Monday, March 10, 2008

Virtual-to-Real World Play

March 11, 2008: Big oops! So, yesterday I mistakenly posted the article that I was trying to link to instead of posting my own write-up, an error I didn't notice until just now. Yikes! That original post was written by Virtual Worlds News, a great source for gaming news and for keeping track of the evolution of the virtual worlds industry. So, here's take two on Virtual-to-Real World Play.

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By way of Virtual Worlds News, some nice liveblogging coverage of last month's Worlds in Motion Summit. The Summit itself included a number of fascinating talks from some of the world's leading game producers and designers, who discussed everything from advergames and virtual markets in Habbo Hotel, to content and technological convergence within various game environments. Of particular interest was a talk given by MindCandy's Michael Acton Smith on "Thinking Outside Virtual Worlds" and the company's newest game/toy/project Moshi Monsters -- a new virtual-to-real world kids' property that I first reported on in December, and set to launch sometime over the next couple of weeks. Like many of its contemporaries, Moshi Monsters bridges different forms of mediated play, using a "virtual pet" as the anchor. What I find unique about this project, is that the brand is incorporating mobile devices from the get-go, resulting in a property that (according to Virtual Worlds News) Acton Smith describes as "Tamagotchi mixed with Facebook and a little bit of Big Brain thrown in."

Commenting on the success of Webkinz, which although impressive still lags behind traditional toys such as Beanie Babies, Smith had this to say:
"So why, as a game designer, should we care? Why should we bother thinking beyond the screen?" Smith posited. One reason is that toy tie-ins are not only an additional revenue source, but they allow for a deeper connection with the users.

To which he added (according to VWN):
"I believe there’s still a huge amount of opportunity left in this space,” said Smith.

Game designers, though, need to start thinking “beyond the screen.” The revenue stream has too much potential not to. “More importantly,” said Smith, “it allows consumers to connect to our worlds and create more engagement and, hopefully, more fun.”

What makes online pets different from earlier, non-digital versions is, Acton Smith believes, their high levels of interactivity:
Setting online pets apart from Furbies...is the ease of interaction. From Webkinz to MyePets to Moshi Monsters, interaction is key. MindCandy, for example, is adding widgets aimed at its older audience to tie their pet experience to Facebook or Bebo. Once users add friends, the creatures will socialize even when the users are offline, generating a Facebook-style newsfeed to track activity.

For the younger audience, MindCandy is adding "stealth education” with changing vocabularies and puzzles tied to the in-game currency of “rocks,” with monsters adding new puzzles for their owners every day.

In terms of the larger industry trends, here's a quick run-down of what Acton Smith and Virtual Worlds News had to say about the key players in this area and where they've focused their virtual-to-real play efforts [****Note, this list is great, but incomplete - I can already think of a few that are missing, and will work on providing a more comprehensive list as soon as I get a chance****]:

- Webkinz: The plush toys for starters, as well as figurines, lip gloss, and other licensed products to monetize the interest in the brand.

- BarbieGirls.com and Be-Bratz: Are targeting older. Toys and accessories already available, more to follow.

- Collectible cards: A number of properties are expanding this way, including Bella Sara, Chaotic, Maple Story, and World of Warcraft.

- Virtual Paper Dolls and IRL (Fashion) Design: Moo.com (with Habbo), Stardoll, Zazzle, and FigurePrints.com all provide different tools that allow users to bring virtual fashions into the real world: by printing avatars on a T-shirt, or designing avatar clothes that can then be made IRL for the player, designing your own avatar-based figurine, etc.

- TestTubeAliens.com: Toy that detects screen patterns when held up to the computer screen, changing the mood of the "test tube alien" inside.

- UbFunKeys: Similar to Webkinz, but with plastic figurines instead of plush toys.

- Tamagotchi: Relaunched and updated to include an online world.

- Me2: According to VWN "A motion sensor that records your physical activity and then points to your virtual character at home, potentially promoting activity away from the sedentary lifestyle."

- iBuddy or Ambient Devices’ gadgets: Which "interface with your computer or environment to provide you more information, creating more of an augmented reality than a straight up virtual world, but creating possibilities, said Smith, for giving feedback to users away from their avatars."

To this we could add Neopets, which has long had its own line of plush toys, interactive figurines, collectible cards and console tie-in games...as well as Barbie i-Design and a slew of others...

...Including many of the properties represented in the last panel of the summit, which was (appropriately enough) entitled "Striking Gold: How Kids’ Worlds Took the Crown". The panel (moderated by game journalist Leigh Alexander) brought together a nunmber of heavy hitters within the kids' digital play landscape, including Paul Yanover (of Disney Online), Lane Marrifield (co-founder of Club Penguin), Jason Root (Senior VP of Nick.com & NickatNite.com) and Kyra Reppen (Senior VP of Neopets). Again, this is primarily a summary of first-hand coverage (to which I will add comments at a later date or incorporate into something else), this time provided by the Worlds in Motion blog, which I've divided up into the key questions/themes that appear (from reading the coverage at least) to have driven the discussion.

On the question of how each company initially decided to focus on the kids' market:
Paul Yanover (Disney): "[S]tarted off from "[the] revisionist side of things." In the 90's, Disney Imagineers began experimenting with virtual reality and “though that didn’t really pan out, that team built great tech and art” eventually those ideas became Toontown."

Lane Marrifield (Club Penguin): ""We didn’t have an identity to start with, other than we had kids." He discussed looking at what was available for kids, what they liked, what they didn’t." [We] map every decision we make around the experience of six year olds, well, my six year old really."

Jason Root (Nickelodeon): They "Saw patterns on how kids were using our site, and the web at large.” 84% of kids are playing games online. “We wanted to evolve into a ‘place’, we wanted to bring those things together” with focus on mixing branded and non-branded content.

Kyra Reppen (Neopets): "[T]here is a "[natural] emotional connection with pets." Their virtual world "just started out being fun, but it's endless how much can be done with it."

On how player loyalty is maintained, as well as how player feedback and input is used:
Kyra Reppen (Neopets): “It’s about listening to the users...we get 30,000 new accounts every day... we need to cater to them, but we also need to take care of the old users who’ve been there for over four years. They have different needs, they’re the experts. So listening to them, making new content every day, keeping them engaged is important. It’s up to us to keep them.”

Paul Yanover: "It’s all about participation, it’s about listening. It’s something they have to have ownership of. We don’t want to project something at them, they need that ownership.”

Jason Root: "For user generated content and professionally created content, it’s about balancing those. Some kids want more of one than the other, but we have to find that balance."

Lane Marrifield: “It [was] a whole different gig. The purist nature of creating something for kids helped set us in the right kind of decision making.... all we hoped [for] was it liked enough that we could build a sustainable business model. We just hired our first marketing person!”

On safety as a key feature (and selling feature):
Lane Marrifield: “We have over 120 people dedicated to the safety of Club Penguin. We don’t mess around with that. We knew that if we were going to build the trust of the parents, there was no margin for error there. Only one incident and it would’ve been over.”

As the Worlds in Motion coverage describes, "The company’s safety program was thorough enough that they were invited to an F.B.I conference on safety to give a talk. "We’re more focused on that then we are on the gaming community.""

On balancing play with profits:
Jason Root: [T]he difficulty lays in, "figuring out how stay true to the audience and [at the same time] how to make a viable business plan... feeding these sites, they need to be tended to."

Kyran Reppen: "It’s hard to get the payment mechanisms in [kids’] hands.” Which, according to the Worlds in Motion article, "is why pre-paid cards for online services have been a boon for them as well as others."

On how to keep kids playing the games as they grow older.
Kyran Reppen: "This generation of kids are growing up with virtual worlds as their play pattern. They’re going to grow up demanding new kinds of play patterns... I can only speak for what Neopets has done, and it speaks to constant innovation."

Lane Marrifield: "Frankly, that's part of the fun. It's not just about building it, it's about sustaining it. It needs to be a labor of love. Kids will smell a disingenuous product from a million miles away... you got to truly care about kids."

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

It was only a matter of time before virtual worlds and other cyberspace ventures mimicked the Hasbros and Mattels of the world with merchandising. But I don't think this is quite the same as either Star Wars figures/records/shirts/posters/etc or those daily 30-minute commercials for G.I.Joe toys we watched every day after school. Two factors are different:
1 - Virtual worlds (et al) are pervasive and open-ended (similar to but much more potentially insidious than 30 minute TV shows).
2 - Virtual worlds are interactive, creating an investment in the narrative much greater than anything passive, which when monetized, leads to the very host of questions I think you are better equipped than I both to ask and answer.