Since my company, Blue Frog Gaming, shifted focus to developing Facebook apps nearly a year ago, we’ve seen a lot of changes to the platform. Some of them have probably been for the better, some for the worse, and one in particular has been disastrous: the rise of gifting. In the last few months it has fundamentally broken the platform.
In the early days of the Facebook platform there arose a bit of a spam problem. Developers incentivized customers to send invites to their friends, often even paying them in-app currency to do so. It quickly became obvious that apps employing such tactics could grow to millions of users almost overnight and, in the process, create tremendous volumes of invites that hampered the Facebook user’s experience.
Facebook reacted by doing a couple things. First they banned rewarding users for sending invites (or using other similar platform integration points) and they limited the amount of invites a user could send from any one app to 20 per day. The limit made it impossible to spam your entire list in just a couple clicks and the new incentive rules made users much less apt to spam over time. The idea was that if people were so constricted, and rewarded only when their friends actually signed up rather than when they sent the invite, people would be more considerate, invite only friends who might actually be interested, and the number of unwanted invites being sent out would decrease dramatically.
Those changes helped, but still they wanted to do better, so they later changed the allocations such that the “better” apps got more invites per day (up to 60) and the worst offenders were choked off entirely. Invites are the lifeblood of almost all Facebook apps, so it worked. That seemed to be an improvement until a few months ago when developers figured out how to game the system.
The problem is in how Facebook determines which apps are “better”. They do that mainly by looking at the app’s invite acceptance rate, as well as the rate at which those invites are blocked or ignored. An app’s allocations are based on how their rates compare to the median. When we first started developing about a year ago, the median hovered somewhere around 20-25%.
This method is, it turns out, easily gamed. The original solution, used by Mob Wars and the like, was to create in-game “buddies” that come from an invite and give you in-game benefits. Want to run a job in Mob Wars? You’re only allowed to if you have enough friends in your mob. Want to attack people? Your success in battle will be almost entirely dependent on your mob size. You may need 20 buddies to do a mid-level job and 500 to attack another player with any shot of success. At some point the buddy requirements get so high that the only realistic way to get them is to send buddy invites (via Facebook invites) to large numbers of people who already have the app, which you found on some large “Add Me” lists.
This of course boosted Mob Wars’s invite acceptance rate. When you install the app, you might invite your real friends for a week until you run out. Let’s say you send 100 invites to actual friends, and 10% sign up. Not bad, but you need 20 to do that next job. So you join an add-me list.
Next thing you know you’ve got 400 new friends, all of whom were on the list, and almost all of whom are sure to accept your invite request. So you invite them over the next couple weeks and they almost all accept. Despite the fact that only 10 out of the 100 new people you sent an invite accepted (not a particularly high rate) your total invites were accepted by 400 out of 500, making for an average of 80%. The acceptance rate didn’t go up because the developers made the game better, they just hacked the platform to make sure the people who already used it sent and accepted more invites.
This still wasn’t that big of a problem because most people never got that far, the needed number of friends wasn’t too high, and the active players really didn’t need to send out the full 20 invites per day for very long. It pushed the median invite acceptance rate up as RPGs grew, but not ridiculously so. Then came gifts and the rise of Farm Town.
As far as I can tell, in-game gifting as a platform hack was first figured out by MyFarm, and then later put to spectacular use by Farm Town. The idea is to have one app send many invites to people who play the game every day for as long as they play the game. Combine this with an engaging game and you’ve got an invite acceptance machine.
When you first log into Farm Town, you are taken to the gifting screen, where you can easily choose an item (such as a pig or an orange tree) and then send it to all of your friends. Each gift is a Facebook Invite that has to be accepted in Facebook (not in the Farm Town app) from your requests page. So you click the accept button, go to the app, are given the gift, then have to hit the back button and do it again for every gift you have.
Now just about everyone who plays the game is sending out the full amount of gifts per day. And what happens is that their friends who play accept nearly 100% of them. The ones who don’t click ignore once, and the ones who do click accept 100 times. As a result, the median invite rate for the entire platform has since shot to near 60%, and it isn’t because spam has been reduced, it’s because it’s been increased but the non-spam invites have been increased many times more.
Imagine if your email provider, instead of blocking spam, somehow made you receive twice as much of it but then somehow made half of their customers (of which you may or may not be one) receive 100 times as much non-spam email. Your overall user experience suffers, and in fact even the people who are getting more non-spam are suffering, but the overall % of emails that are spam just decreased by a wide margin.
That’s exactly what has happened on Facebook. Even the people who play the farm games don’t want that many invites. They want the gifts, and that’s fine, but surely nobody wants to log into Facebook, see 20 Farm Town gift invites, and have to accept them one at a time by clicking accept, loading the app, then clicking back to the requests page. It’s slow and painful. From a usability standpoint gifts should be given in-game and not even require acceptance (who would ever not want a free chicken?) but the developers get a tremendous advantage from the acceptance rate so the user has to suffer in order to help them game the platform.
Another problem this creates is that you simply cannot have a top app without gifting, no matter how nonsensical its existence in your game is, or how much it detracts from the user experience or game mechanics. Your game could be the most engaging on the platform, but without a solid gifting system your invites are going to get choked off. Take a look at Restaurant City, which is maybe the most engaging game ever launched on the platform. It’s also a great platform citizen, attempting to get new users largely by making a game so engaging people want to tell their friends about it, rather than by giving them large rewards for spamming friends.
Restaurant City’s invites per day are down to 12 and it’s a Verified App. Being Verified means it gets boosted 2 buckets in the allocations. To put that another way, if it were not Verified it would be getting 6 per day.
Scroll down through the top games on the Facebook platform and install them all, as I have, and you’ll see a trend appear very quickly. Almost all of them dump you immediately onto a gifts page every time you log in. This is no coincidence. It’s because it’s the only way to keep reasonable allocations.
The solution is simple: only count requests sent to someone for the first time when determining the median. Or better yet, switch to a better metric entirely like engagement. Facebook knows how much time my users spend on my apps (or at least they could if they so desired). Why not base my allocations on that rather than forcing me to beg my customers to send a dozen gifts with every login?
I wrote 90% of this post over a month ago, and was prompted to write it today by the fact that the platform is probably changing in about an hour and a half. I’ll admit, I’m somewhat dreading it. It’s been a long time since Facebook made a change that made me think more highly about developing on their platform, and with each knock to developers’ allocations they’re going to push more and more people off. I worry that if trends continue, at some point we’ll be left with just Playfish making new games and Zynga cloning them and then marketing them to the top. Our new game on Facebook is doing very well, and we’re already thinking about how to parlay that into a standalone web success. I know we’re not the only app developers thinking along those lines these days, and Facebook should take that seriously, if for no other reason than to give Zynga someone’s games to copy.