Snap’s big plan to turn Snapchat into a gaming platform

By Andrew Webster

It’s an inevitability: if a platform gets big enough, eventually, it’ll support video games. It happened to the iPhone and Facebook, and now it’s happening to Snapchat. Early last month, Snap announced its first original game, Bitmoji Party, along with a handful of titles from third-party developers. It wasn’t exactly a surprising announcement, given that games are overwhelmingly the top-grossing form of mobile app; even platforms like Facebook Messenger are trying to get in.

But succeeding with a game on mobile is hard, and that challenge is only increasing as the space becomes more saturated. Snap’s solution? Going in a slightly different direction that leans into the company’s playful persona. Will Wu, Snap’s director of product and the lead on the gaming initiative, believes that this strategy, exemplified by Bitmoji Party, will help set the initiative apart, and it’s something Snap is putting a lot of effort behind. “This is something that we’re very excited about pursuing relentlessly,” Wu tells The Verge.

The project began in earnest around two years ago. First, Snap acquired PlayCanvas, creators of an HTML5 game engine that would serve as the core of the new venture. Then, the company snapped up Prettygreat, an Australian studio helmed by the former leads behind mobile hits Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride. The idea was to build a few showpiece games internally to kick off the new platform, pulling inspiration from a certain Kyoto game maker. “A big part of their strategy was to make games in-house,” says Prettygreat co-founder Phil Larsen, who also serves as the head of Snap Games Studio. “Nintendo has their first-party teams and they make all of the tentpole games that really innovate and push the platform forward, and so that was our goal.”

The first result of those acquisitions is Bitmoji Party, a collection of mini-games that launched last month. Wu bills it as “a collaborative experience” between various teams, including Playcanvas, Prettygreat, and the group responsible for Bitmoji (which, incidentally, are now making their way into other games as well).

According to Wu, one of the benefits of releasing a multiplayer game like Bitmoji Party directly within Snapchat is that it cuts down on friction. For a typical mobile game, if you want to play with friends, everyone has to download the same app and then set up their accounts. If that game is on Snapchat, you don’t have to worry about those things, and Bitmoji Party is a game designed to show how seamless the process can be. “I really wanted us to make a game that almost served as a North Star for the type of experience that we were aiming for with Snap Games, for both future developers and our user base,” Wu says.

For Snap, there are clear benefits to having a hit game on the platform. It means users will spend more time in Snapchat and see more ads along the way. (Currently, there’s only one form of monetization on Snap Games: six-second-long commercials that players can view in exchange for in-game currency.) But don’t expect to see the next App Store-style gold rush for third-party developers. Snap Games isn’t an open-platform; instead, the company is partnering with a small number of developers to offer a more curated selection of games. At present, that includes everything from big companies like Zynga to smaller studios like Alphabear developer Spry Fox. From the sound of it, Snap is serving almost like a publisher, working with studios throughout the entire development process, from conception to launch.

The goal isn’t to offer a huge selection of games; it’s to create experiences that will serve different communities within Snapchat. There might be a game you enjoy playing with a specific group of friends and another that works with your family. “We want games for all of these unique social situations and social groups,” says Larsen. “Having too many games that people can’t play or even see, that doesn’t help us or help developers.”

Starting out small and focused seems like a good idea. With the overwhelming dominance of free-to-play games, mobile has become a very crowded field, one that will soon include new ventures like Apple’s upcoming subscription service. Meanwhile, despite its massive scale and multiple attempts, even Facebook has struggled to turn into a viable gaming platform. In this environment, getting people to play new games, even on a platform they already use, could prove to be a challenge for Snap. But the company is hoping it can stand out by offering something different. According to Will Eastcott, co-founder of Playcanvas, the focus on seamless multiplayer, coupled with Snapchat’s playful, ephemeral nature, could lead to unique games you won’t see elsewhere.

“It unlocks so many new opportunities for game developers,” he says. “I think you’re going to see new types of gaming experiences.”