in May and Apple has incredibly stringent guidelines. Facebook didn’t say how liberal its requirements are for games; however the first ten appear to be mostly nonviolent.

Of course, the greatest asset in Facebook’s playbook is its global reach: purportedly over a billion people use the service regularly. In that, 260 million play games monthly. Facebook noted in the Unity deal that 90 million actively play Unity games, a number the site expects to rise hastily as 3D games begin flooding to the market. That confidence might be an overreach, though, if we see a repeat of how spectacularly the third-dimension failed Sony. Plus, stern competition from Nintendo’s 3DS is one to consider for the entire mobile gaming industry, not just Facebook.

Facebook has applied the framework to become a major mobile publisher. Ten games is a welcomed start, but one wonders if the site can utilize its positives effectively to surpass the competition. Google, Apple and others provide strong fronts for Facebook to overcome, but with the strength of a billion users, it could overwhelm everyone.

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