Friday, July 18, 2008

Games for Kids? Why Not!

I found this great article by Nick Gibson in Developer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, on why the digital games industry should get in on the current wave of virtual worlds and MMOGs for kids. The article contains quite a few gems, as Gibson points out:
The children of today represent a generation for whom interactive entertainment is an integral part of growing up. They are also a generation comfortable and highly adept online. Combine these and you have a new games frontier of colossal potential but one in which most ‘traditional’ games companies appear largely disinterested. As a result, this new market for children’s MMOGs and virtual worlds is witnessing a stampede of companies from outside of the games industry, especially from the toy and TV industries.

Indeed! He also offers a pretty concise overview of the market, which he describes as follows:
Most [kid-targetd MMOGs] feature simplistic gameplay, are browser-based, developed in Flash and opt for low-res cartoon graphics over the verisimilitude sought by hard-core developers. Almost all of the worlds are offered for free but feature advertising and/or optional payment models such as subscriptions or retail purchases (e.g. toys or cards) which unlock exclusive parts of the world. Around 40 per cent feature micropayments, mostly geared around avatar and virtual world customisation. We estimate that subscriptions and micropayments in children’s MMOGs and virtual worlds alone generated over $300m in 2007 and will grow over 30 per cent this year. Add in advertising and retail sales and it becomes easy to see why there is so much interest in this market.

The rest of the article is full of great points and tidbits. Here's a summary of the ones I found particularly noteworthy:

- Gibson reminds readers about the 2005 BBC survey, which found that 98% of UK kids aged 6 to 15 years play games at least once a month (most once a week), and that "games were rated as the single most important medium" for this same age group.

- Gibson estimates that there are currently 50 child-focused virtual worlds, with 45 more in development. This contrasts somewhat with the "112" figure that's been floating around, but upon closer inspection, that list did include a number of vw's and MMOGs for teens (not kids), as well as sites that don't really qualify as virtual worlds.

- Around 25% of these virtual worlds that have already launched are based on existing kids' properties.

- He lists slightly different population size figures than I've seen elsewhere for big vw's like BarbeiGirls and Habbo Hotel, including a 12 million monthly user rate for Neopets.

- Kids' MMOGs feature a variety of business models. Some are merely cross-promotional tools. Others are "extremely profitable". He points out that development costs within this market segment are "a fraction of typical MMOGs."

- Kids' games might be technologically more simple than traditional MMOGs, but they also pose some complex challenges, including the need for ongoing maintenance and development, continuous customer interaction, and the "myriad challenges of dealing with children (content, security, legality etc.)".

I wonder here about the logic of identifying "rudimentary technology" with kids'MMOGs...surely this is a consequence of the lack of prior experience of the developers involved, or the promotional focus of many of the branded MMOGs. If more game development companies got in on the action, I'm sure the landscape would change drastically. It's wrong to assume that child players/audiences naturally translates into lower quality products. It also ignores the growing sprinkle of sophisticated MMOGs for kids that are coming out...

But imagine what the games industry could do with this emerging market...how different it would look with Blizzard and EA at its helm, instead of Mattel and market research companies.

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