Archive for the 'Age 08-10/Grade 3-5/Tween' Category

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.

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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.

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Duck Duck Moose Gets a Golden Egg

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

[Note: this is an excerpt from the upcoming October 2012 issue of Children's Technology Review.].

Children's app developer Duck Duck Moose

When it comes to apps that actively engage young children, one of the companies with products on every list is Duck Duck Moose Design. This three person studio — funny name and all – was one of the first to the children’s app scene, with an app called Wheels on the Bus.

Duck Duck Moose is a three person start-up based in San Mateo, CA. It launched it’s first app in 2009; today there are 14 DDM titles, collectively accounting for about 2.4 million paid downloads (publisher numbers).

On September 26, 2012, Duck Duck Moose announced it will be changing and expanding it’s business, with a $7 million investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia Capital and Stanford University. This type of investment raises questions that every small publisher hopes to deal with. “What do we do with lots of money?” “Is it possible to grow in a smart way, and keep the focus on quality?” And more importantly, “is this type of investment, and the constraints that come with it, a blessing or a curse?”

Of course, only time will tell. But we can say one thing for sure — Duck Duck Moose Design is once again charting new ground, as one of the first small mom-and-pop app publishers to get a big investment. Many other small children’s app publishers will be watching from the sidelines with great interest to see how this cash infusion will affect their work.

Children's app developer Duck Duck Moose
(Duck Duck Moose Founders Nicci Grabiel, Caroline Hu Flexer, and Michael Flexer)

A full interview with DDM co-founder Caroline Hu Flexer will appear in the October issue of Children’s Technology Review. In anticipation of that issue’s release, here are a few questions from the full interview to come.

Scott Traylor: Tell me about the first app you developed.

Caroline Hu Flexer: As a hobby, we started designing the Wheels on the Bus app for our own child. My husband Michael, and our good friend Nicci Gabriel worked on developing the app part-time over a three month period. We all had other full-time jobs. We launched that app in 2009. Later that year we won a KAPi Award, our first children’s industry award, and that was the beginning. That’s when we realized that maybe this could become a business. Wheels on the Bus continues to sell three-and-a-half years after it’s launch, and it’s still in the top charts. It wasn’t until 2010 that Nicci and I started working full-time. Michael started full time in 2011. It was just the three of us up until early this year. Recently our good friend, Jesse Ambrose, a founding engineer at Siebel Systems with my husband Michael, joined our team full-time. The four of us basically created the first 11 titles. Today we’re a team of nine, including the three founders.

ST: How has your thinking changed about developing apps for kids since you started?

CHF: The core of it hasn’t changed. We’ve always put kids at the center of what we do, but we’re always learning different things with each app and with different ages we may be targeting. We’ve done a lot of different types of apps. We started with toddler apps, like The Wheels on the Bus, which had one or two things for a young child to focus on. We didn’t want our apps to be over-stimulating, to have too many things going on at the same time. From a developmental perspective, we wanted our apps for toddlers to have simple interactions, whereas as we develop for older children, our apps have been more open-ended and have evolved into more layered interactions. One example for older children is our Draw and Tell app, where children make their own drawings, record their own voices, and create their own story. It’s a very different approach to the interaction.

ST: While there are many more big companies with big brands going into the children’s app business, would you say big business has seen big success from those efforts?

CHF: There have been some successes. It’s still rare to find interesting new content. There are a lot of big children’s media companies that have good apps and include characters that really appeal to children, but I think it’s a very unique time where we can invent new experiences using new characters because it’s a new platform. We’re able to do something really creative, and I think that’s a pretty rare opportunity. There are not that many companies creating their own original story lines and characters. It’s much more fun to invent something new, and it’s a better business model for us too.

The first children's app from Duck Duck Moose called Wheels on the Bus
(The first children’s app from Duck Duck Moose called Wheels on the Bus)

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Children’s Virtual Worlds — Sliced and Diced

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

[The following is an article I wrote for the July 2011 issue of Children's Technology Review. If you’re interested in learning more about my recent virtual world research, you can purchase an expanded report by emailing me at scott (at) 360KID (dot) com with "Virtual World Research Report" in the Subject line. My next quarterly report will be completed on July 20, 2011]

The Top 20 Kid and Tween Virtual World and MMO destinations which include Wizard 101, Poptropica, Webkinz, Club Penguin, Fantage, Moshi Monsters, Minecraft, Monkey Quest, Jumpstart, NeoPets, Toon Town, Pixie Hollow, Roblox, PetPetPark, Build-a-bearville, Ourworld, Clone Wars Adventures, Pirates of the Caribbean, Happy Meal, FreeRealms

It’s been amazing to watch the virtual world (VW) space grow by leaps and bounds over such a short time. Using unique user traffic as a yardstick, the virtual world and massively multiplayer online (MMO) space increased more than 50% last year. Compare that with 15% for the prior year (in the US). The first thing to note is that traffic patterns seem to follow a seasonal rise and fall. Traffic increases from spring to early summer only to drop significantly when school starts in September. Then, as the holiday season approaches, it peaks before dropping off again in the new year.

WHAT’S HOT? The most popular destinations for both kids and adults are “casual gaming” destinations. For kids and tweens, that means Wizard 101, Poptropica, Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters (which was just valued at $200 million). While social and chat-based destinations like IMVU and Hi5 fall in second place for the young adult and older crowd, destinations that have a toy tie-in or real world connection, like Webkinz and Build-A-Bearville hold second place for kids and tweens. However, this VW/MMO type has been on a slow two-year decline, largely as a result of Webkinz loosing significant marketshare over that period, to newcomers like Wizard 101 and Poptropica. While Club Penguin has dropped in placement on the best top 10 list for kids, it has done a surprisingly good job of maintaining marketshare, loosing only a small percentage compared to Webkinz.

Two destinations have really taken off. Minecraft, a “better than LEGO Universe” online building (or “crafting”) world that appeals to both boys and girls is growing at an amazing rate globally. The funny thing about Minecraft is that it is still in public Beta! It’s not even a fully released product yet. (Note to execs, learn from this product’s creative expression thinking AND business model!) If you are not yet familiar with this low res, yesteryear looking world, tonight’s homework is to get familiar with it, NOW. Educators should note that teachers are beginning to create lesson plans around Minecraft’s in-world building activities. The second destination of note is Nickelodeon’s latest virtual world offering, Monkey Quest. This new 3D world is also growing quickly since its launch earlier this year and you can’t miss the advertising on Nickelodeon cable channels throughout the day. It’s a world that spent more than a couple of years in development and the polish shows now that it’s ready for prime time.

As we head into the summer months, the kids VW/MMO industry typically assumes that as the dog days of summer drag on, kids will become bored and start to gravitate to virtual world activities from the indoor comfort of an air conditioned room. If you watch any amount of children’s commercial television during the summer you can’t help notice the number of virtual world advertisements. However, while it is unclear if subscription rates actually rise during the summer months, unique traffic to kids VW/MMOs actually falls through July and August, especially in the casual gaming sector and in the toy and web connect space, an interesting trend that goes against popular belief.

What about education-based destinations? You might imagine these kind of sites have some appeal with younger audiences and kids, right? While the casual gaming space has captured almost 34% of all VW/MMO traffic, educational destinations hold less than 6% for all ages, and only 4.4% of all traffic for the top 20 kid and tween educational destinations. Out of this list, a majority share of traffic goes to Knowledge Adventure’s JumpStart and their new and fast growing world Math Blaster. Almost all other destinations show small numbers in comparison.

As I look back on the virtual world and MMO data I have collected over the past five years one thing is certain; expect to see many more virtual worlds launching in the months and years ahead. I remember a few years ago hearing one day there will be over 300 virtual worlds globally. I remember thinking “that’s impossible, we will never have that many.” Well, that day has recently come and gone. I continue to add another ten destinations to my list every month. Adding more new worlds to the existing list of players will create challenges for everyone in this field, pushing all players to continually improve, build out, and try to hold onto market share. Ultimately it will be the children and their parents that will benefit. Each new world that launches raises the bar for quality, engagement, innovation and ultimately, access. That’s the good for kids, but it presents an ongoing challenge for publishers who choose to play in the virtual space.

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The Thin Line Between Education and Entertainment

Friday, May 13th, 2011

[The following is a piece I wrote for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's 2011 Leadership Forum, Learning from Hollywood, a cross-industry event that will explore new ways of bridging the perceived gap between entertainment and education. The event will be held in Los Angeles at the USC School of Cinematic Arts on May 16 & 17. ]

If you were challenged to define what math is, what would you say? How about science? What makes the two different, or maybe even the same? I started exploring the idea of what makes up these educational disciplines as a result of hearing the term STEM more and more in the news. STEM is a short-handed way of referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but is this term simply a collection of separate items, or could there be something larger at play here because of the overlaps between these disciplines? Is there greater benefit to the whole than simply its parts and could this concept be applied to other similar examples outside of education as well?

While noodling with the idea of categories and boundaries, I remembered a discussion I had with Vinton Cerf from Google many months ago. Vint is frequently cited as “the father of the Internet” a title he will quickly point out involves the contributions of many of his fellow colleagues, and not just those of his own.

During our meeting we talked about how Google looks at the world of content. Vint shared with me the following:

“In the academic world it has become traditional to speak of disciplines, and that’s an organizational artifact; geology, history, English, physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on. Yet when we dive down deep we discover this is all a continuum. These things are not really broken up with such hard walls and barriers between them. Understanding that those disciplines are actually related to each other in a very intimate way is an important thing. I want to be careful about the idea of organizing information into categories. That can be helpful abstraction but it’s dangerous if you actually believe these things are segregated from each other.”

Upon reflecting on Vint’s words, I immediately thought of a quote by the great media thinker Marshall McLuhan, who famously said:

“Anyone who makes a distinction between entertainment and education doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

Connecting the dots between the two statements came over me like a tidal wave. Could we as media creators, educators, researchers, whatever the industry, be carrying with us artificial boundaries that prevent us from making real breakthroughs in our field? If we look for new ways to engage audiences through media creation wouldn’t it be in defining new boundaries that reshapes society’s thinking about these boundaries?

Simply being aware that we have the ability to redefine those boundaries may actually be the first step in creating something larger, something that is truly breakthrough. How would you define the boundaries between education and entertainment? Or should we instead define the overlaps, or maybe even define how we wish those boundaries to be drawn? The overlaps appear to change and grow with every advance in technology. Their sum is greater than the parts. To separate the two diminishes our ability as creators to discover new opportunities and reach audiences in ways never before dreamed possible.

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