When people talk about virality, what they generally mean is whether a game spreads by word of mouth or not. However in recent years virality has taken on two different and often contradictory meanings.
True or False?
The first kind of virality is evangelism, or true virality. This is when a player is so excited by a game that he wants to talk about it. For example, this week my Twitter feed is full of mostly positive stories from players playing Skyrim. They are loving it, and the tweets serve as a better review of the game than many official organs manage.
The second kind is obligation, or false virality. It is the process of tying gameplay to social publishing such as through requests, score publishing or pimping the game on Twitter for a reward. False virality creates a transaction with a player, giving them something in exchange for allowing the game to essentially place an advertisement for itself in their social feed.
Obligation works in platforms where players are not used to seeing these kinds of messages (for example in the early days of Facebook). However most people quickly realise what they are and ignore them, much as they do advertising of any kind. Evangelism has a much longer shelf life, but is harder to replicate or account for in a business model because it’s relying on qualities, like the game actually being remarkable, which are hard to turn into a process.
Can I Use Both?
The problem is that games that rely on evangelism are crafting a careful relationship with their fans, and that relationship carries out into the world. Respect is key here because fans don’t like to feel duped or sold out, and an instant way to lose respect is by engaging in obligatory tactics. Players love to follow Notch, but Minecraft doesn’t force them to post levels that they have created.
Conversely, if your game is based around obligation then it’s pretty difficult to get fans to like you. Any audience of sufficient size will eventually breed small communities (even Mafia Wars has its tribes) but the main body of players will always think of your game as an amusement that hassles them from time to time. There is no respect, and instead the player is usually looking for an angle to get around the obligation.
From a business standpoint, either is a valid model. The question is: Which do you want to be?
(Today’s image is based on a HIV virus by Dominic Alves.)