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The Near Future of Viral Design in Social Games
by Aki Jarvinen on 04/07/10 10:40:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This blog entry originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month for March 2010's topic, Future of Social Games.]

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.

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William Leader
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I have yet to play a Facebook (FB) game that was anything more than a single player game with some artificial limits in it designed to encourage players to sign up their friends to get past those limits. I get the impression that designers target FB not because it provides the player a better gaming experience but because it provides the designer with a better marketing experience. When someone designs a game based on how you market it instead of designing a game that is fun, they are doing it wrong.

In a similar vein, I have never instructed a FB game to post anything to my feed because I don't want to be a vector for spam. Just because a rat hit a button to get a pellet does not prevent it from being spam. People are friends with me on FB because they want to know what _I_ am up to, not what my virtual farm is doing. Furthermore all the messages being sent through FB by games are actually reduce the value of FB by bringing the signal to noise ratio to an intolerable level. Just as spam filters have become common place for email, filters will become common place for social networks as well, as that happens all this viral this and viral that will end. Look at my behavior, I won't willingly spam my friends from a game because I don't like receive those messages in my feed. I've become immune to the viral nature of these games.

Viral games have been successful in the recent past only because the population hadn't learned how to control it. Now we are adopting technical measures (such as FB restrictions on apps which is like washing your hands), and social measures (such as letting our friends know that we don't want to know about their farm which is like quarantine) to prevent their spread. As the population becomes more resistant to viral games, the opportunity for their success is reduced every day.

A game that is fun will market itself because people tell each other willingly about things they like. They don't need to be coerced into telling their friends by a game mechanic. Successful social gaming in the future lies in games that are fun. People want fun and will never develop resistance to it.

Aki Jarvinen
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William, thanks for the comment.

My primary intention with the post was to discuss the layer of design that follows from the proven game concept, and which can amplify its reach - and which crosses the boundaries of game design and marketing. At the same time, I do think that the viral aspects can and should be designed through an organic process that closely follows design decisions concerning gameplay and theme, rather than being 'copy-pasted' on top of the game.

I agree that at the heart of any viral effort, there needs to be a game that is fun - otherwise any player who goes to the trouble of spreading it, is doing marketing, not sharing the fun from the experience. I believe the 'fun' from social games should not be evaluated with exactly the same criteria as with many other types of games - and most of the people reading Gamasutra articles, myself included, do not represent the average audience of social games in any way.

Therefore how we behave in terms of posting from games, etc. matters preciously little. Following our recently launched game's fan page has opened my eyes to practices of Facebook usage and behavior that are very distant from my own, but crucial to understand in order to make our game better, in this context and with the criteria of the audience rather than us developers.

William Leader
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My first read through I didn't get the part about understanding the average audience, and in that context it makes a lot more sense. However maybe I'm too old and have a 'Damn kids get off my lawn' attitude, but my main problem with social games is that most of them aren't fun to me. I've not found one that held my attention for more than a week. I keep trying different ones to see what is out there and I've not found anything that really excites me. So I keep looking for a reason why not-fun (to me) games get played without considering maybe this is fun for someone else.

I suspect part of my problem is that I don't make a habit of friending every random acquaintance in FB. I have a small pool of friends many of whom don't play FB games. For any given game (even the really popular ones) I tend to have 0 to 2 friends also playing that game. Compared to a person with hundreds of FB friends who can easily find a dozen or more people to play with, we will have vastly different experiences of the game.

In this light what I would really like to see is a game that encourages new connections between people. For example a game of suggestions, where you are asked to suggest something a friend might like, movies, books, music, whatever. A playing friend can either like or dislike the suggestion. Players score by making good suggestions and earn some kind of bragging right based on good suggestions. Then with the like and dislike data that is collected the game can then suggest people from around the world that you might have common interests with, which creates new connections and friendships which means more people to play the game with. Games like this could encourage players to meet new people rather than depend on existing relationships, which would greatly change the experience players like myself keep having when not enough of their friends play.

Aki Jarvinen
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I like your idea - I guess the LivingSocial family of apps is trying to something like that, i.e. spicing their recommendation and review apps with some game mechanics...haven't checked back on it for ages, though. Even if the social context would manage to create a positive basis for the virality, direct B2C monetization might tough to crack there though.

Aki Jarvinen
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Hi Adam - with competition I refer to gameplay rather than business, and I am not talking about growth as such, but the basis for growth in terms of social proof. See the 'epidemic' chapter above.

Bart Stewart
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Aki: "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."

William: "In this light what I would really like to see is a game that encourages new connections between people. For example a game of suggestions, where you are asked to suggest something a friend might like, movies, books, music, whatever."

These points are why I suspect that truly viral games won't be tied to a particular self-contained social architecture (such as Facebook) or "recommender" sites (like LibraryThing) at all. A game/meme ("gameme"?) that's strong enough to spread without requiring a particular host has the best chance of going viral.

The question is, is there currently any such substrate capable of supporting such games? In other words, is there some widespread system for connecting people on which simple cooperative-gesture games can be built?

Twitter comes to mind. But perhaps the richest possible system for supporting viral growth is email.

Could a rules-based game be built on email? (I say "rules-based" to distinguish this kind of game from simpler forms of email-based play like chain letters.) How would you avoid the "spam" problem from which FB games like FarmVille suffer -- in other words, how do you attract new players without repeatedly contacting people who don't want to play?

Or is email just too low-level? Is there some connective architecture in between email and Facebook on which a rules-based game could be implemented? What features would a game riding on such an architecture need to have in order to have the possibility of going viral?

Aki Jarvinen
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Bart: Check out the link below, it spells out quite well why Twitter is problematic in terms of games.

Regarding email, a metagame could be designed around the email marketing social game developers are doing at Facebook to those players who allow it...