Could statistics become Facebook’s Antennagate?

By Joel Brodie | Aug 2, 2010 |

After months of falling traffic, many of your favorite Facebook games experienced huge gains this past weekend. According to Inside Social Games (the web site that analyzes the Facebook statistics that I just report on, thank you Inside Social Games for doing the hard work!), top games such as Mafia Wars, Zoo World, and Restaurant City experienced huge usage gains over the past few days.

For example, Zynga’s Café World has gained 15 million MAU’s over this short period of time (see the full list is here).

There is no rhythm or reason to these huge upticks in game traffic after months of huge drops. We can easily explain game traffic drops. Facebook changed game notifications and the result was less virality (or friend spamming) and drops of game traffic of up to 25% per game.

What then accounts for this huge gain, much of it over a 3-day period?

Inside Social Games points out the traffic gain occurred with games from a variety of companies, so we can’t say that Zynga made a change on their end to juice up the traffic.

Their theories are that it’s a bug or that Facebook has changed how they measure statistics.

Both are plausible. Facebook has been known in the past to screw up and break on occasion. I know, I just rocked your world, but it happens.

The second explanation, that Facebook changed how they count game traffic, is just as plausible, either for the good or bad depending on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are.

The first thing that I thought of when I read about this game traffic increase was Apple’s recent Antennagate controversy.

When Apple heard of reports that the iPhone 4.0 brilliantly designed antenna drops calls when you hold it in a certain way (the correct way, as any lefties like me would tell you), their initial response was to post a software update that pretended to fix the problem.

Their solution was not to fix the problem (which is the antenna) but to change the display of connectivity on your iPhone. When your bars drop from 4 to 1, their software “fix” changed it so that the display would show you a drop from 4 to 2 bars. Your calls would still drop, but you could pretend they would not.

Facebook has a big problem right now. Though they pretend they are not a games company, recent studies show how important online gaming is to Facebook's traffic.

Yet, changes they have made in the past year have killed traffic for individual games, decreasing the valuation of their game partners (e.g., Playdom would not have sold out early to Disney if they truly believed in the Facebook’s market) and forcing smaller companies to bail on Facebook (and look elsewhere for distribution) because they can’t generate enough traffic and make enough money on Facebook

So what do you do as Facebook?

Do you try to fix the root of the problem? Which is, loosen up the game notification rules a bit which are strangling your game partner’s growth?

Or, do you quietly change how you count daily and monthly active users, thereby solving the problem semantically?

I have no doubt that this could be a bug or that millions of people decided it was a bad movie weekend and got online and played games. Maybe, Facebook has fixed their game statistics tools to make it more accurate? In which case, problem solved (because there was no problem in the first place)! Or, they have loosened up game notifications secretly this weekend, thereby creating a real increase in game traffic.

However, if it is an attempt by Facebook to change how game traffic is measured on their network without fixing the actual problem, this could grow into their very own private Antennagate.

There are real world implications to game statistics on Facebook. Game companies are trying to go public, sell out, and raise money based on these numbers. Many of the great financial minds on Wall Street and Sand Hill Road who are paid big bucks to analyze these numbers take them for face value (yes, I am blowing your mind again).

Facebook's game statistics need to be accurate as possible in order to make the ecosystem work. If Facebook is more accurately measuring game traffic, this is a step in the right direction. If, however, all you are doing is changing how you measure traffic, it will not help your game partners monetize better because it means that traffic gains are not real. Much like Apple and their software update fix to Antennagate, changing how you measure game statistics is not a band-aid fix to the problem.

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