In this essay, I want to pose questions about a design aspect which is particularly topical to social game design. This aspect is something that has not been traditionally associated with game design, but rather with marketing and distribution: virality.
It has been suggested that 'viral games' characterizes game applications in Facebook better than the widely adopted 'social' prefix. Yet population is a prerequisite for any viral phenomenon, and it is through social interaction that viral growth can take place. So, viral games are social, and social games are viral, to the extent that their developers and marketers push them to be.
In this context, Facebook and its communication channels become the viral substrate that both constrains and affords viral spread. In practice, designing viral growth for a social game is leveraging whatever communication channels the network platform affords, and integrating this set of constraints and possibilities with gameplay. The platform, such as Facebook, functions here as the viral substrate that sets boundaries for viral growth.
In this kind of design activity, the difference with marketing as such stems from the organic connection to gameplay - unless the marketer understands the details of gameplay, the viral features are in danger of turning into tacked-on messages that only take advantage of the standard communication channels of the network. The marketer-designer needs to understand the inner workings of the product, unlike with many other product categories. Moreover, the designer-marketer needs to step beyond his/her comfort zone and take the viral marketing aspect into account in the game design.
The opportunity in this, in terms of development, is that even if the platform's communication channels change, the gameplay-driven message does not change. On the other hand, the player does not necessarily feel very motivated to only function as a puppet marketeer for the game developer. Rather, if there is ever to be an incentive for an individual player to virally spread the word, it needs to be about a personal achievement or decision in the game, not the game product as such.
Innovating with viral
The innovation in the viral design of social games is either nearly non-existent, or goes barely unnoticed, due to the formats - i.e. the communication types and channels - that Facebook forces the virality into. The policies Facebook puts in place function as deterrents to aggressively viral endeavours, thus protecting its population.
As the Facebook platform as a viral substrate has changed, the boundaries of viral growth have changed. The development has been one of narrowing the channels rather than liberating them. This means that, e.g., FarmVille's (and Zynga's) status of non-displacement, acquired in 'wild west' days of Facebook virality, is literally non-displaceable.
More substantial and disrupting innovation might come from the double viral loops that connect outside Facebook - paradoxically, through Facebook Connect and Facebook's upcoming Open Graph API that allows many of the standard page functionalities from Facebook to be embedded into any page in the web. As we speak, social game developers are persuading players to give permission to email them directly. At once, this opens up a direct marketing channel for social games, and expands the viral substrate to an inherently viral medium - the substrate behind the success story of Hotmail, after all.
Nevertheless, I believe there is room for incremental innovation, both in terms of structure and content, even with the channels in place at present. This could constitute the near future of viral design in social games, at least in the context of a social network like Facebook and the communication - i.e. viral - channels it affords.
Epidemic social gestures unlock viral breadth
If there is a near future of viral design for social games, my argument is that it is in modeling the viral feeds more strongly towards general social gestures.
This postulation is based on a starting hypothesis, according to which competitive gameplay reduces viral reach and its design possibilities. If we take a highly competitive social game and analyze the Facebook stream stories it persuades players to post, what is there beyond bragging, taunting, and the standard quantitative game data (levels, points, etc.) that can be communicated?
When the gameplay and theme are inherently competitive, the possibilities to adapt general social gestures to viral design become more narrow or at least their social reach stays within more or less fixed boundaries of taste and social proof. Viral messages about game events remain meaningful only to those already playing the game, or someone playing a very similar game.
This might give the virality some density within a closely knit group, but it does not automatically provide the absolute breadth required for significant viral growth, especially if it is bordered with lack of social proof. Social proof refers to general tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it. It is something that differentiates viral in the epidemiological sense from viral in the marketing sense of the word.
Jesse Farmer approaches the same issue from the perspectives of network theory and epidemiology, and identifies two mechanisms of behavior adoption in social networks: The Threshold Model where people do something if enough of their friends are doing it, and the Cascade Model i.e. that people have a chance of doing something if one of their friends is doing it.
Whichever the model, the persuasive means to follow other's actions are crucial. Besides effective copywriting, it is the social meaning of the viral gesture that is important. Majority of your friends might not care less if you got to level 32 at game X, but what if that leveling up stream story would guide you to dedicate it to a friend of yours who is about to turn 32? Even if your friend would not convert into a player instantly, the social gesture of congratulating more likely gives your game a positive tilt in terms of brand value and recognition - your game stands out from the spam in the mind of the yet-to-be player who is your friend. Embedding game events into social gestures presents a chance for a viral loop of social goodwill, but it has to sprout organically from your game's theme and mechanics, and their emotional potential.
Is social proof viral proof?
On the other hand, the forms of social proof are changing in online, networked contexts, discounting some of the traditional effects. A common comment from any fan page of a Facebook game application goes: 'Add me please level 19 play daily'. In a social network that is supposed to work according to a reciprocical friendship principle, the benefits of game-related friends are over-riding traditional common nominators of friendship. It is not that games are creating social ties, games are becoming social ties, but possibly strong and lasting only in the game's context. Such viral befriending is not constitutive of the behavior of the majority of population, but it is still common enough to warrant a reality check on how social proof is evolving in social games. As any social game developer who has read marketing classics knows, this is a punch to the gut of the old tactics.
The broader spectrum of social gestures reaches beyond the competitive dimension. At the same time, it expands the array of social emotions the virality can tap into, thus also affecting the gist of viral phenomena, i.e. behavioral adoption. Doing favors and reminiscing are examples of social gestures that, when originated from a game, function as a viral address between two or more people. For example, using a game to wish your friend luck with a job interview is a game-driven social gesture that might leave a lasting impression to the receiver, if it is in line with the theme of the game.
It is telling that the types of games (e.g., Friends for Sale) often disregarded as 'real' games by video game developers show signs of the approach described above. Games like Friends for Sale also marry gameplay with social gestures rather than routinely stylizing fantastic - or perhaps more appropriately 'farmtastic' - actions into game mechanics.
In conclusion, the near future of viral design holds opportunities for experimentation, perhaps even creativity, that question the existing, formulaic means to create viral growth. The balance between density and breadth can be explored with a repertoire of viral channels, but also with social gestures unleashed within them as stream stories and requests, originating from a social game and injecting the player's friends with a meaning outside the game, and thus beyond spam.
This might open the floor for the first truly mainstream meme from a social game that goes beyond stream stories and parodies. Once that happens, we have arrived at the future of viral game design.