A Better Way to Play

By Mike Arcuri
November 10, 2020

If there’s anything better than playing video games, it’s playing on your terms. Over the years, we’ve inched ever closer to that ideal, graduating from coin-hungry video arcades and custom-built PCs to home consoles and mobile gaming. Games are becoming more accessible than ever, yet we can do more to accelerate that trend. We want to make play even easier. Our first step is a lineup of cloud-streamed games, recently announced by Facebook Gaming, that introduces a new and simple way to play games instantly.

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We know better than to say we’ve conquered cloud gaming. We haven’t. But we’ve got a strategy to confront some of cloud gaming’s toughest challenges — latency, access, and cost. At Facebook, we like to say, “The journey is 1% finished.” Still, we have reached the point where many people are enjoying cloud games on Facebook every day without being aware of the technology delivering them.

Try Asphalt 9 via Facebook Cloud Gaming
(Regionally available in the US East, West, and South on Android and in computer browsers) 

Why Cloud Gaming is Important: More Games for More People

We consider new projects at Facebook by understanding how they impact people, businesses, and Facebook itself. Cloud games are great because they let people discover and play high-quality titles with fewer delays and limitations. As cloud games evolve, multiplayer scenarios between friends and fellow players, and even between streaming personalities and fans, become much simpler.

Meanwhile, developers get to find new audiences for free-to-play games and run more effective (and playable) ad campaigns. And Facebook inches closer to helping people build tighter gaming communities, using cloud game technology so people can play the games they’re discussing on Facebook — in groups or video streams — all in one spot. Cloud gaming is a clear win-win-win scenario, so we assembled a new team in the second half of 2019 and have been learning, building, and iterating since.

What is Cloud Gaming, Anyway? 

Most gamers today have at least heard of cloud gaming. Facebook isn’t the only company offering cloud games. But let’s explain exactly how it works and why it’s difficult to pull off at scale. People often compare cloud gaming to streaming video services like Netflix or Hulu, but cloud gaming’s technical challenge is significantly more complex. With a traditional streaming service, content flows in one direction, from distant servers to your smartphone or TV. Videos are partially downloaded to ensure smooth playback, even if your internet connection stutters or temporarily peters out. Put another way, 10-20 seconds of buffered video can make network connection problems virtually unnoticeable.

Unlike audio or video streaming, cloud gaming is a two-way street packed with unpredictable traffic. Here’s how it generally plays out: a player sends a command (step on the gas) across the internet to remote game servers, which then need to react (make the vehicle accelerate, update the physics engine, and render new scenes) before beaming a video signal back to players. This exchange happens 30 to 60 times per second in a typical game session. A 1-second hiccup means you’ve crashed the car, missed a jump, or died from laser fire. To deliver a great player experience, we need to measure roundtrip latency from player input to game reaction and back in milliseconds and drive the added latency down as far as we can, even though we can’t control the user’s device or network. 

Facebook’s Approach to Cloud-streamed Games 

Building a system to handle such an intricate process is challenging, but we’re not starting from scratch.  Years of research, investment, and player feedback helped us build world-class data centers for serving websites and apps to billions of people around the world and computing sophisticated ML models. This core infrastructure was a great starting point. And it’s no secret we teamed up with Playgiga to help us build things faster and more efficiently. After five years of building cloud services, Playgiga has the experience and talent to help game developers port their titles to the cloud. 

But these advantages were just the beginning. The Facebook Gaming team had to partner internally to procure new hardware, deploy GPUs to our edge network, and build new cloud hosting software to run games at scale without expensive rewrites by developers. We worked closely with security experts to make black-box game code as safe as possible, even when communicating with game servers across the internet. We tuned audio and video compression, streaming, decompression, and optimized client-side players and RTC code built into Facebook and Messenger to improve the player experience.

Throughout the development process, we stayed true to Facebook’s “move fast with stable infra” ethos by shipping early and learning from our players.  We initially released a single cloud game in one US city in December 2019, then more games in three medium-sized regions in March. When we understood the impact of Covid-19 on hardware supply chains and core infra deployments, we bumped up to six regional sites using the existing hosting hardware and tech stack.  We worked with partners to deploy our first fully-monetized games with in-app-purchases and cross-platform player accounts in July.  And then, at the beginning of October, we ramped up our long-planned GPU machines and much larger geographic regions, launched new games, and publicly announced cloud games on Facebook.

Building the Future of Play on Facebook

Our approach to cloud gaming at Facebook is pretty different when compared to other companies.  To start, we’re focused on free-to-play games, while others have focused on paid subscription services. We’re designing for phone and browser input because most people don’t have gamepads connected to their smartphones and laptops. We’re not offering a console replacement, an all-in-one content subscription, or new hardware to buy. Our only goal is to deliver free and easy access to high-quality games on Facebook, where millions of gamers already hang out and share their passion. We’re simply using cloud technology to expand our collection of games.

This approach presents unique challenges and solutions given the need for low-latency and high-quality video and audio. A fiber-optic internet provider might offer a cloud gaming service in a controlled network environment and with dedicated and consistent client hardware in the set-top-box. Still, we have to build for Facebook users on 5-year-old phones and 3G cellular data connections. We cover this diversity in two ways: first, by ensuring we have diverse cloud gaming content, including latency tolerant titles. Second, by leaning into the ephemeral nature of our Facebook feeds and ranking tech promote cloud games to people on faster networks. 

The philosophy is “maximizing the fun,” and it lets us reach millions of people right now, even as network speeds and streaming infrastructure continue to improve. We need to provide options in the rare cases when high intent gamers search for specific games on poor networks. When we detect these cases, we let the user know that their current network isn’t going to deliver a great play experience and let them choose whether to play later (on a faster device or network) or jump into a different game altogether.

More Coming Soon

Cloud gaming is one of many examples where we’re simplifying technology and make it more approachable. As exciting as all of this sounds, we still have a long way to go. But we’re off to a promising start. Some 200K players are enjoying cloud games right now and the numbers keep growing - even though it’s limited to regional US coverage and a handful of initial titles. So far, cloud gaming session length exceeds that of our HTML 5 games, many of which have been available globally for years. 

Yes, challenges abound — video quality and lag are always top of mind— but we’re actively expanding reach and capacity, chasing innovations, and building the partnerships needed to grow our cloud gaming catalog. In short, we believe games should be challenging to master, not to discover or play. And not just the casual stuff, either. We love our card games and board games, but we’re actively expanding into new genres to engage more players — sports, strategy, RPGs, 3D sims, and other high-fidelity titles. We’re really excited for this next phase of gaming on Facebook, and we hope you’ll come play with us soon!