What Are Viral Games?
Viral Game Definition
Viral games are essentially a subset of advergames, that are distributed for a viral marketing effect in the hope that they will "go viral". They are generally developed using Adobe Flash technology for use on the web. This allows the game to be packaged into a single SWF file. The finished game can then be distributed (often called "viral seeding") for inclusion on various Flash gaming portals in order to take the game to game players. The final packaged game could also be made freely downloadable to encourage other websites to post the game for further exposure. Links to the brand website within the game could also drive significant amounts of traffic back to the site.
With the decline of the Flash web player (which is currently being phased out) branded games are now rarely packaged and distributed in this way. Instead most brands are using a more modern content marketing approach to promote their game and drive traffic.
Viral games became a fairly niche engagement tool used by businesses at the height of the Flash web based multimedia plugin (from around 2005-2010), when advergames were still in their infancy. They were predominantly created by website design agencies.
Flash games were popular and viral games tapped into this large online casual gaming audience in order to deliver a marketing message.
In recent years the casual gaming landscape has changed massively, mostly due to smartphones like the iPhone taking over for these types of video games. The decline of Flash was largely initiated by Apple in 2011, when they publicly refused to allow the web based plug-in on their iOS devices, meaning Flash was never an option for a web based mobile game. Despite the fact many of the reasons Apple cited could be refuted and the fact there was a clear commercial benefit to the decision, the media ran with the story. The backlash started and consequently this was the beginning of the end for viral games.
Web based advergame development has now moved over to HTML5, which is compatible with mobile devices and doesn't require third party browser plugins. Web based advergames are still extensively used, but no longer commonly distributed in the same way.
Viral games were almost always developed using Adobe Flash authoring tools and targeted the web based Flash player. They were generally produced and distributed on behalf of clients by digital agencies or specialist developers.
They were relatively inexpensive to produce and because using video games for marketing purposes was very much in it's infancy, the quality varied immensely.
As well as hosting on the brand's website, traffic was driven to the game by distributing the game file for hosting on third party Flash gaming websites. This could be done through free submissions, or paid placements (with guaranteed impression numbers), or a combination of both. Paid placements allowed a degree of targeting by choosing websites that matched the demographics of a campaign's target audience.
This process (commonly called "viral seeding") took the approach of taking the content to the traffic rather than trying to drive traffic to the content.
It was also common to make the game file freely available for download and hosting on additional third party websites for extra exposure.