The state of Facebook gaming according to King.com

They say Facebook gaming is on the decline. Zynga’s lukewarm performance on the stock market following its much-touted IPO last December was caused, in part, by gaming on the platform reaching what a Cowen & Co analyst called a “negative inflation point”. A report earlier this year from IHS Screen Digest claimed that, at the end of 2010, half of Facebook’s userbase was regularly playing games on the service. By the close of 2011, that had fallen to 25 per cent.

Three-quarters of the way through 2012 that figure may well have fallen even further. Zynga’s need to reduce its reliance on Facebook has led to greater effort on mobile, and the launch of its own portal, Zynga.com. But for King.com, which has been in the casual game business since 2003 and earlier this year became the second biggest game developer on Facebook, it remains of huge importance, and is still a fertile ground for success; you just have to keep an eye on the metrics and move with the times.

“We don’t see an exodus of players from Facebook at all,” CMO Alex Dale tells us. “What Facebook did is bring female players into the gaming world, and they started out with resource management games, and it broadened as the audience broadened into more casual games.

“We look at AppData the whole time, and a number of categories are performing less well than they did historically – resource management in particular.  And in terms of the total DAU for games it took a rise with the growth of the bubble shooter category, and has pretty much remained stable since then.”

Naturally, King has a bubble shooter of its own, and it’s the most popular of them all: Bubble Witch Saga, launched on Facebook last September, has 17.7 million monthly active players, four million of whom return on a daily basis. While the obvious inspiration is Taito’s Bust-A-Move, there’s a hint of Peggle in there, too, with popped bubbles bouncing pinball-style off spiders and falling into one of five cauldrons at the bottom of the screen.

It’s also hard. After an introductory handful of levels so gentle you wonder if you’ve been unwittingly suckered into a psychological Ian Bogost experiment and are in fact playing a reskinned Cow Clicker, the difficulty ramps up – and quickly, too. There’s no time pressure – something Facebook players don’t respond well to, Dale says – but you only have a finite number of bubbles to deploy. If Bust-A-Move is an arcade game, this is a puzzler.

And it is, Dale believes, breaking new ground. “You can play Bubble Witch Saga on iOS tablets, iOS mobile or Facebook. Level 65, for example, contains the same puzzle on Facebook as it does on mobile. If you crack that puzzle you go to level 66, and regardless of which device [you're on] that progress will be synchronised. Your social graph will also be updated… if you buy [virtual] good x in the mobile version it’ll appear in the FB version, and vice versa. We think it’s a world first.”

And that’s the key. While there is still clearly room for growth on Facebook – AppData shows King.com’s MAU count rising by 80,000 in the last seven days – every company needs a mobile strategy. King’s vision is for Facebook and mobile to be the same thing; to give players the same experience, in the same game, on different devices. And, of course, doing so means you can convert new mobile players into new Facebook players, and vice versa. It’s also a great way to cross-promote your games – one of the key ways in which Zynga cemented its place at the top of the AppData leaderboard was by using its existing games to market upcoming ones.

But while Zynga dials down its reliance on Facebook, launching its own social gaming portal from which it, not Mark Zuckerberg’s firm, takes a 30 per cent cut of all revenue from microtransactions, Dale still sees real, ongoing merit in a platform many are saying is on the wane.

“You’ve now got a much broader audience playing games on Facebook and mobile who don’t have the lifestyle where you can either grind away at CastleVille or sit in front of the TV playing console games,” he says. “An IAB report last year said that 80 per cent of the UK’s adult population consider themselves to be gamers.

“It’s very much a mainstream activity, and the mainstream user does not have the time. They want to play casually on their PC at work, or on the bus going home on their mobile device. That’s the kind of background trend we’ve really benefited from, that’s behind the growth of our games on Facebook.”

Dale will speak more on this subject during his keynote address at the F2P Summit in London next week.