Telegram, the messaging app built to be a private, encrypted chat network, is becoming more of an entertainment haven. Last month it added cartoonish masks like Snapchat’s, for selfies and GIF-making. Now it’s adding an even bigger update to try and lure users away from larger rivals like Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp: games.
The new gaming platform on Telegram being rolled out Monday for Android users is powered by bots, meaning that a user can start playing them by chatting to a gaming bot, as they would to another person.
Telegram has made 30 free games available to start with, all published by game developer Gamee. A user opens a chat with the bot @gamee, then chooses a game to start playing. The simple, arcade-style games are based on HTML5 and include games like MathBattle, in which the player answers as many math problems as possible, a Space Invaders style game, and strategy games.
Telegram is inviting other developers to build more games on its platform, claiming it can only take a few hours to build each one.
Telegram isn’t necessarily shifting away from its focus on privacy and security, in favour of entertainment. “We try to balance our updates in such a way that new security, or work-related features go hand-in-hand with fun stuff,” says Telegram’s founder and CEO Pavel Durov.
“Secure messaging apps existed before Telegram and never got much traction,” he adds. “We set out to build something that would be not only secure, but also actually used – not by thousands but by hundreds of millions.”
Telegram’s gaming announcement is significant for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a step towards finally earning some money. Telegram has been running at a loss since it was founded by Durov, a Russian entrepreneur, in 2013.
Durov, 31, wholly owns and funds the company from the money he made selling his 12% stake in Vkontakte, Russia’s largest social network, about two years ago. Running the app has proved costly. More than 100 million people use Telegram at least once a month and a third of those are in Iran, regularly swapping photos, music and videos, and sucking up costly bandwidth.
While all the games on Telegram are free for now, Durov has been promising a payments API since early this year. That would make it possible, eventually, for app developers who make games or bots for Telegram to charge a fee, and for Telegram to get a cut.
For an internationally-popular chat app like Telegram, games could prove crucial to its long term survival. The messaging app LINE, popular in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia, first introduced games in July 2012, with titles like Line Pop, which was similar to Candy Crush Saga. Less than three years later in 2015, LINE had booked an annual revenue of $1 billion, of which 41% came from content like games, music and videos.
When Telegram finally launches a payments platform this year or next, that will finally give it a chance to develop a revenue stream for itself and developers. With any luck a virtual circle will follow: more revenue will attract more developers, leading to more games, and potentially, many more users.
In the global battle between messaging services, though, the lines have largely been drawn around massive user bases for WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Apple’s Messages and Asian apps LINE and WeChat. These apps all have user bases are in the hundreds of millions, or more than a billion in the case of WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.
Telegram is a legitimate competitor, but ranks lower than the big guns with roughly 100 million active users. Still, the shift in focus to more entertainment features could help it appeal to the younger Snapchat crowd, and carve out a bigger slice of the market for itself.
It also diverts attention away from Telegram’s focus on privacy, at a time when cryptography experts have been giving the app flak over how secure its encryption really is.
“We always focused on implementing features that were absent in mainstream messaging apps,” Durov argues. “In 2013 it was end-to-end encryption and secrecy, in 2014 it was web and desktop apps and document-sharing tools, and in 2015 it was bots and powerful group chats.”
Now it’s games, and that could give it a further edge over larger rivals like Facebook’s Messenger, which has plenty of bots but has yet to make any games available on its chat network.