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Five Prescriptions for Viral Games
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Five Prescriptions for Viral Games

March 20, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

For the past decade, the idea of “viral marketing” has become widespread, spurred by the growth of the Internet. At its most fundamental, the idea is often nothing more than word-of-mouth: the most viral products (and memes) are those that people are most likely to share with others.

The Internet is a natural place for the spread of such things, because instant and fast communication make it easy for popular ideas to spread. The advantage to the marketer is that product awareness is driven by the loyal customers of a product, rather than expensive advertising and promotion programs.

Games have the potential to be phenomenally viral—but the mistake that most game studios make is in thinking about it as purely a post-design job for the marketing department. In fact, making a game viral is something that needs to be thought of at the very outset of game design—it incorporates aspects of game design, marketing and player community. If virality isn’t “designed in” to the game, it is unlikely that any type of marketing program can add it later.

For larger game studios, thinking about these issues is central to creating a strong and enduring brand; and for smaller studios, it presents the opportunity to create products that have a much better chance of rising above the noise level. This article will explore some of the techniques that game designers can use to incorporate viral-marketing into their products from day zero.

Design Games that Sell Themselves

One of the most viral games of all time is not a computer game, although computer adaptations have been made: Magic the Gathering. Video game designers can learn a great deal about what makes a game viral by observing what happens to turns someone into a MtG player.

If MtG is such a successful game design, why hasn’t the online version become just as popular? There’s no doubt that the online game edition is successful—but it hasn’t reached anywhere near the popularity of either the physical game, nor any of the major online game titles. The game designs are identical, so the reason can’t be that.

Furthermore, the online edition has the same collecting aspect. Although MtG would not have achieved much virality without a strong game design (or interesting-looking, collectible cards), there must be something missing from the online version that’s kept it from achieving the wildfire popularity of the offline version.

MtG’s success has been driven by a huge amount of free advertising. Visit a lunchroom at a college campus or a study hall—go to wherever the gamers hang out, and it isn’t unlikely that you’ll see people playing a game of Magic the Gathering. Peer over someone’s shoulder, and you might be intrigued by the complexity of gameplay, or the art on the cards. If you haven’t played before, you might ask how it works—and one of the players might pull out a deck for you to try.

Before long, you might decide to go purchase a starter deck for yourself. Next week, you’ll be looking for your own opponents, and you’ll probably ask your friends.

Most computer games are played in solitary, either on a console or your personal computer, without anyone else around. However, if computer games can be designed such that some aspects of gameplay are made visible to other players, it can translate into a huge amount of awareness.

Here are a few questions that designers can ask themselves:

  1. Can the game take advantage of mobile technology? One of the huge advantages of a mobile device is that other people are more likely to see someone playing a game on it—and some even have the ability to beam a game over to someone else’s system. In this sense, mobile devices gain all the advantages of the physical MtG model.

    Even if a game is not designed for a mobile device, it may still be possible to expose some of the game content. For example, CCP Games has been developing an “Eve Mobile” client for the Eve Online MMORPG—primarily intended as a way for players to chat and interact with the economic components of the game when they’re away from their computer. The brilliance of this idea is that it simultaneously gives a benefit to their existing players, while adding the “Hey, what is that?” effect of something like MtG.
  2. If the game can’t be designed to take advantage of the physical space afforded by something like a mobile device, can gameplay be exposed through virtual space? Games like Guild Wars have added a spectator aspect that allows players to view replays, and RTS games have had the ability for observers to watch a match in real-time for years—but they require the player to have already installed the game software.

    Meanwhile, Flash and Ajax technologies are evolving to the point that substantial rich media content can be exposed in real-time through the Web. In the future, some amount (perhaps most) advertising could be replaced with the ability to view real-time, streamed games in progress, enticing players to click a download button and jump into the action. The more that games can expose real “live” gameplay to potential players, the more likely players are to try a game out.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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