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Virality-supported design

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I spent a lot of time at my last job thinking about virality.  What makes virality important?  Virality is the key to social networks, and social networks are a huge new opportunity to make money off of games.

The first thing to establish is that there are two ways to look at the topic:

  • Virality-led design
  • Virality-supported design

Currently, what we are seeing is virality-led design flooding the market.  The games that blow up big are the games that put their virality forward and force it down the user’s throat.  Playing these games feels a lot like sending out chain-letters; you feel guilty for doing it, but yet you find it hard to resist.  It’s a testament to the design, that people put up with these games at all, and there are some great lessons to be learned.

Lessons learned from virality-led design:

  • Link increased opportunities for user success to a larger ‘friend’ network
  • Regularly direct users to opportunities to invite friends

These are both things you should do, when designing a viral game.  The thing is, these two bullet points don’t say how to do these things, and, as they say, the devil is in the details.

All too often the virality-led designer (who is probably not a game designer at all) makes no effort to address the user’s feelings.  The user is perceived as some kind of automaton and if the game can dangle a juicy-enough reward in front of him and force his attention to it often enough, the thought is he will bite for it, even if he doesn’t want to. 
In my experience, focus group interviews have shown that many social network gamers have found a way around this: when prompted to invite a contact, they pick their most ‘fringe’ contacts –the people they hardly know and hardly care about.  If this is the case, we’re not exactly building a solid community of tightly-connected gamers, are we?
As you might expect, the drop-off rate of social network gamers is horrible.

The whole point is to create a network of people you like playing games with, so that the network itself will become a draw towards repeat play.  When I see the ‘games’ that currently dominate the social network sites, it makes my head hurt.  The fact is, these games are not fun; they’re a telemarketer’s phone hooked up to a sugar-cube dispenser and once the user realizes this, he’s not coming back.

Virality-supported design
Ok so what should viral games look like?  Foremost, they should look like any other games because, really, they should be games.  Playing a game is a reward in and of itself –we shouldn't need to give the user cheap cheats and advantages in order encourage repeat play (hey, come back to the game and I'll give you free in-game currency; invite a friend and I'll give you a better item that would ordinarily take a week to earn). 
The players should also feel like they are playing with their real friends and not just coexisting in the same world (real interaction!).  Too many of these games are just tools to show off individual accomplishments –look, I created my own little virtual-pet buddy! Good for you; I might be compelled to make one of my own, but four weeks from now, neither of us is going to care anymore.  It may be difficult to get any two people logged in on a social network at the same moment, but that’s no excuse for lazy design, its just more incentive to make the games that much better!

So how can virality support gameplay:

  • Competition
  • Cooperation

Competition
Challenge your friends - If the user is only playing with people he knows and enjoys, there is a better chance he will enjoy the experience and invite more *real* friends to play.  The problem with focusing on friends is that, odds are, you and your friends won't be logged on simultaneously. The solution doesn’t need to be asynchronous gameplay, but if it isn’t, you’d better have a plan for how to get two friends logged on to the same social network at the same time. A lot more can be done with asynchronous gameplay than what we are seeing now. The other option is enabling users to make new friends -facilitate socialization and let regulars flag each other for later dates (guilds, buddy lists, etc).

Compare scores - Games that target specific user interests and then let users compare scores with friends drive virality through competition. If you like trivia, you might play an app that offers you a new set of trivia every day.  If you can choose the trivia topics and compare scores with your friends, the game suddenly becomes much more personal and much more likely to get shared with close friends.

Cooperation
Imagine a crossword.  Imagine doing that crossword alone, now imagine doing it with a friend.  In which case are you more likely to finish?  In which case are you more likely to have fun?  An app that allows you to fill out a crossword puzzle with a friend is a perfect example of 'virality-supported': the game is more fun with a friend, so the user wants to invite a friend.  More features can be layered upon this core to broaden the community and build a sense of progress, but the game experience itself needs to be simple and fun.

Deeper cooperation
Eventually, someone in the social networking space is going to notice world of warcraft.  Ok, so everyone in the social networking space has probably noticed warcraft.  Maybe it would be better to say: Eventually someone in the social networking space, who understands what makes warcraft compelling, will adopt that model.
World of warcraft is all about teamwork and the thing is, teamwork is fun.  Most people playing warcraft are willing to team up with people they don’t even know, just for the experience of teamwork.  Add in a never-ending ladder of stat-padding progress, and you’ve got a simulation so engrossing that it replaces real-life aspirations.  A casual game where players can team up with a few friends for a few minutes to tackle a complex challenge? Shit, people would actually set their schedules around that.

I don’t have all the answers to viral gaming –not even close- and I don’t believe social networks have yet settled into a stable form, but in many ways, this is the future of gaming.  Games are a form of interaction and social networks are the newest place to interact, so if we play nice, we can grow together.