One More: Integrating Design, Virality, and Monetization
In a gracious reference to one of my posts, Aki Jarvinen makes a great point about viral design: it can’t be tacked on at the end of creating the gameplay. Like monetization (my point earlier), virality has to be integrated in, or else what you end up with is a Frankenstein’s monster kind of game, where the discrete parts do not play well together.
Twenty years ago I was giving seminars to software developers on “user-centered design,” and one of the quips was that ‘trying to put on a product’s usability (then a new concept) at the end was like putting lipstick on a cow.’ That’s pretty much what I see happening now with virality and monetization in social games. The result? Monstrosities like “offer walls” (who thought that was actually a good idea?) and what Michael Arrington calls “Evil dials” (well, sliders) in which a developer is cornered into choosing to make money or not offend his customers.
And let’s not forget how these games have moved from virality-via-scamming (mailing your friends, posting to your news feed, etc., whether you like it or not) to virality-via-annoyance (please come help me build my barn, etc.). Not exactly a great advancement in distributed marketing.
These kinds of practices have been defended because a) they’re all we have, and b) they’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. So they must be okay, right? No, I don’t think so.
I’ve already posted at length about the ethics of various methods of virality and monetization. For now, I just want to highlight the critical point that Aki was making, a point that is a great companion to my earlier one: design, virality, and monetization must be integrated from the beginning. If one is scammy or tainted, in effect – from the all-important customer’s view – they all are.
The reason these motley configurations of features haven’t failed so far is only because the market is still so new. But things are moving very fast. If one game presents lousy offers that you really don’t want and goads you into bringing in your friends as if you’re bringing them to a multi-level-marketing presentation, while another manages to provide enough value that you not only pay happily but eagerly tell your friends about it too, which one do you think will do better in the market?
The rules of customer engagement and brand management don’t change in social games. The key to long-term success in social gaming isn’t scamming your customers. It isn’t breaking their experience until they pay you to get out of the way. It certainly isn’t in annoying them or their friends with plaintive cries to help them out. On the other hand, helping your customers feel engaged, giving them something they want to pass on to their friends (and that their friends are happy to receive), and providing so much more entertainment value than they expected that they are happy to pay you – that is a sure-fire recipe for explosive, long-term success. Not to mention being able to sleep at night.