Archive for the 'Age 11-12/Grade 6-8/Tween' Category

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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Peeking Under the Cloak of Wizard101

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

[The following is an article I wrote for the September 2011 issue of Children's Technology Review. If you’re interested in the new 360KID Q2 2011 virtual world report, you can purchase the full report, which includes an expanded Wizard101 interview, by emailing me at scott (at) 360KID (dot) com with "Virtual World Research Report" in the Subject line. The next quarterly report will be completed in late October, 2011.]

The creators behind Wizard101: Josef Hall and Todd Coleman

Being the number one virtual world for kids is no small thing, especially in these days of Disney, Nick and Cartoon Network. But what’s interesting about Wizard101 is that 60% of visitors are playing with another member of their family (at least, according to a recent Trinity University study). What’s are they doing right?

To find out, CTR correspondent Scott Traylor interviewed head wizards at KingsIsle: Josef Hall and Todd Coleman, on a quest for their magic formula. Note that portions of this interview have been condensed, and this interview is part of a larger report that is sold separately.

Where did the Wizard101 idea come from?

The Wizard101 faculty

Josef Hall: We started talking about it seven years ago. I have three kids, they were young then, and I wanted them to have a safe and high-quality online game. Todd and I thought the children’s space really seemed underserved. We wanted to make something that was triple-A, super high-quality. Something we could feel comfortable with our kids and other kids playing.

Todd Coleman: Josef and I were founders of another game company that made hardcore fantasy games with violence and mature themes. We were interested in going in a different direction, a more lighthearted approach to gaming through storytelling.

So the founders of KingsIsle brought you on and charged you with developing a virtual world product for them?

Todd: The story goes back earlier than that. Elie Akilian, our CEO and primary investor had an idea to create a new kind of game company. He talked to a dozen or more game companies to find a partner. At the same time he was searching for a partner, Josef and I were out talking to big publishing houses about a new kind of game we wanted to create. What’s funny about both sides of that story, neither of us were finding traction. Elie found that game companies were mostly interested in making shooters or army games or post-apocalyptic games, hardcore games for hardcode players. When Josef and I were talking to studios, those were the same types of games they wanted to fund. We stumbled into Elie who looked at us, having come out of the hardcore game space, now pitching a wizard game for the family, and it became apparent we should join forces.

From the beginning the idea was to create a family-based wizarding world, even before KingsIsle was formed?

Todd: Yes, in fact if you go back and read the high concept document that Josef and I put together, it’s amazing how much of that original vision is exactly the same as what we created.

How long were you in development?

Josef: About two and a half years before we went into alpha with friends and family.

Todd: And another eight weeks before we went live.

Did the masses come right away?

Todd: It took time. It was about six months of steady growth, but we hadn’t yet hit the tipping point. That was in December 2008 when it started to pick up steam.

Josef: We did some national television advertising, then things really took off. We started growing quickly around that time, and we knew we had something special.

How has Wizard101 changed since you launched?

Josef: The game has stayed true to what it was when we launched, but we’ve added a lot of things, like a housing system and gardening. Everything has kind of the wizard slant. The gardening’s not a normal gardening system. You grow funny plants that have a lot of character and personality, like Couch Potatoes which are little spuds sitting on couches watching TV and talking to each other. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. We’ve added a pet system where you can own pets and grow them through different in-game mini games. We’ve also added a lot of new worlds, some are pretty big departures from the existing world, like Celestia, which is underwater.

The Wizard101 garden is truly magical.

[CTR Editor's note: Most of these are premium features, available only with a code that costs up to $39. That's the magic of Wizard101's business model.]

Have you learned anything surprising about your audience?

Todd: It’s a wider age spectrum than we expected. We started hearing grandparents were getting into the game, using it as a way to stay connected to their grandchildren. This was really surprising and just really cool to us. It’s something you can’t predict going in. You sit down, make the best game you can, and what you don’t really have control over is player behaviors. Players come into this empty world you crafted. They bring their own hopes and expectations and experiences and relationships. Then the world starts to take on a life of its own. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

How has the business of virtual worlds changed in the last few years?

Todd: Back when we started Wizard, the biggest game at the time was EverQuest, having amassed 400 thousand people. The prevailing thought in the industry at the time was any new virtual worlds to come out would simply carve up the same base of 400 thousand players. Then World of Warcraft launched and started racking up millions upon millions of players. All of a sudden people realized there was a new market. After that, the free-to-play model started in Asia. When it first came to the US, people thought that model would never fly, and of course that was not the case. Today you’re seeing these very casual games pop up on Facebook, and people who never considered themselves gamers, hundreds of millions of people, are now playing on a daily basis. Using those games as a way to connect with their friends.

What was your single biggest moment in the Wizard101 history?

Josef: One that jumps to mind was early on in development I came home and all the computers were taken over by my wife and kids. They were so deep into the game nobody noticed I came in the door. They were laughing and talking to each other, running around in the game. I knew at that moment we had built something that was a lot of fun for my family and would be fun for other families too. It was a wonderful moment.

Todd: My biggest moment was during development. I remember we had our first milestone, an internal test. We had created the art pieces and had engineering working on the code and a design group working on the players and the characters and pulling it all together. We fired it up, and Josef and I were able to jump in for the first time and play. It was that vision we had, taken from a “Wouldn’t it be cool?” conversation to actually seeing it on the screen. It was buggy, the sound wasn’t working, the cinematics were too long, the cameras weren’t working, but looking past all those warts and seeing it, at that moment I knew it was going to work. Josef and I were like, “Okay, we’ve got something here.” I think it was two in the morning. But that moment, you turn that corner and know you’ve gone from an idea to an actual game. Nothing beats that.

(Photo and images © KingsIsle Entertainment)

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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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Fun with 3D Glasses, and Ideas

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Turning ideas into reality, make your own Kermit the Frog glasses

Ever wonder what you can do with those 3D glasses after you go to see one of the latest 3D movies? Yes, you can recycle the glasses, but what if you wanted to do something creative with them? Well, here you go, make your own Kermit the Frog glasses!

I’ve had the idea to create froggy spectacles for a couple of years now. Whenever I have a creative idea, I try to capture it in my “Idea Book.” I’ve been keeping an idea book for a long time, and I encourage others, especially young children, to keep an idea book too. Going on a long family trip? Bring along your idea book! Kids want to play another 15 minutes of video games? Okay, after you have come up with three new ideas to put in your idea book. It’s a lot of fun to look back on ideas you have sketched out. Sometime, long after you have captured your idea, you might realize you have the materials laying around to make your idea a reality!

Here's a look at the different 3D glasses template I've created in the PDF file you can download. Included in the design is Kermit the Frog, stars, hearts, and dollar signs.

To get started with your own glasses, click here to download a PDF template I made with a few different designs. I’ve added stars, hearts and dollar signs. After you print out the page, use a pair of scissors to cut carefully along the inside of the thick gray line. If you’re really good, you can also try cutting out the inside shape using a sharp X-Acto knife, which will allow you to see through your glasses after you have applied the paper cut outs on top of the frames. I’ve found you can just slip the paper cutouts under the plastic rim to hold them in place. If you want the paper to stay in place more permanently, use a glue stick or rubber cement.

Enjoy making your own glasses, and take lots of photos to remember the fun! You can even paste a photo of your completed creations into your very own idea book to show others you can made your ideas come true!

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