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When most game developers hear the term “virality,” they tend to think of the type of viral marketing that involves rewarding players for sending out invitations or sharing their “wins” on social networks. And though this type of virality allowed some games to get really big, really fast on platforms like Facebook and iOS, it doesn’t provide much value to the end user and is generally considered such a poor user experience that both platforms have taken strong measures to keep it in check.

That type of virality is also a complete waste of time for developers in today’s environment. It creates a squeezed user acquisition funnel through which only a small proportion of people actually see the invitations and a much smaller percentage actually take action on them.

And yet, virality is not dead. While this type of forced virality may now be so limited that it is largely ineffective, it is still possible to build games that spread “virally” the old-fashioned way: through word-of-mouth marketing.

More than 250 million people have played our games, and my company, Nekki, has hardly spent a dime on any paid user acquisition. Although we have gotten some traffic from sources like PR, cross-promotion, features, and even the incentivized virality mentioned earlier, the bulk of our players have discovered our games because one of their friends told them about it.

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The first rule of viral marketing should be obvious: build something great. But beyond that, there are specific steps you can to take.

1. Start with a specific audience in mind

The same way that Facebook became such a hit by starting at a single university before going global, your marketing efforts and even your early design efforts should focus on one very specific audience. Students are an especially ideal target because they spend so much time together in tightly-knit clusters where they have frequent interactions. If you can get your game to “blow up” within one specific audience group, it might start a chain reaction that detonates many adjacent groups. At Nekki, we started by focusing on midcore male gamers, but the tactic works just as well for female casual gamers—just look at King’s Candy Crush Saga franchise.

2. Find a niche, or create your own

A game can only become a word-of-mouth hit by finding a niche to call its own. Many developers start by identifying a niche that’s already successful and trying to put their own spin on it by making their game either more accessible or more interesting than existing analogues in the hopes of redefining the niche. Failing that, many developers choose to create their own niche. That was our strategy when building our very first project, a soccer manager called Golden Boots. It became a hit among soccer fans in Russia because there was nothing like it at the time and it addressed a very specific need within the market.

3. Build for mass appeal

Even while designing with a specific niche and audience in mind, it is equally important to also build your game for mass appeal. The lesson that we ultimately learned with Golden Boots was that you have to go after a major market with plenty of potential players. That typically means designing the game so that anyone can pick it up easily. While Golden Boots appealed to a core audience that didn’t mind the commitment it required to build a team, we later built a more midcore soccer manager called 11×11 that made it easier to start playing matches immediately. Because the game was easier to learn and play, its user base quickly grew to more than a thousand times that of its predecessor.

4. Incorporate at least one feature worth talking about

A lot of times, the secret to viral success lies in just one feature of a game that makes people take notice. Ideally, this feature isn’t something that can be easily replicated by competitors. It should be something that your studio alone is really great at. For instance, part of the reason that Imangi Studio’s Temple Run became such a viral success was that it used 3D technology so much better than any of the endless runners that had come before. In Nekki’s case, the action that unfolded in Shadow Fight 2 and Vector were built using our proprietary design engine, Cascadeur, and the animations were so incredibly unique and lifelike that it made people want to share it with their friends.

5. Put your soul into it

We’ve alluded to the fact that in order for a game to get word-of-mouth marketing, it must be unique, innovative, accessible and easy to learn, among other attributes. But if there is a single characteristic that is most important to word-of-mouth marketing, it is that the developer must pour their hearts and souls into the game. Its design and development must truly be an act of love. Because when a game is built by people who love the genre and are 100% committed to building a great game within it, that love shines through. If you’re making a game about car racing, make sure there are people on your team that love auto sports. If it’s about soccer, it should be built by soccer fans. So either follow your passions and build games that you would love to play yourself, or hire people who feel strongly about the niche that you’re going after.

Dmitry Terekhin is the founder and CEO of Nekki, a developer and publisher of high-quality, free-to-play action games that unleash emotion in more than 250 million players worldwide

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