Designers have all sorts of goals for making games. Some have ideas they just can’t keep in. Some want something fun to do with their gamer friends. And some want to make a bunch of money (good luck with that).

One of my biggest game design goals is to create as much joy in the world as possible. That means the game has to create joy in the people who play it, but it also means that the more people that play the game, the better. This goal has made me wonder:

what’s the best way to spread your game?

Today I’m going to discuss one strategy, which is to make your game viral. Viral games have a bit of a negative connotation because of how aggressively some digital game developers have pushed their games on facebook and the like. But I’m using viral in a more broad sense here. By viral, I mean that when the game is played, it tends to perpetuate more plays in the future. I’m not trying to manipulate anyone or anything… I just want my game to help spread itself.


Before we get into what makes a game viral, though, I want to say that I’m not making any claims about these games being better than games that don’t tend to perpetuate themselves. There are great games that spread themselves, and there are great games that don’t. If you don’t care about making a viral game, that’s fine, and I think nothing less about your game because of that.

I also want to say that these aren’t hard and fast rules. Some games that have all of these characteristics won’t spread very far at all, while others without any of them will somehow become extremely popular.

With those out of the way, let’s look at some characteristics that can help make a game go viral!

Make it Fun

Let’s start with the most important characteristic: your game needs to be fun. This isn’t the place to learn how to make your game fun… there are a million other articles for that. Just don’t think that your game will become popular when people don’t want to play it in the first place.

Make is Accessible

The next important thing is to make the barrier of entry for your game low. If your game can only be enjoyed (or understood) by 20 year war gaming veterans, it’s not going to spread very far. But if anyone can figure out how to play (and more importantly, start having fun) in 5 minutes, your player pool is huge, and there’s a decent chance random people who see your game could be future players.

Create Presence

By this I mean get your game noticed. Great, striking art is important here, but as a designer, you should think bigger. In a game like Terror in Meeple City, players create elaborate structures out of cardboard and wood, then destroy them spectacularly over the course of the game. In Space Cadets, players frantically perform dexterity tasks while shouting instructions to each other. And I don’t need to tell you the attention Cards Against Humanity attracts.

What all of these games do well is make themselves visible to people outside of the game, creating interest beyond the immediate players. If your game’s main action happens inside the players’ heads, no one will notice, and potential players won’t get curious. Even if your game isn’t as extreme as those listed above, getting your players to talk and laugh can make a big difference.

Accommodate Wide Player Counts

Letting big groups play your game helps in two ways. First, it means random folks can be pulled into the game as it’s being set up, which might happen if your game creates presence. If your game requires players to be turned away, it’s hurting its own chances to spread.

Second, big groups will tend to be less tight. This is a tricky concept, but the basic idea is that close groups aren’t likely to spread games to other groups, since they always play with each other. If members of different social groups play together, they can each bring the game to their own respective groups later.

Keep it Quick

A quick game can be played multiple times is a row, which is great if it attracts attention and can support a lot of players. People who are curious from the excitement generated from the first game can immediately hop in the second, giving them the opportunity to join in the fun themselves. Quick games also tend to be more accessible.

Make it Language Neutral

American designers often put a lot of text in their games, probably because a lot of famous American games *cough*Magic*cough* are very text heavy. But if you can make your game language independent, you’re avoiding the artificial barriers created by requiring knowledge of a specific language to play the game. It lets bi-lingual people at cons learn the game in English, then teach it to their friends who speak Spanish, German, or whatever! It’s just one more way to make your game accessible.

Make it Meta

Creating a reason for people to talk about your game even when not playing is another great way to spread the game. Obviously, creating good stories and experiences is the simplest way to do this. But another strategy is to make the game too big for any one player to completely own. This is a strategy used by many huge games, like Warhammer. No one player can own all of the game, so to experience the whole thing, they get their friends to buy into a new part of the game. Trading is another great way to get people to spread the game even when not playing it.

Make it Novel

If your game is derivative, it will always be compared to what came before it, probably unfavorably. If you want people to tell their friends about your game, give them a reason to. Give them an experience unlike anything else, and they’ll want to share it with others.

Today I’ve covered a bunch of ways to make your game viral, some very general, some very specific. But I’m sure there are many, many other ways. What did I miss? Are there any games have are especially good at spreading themselves? What strategies do they use?

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Teale Fristoe is the game designer that runs Nothing Sacred Games. He has self published Corporate America, Shadow Throne, and Birds of a Feather, as well as several digital games. His passion for games knows no bounds. When not playing, designing, studying, or writing about games, Teale can usually be found wandering around forests and mountains.

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  1. [email protected] on May 5, 2015

    Thanks for the post, Mr. Fristoe! Great break down, sir. I’m curious, though, about your thoughts on Love Letter. Do you think its uniqueness and accessibility are what have allowed it to spread so thoroughly whole only supporting small groups?

    • Teale Fristoe Author on May 5, 2015

      I think you’re right on the mark about accessibility and uniqueness helping Love Letter spread so far and quickly. Even though it only supports 4 players, it’s fast, easy, pretty fun, and probably most importantly, packs a big punch for so few components. The novelty of an actually interesting game with only 16 cards took a lot of people by surprise. “Microgames” weren’t really a thing before Love Letter, and now they’re all the rage.

  2. [email protected] on May 6, 2015

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mr. Fristoe! Can’t wait for more posts 😉

    • Teale Fristoe Author on May 7, 2015

      I think your question applies to a number of other games that have spread like crazy, like Dominion.

      All that said, a game can be extremely successful without being viral itself. Marketing can play a huge role, as can brand recognition and theming. My goal with this article was not to solve the problem definitively, but to point out one part of the solution that the designer can actually control.

  3. Lewis Pulsipher on May 7, 2015

    Broad appeal certainly helps, but video games have shown that “going viral” cannot be planned for. Flappy Birds is a recent example. It was “out there” for months before it suddenly took off, and no one can really explain why a simple, primitive game became so dominant.

    You can’t plan to make a game viral any more than you can plan to make a game a great innovation, or plan to make a game great. Make good games and, if you’re lucky, it (any of those) might happen.

    You might want to read:

    • Teale Fristoe Author on May 7, 2015

      Lewis, I think you’re absolutely right–there are no hard and fast rules about this. You can’t ever plan or expect something to go viral. But I don’t think that means you have to completely leave it up to blind luck. Certain games are more likely to go viral than others, and I think it’s worth considering what qualities make that true.

      At the end of the day, though, I totally agree… make good games!

      • Lewis Pulsipher on May 7, 2015

        My point, in the end, is that if you want to aim at a broader market, do so, but that would be because you’re satisfied with making “that kind of game”, not because you want virality. You mention Dominion. Dominion has not reached virality by any means, it’s just been a very successful and widely-imitated game. That’s not virality, it’s popularity (deserved or not). Virality is very rapid, and often inexplicable that one game achieves it while others don’t.

        • Teale Fristoe Author on May 7, 2015

          Why does a viral game have to spread rapidly? I use the term to simply mean that the game spreads itself by virtue of being played. To me, saying that it’s hopeless to understand why one game is successful in this regard and another isn’t is a defeatist attitude that might protect one’s ego but won’t do much else positive.

          I’ll again mention that I’m making no claims that viral games are better or worse than other games. I think there can be both good and bad games that go viral, and good and bad games that don’t. What I do claim is that it’s valuable to think about how certain features of games (player count, game length, accessibility) affect when and how much they are played.

  4. Lewis Pulsipher on May 7, 2015

    Teale, try “define viral” on Google: “relating to or involving an image, video, piece of information, etc., that is circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another.”

    In the Internet community at large, and certainly as used in the video game community – which is immensely larger than tabletop, mind you – there’s also the expectation that virality is inexplicable, again for example with Flappy Birds (and Angry Birds for that matter).

    You’re using viral as a synonym for popular. It simply isn’t. And if it was, no one would use “viral”, they’d use “popular”.

    • Luke Laurie on May 7, 2015

      So is herpes popular? The flu? Ebola? The term “viral” preceded any internet usage and not just in medicine. While commonly associated with rapid expansion and acceptance, a concept can likewise slowly ascend to achieving the critical mass necessary to become a viral sensation. The term is of course arbitrary with no hard line between “viral” and “not viral”. Is it a plate or a bowl? Is it a powl a blate? A game or concept of any kind can be viral. The term “Meme” is widely regarded as originating on the internet, but it was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” Cultural anthropologists and sociologists have been describing wide adoption of cultural memes for decades using terms like “viral expansion” or “spreading virally” for concepts that may have taken 100’s of years to disseminate across wide geographic regions. I accept Teale’s usage of the term as completely acceptable.

    • Teale Fristoe Author on May 7, 2015

      Lewis, I’m sorry this has gotten a little more heated than I intended. I may be using “viral” in a somewhat unusual way, but I hope that doesn’t become an impediment to using the content of the article to learn from. I tried to make it clear how I was using the term at the beginning of the the article (“By viral, I mean that when the game is played, it tends to perpetuate more plays in the future.”), but maybe I didn’t do a good enough job.

      In any case, I’d just like to say something more broadly about my articles. I have a lot of experience–I’ve been making games for most of my life, and doing it professionally for more than three years now. But that doesn’t mean I have all the answers, and I don’t claim to. Some things I say may be wrong, and some things may not be applicable to every reader. But I write about topics that I find interesting and think about a lot, and think others might find useful. My aim isn’t to tell people exactly how to make games, it’s to get them thinking about different aspects of games in new ways. I hope this discussion has encouraged you to think about what makes a game spread from play group to play group, because I really don’t think it’s magical or pure chance.

  5. Pingback: Game Design Viral | Xavier LardyXavier Lardy 19 Feb, 2017

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