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Calvin Grunewald, engineering manager at Facebook’s Seattle office. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Guilherme Campos has a passion for games.

Guilherme Campos came up with the prototype that would eventually turn into Facebook Instant Games. (Facebook Photo)

For much of his career, that passion mostly manifested itself in his free time. He spent time at Microsoft working on augmented reality technology, then in 2014 he came to Facebook to work on what the company called an “experimental engineering” project. But he continued to build games in his spare time and eventually started working on — or “hacking on,” in Facebook lingo — a way to program HTML5 games so that users could play them across multiple mobile and web-based platforms without the experience changing.

The events that followed show how an individual engineer can make an impact and galvanize a multi-team effort at one of the world’s largest tech companies, even when working hundreds of miles from headquarters — an increasingly common situation as more Silicon Valley tech giants establish engineering outposts in the Seattle area.

In March 2016, Campos had refined his idea enough to pitch it to his team, including his boss Calvin Grunewald, who has been with Facebook’s Seattle office for more than five years and had joined the Games team a month prior. Campos pulled up the popular basketball game in Messenger, which he had re-configured into something similar to the famously-frustrating Floppy Bird.

First he showed it on various mobile platforms, and then moved to a desktop. Grunewald said the team was shocked by Campos’ demo, not only because of what he accomplished, but also because creating a seamless and communal experience for games across web and mobile was something Facebook wanted to focus on.

“Doing this on mobile was something we very much wanted to tackle in 2016 and Guilherme just kind of went out and did it and hacked it together,” Grunewald said.

The team decided then and there to make this concept Campos’ full-time job. He was charged with getting a test out for iOS and Android, and Games liked his progress, so they gave him another engineer to work with. A few months later, they finished a test of Games on Newsfeed and released it in New Zealand.

At the same time, the Messenger team was watching its basketball and soccer games go viral. A couple engineers built the games as easter eggs within Messenger in early 2016, and they took off quickly. The communal aspect of playing against friends kept people coming back and led to more interaction. The Messenger team decided to beef up its staff to focus on adding more non-messaging ways to communicate and interact.

Both teams were independently working on ways to strengthen Facebook’s gaming platforms, so when Campos came forward with his demo, the Games team got Messenger involved. Ray Guang, technical lead for Facebook Messenger, remembers when he first saw Campos’ creation.

“One day a product manager pulled me into a random meeting, which turns out to be Guilherme demoing his prototype,” Guang said. “It was exciting for me as, at the time, I was working on cross-platform app, and the game demo via HTML was a good cross platform demo.”

Before and after of the screen for sharing scores in Facebook Instant Games. (Facebook Photos)

In just six months, Campos’ idea went from a side project to a cross-platform effort with the attention of multiple teams and more than 30 Facebook employees. It culminated in the release of Facebook Instant Games on Nov. 29, 2016, just four days after Thanksgiving.

Several Facebook employees speaking to GeekWire framed the story of Instant Games as an example of the company’s culture, where managers encourage individuals and teams to be creative, make big bets and then prove their ideas are worth investing in. If they can do that, then the company will throw enough resources at the idea to make it a reality.

Facebook values a concept Grunewald called “ruthless prioritization.” Engineers there don’t often split their time, so when an engineer is dedicated to one thing, he or she isn’t spending that time on something else. That’s a big opportunity cost, so picking the right project is paramount. Once the company decides to throw a couple of engineers at a project, they are encouraged to quickly test the product and ship it fast.

Li Yang, engineering manager for Facebook. (Facebook Photo)

Guang said prioritizing ideas is among the biggest challenges at Facebook. The entrepreneurial spirit within the company leads to people coming up with a lot of ideas, but it is important to know which ones will be winners and remain focused on those.

“We know that there’s so many fun things we want to build, and everybody was so excited about this idea, and everybody has a lot of ideas to contribute,” Guang said. “But in the end, with limited time and resources, we just have to really prioritize what will be most impactful on this project.”

Two teams, one idea

Facebook previously kicked around ways to get a seamless HTML5 gaming experience across many platformswith an eye toward developing countries that don’t have as much mature technology as the west. But the technology underpinning the idea wasn’t there yet. Now as the tech caught up to the ideas, Campos’ game and the Messenger team’s viral basketball sensation set the stage for Instant Games.

Ray Guang, technical lead for Facebook Messenger. (Facebook Photo)

To make it work, the two teams had to function as one. They had video conferences on huge monitors, flew back and forth between offices and built an interstate “war room” where the two teams figured out how to make Instant Games sing.

“We had war rooms, one in Seattle, one in Menlo Park, with video conferencing set up 24 hours, seven days. It makes these two teams, even though we are in different places, feel virtually like one team,” said Li Yang, engineering manager for Facebook Messenger in Menlo Park.

The teams spent months fine-tuning small but important details. They re-worked how scores between friends are displayed, simplified how players challenged each other and made it easier to trash talk friends following a victory. Within the test, players could post their scores, with friends commenting below, building a “mini gaming ecosystem,” within people’s individual feeds. Facebook wanted to encourage that as much as possible and get people interacting with friends through the games.

“We realized when you play a game it’s not just about the game itself, on top of that, it’s the social dynamic with your friends and other people. It’s just another way to increase interaction with friends on Messenger,” Guang said.

A new era for Facebook Games in Seattle

Games have been a big part of Facebook’s identity for close to a decade and still make a significant impact on the company’s bottom line. Grunewald said games on web grossed $2.5 billion for Facebook in 2015. The company aims to provide a platform for game developers to show off their creations. Desktop hits made gamemakers like Zynga (Farmville) and King (Candy Crush) household names. These games often blew up quickly but sometimes fizzled just as fast as there weren’t enough reasons for players to come back in some cases.

Arbor Blocks
Facebook leased the entire planned Arbor Blocks project in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. (Vulcan Real Estate Photo)

Fun games that people will go back to time and again have always been difficult to build. Grunewald compares them to a business intelligence issue, where the best gamemakers take what they know about players and use that information to improve their games.

Towards the end of 2015, the company decided the Games team needed a shakeup, and it was moved to Seattle and put under the leadership Vijaye Raji, Facebook’s Seattle engineering director. Grunewald said “the magic of Vijaye” had a lot to do with the recent growth of Facebook’s Games divisions. So too did some great hires. Seattle is home to a variety of gaming companies, such as Microsoft (with Xbox), Valve, Bungie and many others. The plethora of nearby gaming companies lets Facebook pluck top talent from around the area for Games teams as well as grow its own game-focused engineers.

Games is one of many teams growing in Seattle, requiring the company to rapidly increase its real estate footprint. Just a few months after opening its new Frank Gehry-designed Seattle building, Facebook turned around and leased two more planned office buildings, right down the street from Amazon’s headquarters and a big future Google complex.

Facebook first set up shop in Seattle in 2010, with only a pair of employees. Facebook wouldn’t say how many employees it has in Seattle today, but in May its headcount here passed 1,000. The company also said its Dexter Station building has enough room to accommodate up to 2,000 people.

Grunewald said he expects Facebook’s rapid growth in Seattle to continue. New teams in Seattle are popping up all the time, and they are focused on a variety of subjects from games, to mobile advertising to rankings.

Grunewald, an avid gamer himself, has had a front row for a big part of Facebook’s growth in Seattle. He says he was employee number 91 here, and a lot has changed over the years.

“I used to know everyone in the office; now I don’t,” Grunewald said.

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