Archive for December, 2012

Inside the World of Webkinz – An Interview With Creative Director Karl Borst

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

[The following is an interview I shared with Children’s Technology Review in their November 2012 issue. I’ve wanted to interview someone close to Webkinz/Ganz for a very long time. The first article I wrote about Webkinz was in August 2009. After years of trying I finally connected with someone within Ganz and the rest is history (HT BL!). I’m very thankful for the opportunity, this is a very rare public look inside Ganz, and hope fans will enjoy the piece.]

Karl Borst is the Creative Director at Ganz for Webkinz and their new virtual world called Amazing World

Karl Borst is the Creative Director at Ganz for Webkinz; a position that has given him the front row on the turbulent world of children’s virtual worlds. Last week, Karl shared some insights about the past, present and future of Webkinz, including the latest 3D virtual world from Ganz called Amazing Worlds. Here are some selections of our conversation.

Scott Traylor: How long have you been working on Webkinz? Where did the idea come from?

Karl Borst: Development started in late 2003, and I joined on March 1, 2004. The original idea came from Howard Ganz himself. He loved the toys and wanted a new way to market them. Taking inspiration from Cabbage Patch Kids, he wanted to create an experience where the child “discovered” their new pet. Later we expanded this to the idea that your plush “came to life” inside the virtual world. It was very important to us that the player feel the connection between their toy and the pet online. This was where I was able to really expand the original idea. It was critical to me that the pet feel a part of the experience regardless of where you were in the world. Adding the pet’s image to the dock, along with the multiple emotional states and speech balloons may seem very obvious right now, but back in 2004 none of the pet sites had this. This was a big improvement in Webkinz.

ST: How long did it take to get the vision of Webkinz off the ground?

KB: Well it depends on where we finally got “off the ground.” In August of 2004, after a day of play testing with kids, we realized we were going in the wrong direction. Honestly, we threw out a big chunk of work that we’d done up to that date. This was a very difficult decision to make. The toys were paid for, sitting in the warehouse, and plans were well under way to release the toy that October. Going back to the drawing board meant that we’d miss the Holidays. That said, in our hearts we knew that it needed to be done, so we buckled down and got to it. We ended up launching in April 2005, and it was a tough first few months. Retailers didn’t understand the product. They didn’t get how the world and the toy related. We even made a video that explained the product and gave the retailers televisions to show it on. All the while we were adding features and content to the site. The amount of work we did in 2005 is mind blowing. Realize we weren’t even in the top 100,000 sites at the end of 2005. Yet in 2006 we started to see real momentum. Christmas had given us a lift and then Easter, and the players were coming in at a faster and faster rate. Then in 2007 we exploded, and by the end of that year we were a top 100 site, and the number four Google searched term. If there was anything that I could tell companies that are considering building a virtual world, it would be you need to have patience. None of the virtual worlds have exploded out of the gate – not Webkinz, not Neopets, not Wizard 101, not even Club Penguin. You need to commit to the project and invest in making it better until you’ve got the perfect world for your audience.

Screen capture of the Webkinz sign in page from April 2007.

Screen capture of the Webkinz sign in page from April 2007.

ST: What do you look for when testing with children?

KB: We try to focus on what the child is doing, not what they are saying. You can really learn a lot from the actions a child is taking, or more often not taking. When you ask questions you find that kids have a hard time describing what they did or why they did it, and many times they really want to please you and aren’t as harsh as you really need them to be. When you see them fail at an action, or skip over a feature you thought was key, it speaks volumes.

ST: How did you shape the online experience over time? What guided your thinking?

KB: I’m sure this is where I’m supposed to say that we closely analyzed user trends and data, but to be honest we didn’t. A lot of the time we went with our guts and with what we were hearing from the players. First we knew that we wanted to make the world as interactive as possible. We wanted every object that looked like it was functional to actually be functional. I honestly think this direction has made the Webkinz room engine the best on the market. We also knew we just needed “more”. More games, more items, more stuff to do. Kids love telling you what they want, so you end up with more information that you could ever really use. The real challenge is taking all of that information and finding the gems to follow through with. Then turning those ideas into features that kids actually want to play. We weren’t 100% successful in this, but we had some real hits, like the Employment Office and the Chef Challenge.

ST: How has Webkinz changed over time?

KB: Adding more and more makes things complicated. Webkinz is much, much larger now than when we started. Tons of sections, thousands of items, dozens of games, multi-player areas… When we started it was so simple. Players could jump in and figure it out. Now we need to help players through the initial few plays so that they don’t get overwhelmed by the options. There comes a point where adding new features doesn’t improve your game. Now we’re focusing on refining our features, and using those features to create engaging events on a regular basis.

ST: Do you see differences in how kids from different countries use Webkinz?

KB: Actually, we don’t. I think that we’re tapping into some universal ideas of play and imagination. The core activities for all of our players are play games in the Arcade, do their daily activities and then play with their pets in their virtual rooms. While we’ve added dozens of features since the launch of the game, these core features which we’ve had since day one still resonate the best.

ST: Ganz has a number of virtual worlds now, can you share a little about each?

KB: We have four. First of course is Webkinz, which has been running strong for seven and half years now. Next is Webkinz Jr. It was designed as a truly pre-school virtual world. It’s highly educational, and requires no reading. While it did not see the success that Webkinz did, parents of children who play absolutely love the site. This year we released two more virtual worlds. In Amazing World you play a “Zing,” helping out the characters you meet, shooing away the nasty Nix, and working together to make the world more amazing. Finally, we’re currently in Beta with another new virtual world called Nakamas. This world has been specifically designed for girls ages 5-11 who love making friendship bracelets and hanging with friends.

ST: How long has Amazing World been in development?

KB: While I can’t say exactly how long we’ve been working on it, the development time was similar to Webkinz. Again we went through a number of iterations. Sometimes building a game takes on a life of its own. Many of the features that are now in the game, like the Nix, were added very late in development. And we’re still improving the game. We haven’t been happy about the interiors of the homes for some time now, so we’re working on making them much cooler – really taking them in a new direction.

ST: What did you do differently in building Amazing World from that of Webkinz? Are there any similarities?

KB: From the very start of the development of Amazing World, I wanted to build a virtual world that complimented Webkinz. I wanted players to have a very different experience in AW than in Webkinz. This is why you don’t “take care” of your Zing, and it isn’t a “pet”. The player should be able to play Webkinz for half an hour, then jump over to Amazing World and never feel that they’re duplicating effort. The other obvious difference was that the game was working with Unity3D to create a world that you can really live in. This meant that we wanted our games and activities to feel part of that world, and not independent sections. The fact that there is no “arcade” was a conscious decision. It also allowed us to do much more with the Zing’s room. Now the home and the yard provide greater freedom of design, without the restriction of a “grid.” This freedom comes at the cost of some more complexity but I think we’ve done a good job of balancing this out.

Screen capture of the new Ganz virtual world for kids called Amazing World

Screen capture of Amazing World. (Click image to see larger version.)

ST: What are you hoping for with Amazing World?

KB: Naturally we’re hoping that Amazing World captures the imaginations of kids, like Webkinz. While we’ve all seen many toy-connected virtual worlds come and go, Amazing World has the potential to revitalize this space, and most importantly, Ganz is committed to making this world great. Most people don’t remember that when Webkinz was launched that it was quite small, but was teeming with potential. With a dedicated team, we were able to refine, expand and improve the game into what it is today. We have a team that is just as dedicated to Amazing World and I am confident that players who get into Amazing World will stay on board for a very wild and exciting ride.

ST: How challenging is it to manage the needs of a toy product with that of a related virtual world?

KB: Ganz started out as a toy company, so when it comes to creating the products themselves, we’ve got a great system. The challenge comes with creating unique, engaging online play for specific products under a single brand. If you look at any popular toy line, take Polly Pocket as an example, you’ve got small $5 figure packs and large houses for $50 with multiple figures, and special packs with animals, etc. When those are the toys by themselves, the value is right before your eyes and you either like what you’re about to open or not. When you have a connected virtual world, you have to make a decision. What does each item give you? What should a $50 toy get compared to a $5 toy? Despite the fact that the customer can see the value of the $50 toy, there is still an assumption that the online play value will be greater than a $5 toy. Do I think that we nailed it with Webkinz every time? No. We had some real knock out successes with our ancillary products and some real flubs. It was bound to happen as we felt out this uncharted territory. That said, what we did perfectly well was the initial toy purchase itself. The value that we give with a single Webkinz plush toy is exceptional, and has clearly driven our thinking for our new sites.

ST: What do you think of the virtual world space today? How about the toy industry? Any thoughts on where you see either industry going?

KB: Overall I feel that virtual worlds have an inherent challenge to their definition. Virtual Worlds aren’t MMOs in the classic sense, though they have many of the social, multi-player experiences that make MMOs great. They also aren’t game depots, like Miniclip, but are expected to have many, quick-play games to engage players while they work up the virtual currency to expand their homes and dress their avatars. Finally, they aren’t “games” per se. They need to be a sandbox of interactive systems that allow the players to choose the experience that they wish to make, while remaining a cohesive world that isn’t confusing to a new player. It is important to integrate casual games into the world experience itself, making social interaction and cooperation a core part of the player’s day-to-day activities and bringing the player more fully into the world through story and guided play. The future of virtual worlds — including Amazing World — is in bringing these components closer together.

Making it to the Top — Tweens Rule the Virtual World Space

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

[Wendy Smolen is a contributing writer to the KidScreen blog. She is also a friend and co-founder of the annual children’s conference called Sandbox Summit. Wendy asked if I would share with her Kidscreen followers a taste of my forthcoming virtual world report.]

Scott Traylor, head of 360KID, has spent the last few years playing every game he could get his hands on (I know, a tough job!). He’s just finished a comprehensive virtual world report, and I asked him to weigh in on the top 10 Tween Worlds. Download a sample page of the report here or contact Scott for the complete report or more virtual world insights.

Tween friends playing together in a virtual world

Virtual world destinations for children sure have grown. Gone are the days of just Club Penguin and Webkinz. The past few years has seen an explosion of worlds, many specifically directed at kids under twelve. In the interest of assessing data on virtual worlds and MMOs specifically for children, I realized it’s important to follow all virtual worlds. In September, 2011 I had accumulated data for a total of 351 virtual worlds and MMOs. By September 2012, my list included 427 destinations.

When I sorted out the top ten virtual world destinations for tweens, some surprising trends emerged. This past September, the top 10 tween sites made up almost 50% of all virtual world and MMO traffic. Last year, only 36% of all traffic went to the same top ten. While the entire virtual world and MMO space grew 8.5% in that time period, the tween virtual world space grew almost 14%. The tween virtual world space is becoming increasingly stronger and more important.

What do these top worlds have that the others have missed? I have a few theories of my own:

1.) Find that secret sauce. Simply tying together a bunch of games will not do the trick. Find out what motivates your user base. Do kids in your target audience love horses? Or nurturing a pet? Maybe it’s all about sharing something creative with others. When you define one singular item, everything else will stem from that idea. Without it, your world will become just another virtual ghost town. Every successful world has something special. One great example is Club Penguin, where there are constant celebrations going on. What child doesn’t like to go to a party! Once you recognize parties are a driver, everything you do around that theme drives the engagement, including the games, custom costumes, even conversation.

2.) The real work begins after launch. Most new worlds fail within three to four months after launch. The initial peak in traffic is often followed by a giant decline. I see it over and over again with the data I’ve collected. “If you build it they will come” may be true at first, but if you don’t update it they will leave. Users constantly expect something fresh to be happening. New content needs to be added on a regular basis. While too many virtual world teams spend most of their development dollars getting to launch, the successful worlds spend half of their budget getting to launch, and the other half afterwards. Poptropica started with one island in 2007; 30 additional islands have been added to the world over time. Each island enriches the experience and keeps users coming back for more.

3.) Users know best. When I talk to people who work at the top ten virtual worlds, again and again they say: listen to your users. Many of the best improvements often come from players. And it’s not only important to listen, but to share that you have heard their suggestions. While it will probably be impossible to implement every idea, some may have the strength and validity to automatically rise to the top. Wizard101 solicits feedback from active users who have made a virtual purchase in the last 30 days. This sizable group has access to test realms and new content updates for two or three weeks in advance of them being posted to the entire community. During that time, they share feedback with the development team, offering real suggestions for increasing the engagement. And of course, feel empowered as loyal users.

As crowded as today’s virtual space is, it’s only going to get more so, before new worlds and ideas bubble to the top. Don’t jump in and expect things to be easy. You need to watch, learn, ask lots of questions, and, most importantly, play. Here’s hoping to see you on the top ten list next year.

Send comments to Scott (at) 360KID (dot) com or wendy (at) sandboxsummit (dot) org.

Last Words: Helping a Dying Family Member Communicate with Insights from One Year Olds

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

A few years ago my father was in hospice care during the last days of his life. Over the span of a couple of weeks his ability to communicate deteriorated rapidly. Not that he couldn’t communicate completely, but a number of barriers prevented his ability to communicate easily. Among them, not having enough energy to speak, or coughing fits in the middle of speaking. Nurses that came and went, as wonderful as they were, often did not speak English as a first language, which also made it hard for him to communicate.

At the time when all of this was happening, I was reflecting on how very young children who have not yet learned how to speak would just use a finger to point to things they wanted. The same is true for a young child using an iPhone, all they need to do is point or swipe. Why is it that using an iPhone or an iPad is so easy for a twelve month old child? In the research world there’s a concept called “cognitive load”. In the context of computing, if you make a user interface easy to use then there are less barriers, less cognitive demands on simply using a computer and more cognitive resources available to take advantage of what you wish to accomplish with a computer. In the context of hospice care and communication there are things a person needs to effectively communicate that have nothing to do with the actual message. For example, having enough energy to speak, the ability to breathe easily, or having minimal muscle coordination, or the ability to use your tongue or larynx. If a person has a message to share with others, the components of communicating like those just mentioned can become barriers for the successful delivery of that message.

First page of the two-page communication tool for helping hospice patients communicate
Sample page of a two-page communication tool for helping hospice patients communicate. (Click image to see larger version and instructions for saving. Version for women also included.)

After a few days of watching my father struggle to be understood I created a paper-based way for him to get his messages across. A thick piece of paper, on each side containing many pictures of things he would ask for in the course of a day. All he would need to do is point to what he wanted on these two pages. Having the ability to communicate by pointing removed the cognitive demands of being able to communicate through talking. Many items on these pages related to his need to be comfortable, moving from bed to couch, then bathroom and back to the bed. I noted a number of hand gestures shared between my mother and father, mostly shorthand for yes or no, good or bad. Also a limited set of preferred food choices, particularly ice chips. Sometimes just water, sometimes juice. This two-sided paper communication tool was easy for my father to use, pointing to what he wanted in times of challenged communication. I made it for him on a Tuesday. He passed away on Thursday. In that short time it helped reduce the frustration of communicating only a handful of times, but it did help.

Second page of the two-page communication tool for helping hospice patients communicate
Second page of a two-page communication tool for helping hospice patients communicate. (Click image to see larger version and instructions for saving. Kosher verson also included.)

Recently another family member started hospice, I’ll call her Mary. Many of the same communication struggles I saw with my father can be seen with Mary, except Mary has less energy and less motor skill coordination than my father. My father had enough energy to point to areas of this two-sided paper tool. Mary does not. While Mary may not have the muscle coordination to use her hands, she does seem to have greater control of her head movements. I started thinking how such a communication tool could be used and thought maybe these pages could be enlarged, printed on a large poster board, and attached to a nearby wall at eye level from sitting upright on a bed. Then a laser pointer could be fixed to a hat, allowing the beam of light to point to items on the poster board Mary might need.

I wish to share what I have learned, along with these communication pages, hoping it can help others. If you would like a copy of these files to print out and use yourself, you can save each individual JPG file by clicking on the images above and read the instructions provided at the top of each page. Both male and female versions are available, including a kosher version for the food page. If you have an iPad or some other similar tablet, one easy way to use these files is to download them from a browser and save the files to a photo application on your device for quick access, removing the need to print.

I know every hospice situation is unique, mine is not the only story. If you have observations of your own about other successful ideas to make communication easier, or other common items requested from an ailing relative in hospice, please do share in the comments below.