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Five Prescriptions for Viral Games

"Virality is no longer a catchword for the marketing department," says veteran developer Jon Radoff. "It must be incorporated into a game while the rules are being designed." Find out what he means in this exclusive Gamasutra editorial.

Jon Radoff, Blogger

March 20, 2007

16 Min Read

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.

Design Games with Fan Sites in Mind

The better you support fans, the easier it is for a product to sell itself. One fan site can lead to substantial word-of-mouth. However, supporting fans is no longer a discussion only for the marketing department: forward-looking game designers are now investigating how fans can be supported with the underlying game design and implementation. Supporting fan sites means more than giving them marketing materials and a news-feed. Games need to be designed to expose more of their content and data so that there's a reason for people to return to fan sites more often.

Above, we discussed how a spectator-aspect could be added to games to make them more viral; distributing such content through fan sites would be natural. In addition, it isn’t hard to other information available that would be of great interest to fan sites. If a game features any ranking information (player-versus-player oriented games, RTS, FPS, and so forth) or character information (roleplaying games, massive or otherwise), any of this can be shared through the Web.

To really take advantage of this, don’t simply publish ranking and character information to a website: expose it using XML interfaces, and then provide some example code (using something popular and simple like php is best) that shows them how to manipulate the data. This will help you foster a community of fan sites who not only present useful information—but also provide value-add in terms of their own ways of sorting and querying the data.

World of Warcraft's data-driven Armory

Let them surprise you with the type of applications they build around the game-data, and you’ll be rewarded with an active community that not only supports the game but also creates a huge amount of free publicity. Making this type of data available is what has helped Blizzard and Sony Online Entertainment foster very active player-run communities.

Avoid thinking of fan sites as an exclusive mouthpiece of only one product. A number of companies attempt to lock-in fan sites, prohibiting them from mentioning other game products or companies. This simply creates a walled garden that’s only of interest to the people who are already playing (or anticipating) your game.

The real benefit of a fan site is to bring awareness of a game product to someone who may have stumbled upon it while looking for information about another game or the genre. By exposing in-game content, gameplay or data you have an opportunity to let players know what’s fun about a game. The most helpful fan sites are those that already have an active community of alternative products.

It is best to think about your XML interfaces when you first design your databases. That way, you can avoid some time-consuming surprises later: some things that are easy to do with a relational database can require complex uses of XPath or XML/DOM later. Furthermore, the type of queries that a fan site might wish to do on the data may be different from the types of queries that you’ll do in-game—and these queries can alter how you’d approach both your indexing strategy as well as the data description. If you’d like to take advantage of the free publicity that exposing game-data through XML can provide, you’ll want to work these concerns into the earliest stages of the database architecture.

Support Guilds and Clans

When you sell a game to one guild or clan leader, you are potentially selling to dozens more. This has implications for any multiplayer title, be it an MMORPG or an FPS game. The better you support player-created organizations, the higher your product sales.

Online roleplaying games discovered this first, and implemented features for giving guilds a mechanism for organizing their members and setting up private communication channels. RTS and FPS games have also added support for tagging under a clan, or organizing tournaments or servers around clan membership.

Guild and clan leaders are a rare breed of person. Nick Yee’s research1 has shown that only about 15% of game players ever try it, and most players describe the experience as very stressful. However, guild leaders are your most influential allies in promoting a game product. Make sure that any guild features you add to a game actually creates additional enjoyment and decreases work for these people.

Simply adding features that allow guilds to organize is no longer enough. In an MMORPG, it is really nothing more than a dedicated chat channel; for RTS and FPS games, usually only a way to label someone’s affiliation and give them preferential access to certain servers. If you really want a guild or clan to help promote your product to their members, you need to go a step further, decreasing the barrier to entry for their members.

Some guilds are large enough that they have their own dedicated websites. Unlike fan sites, they are more focused on coordinating activities, events or socializing with the people they know. You can embrace this community of players by providing similar XML-data interfaces that were discussed regarding fan sites. However, guilds are more interested in things that are very specific to them: they want to promote what their members have achieved, what victories their teams have had. The applications also need to be more plug-and-play, since the average guild leader will usually have less time and technical resources than the typical fan site developer.

Over the next few years, there will be a blurring of the continuum between the in-game and out-of-game components of guild/clan management. Applications that help coordinate rosters, events and communication will exist on the Web as well as within games.


Sony Online Entertainment has already started doing some of this, by providing Web-based interfaces in EverQuest 2 and Vanguard to many of the guild-information resources. The next step will be to make these features easy to add to the universe of guild websites. My own company, GuildCafe Entertainment, is developing a set of tools that game companies can use to bridge this gap, by providing standardized mechanisms for integrating guild management with external guild websites.

From a marketing standpoint, the advantage to a game company is colossal: guild members will learn more about what their friends are up to, and are more likely to try a game out.

Support Player-Created Content

Player-created content covers a wide swath, from the modding communities that surround FPS games, to interface mods for MMORPGs, to in-game content such as player created cities in games like Star Wars Galaxies. While the number of players that will invest the time in creating content or mods for a game is quite small, the advantage to the game developer is huge: these are the players who will act as evangelists for the game, not only enhancing the experience for other players but also spreading the word to potential customers.

Counter-Strike, the most widely played FPS game as of this writing, began its life as a popular mod. Some of the interface mods for World of Warcraft have spawned their own communities. Some of the player-made dungeons for Neverwinter Nights are as popular as some of the commercial expansions. By providing a means of enhancing the game, the developers of these titles have made a fantastic investment, going beyond simply creating a game to creating a platform that others can build upon. These third party developers become new channels for communicating the greatness of a game.

Almost any game can provide a meaningful set of modding interfaces, but like most of the features that will enhance viral marketing, it is best to plan for these things at the architecture phase. Because each game is different, it is important to think about the type of mods and changes that your players will find most compelling. Examples can include:

  1. Skinnable user-interfaces. Products like StarDock’s SkinStudio or KSDev’s SkinEngine can be used to add skinnability to a standard Windows program, which can be appropriate to many game titles, particularly casual games.

  2. Modifiable rule sets. If you define the rule set for a game with standard and popular scripting languages, you can enable players to create their own content for a game without learning to use a proprietary set of tools. A good example of this is how Civilization 4 used a combination of XML configuration files and Python scripts to define much of the rules for the game.

  3. Modifiable user interfaces: World of Warcraft uses a combination of XML and LUA scripting for its user-interface, which has enabled hundreds (possibly thousands) of player-made modifications. Everquest 2 and Vanguard have followed suit with a powerful modding interfaces of their own. Civ4’s entire user interface is defined through Python scripts.

  4. Level and scenario design. When you enable players to create their own scenarios and game-art, you can foster a very active and loyal community. It doesn’t mean you need to provide a complete set of development tools akin to Neverwinter Nights—just make things comprehensible enough so that a dedicated player/developer could figure out how to do things on their own.

  5. In-game content: everything discussed previously are things that players can create outside of the game. When you allow players to make a lasting impression on the content within a game—generally, only possible within a persistent MMO environment—you’ll encourage players to show their friends what they’ve created. Whether it is a player city, a crafted item, their own house, or something unique to your game, the player who has left something of themselves in a world has a strong incentive to share their creations with others.

The idea of player-created content is to cultivate a community of the most loyal players—the type of players who will go out of their way to show a game to their friends and associates. When designing a game, think about the ways that you can enable a player to become a contributor.

Avoid Level Segregation

Once someone is actively involved in a game, they need to be able to interact with their friends and teammates. The problem is that these friends may have totally different skill levels, which can lead to segregation. If you fail to consider this game design issue, players might try a game but become quickly disillusioned when they learn that they won’t be spending much time with their friends.

Many first-person shooter games have done a good job at addressing this, offering a range of tactical choices to players of varying skill. For example, a relatively new player to the Battlefield series of games can score some kills by learning to use one of the stationery cannons, while the most advanced players often gravitate towards the flying vehicles. Nevertheless, each type of player can make a positive contribution to their team, allowing them to play together.

MMORPG games have had varying success with solving this problem. Most MMORPGs are built around “levels” which provide players with the ability to take on harder challenges as they learn new skills and abilities. However, this design can lead to a segregation of players, with some either left behind or isolated from their friends.

A few MMOs have found solutions to this problem. For example, Everquest 2 has a feature called “mentoring” that allows higher level characters to reduce their effective level, enabling them to join in on adventures with their lower-level friends. Other games are built around rapid progression, with a skill-based system that allows new players to join in with veterans: Guild Wars is an example of a system where new players can unlock useful skills within a short period of time, allowing them to adopt competitive skill-templates within hours of playtime.

Guild Wars

The challenge for the designer of any multiplayer game is to remember that viral marketing depends on the social bonds between friends, and therefore it is important to provide opportunities for friends to work together within a game whether a player is new or experienced. The level-based system that exists in many MMORPGs tends to segregate players rather than unite them.

The very concept of levels in video games is the legacy of Dungeons and Dragons, which was geared towards a static group of friends who played at the same times—rather than a dynamic world, in which players progress at different rates. Offer players meaningful objectives that allow them to play together regardless of their relative time investments, and they’ll be more likely to invite even more of their friends to play with them.


Virality is no longer a catchword for the marketing department. It must be incorporated into a game while the rules are being designed and the technical architecture is being established. It is about making games that players feel invested in, that they want to share with friends—games they’ll go out of their way to show to others. When designing a game, developers should begin asking themselves not only “how will this make the game more fun?” but also “how will this encourage players to share the game with others?” Players will become your most active sales resource, if only you empower them.


1Nick Yee, “Life as a Guild Leader,” http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001516.php?page=1


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About the Author(s)

Jon Radoff


Jon Radoff created his first game in 1987: the classic multiplayer strategy game Space Empire Elite, first played on Atari ST dialup bulletin board systems, and later ported to PCs, Amiga, Unix and VAX computers. During the 1990’s, he published one of the Internet’s first commercial online games, Legends of Future Past, which won the “Artistic Excellence” award in Computer Gaming World’s Game of the Year competition.

Jon had a stint in the enterprise software business, founding Eprise, a Web content management company that he took public on NASDAQ in 2001. In 2006, he formed GuildCafe Entertainment Inc., a company that plans to reshape the way online game companies think about their marketing and infrastructure.

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