Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ToonTown, Cartoon Network Universe...More News on the Kid-Targeted MMOG Front

Yesterday's KidScreen Daily reported an announcement by Cartoon Network that it would be unveiling its upcoming MMOG Cartoon Network Universe: Fusion Fall at Comic-Con today (**Update: read Izzy Neis' post about it here**). Some of the game's creators will be on hand to answer questions and talk about status/development, and a beta version will be available for demo play. My fingers are crossed that we'll get some good coverage, since the game launch is still a year away and I'm endlessly curious about what kind of game it will be. There's also been a bit of news lately about Disney's Toontown MMOG for kids, and its upcoming beta launch of a limited, ad-supported (versus $9.95/month subscription) version of the popular game. You can read some of the coverage at Virtual World News, Mediaweek, or PaidContent.org.

While an unlimited version will still be available at the regular subscription rate, the ad-based area will be free and feature many of the same games and activities. From the PaidContent article:
Paul Yanover, EVP and managing director for Disney Online, said that the change is driven by a desire to increase the amount of users. But the timing also comes as Nickelodeon’s free, kid-targeted virtual world Nicktropolis prepares to begin accepting ads. Other MMOG sites for children, like subscription-based ClubPenguin, also are growing in popularity. Since its January launch, no-charge Nicktropolis has grown to 1.4 million unique users as of May, according to comScore, besting Toontown’s 1.165 million users. And, coming next year, Cartoon Network plans to introduce its own MMOG.

Reportedly, Disney will also be using this same ad/subscription hybrid model for its much-delayed Pirates of the Caribbean Online.

I've been studying these early versions of kid-targeted "MMOGs" for a couple of years now, starting with Toontown, Neopets and Habbo Hotel in 2003, and more recently adding newcomers BarbieGirls.com, TheBigRip/GalaXseeds, Foster's Big Fat Awesome House Party and Nicktropolis to my research schedule (I'll get around to Club Penguin and Webkinz eventually...I'm doing television-themed games first, then toy-based games). Over time, and particularly with the newer games, kids' MMOGs are finally starting to incorporate features found in more traditionally-defined MMOGs, like World of Warcraft and EverQuest. Sort of. The vast majority, however, contain certain limitations and common features that set them in a category apart when it comes to theorizing and thinking about massively multiplayer online games and all that they entail. For example:

- Kid-targeted MMOGs are highly promotional in nature
So far, with the exceptions of Club Penguin (which appears to be more like a social-networking sites than an MMOG anyway), all of the kid-targeted MMOGs are heavily branded by the toy or media companies that created them. Okay, so licensing is a pretty popular practice in digital games generally, and many teen/adult-targeted MMOGs contained themes and characters taken from other media--Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars Galaxies inevitably spring to mind, though game scholars have emphasized how liberally even unlicensed games borrow from established properties (Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons in particular) and genres. But in kids' MMOGs, the practice seems to have been reinterpreted in a way that emphasizes the marketing dimension of cross-media adaptation instead of sublimating it. For example, I highly doubt that LOTRO has a room in Minas Tirith where players are encouraged to watch trailers or clips from the films (and please let me know if they do!)...the way they do for Nickelodeon television shows in Nicktropolis. And while advergaming and in-game ads are slowly creeping into even the most popular and fantastical teen/adult-MMOGs, these practices are already common and excessive in kids' MMOG.

The argument might be made, of course, that kids' MMOGs are ad-supported because of parental, cultural or financial barriers in implementing a subscription model when it comes to youngsters. The fact that Toontown successfully operated under a subscription-model for four years would seem to contradict this assumption, as does the past success of things like Pokemon cards and other collectibles, which require a comparable ongoing financial investment that kids are nonetheless often able to sustain. The reliance on advertising revenue also seems to limit what the games can do in terms of the quality of graphics, richness of soundscapes, complexity of gameplay, etc. (are these limitations financial or aesthetic?) As it stands, none of the kid-targeted MMOGs came anywhere near teen/adult-MMOG in terms of visual, audio, or gameplay sophistication. The games are simpler and perhaps more accessible (for different browsers, connection speeds, etc.), but also years behind when it comes to aesthetics and technical features.

- "Safety First" puts multiplayer interaction last
With the growing moral panic that predators could use social-networking sites to contact kids (for example, MySpace just announced that 29,000 of its members are registered sex offenders...yikes!), as well as concerns about cyber-bullying and more generalized privacy issues (including COPPA compliance in the US), it comes as no surprise that kids' MMOGs are placing a huge emphasis on their "safety" features. In the parents' sections and in the marketing literature, every game that I've reviewed so far has branded itself as a "safe" area for kids to play online. The multiplayer aspect of MMOGs seems to present a particularly significant set of challenges in this regard. The great thing about MMOGs is that you can play with other people--an activity which would seem to necessitate some sort of communication. Otherwise, how do you develop alliances, ask people to join you on a particular quest, coordinate actions and strategies while completing quests, and build your own in-game persona that makes the player/avatar relationship so interesting and complex? How would one ensure that kids will be "safe" in a virtual world where they are consistently coming into contact with anonymous others? So far, the answer in many cases has been to limit in-game communication to bricollage, where players must select from scroll-down menus of predetermined (corporate-approved) chat options in order to communicate with others.

The politics of how and what is included in these options is an issue that I am just now tackling, but in at least one case (Nicktropolis) the emphasis on chat that incorporates brand names relating to Nickelodeon shows and products is astounding. How will these chat options limit the opportunities for play, community building, spontaneity and user-generated experience so common to other MMOGs? Is the trade-off of limiting communication for an enhanced sense of safety (perhaps parental safety) worth it, and how does it transform the kids' experience? How is safety defined in these sites and what is really being prevented? Who determines what chat options are made available (can kids propose new ones? is there any dialog with child-players to ensure that their needs are being met?) and what forms of communication are being prioritized? Does this thwart important opportunities for children's creativity and cultural production (not to mention socializing) that are not offered elsewhere?

Of course, other sites, such as BarbieGirls.com and Club Penguin, have decided that instead of pre-determining what kids (and adult users) are allowed to say in their games/sites, their communications will be subject to intense moderation and monitoring to ensure that their younger users aren't exposed to inappropriate content or communications. While surely more difficult to implement, as a former chatroom moderator, I believe that this approach holds much more democratic and creative potential. There was an interesting debate on the effectiveness of Club Penguin's chat moderation that took place on Heroine Sheik earlier this month (and earlier this spring) through Bonnie's posts and through the reader responses that is worth checking out. According to these players and analysts, Club Penguin has been quite successful in keeping out inappropriate content from children's in-game chat, while still allowing players to communicate with more freedom than could ever be provided by a scroll-down menu.

- Kid-targeted MMOGs seem to forget to include the "G"
This one is just weird...but it seems that some of these companies were so anxious to jump onto the MMOG bandwagon that they sort of forgot to include any actual gameplay or any other kind of play in their MMO-environments. You've already heard me rant about the lack of play opportunities in Nicktopolis, but they aren't the only ones. While GalaXseeds is finally starting to pick up (thank you, Summer Vacation!), my first couple of months there were barren and lonely--limited to too many sessions of Fallin' Pollen (Solo) (one of the only games you can play alone) to count. With more players, come more opportunities to team up for (mandatory) group play, as well as more opportunities to trade, reasons to decorate your pad, etc. The most innovative game that GalaXseeds has incorporated so far is a virtual hide-and-seek/paintball-type advergame, sponsored by Honeycomb cereal! Eek. Anyway, all MMOGs (well, except for WoW I suppose) have population-dependency issues and periods of downtime where the player can't find anything interesting to do. But these games consistently surprise me for how hard it is to actually get into something resembling play. The biggest exception here is Toontown, which is immediately fun and engaging...let's just hope it stays that way.

Not to challenge those of you who have been able to amuse yourselves on these games, or have a different interpretation of the other 'limitations' I've mentioned. In fact, if you do have a different experience, please let me know which areas or features you think I should check out or try again.

2 comments:

Izzy Neis said...

WOW. Seriously, Wow, Sara! This is great. Oh, to pick your brain ;) Some time I have to have a coffee with you-- we can talk shop endlessly no doubt, since we both kinda skirt around the same subjects from different angles.

quick note: You mentioned Habbo is for "kids"-- yikes. Habbo actually not for children under the age of 13. Kinda seems like it at times, doesn't it? Sigh.

Anyway-- thanks for always having such great info! You rock.

Sara M. Grimes said...

Thanks Izzy! And thanks for pointing out my error re: Habbo Hotel...I haven't been there for awhile and did forget about the age restrictions.