Thursday, January 15, 2009

CN's Fusion Fall Launches

The kid's media blogosphere is all abuzz this week with news and previews of the newly (finally) launched Fusion Fall -- a big, branded MMOG for kids (and cartoon fans) centered around popular Cartoon Network media brands/characters. For example, as Izzy Neis writes,
Well, ladies & gents, the time has finally come for CN briiiiziiiiliant minds to release their much anticipated MMO of ginormity. And ya know what? Gorgeous.

I was lucky enough to sneak several peeks in the past, but didn’t feel right spilling any beans.

I do have a lot to say about this monster of a project (and it’s good), but I encourage you to go check it out for yourself first. Carve out a bit of time, because the tutorial & the registration take more than the average 2 minutes, and I would recommend spending the time watching the videos that promo along the way.

The game itself will retail at around $20, with a $5.94/month subscription fee. A free version is also (currently) available through the Fusion Fall website, where players can create an avatar and at least start completing quests and collecting items. Players create their own custom avatar - a manga-style human child, in keeping with the design of the Fusion Fall MMOG environment. Through gameplay and cut scenes, players encounter various characters from popular CN television shows - Ben 10 Alien Force, Dexter's Laboratory, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, The Powerpuff Girls, Kids Next Door and Samurai Jack (with more to come later on). While some of the characters are voiced by the original TV show talent, all the characters have been redesigned to fit the game's manga/anime aesthetic. The overall objective is to help the CN characters save the world from "Fuse", an evil alien force that invades through appropriation, fusing itself to planets and living things, transforming landscapes into toxic landfills, and producing evil doppelgangers of their inhabitants. Players team up with both other players and NPC characters to complete missions, which includes building a personal army of "Nanos" - miniature versions of CN characters that are "rescued" by defeating the evil doppelgangers.

One of the first things I noticed about the game was the interesting, intertextual and subtly reflexive way it plays with the idea of different versions of the same character. For example, in the first level of the game, Buttercup (of the Powerpuff Girls) sends you on a mission to save Dexter from "Fusion Buttercup" (the evil, Fuse doppelganger) who you then transform into Nano Buttercup (by defeating her), who then becomes your ally. This fluidity and intertextuality both refers to the way that children experience media branded characters in their own lives -- as television characters, as many different incarnations of toys, as videogame avatars, and as the endless variations thereof the children themselves produce during imaginative play.

But the originality of the characters is soon overshadowed by the clunky game design. My first hour of play was plagued by server overcrowding, a bug that made it impossible to finish a specific quest, and full on browser crashes that repeatedly wiped out all of my progress in a particular level. This is likely more prevalent in the online free version than in the full-fledged software + subscription version that the free site promotes, but if CN wants to attract long-term subscribers, the trial version is going to have to run a lot smoother than it does right now. On the other hand, kids have been waiting so long for this game that it might not matter so much in the short term. Not to mention the fact that since so many of the other MMOGs for kids already on the market are similarly full of bugs and clunky-ness (I'm still looking at YOU Pirates of the Caribbean Online), the standards (and player expectations) among this demographic might not be all that high. According to Emily Claire Afan over at Kidscreen, more than 2.5 million accounts were created during the beta stage -- so at least we'll have a yardstick to measure its popularity against now that the game is live and running.

The (software + subscription version) game is being heavily promoted as a safe haven, family friendly space. I'll have to find out more about the safety features, but the game does incorporate a pretty limited pre-selected chat system. It also offers a family plan of four connected accounts for US$9.95 per month, through which I imagine players in the same household can chat more freely.

More to come once I have a chance to play the full version and compare, or at least find some good coverage and/or more detailed reviews. Unfortunately, I'm too far along in the dissertation writing to include this in my PhD research, but it might be an interesting example of the next generation of MMOGs for kids...if not an example of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."


Izzy Neis said...

One of these days, you and I have to sit and ramble over a cup of coffee, because i have a very strong idea that it would be an uber-fun conversation, and a great opportunity to co-rant about the state of the market, lol.

You, as always, are aweosme! Stay warm.

Sara M. Grimes said...

thanks izzy!