Social games and apps on Facebook have sparked a profound shift in games design, according to the site's platform manager Gareth Davis.
He opened GDC with a keynote talk about the social games revolution, running through why Facebook games have become such big hits.
But he said that site's 'killer app', or "the Mario of Facebook" is still to be designed. Full report on the keynote follows:
Facebook has thrived, said Davis, because it arrived at a time when consumers were confident to use their real identities online.
"We've been afraid to put our real identities online - for fear of theft and security. But now we're seeing a revolution in identity," said Davis.
"Facebook is at the centre of a people powered social web." It's hard to disagree. The site has 400m users a month, 200m a day logon for sessions lasting around 55 minutes each.
In tandem with this there are a million devs making Facebook Platform Apps and using Facebook Connect.
Games are one of the most popular parts of the social networking service with 200m playing games on Facebook each month.
"We have a mass audience," said Davis. "We have moved beyond the core consumer and have people playing games across every demographic."
And this boom means "Facebook games are changing our games are developed, designed, monetised, distributed operated and supplied," said Davis.
Designing Social Games
"[Facebook games] are deigned for broad appeal and have very low friction - within a few clicks you can be in the game having a fun experience," he said. "Facebook games are services - they live in the cloud - that means developers can add to a game after launch and react to feedback.
"In effect you have your own game lab. What we're seeing is a shift from the mindset from how do I sell lots of games on day one to 'how do i get people coming back day after day after day'
Virtual goods have impacted design too, as they demand in-game economies, said Davis.
"The most profound revolutions, the most significant disruption, is how social games are designed. They are made for social interaction - people want to play with their friends."
Word of mouth drives game uptake through 'social distribution' said Davis. And although 'social games' have been around for thousands of years as board games, sports, kids games like hide and seek and adult games like poker, technology is catching up to exploit the same principles. Davis pointed to Battle.net, Xbox Live and games like Rock Band being successful on the same principles.
"Facebook does the same thing for hundreds of millions of people that just want to play games with their friends," said Davis.
"Social games are the past, present and future of the games industry. Someday soon all games will be as social as they were in the past - and we won't call them social games, we'll just call them games again," he added.
Overall, said Davis, "there is a language in social games design emerging".
'Social emotions' are driving the rapid growth of Facebook games, said Davis, as players look to utilise their real world identity relationships in games.
It's more compelling playing with people you know competitively, while cooperative elements in the likes of FarmVille allow us to use our relationships in a different way, while customisation of game avatars allows self-expression and sharing.
"Because we are playing with real identities we are seeing a loop between the online world and the real world - when i get a high score I have bragging rights at lunch," said Davis.
Facebook users are also being allowed to import their real identities into games as well - they can use pictures and know the name, age, sex and other features of its users.
"But this could go a lot further," said Davis. "Imagine a game where the story incorporates my real world relationships. [...] And pictures I have taken are integrated into the environment. This would give rise to a new kind of game the likes of which we haven't seen before."
Promotional apps The Flashforward Experience and The Prototype Experience toyed with this by pulling users' information including data and pics into its off-Facebook games, but they 'only scratched the surface' on what's possible.
Waiting for the Facebook Killer App?
But, said Davis, despite their being some high profile successes in social games, "the iconic Facebook game still lies ahead of us".
"The Mario of Facebook is out there and will likely come from someone [at GDC] - it's likely your next game, which is very exciting. We think this game will change everything - and we're looking forward to playing it."
To drive the arrival of this killer app, Facebook is continuing to beef up its Platform service, APIs and introduce new features.
These include Facebook Credits later in the year, while lets players buy in-game items via a Facebook-branded experience.
Meanwhile Facebook Connect - which allows games to connect to Facebook no matter what platform they are on - is being used more and more in web portals and apps, and desktop games, plus iPhone, DS, Xbox and PS3. The first console game to use Facebook Connect is due soon for PS3 - Buzz! Quiz World - while classic brand Civilisation is heading to Facebook and will represent a 'watershed moment' for games on the platform said Davis.
What all of that means is a rise in one large platform for social play, where multiple different devices and platforms link together using Facebook as their backbone.
"We're seeing a new type of gaming emerge where players can play with their friends no matter what device they are using," said Davis.
This means currently that there the same game on every platform, he said, but "the next level here is where game designers tailor the experience to each device".