Chasing Virality: What Makes a Game?

What makes a game go viral? This is a question that has nagged me since the birth of the smartphone
as a gaming platform. Since the
beginning of the App Store’s ascension to power, the games that have become
successful in the mobile phone arena seem to be those that go
100 percent, full-on-infection viral. Think of a few examples: 2048, Flappy Bird, Candy
Crush Saga, Puzzle and Dragons to a lesser extent. These games have essentially
two things in common: They’re incredibly simple in design, and they went
viral. Why?

The short answer is: No one knows. What’s more, the answer may be unknowable. This realization, which I arrived at
while wandering the vaunted halls of the Game Developer’s Conference in San
Francisco over spring break, is both fascinating and unsettling.  

As I mentioned, most of the viral games in the App Store (and many more that have not
gone viral) share a common thread: simple design. When I say simple, I mean very simple—Atari 2600 levels of simple. 

I doubt that many readers remember the
pixelated, beeping, booping monstrosity that was the Atari Video Computer
System, but I’ll say this about it: In a time when graphics were
simple and much was left to the imagination, games on the Atari distilled the
essence of “interactive entertainment” down to its most basic, enjoyable
aspects. Games on the 2600 usually had
one mechanic—jump, move left or right, go up or down, turn—one thread that tied
the experience together, and a set of rules that innovated around this simple
mechanic. Most of the time, the
objective was purely score-based: jump higher for more points, shoot more
asteroids for more points, complete more laps on the racetrack for more points,
and so on. 

If any of this is sounding familiar, good. The common thread is that most viral games have the same sort of distilled
essence of design. The mechanics are
very similar: line up three candies to score, tap the screen to keep the birdie
from falling and score, and the list keeps going. Visuals have obviously improved since the days when “red dot” was
synonymous with “bird,” “man,” and “enemy,” sometimes all in the same game, but
soup it up all you like and you still have the basic Atari 2600 archetype games
underpinning almost all of the viral phone hits in recent memory.

The interesting thing to examine, keeping in mind the simplistic design of most viral phone hits, is not how many titles have gone
viral, but how many simply haven’t. The thing about Atari 2600 games is that they
are extremely generic, almost universal ideas, that can be knocked together in
half an hour by anyone who knows their way around Objective C or Java. 

Thus, for every Doodle Jump and Flappy Bird,
there are literally thousands of more or less exact clones of those
same games that did not go
viral. One can try to analyze why one variant of the same game went viral
when others did not, but what it comes down to is this: The gaming public has
expressed intermittent, but fervent interest in very simple titles, seemingly
picking one from the pile at random to place on a pedestal from time to
time.  

This fickle behavior on the part of
the public has led to a veritable glut of Atari 2600-like game clones on most
mobile app stores, and the logic behind the move has an almost game-theoretic basis: Since the cost is relatively low to make simple games, and
the gains so potentially high, it stands to reason that everyone capable of
making a simple game should make that simple game in order to enter the viral
gaming lottery.

That’s all very well and good, but there’s one
problem I think that we, as a gaming public, miss when we choose to play Viral
Atari Clone X
: We evolved out of the world of Atari for a reason. Atari
games existed in their distilled, simple forms not because designers were keen
to make those specific experiences, but because the hardware didn’t allow for
the creation of anything more complex. So when designers choose to make an
Atari clone for iPhone, I will always personally see it as a cash-in or a
cop-out, a sacrifice of the medium’s artistic potential for what essentially
amounts to a spin of the roulette wheel.  

It’s not just small independent developers who are
gambling thus, either. Major design studios are flooding mainstream consoles
with similarly simple-minded games. The visuals are usually even better than
their independently developed counterparts, but the fact remains that probably
less than one in 10 games in today’s market were developed according to an
artistic vision.   

Ultimately, gaming’s gambling problem makes the
general player suffer, as they have too many options, not enough incentive to
choose one over the other, and no guarantee that the games they do choose
will have any other purpose besides simple rote, scripted entertainment. For
some, this is likely enough, but, like all gambling problems, the lucky streak
will end sooner or later. 

Tim Taylor PO ’14 studies computer science. He owns
every commercially popular video game system manufactured since the
Atari 2600.

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