If bolting wings onto a car wont make it fly don’t expect that tacking a Facebook Connect button into a game will make it viral

Matthew Warneford
22
January
2011

Having spent 10 of the last 20 days shivering, shaking, and wrapped up in bed with only Mr and Mrs Flu for company (the Chocolate Orange twins checked in occasionally) I’ve had a lot of time to think how viruses propagate.

Although I’m no Sherlock Holmes, or medical professional for that matter, it’s safe to assume my relationship with flu began in the back of a dimly lit karaoke bar the day before Christmas Eve.

At Dubit, karaoke is not something we take lightly. Not sure which pub to go to for lunch? Sing off. Air conditioning at 70 or 74? Sing off. Last Rolo? Sing off. Karaoke is a central pillar of our dispute resolution process – it’s in the employee handbook.

After months of practice and hours of painstaking choreography, the Dubit Christmas party is the highlight of our karaoke year. Only this year, the event was soured by an unwanted visitor. By Christmas day 10 of the 30 singers reported retiring to bed with aching bones and a raging fever – flu. If that were a virtual world or social game we’d call that a viral ratio of 0.3 and be pretty pleased with ourselves!

As I watched the Dubit flu pandemic unfold on Facebook I started to think about how our own social games can emulate that rapid viral growth – but without the nausea and unpleasantness.

Viral Growth

Like bolting wings onto a car wont make it fly, adding an ‘invite your friend form’ into a game doesn’t automatically make it viral! Flight and virality are two concepts that really ought to be designed in from the start. So where do we start?

I like to create processes and I like to follow steps (yes, I’m that guy) so I’ve created a four point viral framework. But because processes can be abstract I’ve tried to give some practical viral game mechanics from our ‘Playbook’.

4 Point Viral Growth Framework

These four points create a viral loop: the steps a user goes through between entering the site right through to inviting the next set of new users. Because this loop is repeated for every user who comes to the game even small improvements make a big difference.

1) Invitation as a core process: Invitation should be essential, we want to maximize the opportunities and incentives that players have to invite their friends.

2) Pull people back in: Don’t let the players forget you after the initial invitation, and make this “reminder” process central to the game design.

3) Useful to the lone user: The lone user is the source of all other users. In other words, a new player who does not know anyone should still have fun in the game, otherwise they wont invite their friends. We only invite people into a game that’s fun!

4) Remove artificial invitation limits: Most invitations come from a few very active users, and those users help to spread the word. In our social game business plans we might model viral growth as every user inviting ’0.5′ other users, in practice most users invite no-one, while a small group invite a lot! We must make it simple for those hyper-connected users to invite as many people as they want.

Game Mechanics

Over the years we’ve documented and categorised game mechanics we’ve used, seen others use, or others have shared. In no particular order, I’ve selected 6 of my favourite viral mechanics from our ‘Playbook’.

Reward Users for Inviting Friends
Encourage sharing by offering players rewards – points, experience, avatar clothes, and so on – if they invite their Friends to play. Simple and effective.

Reward Users for Helping Friends
Players can be rewarded for helping friends, such as harvesting crops in Farmville, or helping to keep a friend’s engine running in our own Monty Python Ministry of Silly Games. Offering easy rewards for helping friends incentivises players to invite their friends into the game – they want someone they can help!

In addition, giving players reasons to visit their friends can create a little friendly competition – when I visit a friend’s farm I can see how far my friend has progressed. Friendly competition is one of the five steps to converting players into payers

Collaborative Discovery
Upon entering the game players are given random items as part of a larger collection, for example, a game might have 5 different gem collections, each collection has 4 four gems. If a player already has the gem they can gift it to a friend. The more friends a player has the more likely they’ll complete the collections and be rewarded.

Gifting
The reciprocity effect – people tend to return a favour. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

Now we’re not about to give our players thousands of dollars like Ethiopia gave Mexico – I’m pretty sure that’s an ineffective player acquisition strategy… But, if we let our players send gifts to their friends the reciprocation effect suggests the recipient of the gift will be more inclined to return the favour. This is why we see games like Farmville ask players to send free gifts to their friends who are not playing the game.

Narrative (Epic Gaming)
If a User is made to feel like they are special and they alone are responsible for the completion of an epic storyline or plot, they will be more likely to invite their friends to join them in their epic journey.

Reinforcement
We all want to play games we’re going to be good at – that’s why I keep talking about False Achievement And when we do well we want to tell our friends – whenever a player is rewarded, levelling up, acquiring an item, etc, he should be prompted to tell his friends.

Viral growth can make the difference between a profitable and an unprofitable social game so make sure to design viral growth in from the start! And think twice before Karaoke – can you afford to be ill for two weeks?

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