The New Era of Virality

A few weeks back I saw this post covering a lecture about the current trends in gaming by Tim Chang during GamesBeat 2011. Now, if you read a lot of VC blogs, please stop. VCs are very good about telling you what the trends are last year. You’re likely to crash your car doing too much rear-view mirror driving. In this case, during a bunch of stating the obvious, he claims we are in the “post-viral era.”

This may not be the case.

In social gaming 1.0, it was all about spam. Social game developers prided themselves on their secret knowledge of the so-called “viral expansion loop.” This black art really was no secret. Just spam Facebook newsfeeds with obnoxious ‘stories’ about lost cows and Mafia Wars riches. Whether you were selling herbal Viagra or virtual crops, the technique was the same–Shoot out millions of messages and hope that a fraction of a fraction of a percent follow through.

In the late 2000s, it seemed like the there was a fine line between social game companies and Nigerian 419 scams. Newsfeed spam from social games got so bad that Facebook shut down all the viral channels by early 2010. Except, of course, for Zynga–with whom they have a sweetheart deal. Anyway, when the spam APIs were squelched, Facebook app virality died. This was the end of Social Gaming 1.0.

In 2011, virality still lives. Turning your players into evangelists that go out and get others to play the game as a core mechanic is a tricky thing to achieve but it can be done. The best example of this is the wildly popular (among hipsters, at least) turntable.fm.

A pivot borne out of the social shopping startup, Stickybits, turntable.fm is a music sharing game where you earn points by performing as a virtual DJ. Create a playlist of tracks from turntable.fm’s immense library, or upload your own. Then, play these songs for head-nodding virtual spectators.

Is this legal? Who cares. They’ve amassed a decent chunk of users in a few short months. turntable.fm will figure that out later when the Cease-and-Desists start showing up.

The only way to earn points as a DJ is to have a lot of virtual club-goers watch your performance. Racking up tons of points requires driving lots of users to join your room and watch you spin. The more spectators you have, the more points you earn. If you read interviews with the game’s most fanatical players, you’ll see that turntable.fm has created a group of hardcore whales who put more effort into bringing in new players than your average user acquisition manager at a social gaming company.

For fanatical DJs that desire fame, glory, and enough credits to buy cool avatar gear, the drive to bring in new turntable.fm players is strong. Compared to many other social games, there is little friction to this process as players don’t have to actually play anything. Once invited, users merely have to log-in and consume free music.

The big mystery is how this game plans on monetizing its audience–but I’ve seen few social games with viral mechanics this persuasive. It’s unclear if a game you actually have to play to participate in can emulate the same model, however turntable.fm is an example all game developers should be looking closely at.

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