Facebook Gaming: A Brief History (and Future)

Mark Stephens

Facebook started in 2004 and celebrated its tenth anniversary earlier this year. Back then games were largely bought to play on the PC, PS2, Xbox, Game Cube or Gameboy Advance; leading games were the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Halo 2, Pokemon and Need for Speed. Although gaming was undoubtedly massive, it was still a niche; it hadn’t been brought to the masses. Fast forward ten years and it’s a very different story: games with 100 million active players and a total number of worldwide game players running into billions. Facebook has played a key role in shaping this landscape – here’s a brief history and look at what’s ahead.


The rise of Facebook and social gaming go hand-in-hand

In 2004 the first Facebook game was still a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye. Social networking was in its infancy: Friendster was initially popular and later MySpace dominated between 2005 and 2008, starting a social gaming network where the likes of Zynga and RockYou began to make a name.

Gradually Facebook caught up in user numbers and, later in 2008, overtook MySpace as the most popular social network. In 2007 the first games had started to appear on the site but it wasn’t until 2009 that they started to gain any traction.

Texas Hold’Em Poker (now known as Zynga Poker) by Zynga was released on Facebook in July 2007, with YoVille following in 2008; Zynga soon became synonymous with Facebook gaming and in April 2009 became the first Facebook developer to hit 40 million monthly active users (MAU). By June 2009 Farmville was ready for launch and this was to break all records. By August it had 10 million daily active users and by October 20 million.

This followed in the footsteps of Barn Buddy and Happy Farm, which simply couldn’t compete with the popularity of the Zynga farm game. Hand in hand with Farmville came games like Slashkey’s Farm Town. In fact this genre of game where players checked in daily to tend a farm, city or zoo took off from here and remains a mainstay of Facebook gaming even today: Farm Heroes Saga is the second most popular game presently).

Players who used to play Zynga games on the developer’s site now started to play them under a single log-in on Facebook, where they could do all the other things they wanted to do on social media and connect with a huge network of other players, including their own Facebook friends.
This symbiotic relationship helped both Facebook and social gaming grow hand-in-hand: games grew because Facebook provided the network and Facebook grew because people logged in to play games – and this kept them on the site longer.

This increasingly applied to other popular games like Texas Hold’Em Poker and Cityville, as Zynga became the model for developing Facebook games.

Social gaming comes into its own

Facebook gaming started to come into its own after 2009. New waves of games were released by Zynga from fresh takes on popular board games like Draw Something and Words with Friends (a take on Scrabble), which drew huge followings almost instantly.

Zynga has found a strong rival in the past few years in King, the UK game developer responsible for releasing the most popular ever Facebook game, Candy Crush Saga. In the past 12-18 months this arcade style ‘matching’ game has broken all records in terms of player numbers and revenue.

As well as the arcade games, Facebook is playing host to a wide array of educational games, card and casino games, board games, racing games, and puzzle games. Though many of these games are rather simple in nature, this is part of their arguable beauty: almost anyone can play them with anybody else on the network and the experience becomes social – it can be shared.

According to Game Chitah there are almost 300 games still available on Facebook. Here is the present Top 10:

1. Candy Crush Saga
2. Farm Heroes Saga
3. Texas HoldEm Poker
4. Dragon City
5. 8 Ball Pool
6. FarmVille 2
7. Top Eleven Be a Football Manager
8. Pet Rescue Saga
9. Subway Surfers
10. Criminal Case

The social gaming future on Facebook

Earlier this year Facebook expressed interest in including more complex, role-playing games aimed at a ‘mid-core audience’. This lies in between the traditional ‘hardcore’ console gamers and the casual gaming mums, dads and kids, who make up the majority of social gamers.


Gaming has gone more mobile in the last couple of years and this has forced Facebook to change its model too; with the growth of tablets and smartphones worldwide , Facebook has expanded its ‘marketing role’ in driving players to games on iOS and Android mobile devices, therefore boosting ad revenue. It is becoming less dependent on hosting games on its own platform, though it’s still a major part of the Facebook gaming business.

Facebook’s Chief Financial Officer summed up this dilemma recently:

‘Our current games payment revenue comes entirely from desktop usage and we are seeing declines in the number of people using Facebook on desktop.’

This move to mobile is why Facebook has been encouraging game developers to design more cross-platform games. It has affected one of the key relationships in Facebook gaming too: Zynga was very slow to react to the move to mobile and has paid the price with a well-documented crashing share price. But while one company has stood still, there is no shortage of others waiting to take its place as Facebook’s darling of game developers.