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Cartoon Networks lessons learned on virtual worlds for kids August 7, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, kids, mmorpg, virtual worlds.
2 comments

Via Izzy Neis, Virtual Worlds News posts a Q&A on Mini Match, Cartoon Network’s new virtual world. Some interesting lessons about how to design virtual worlds/MMOGs for kids:

Make it easy to get to the fun

To start with, we have three really simple games that you can jump into. Our thing was we didn’t want anyone to have to read directions. We’re going to introduce more games like that sort of simple, two-person game…

.. you don‘t have to wander around the map and find a game. All the games are at the top of the screen, and you can just drag it down and play it.

Make it easy to meet new people to play with/against

We had multiplayer gaming with digital trading cards, and we learned very quickly that kids need an instant match option. Particularly boys, but kids in general don’t run up to each other on the playground and say, “Hi I’m Molly, and I like juice.” They can play all afternoon and never get each other’s names. They don’t get a lot of biographical information.

Mouse is better than keyboard

Often we find that the kids interact just by dancing or the emoticons. Out of all the emoticons, the most popular is gas. So that’s not surprising.

Kids are explorers (of the Bartle player types)

And they love mysteries. They love these environmental games we’ve included where you bump into an item, and you’re turned into an alien, things like that. We’ve added mysteries and puzzles like that all over, and we’re adding more. It’s like Lost, except for I’ll promise you that you won’t have have to wait for six years to find out the answers.

Kids like exploring new identities (ie play acting) and self expression

The great thing about virtual interaction is that it’s still anonymous and safe. They can try out different identities, within reason, and play…

The other thing we’ve tried to introduce is a mix of modern fashion and a little bit of the fantastical. If you feel like looking like a pirate or alien or whatever or just layering your clothes, that’s there.

Why do kids and tweens buy virtual goods vs why do teens buy virtual goods? July 28, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming, kids, teens, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
3 comments

A recent post on KZero, asks, “Will luxury brands drive the growth of virtual goods?”:

… tweens and teens (KT&T) will play a big part in the growth. This group has ‘less of an issue’ paying real money for virtual goods – their decision-making process does not take into account its a virtual good – they just want the product and see technology as invisible.

So worlds targeting KT&T (kids, tweens, teens) clearly have a major opportunity to create strong revenues here, as long as the products are right. But which types of product are right?

Obviously the ones that are demanded are the right sorts of products. But what is this demand? Certainly in the younger worlds and to a certain degree in older worlds, some virtual goods are viewed as status symbols – a ‘badge’ that sends out a message that the owner (wearer) has something unique / purchased / earned, that others do not have. And in this context, there’s a lot of perceived value associated with the item.

Izzy Neis though thinks that the kids and tweens are motivated quite differently than teens:

Kids/Tweens have less “ownership” and responsibility and ABILITY than teens do. For tweens the status is more broad than teens – who care less about the meaning & depth of an item and more about what “luxury” means to them.

Tweens/Kids seem much happier to own the item itself, as well as show it off and play with it. They remind me more of Dragons & Treasure. As in many tales of lore (oh, how I love the folksy stuff), Dragons want want want, then horde it all. It’s as much of a self-congratulations in ownership as it is a play thing or show-n-tell.

Teens are more “look at me, look at me” (to quote Kat in “Ten Things I Hate About You”). The name of the item and the social-style-competition is much bigger a pay off than the actual day-to-day use or “play time”.

In the virtual worlds, from what I’ve seen, kids are just as psyched to EARN/PURCHASE as they are own – and just like kids playing with their clutter in real life, kids yearn to earn all sorts of silliness that moms & dads won’t buy them in the real world. Empowerment.

And in the teen worlds – it’s the display of the purchase and how it makes others around react that shows the “BIG” payoff.

This dichotomy seems like an important distinction to people building social media sites and virtual worlds.

Kids who are collecting virtual goods for the love of ownership (perhaps enjoying the control that they do not have to buy things in the real world) need less of a social experience to justify their purchases. THis is good news because (i) creating a social environment implies communication between members, which is more fraught with risk when it comes to kids and (ii) if kids enjoy “soloing” the demand for virtual goods can start earlier in the lifecycle of the company. But ownership for it’s own sake can get boring when you own enough stuff, so there may be a more well defined limit on how long any virtual world can hold a kids attention.

Teens (and adults), who more focused on how others react to their virtual goods than in the ownership of the goods themselves, require a social environment to justify and validate their purchases. Ownership is a performance, one of the three ways that social networks are different from other forms of online communication. This social environment takes longer to develop, and hence demand for virtual goods can be delayed versus a more “soloing” environment. But the flipside is that as the social environment changes and evolves, you can maintain an ongoing demand for virtual goods to stay current with the environment, just as the fashion industry does in the offline world.

I’d be interested to hear from readers if they agree with this dichotomy.

Casual worlds and MMOGs are proliferating February 29, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in games, gaming, kids, mmorpg, strategy, virtual worlds.
6 comments

The casual world and MMOG space is getting increasingly crowded. Many of the big media companies are launching virtual worlds now, often targeted at kids. Disney just launched Pixie Hollow, to go with its other virtual worlds, Toon Town, Pirates of the Caribbean Online and Club Penguin, and have reorganized to focus on launching more – investing up to $100m in new online world launches. Nickelodeon, MTV, Cartoon Network, and others are all also throwing their money and brands against portfolios of virtual worlds launches.

Another trend is the expansion of physical toys into virtual worlds. Webkinz led the way here, but many more toy companies are leveraging their offline distribution and brand recognition to create virtual worlds loosely coupled to a physical toy, including Barbie, Beanie Babies, Lego, Build-a-bear, Bella Sara and many more. The BarbieGirls virtual world hit 10 million registered users in 10 months, a remarkable growth rate for a virtual world. (Second Life reports 12.5m residents, equivalent to a registered user, and has been around since 1999).

In addition to these branded launches, a number of companies are bringing a portfolio of asian MMOGs to the West, including K2 Network, IGG, Acclaim, Aeria and OutSpark.

Startups looking to launch a single title MMO in this environment should think carefully about their player acquisition strategy, and how they will be able to stand out in an increasingly crowded environment. It is not enough to simply build a better product. With such a plethora of choice available, your users may not even get to try you to discover how much better you are. Smart approaches may include explicit plans for viral growth, particular expertise in user acquisition, targeting a less saturated demographic or genre, and novel channel strategies. But the best teams will always find a way to be successful in even this highly competitive environment.

Good SF Chron article on kids and casual immersive worlds June 1, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, gaming, Internet, kids, media, social media, social networks, user generated content, web 2.0.
2 comments

For those who liked my previous post on how casual immersive worlds are hitting the mainstream in the US, there was a good article in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, found via Ypulse.

My favorite comments was about webkinz, the plush toy that comes with a unique code for a matching online avatar:

“I don’t really play with it a lot,” Laurel said of her plush toy. “But sometimes, when I see it, it reminds me to go play (with the computer game).”

Genius.

Kids and teens have pushed at least 6 immersive online worlds to over 2m UU/mth in the US April 23, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, gaming, Internet, kids, social media, social networks, start-up, startups, user generated content, web 2.0.
59 comments

Wagner James Au has a great post on GigaOm about Gaia. Gaia is a casual immersive MMORPG that describes itself as:

“The world’s fastest growing online world hangout for teens.”

In an interview with Gaia‘s CEO, Craig Sherman, he quotes that Gaia has gone from 0.5m unique users/month midway through last year to 2.5m UU/mth last month. (nb Comscore only has them at 700k UU/mth in March). Furthermore, he claims 300k users log in each day for an average of 2 hours per session, and in their forums area they are getting an average of 1m posts per day for a total of over 1 billion posts so far. And its mostly (85%) US traffic. Impressive stats. Gaia has been pretty quiet about its growth until recently, but Susan Wu was finally able to get them to break their silence by getting Craig to speak at her panel at Web2.0 Expo last week.

Casual immersive worlds have not previously been as popular in the US as they have been in Europe (Habbo Hotel) or Asia (Cyworld). ( I draw a distinction between casual immersive worlds and games such as Runescape and World of Warcraft). Even press darling Second Life, currently reporting 1.7m log-ins in the last 60 days, is lagging Gaia‘s usage.

Interestingly enough, Gaia isn’t the only casual immersive world that is getting meaningful usage in the US. The original casual immersive world, Neopets, is still going strong, with 4.2m UU/mth in March according to Comscore.

Neopets® is the greatest Virtual Pet Site on the Internet. With your help, we have built a community of over 70 million virtual pet owners across the world! Neopets has many things to offer including over 160 games, trading, auctions, greetings, messaging, and much much more. Best of all, it’s completely FREE!

Club Penguin, who Susan also got to speak for the first time on her panel at web2.0 expo, is also growing like crazy – 4.1m UU/mth in March.

Club Penguin is a kid-friendly virtual world where children can play games, have fun and interact with each other.

* Kid-friendly chat
* Lots of fun games
* Nothing to download
* Lots more!

Webkinz, who I mentioned last week as one of the few sites getting their users to visit more than 10 times per month, is also at 4.1m UU/mth.

Webkinz pets are lovable plush pets that each come with a unique Secret Code. With it, you enter Webkinz World where you care for your virtual pet, answer trivia, earn KinzCash, and play the best kids games on the net!

And a dark horse entrant that I was unaware of until recently – Millsberry, run by General Mills (the manufacturer of cereals), is getting 2.2m UU/mth.

Millsberry is a fun virtual city for you to explore. You create a citizen of the city and discover Millsberry through his eyes. You’ll need to make sure he takes care of himself, so you’ll need to get food (from the shopping area) and make sure he exercises (by playing games), but you’ll also get to go on adventures, solve mysteries and have all kinds of fun while visiting Millsberry!

.

Even Lego has announced its plans to release a casual immersive world in 2008

These worlds are all exploring different business models. Some are mainly ad supported (Neopets, and effectively Millsberry), others rely on subscriptions (Club Penguin) that deliver certain privileges, and others rely on transactions, either in the real world (Webkinz) or for digital goods (Habbo Hotel, Gaia.

Its worth noting that all of these are websites with no download required. This has likely helped them grow more quickly than other casual immersive worlds such as Second Life and IMVU, which are also growing fast, but not as fast.

One can’t help but notice that all of these immersive online worlds are targeted at kids and teens. If demographics are destiny, then we can expect more and more people to interact with each other in casual immersive worlds over the next few years. Susan Wu thinks so too, and her prediction about web 3.0 (are we there already?) is that it will be:

continuing down this path of improving the user experience of living and socializing online. This story is about human context, social proximity, and a sense of place.

I think she is right. What are your thoughts?

UPDATE, April 26th, 2007: Barbie is now also getting in on the action with Barbie Girls.

UPDATE, April 29th, 2007: Techcrunch reports that IAC’s Zwinky is also launching a casual immersive world. In this case, they are also employing a different business model than the other virtual worlds as the toolbar that enables much of the functionality includes a search box and will be usable both when the user is and is not “in world”. Note that the search box occurs to the LEFT of the URL box… This tactic worked great for previous IAC products such as Smiley Central and Cursor Mania.