Archive for the 'Social Networking' Category

Breaking New Ground

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Summer 2014 cover of iKids Magazine for the story Breaking New Ground.

The following is a cover story I wrote for the Summer 2014 issue of iKids Magazine.

In this blog version of the article I’ve included some additional information that didn’t make it into the magazine. I originally wrote this piece to discover what elements help a kidtech business succeed, and what part does geography play, if any, in the growth and success of that business.

I also wrote this piece because I’m exploring larger business ideas in the kidtech space. If you’re a like-minded entrepreneur or investor interested in engaging kids through the latest technology or digital device, send me an
email
. I look forward to having a future conversation with you.

Note, dollar amounts mentioned in this article represent US or Canadian dollars, depending on the country being discussed.


In this developer’s eye view of the North American children’s tech startup landscape, 360KID founder Scott Traylor finds flourishing life—and dollars—in some pretty exotic places beyond New York and San Francisco. You may never look at Pittsburgh the same way again.

As a Boston-based developer of children’s games, I’m well aware of life outside the confines of San Francisco and New York. Of course, many kidtech startup businesses can be found in these two cities, with Toca Boca, Duck Duck Moose, Fingerprint, Curious Hat, Wanderful, Launchpad Toys and ToyTalk all dotting the Bay Area. And Tinybop, Hopscotch, Ruckus, Speekaboos, Hallabalu and MarcoPolo—to name a few—having set up shop in the Big Apple.

In terms of venture investments, in the last five years in San Francisco and New York City alone, venture organizations closed more than 3,300 business deals in Silicon Valley to the tune of $31.5 billion. New York saw more than 1,200 deals close with more than $8 billion invested. However, only the tiniest sliver of these investments went to fund kidtech business. Less than two-tenths of one percent, or $52 million, has been invested in kid-based technology companies in San Francisco in the last five years. An even smaller amount, just under $34 million, was invested in New York City during the same period. The capital is there, no doubt, but it’s not necessarily flowing in the direction of kid-centric businesses.

A closer look at thriving startup communities specifically in Boulder, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Kelowna, Canada, have offered refreshing insight into what it takes for a kids tech business to grow and succeed. Business success in the kids space isn’t simply an entrepreneurial stew made up of creativity, talent and perseverance. It’s about access to capital, and it also has a lot to do with where you start your business geographically.

While the following new companies run the gamut from products to service-based in the areas of apps, eBooks, programmable robots and related interactive media, common threads across these three cities in which they are housed include a willing investment community, a local ecosystem that supports new business, entrepreneurial events that encourage business leaders to exchange ideas, and local universities where intellectual curiosity and talent can be shared with entrepreneurs.


BOULDER, COLORADO


One of many great block-based robitics kits from Modular Robotics.

The startup and venture capital scene in Boulder has grown significantly over the last two decades. In the last month, Boulder actually exceeded New York kidtech investing, reaching a total of nearly $41 million in the last five years. Overall, Boulder is a thriving startup Mecca across many technology sectors, and the kidtech offerings based there are heavily focused on software, robotics and electronics kits, with honorable mentions including:

  • Modular Robotics, a company that sells magnetic cube-like electronic parts that can easily be snapped together and programmed to build robots controlled by a mobile device or tablet. Modular Robotics is also a Carnegie Mellon business spinoff. (Photo above is of a Modular Robotics product.)

  • Orbotix markets a popular programmable electronic ball called Sphero, and the company’s new product rollout called Ollie, Both Sphero and Ollie can also be controlled through a mobile phone or tablet and have a growing developer community that makes apps that interact with, and control, these robots.

  • Artificial intelligence drives the Ubooly mobile phone or tablet friend that can talk to you, as well as listen to what you say. Ubooly comes complete with an accompanying cuddly plush cover, as well as a growing list of stories, interactive activities and games.

  • ATOMS, by startup Seamless Toy Company, are one of the latest electronic construction kits that work with Lego, as well as many other construction toys. ATOMS can be controlled by a mobile device and vice-versa The founder of Seamless Toy Company holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon and MIT.

While there are a number of venture capital firms that have helped grow Boulder businesses, two investment groups in particular are behind some of these companies. Incubator group Techstars, which has a significant presence in Boulder, as well as many other cities in the US, and venture investment company the Foundry Group were both founded by Brad Feld. He is particularly interested in growing the digital startup scene in Boulder. Feld believes in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, a vision he’s dubbed as the “Boulder Thesis,” which suggests that an environment needs a mix of old and new entrepreneurs, inclusive of all kinds of business experience and ability. The ecosystem thrives on meetups, hackathons, conferences, professional get-togethers and business pitch events.


KELOWNA, CANADA


Game development company Hyper Hippo calls Kelowna, Canada its home.

Located roughly 240 miles east of Vancouver and 310 miles northeast of Seattle, Canada’s Kelowna is similar in size to Boulder and has the beginnings of the same entrepreneurial ingredients. A number of seasoned local entrepreneurs have turned their interests toward investing in local technology startups, many of which revolve around videogames, animation, social media and virtual worlds. In terms of local kidtech, the success story of Club Penguin, which was acquired by Disney in 2007, plays an important role in Kelowna. As with other large investment locations, an established leader in the area will often result in the appearance of many small startups with a similar interest over time. High-profile former employees include the likes of Club Penguin’s co-founders, who have moved on to start some of these new companies:

  • Hyper Hippo is one such Kelowna startup founded by Club Penguin co-founder Lance Priebe. While Hyper Hippo is a game development company, it also recently launched a new immersive virtual world for kids called Mech Mice. (Photo above is of a Hyper Hippo online game.)

  • Lane Merrifield is another co-founder of Club Penguin. He recently left Disney to start a new business called Fresh Grade, which develops classroom management and assessment products that teachers and parents can use to access up-to-the-minute information about their students through a mobile device.

  • Just Be Friends is a local-social education platform that connects parents, kids, neighbors and schools to help strengthen local communities. Founded by Janice Taylor, who has appeared on Oprah, the startup initially launched in San Francisco but eventually moved to Kelowna.

  • A great strength of Club Penguin is its child-safe chat-filtering technology. The former chat technology specialists for the company started a new online chat-filtering business called Two Hat Security, also known in the industry as PottyMouth, to offer other global kid-focused businesses safe online chat technologies.

Accelerate Okanagan is one local organization that is advancing much of the startup activity in the region. Now in its third year, Accelerate is an incubator for fledgling businesses, and its only requirement is that companies pay a $200 per month assistance fee and monthly rent for office space. Once paid, a host of resources become available, including mentorship, legal advice, business advice, access to talent, and cross-collaboration with other Accelerate Okanagan businesses. The incubator also receives government funding. Currently, roughly 50% of the revenue needed to support incubator initiatives comes from government money, but it’s anticipated that this percentage will drop year over year. In the last two years, Accelerate Okanagan has raised more than $8 million from local businesses and entrepreneurs to advance startups, as well as help fund local area meetings and get-togethers. Unlike other incubators, Accelerate Okanagan does not ask for any equity, which is a rare opportunity—and one that is helping about eight kid-focused businesses right now. Accelerate Okanagan is also watching the growing community of startup successes in Boulder, and has similar plans to expand its own model throughout British Columbia, much in the same way that Techstars has throughout the US.


PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
DIY meets robotics thanks to Pittsburgh-based BirdBrain Technologies.

Believe it. The Pittsburgh community is playing its part in the startup scene—and it’s brilliant. Pittsburgh also happens to be home to renowned children’s television favorite, Mister Rogers, which is a great place to start the city’s story.

Every two years, a local event called FredForward honors the work and memory of Fred Rogers and brings together some of the greatest minds in children’s media, child development, kid-focused policy initiatives and kid media moguls.

In 2007, Gregg Behr, the executive director of The Grable Foundation, presented the idea for the Kids+Creativity Network, bringing together the region’s educators with technologists, gamers, and roboticists to re-imagining Pittsburgh as Kidsburgh. Since then, the notion has gained attention and support from local businesses, community leaders and foundations that include the Benedum, Hillman, McCune, Pittsburgh, and MacArthur foundations. The network has grown to nearly 2,000 strong—and kidtech and largely edtech-focused startups are starting to bloom.

While on a somewhat smaller venture investment scale than Boulder and Kelowna, though it has three times the population of both cities, Pittsburgh’s startups, nonprofits and schools can collectively receive grants and services from such intermediaries and accelerators as the Sprout Fund, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Innovation Works, and the Thrill Mill. The Sprout Fund, for instance, offers grants that range from $1,000 to $15,000 six times a year that help carry out the idea that will advance the interests of digital, maker, and STEAM learning.

Just one of many examples of this kind of grant/community collaboration in action, a for-profit startup called Zulama, working with the local educational non-profit Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) developed a program for 9th and 10th graders called the Game Design Boot Camp. Together they defined an unbelievable opportunity for high school students to explore game design. Working with game design experts, students learned how to develop their own original games and received high school credit for completing the program. AIU was the primary grant holder who promoted the opportunity to 42 different school districts. Zulama provided expertise, talent, content and curriculum to students. The grant offered scholarships for 20 students, though more than 75 teens applied.

For its part, Carnegie Mellon University encourages entrepreneurship through CMU faculty and students, making it easier for them to spinoff their own tech businesses. The university implemented a technology transfer program called “Five percent, and go in peace” that allows faculty and student spinoffs to use intellectual property owned by the school for a 5% stake in the startup’s future success. Looking around the Pittsburgh area, it’s an incredibly successful program that spawned a record 36 new companies in 2013 alone. Here are some notable newcomers to Kidsburgh:

  • BirdBrain Technologies sells electronics kits where kids combine arts & crafts materials to create their own programmable robots. BirdBrain is also a Carnegie Mellon spinoff. At press time, BirdBrain just launched a Kickstarter campaign for its new electronics kit, the Hummingbird Duo, and has exceeded it’s goal with 16 days left. (Photo above is of a BirdBrain crafting and robotics kit.)

  • Digital Dream Labs mixes programming and video game controls. Digital Dream Labs developed physical puzzle pieces that are placed strategically on a holding tray. Each puzzle piece contains instructions that are sent wirelessly to a tablet or mobile device to control a videogame. All three Digital Dream Labs founders are Carnegie Mellon graduates.

  • Zulama is an online community for teens that helps teach design, programming and art creation for videogames. Zulama also develops many high-interest online courses in subjects teens are passionate and have great interest in.

  • GenevaMars develops story-based, character-driven learning apps that are fun and educational for kids. Its team is made up of artists, producers and educators from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.


GOING NATIVE

Any city that has a strong entrepreneurial environment will often host startup events throughout the year, offering insights and wisdom on how to fund your business. During one recent startup event in Silicon Valley called The Perfect Pitch: Connecting with Investors, about 120 entrepreneurs attended looking for a leg up on how to grow their businesses to the next level.

“If you are from outside the area I recommend that you ‘go native,'” says Bill Reichert, the Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures, a venture funding company co-founded by industry giant and evangelist Guy Kawasaki. “One of the great things about Silicon Valley is if you come here we will embrace you, we will love you, and we will smile, but if you are a visitor, we will not fund you. If you’re serious about wanting to plug in to Silicon Valley, that’s what I mean by saying ‘go native.'”

There is an element of truth to going native, at least in terms of securing seed funding or joining an incubator to get a kidtech idea off the ground. Going native is not an absolute, but it does appear to make a difference in getting started. Can an outsider succeed in one of these regions? Maybe, but digging down into who gets funded and who doesn’t, going native appears to be a very attractive component for investors. Investors like the idea of being connected, which can be a hard thing to do from afar.


NOTEWORTHY MENTIONS

There are a few businesses that don’t fall cleanly under the category of kidtech, or do not hail from one of the above mentioned cities, but they are kid-related businesses worth noting.

  • Washington, DC-based Zoobean launched in 2012 and is a parent-driven online recommendation service that curates apps and books for children. The company also recently made a big splash on the reality startup show Shark Tank. Zoobean landed $250,OOO from one of the show’s investors, Mark Cuban, bringing its current fundraising tally to $1.2 million.

  • Nix Hydra is a teen girl gaming company based in Los Angeles that has attracted a lot of attention with its first app release called Egg Baby which has been downloaded nine million times. The company just landed $5 million from the Foundry Group.

  • Another recently funded and very interesting startup is a company called Pley, founded in 2012. What’s Pley’s million dollar idea? (Or their $6.7 million venture backed idea?) Renting Lego kits. Yup. Think Netflix, but with Lego.

  • Fitwits is a non-tech kids company in Pittsburgh. Their specialty is selling card-based games that encourage kids through play to make healthy eating choices.

  • Another business with an active, high-profile Kickstarter campaign is from LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow fame. His L.A.-based eBook business, RR Kids, was looking to raise more than $1 million to expand its subscription-based children’s eBook offerings. At press time, RR Kids had exceeded its goal more than three times over.

  • And a noteworthy group of companies; First, you’re probably familiar with the much talked about girl-empowerment toy company GoldieBlox. They had a massive hit through Kickstarter, raising almost $289,000. GoldieBlox also won a national startup competition for a 30 second spot on the Superbowl. Well, there must be something going on just outside of San Francisco area where GoldieBlox is located. Two other local girl-powered, construction-based toy companies also launched around the same time, and also landed seed funding through Kickstarter. Roominate landed almost $86,000 and Build & Imagine captured $30,000.


LESSONS LEARNED

So what is it that’s needed for a kidtech business to grow and succeed? Tenacity, focus, business endurance in the face of incredible odds, leadership skills, creativity, a passion for kids. The answer includes all of that, but so much more.

While any kid business can succeed in any location on the planet, Boulder, Kelowna, and Pittsburgh, as well as the bigger funding locations like San Francisco and New York City, all of these areas provide invaluable support structures, which are a main ingredient needed for kidtech businesses to succeed. Venture funding, angel investment, foundation grants, friends and family fundraising, and even local and federal government supports (including tax incentives) are some very important ingredients as well. Access to other entrepreneurs that have an understanding of your industry’s needs, who can share experiences and toss about new ideas. Access to local colleges and universities, where not only talent and innovation can spur from, but also new business spinoffs as well. Ultimately, the invaluable support of an understanding community, both business and non-business alike, may be the most vital ingredient. Toss all of these items together in a large bowl, sprinkle with a wish, a prayer, some blood, sweat and tears, then serve. If the combination does not show early signs of success, start over, mix together again, but this time add a larger scoop of community.

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Kid Testing and Facebook – What? Are You Crazy?!

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

How 360KID uses Facebook to find kid testers to improve their digital creations and apps.

This has been a busy year of development for my company. We’ve been creating multiple interactive products for kids. Some are learning apps, some are online games, some electronic toys. Some are for preschoolers, some for tweens. All of them have one thing in common. The completed products must successfully engage kids. In an effort to make sure we are making the best interactive products possible, we need to test our ideas with children. When I say “we” I mean the larger kids industry, not just my company. For those who develop any kind of product or media for kids (especially all those children’s app developers out there! I’m talking to you!) you MUST kid test your products. Get your software builds, your animations, your web games, your characters, your paper prototypes out there in front of real kids! Do not go to market without testing your assumptions, you may find you had it all wrong. Testing is an invaluable part of children’s media development and should be part of every product you make if you work in the kids biz.

There are a number of ways to recruit kids for testing. You can reach out to family and friends, kids in your neighborhood. However, sometimes you need to reach out beyond your known circle and find kids from another location; say kids that live in a city, or bilingual preschoolers, or eight to ten year olds that belong to Girl Scouts, or tweens that like to play baseball. What do you do then?

While you can reach out to specific youth groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other kid-focused organizations, you can also use Facebook. Now I know you’re saying “What?! Facebook? For recruiting kid testers? Are you crazy?!” As with all kid testing, you’re starting a conversation with a parent, and recruiting through Facebook means you are looking to have a conversation with a parent about kid testing.

Here’s a more detailed look at one kid testing ad campaign we placed on Facebook. We started by selecting a particular town we wished our testers to come from. The 10 mile radius around that town had 168,000 parents using Facebook. Selecting a thinner slice from that group, parents with children ages 4 to 12 resulted in 1,400 Facebook users. When you start a Facebook ad, you can get very specific about the kind of person you wish to reach. Do you want to reach just men 25 years of age or older? How about just women with a PhD? All of this is possible to define in your campaign. However, the more specific you get with your target demographic, the smaller your audience will become.

We posted an ad for kid testers for 45 days, with a maximum bid of $2.50 per click, not to exceed a cost of $50 a day. Our ad appeared over 712,000 times (impressions), reaching more than 8,200 Facebook users in our target age and location (demographic), resulting in a click-through rate (CTR) of 427. We heard from about 45 parents, leading to 22 parents bringing in 30 children, all for a total cost of $560, or about $1.30 per click.

Another way to look at our recruiting costs: $25 per parent or about $19 per child. This was just our advertising cost and did not include email communication time, phone calls, testing time, analysis of results, or the stipend we offered a parent for having their child come in to test with us.

Was it worth it? Yes, in the end Facebook definitely helped us find kids from a specific geo-targeted location to test with.

Was it perfect? Hardly. There were many frustrating parts to working with Facebook. First time advertisers will be annoyed that once you place an ad, it can take many days before your campaign is approved and goes live. While you’re waiting, all you can do is think about what you did wrong and why your ad is not producing. During this time you’ll probably change your ad copy and up the daily maximum bid thinking it will help. But hold tight, Facebook is just being Facebook. It takes time for an ad to kick in, and you will receive next to no communication from Facebook while you are pulling out your hair, wondering what’s going on.

Were there any surprises? You bet. While many parents found our ad on Facebook, there were some “uber parents” that helped spread the word around their neighborhood that we were looking for kid testers. About four parents that came in were in this category. They were great at helping reach many more parents, including non-Facebook users as well.

In the end we met many great parents with some wonderful kids. All of which helped us refine our product and made it better. We couldn’t be happier, and our finished product shines as a result of the feedback we incorporated back into development! Thank you parents and our 360KID testers!

Bottom line: It doesn’t matter how you find kids to test with, using Facebook or some other means, what matters is that you test! Doing so will only help make your product shine, stand out from the pack, and lead to more successful interactions through your product with kids. Now get out there and start testing!

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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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Will Wright on Game Design, Play and Learning

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

[The following is an article I wrote for the January 2012 issue of Children’s Technology Review.]

Will Wright, video game developer extraordinaire, takes questions from the audience while sitting on stage

If somebody asked you to name the masters of interactive design, chances are good that Will Wright would be on your list. He created SimCity which led to SimAnt, The Sims, and Spore, and he’s currently working on a new social game called HiveMind. Last year in New York, I heard him speak and was struck by his thoughts about the learning opportunities he brings to his players, and asked him about it. What does he think about when he makes a game? What are some key influences? (Note that this was a long interview, and edits have been made for clarity).

Scott Traylor: In your presentations you often refer to learning theory, including your own Montessori education. It seems you have a passion for the topic.

Will Wright: Learning theory is certainly one of the factors that shapes my talks and my work in general, but it’s only one element. For me, making a game or a talk is a process of continual self-discovery.

Scott: Can this be attributed to your Montessori background?

Will: Montessori is good for self-discovery and exploration, but Montessori didn’t invent it. Self-discovery and exploration have existed for millennia before Montessori. it’s the way the human brain works. The whole constructivist approach to education simply leverages hardware that’s already built in.

Scott: When you say “constructivist” is it fair to say that you are thinking of Piaget and perhaps Seymore Papert?

Will: Oh, yes, and Alan Kay as well. This formalized approach to learning has really only been around for maybe a 100 years. We can go back hundreds and hundreds of years before that and see people understood this as the primary mode of learning. Consider the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci. At some point the pedagogy got wrapped around that inherent process. It’s something that has remained, almost becoming more relevant in terms of its implications with modern technology, or our imaginations, and our creativity. It’s almost more relevant now where people can approach a wider range of endeavors creatively, because of the tools we have, for gathering information, for creating things, for sharing things.

Scott: So you’re saying we’re at a point, technically speaking, where we are empowered as creators, as explorers, in anything that might interest us?

Will: Yes, especially in things like the social dimension. I can create something and put it up on the web and then by tomorrow 1,000 people might’ve seen it. Think back 100 years ago what it would have taken for that to happen. It just wasn’t a possibility then, but now it’s a possibility for anyone.

Scott: While these theories have become more formalized in the last century or so, good teachers and good facilitators of learning have been aware of these things for ages. Now there’s the opportunity for learning to be amped up through technology and through participation in a way we have never experience before, in such an immediate way.

Will: Yeah, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay were among the first people to realize the impact that modern technology was going to have. Nicholas Negroponte, as well.

Scott: When you talk about games, or video games, you often refer to these things as playful objects. Is that intentional?

Will: Let’s take a look at that. People like to call the things I make games, but I tend to think of them as toys. There really needs to be more open-ended play experiences and that’s a broader world than the formal definition of games. I think a game is really a subset of the world of play. In substance it’s really just semantics but it’s cultural as well. A lot of people think of games, video games, as this brand new thing that’s popped up. But of course games have been around forever. Most games are based on some fundamental play experience that at some point becomes formalized. There are different connotations to play, and with that formal rules. You might play with others, or by yourself, the play might be a zero sum game, or not. These are just a few specialized versions of play in my mind.

Graphic displaying Will Wright's learning model, comparing the universe of play and games.

Scott: Are there any play experts you follow?

Will: Not really. There have been a lot of attempts in the game design community to come up with more formal structures of frameworks to understand this. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. They’re looking at the different perspectives on play coming from cognitive science or sociology or evolutionary psychology. I don’t think any one of these things is going to capture the subject completely. You have to triangulate from all these different perspectives.

Scott: Do you think the vocabulary around play and around games is evolving?

Will: In general, yes. A game is like the nucleus of the experience, but it’s not the whole experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about the meta-game, the experiences we’re having around the game, experiences that are the larger iceberg. For example, The Sims is a game on some level, where you can play with goal structures and rules. However, there’s a larger game where people make things and tell stories about the game. Then they try things with online communities. These are the things that people do outside the game. It is what I call the meta-game. To me, the more successful games are the ones that spark these larger meta-games.

Scott: You mean bringing the play or the game experience outside of the game, in some kind of social context, where people can talk about and interact around the game?

Will: Yes, in some sense the game in the player’s minds goes from being a specific entertainment experience to becoming a tool for self-expression. At first they were playing for the fun, just exploring. Then they start realizing they can be expressive with it. It’s almost like playing a musical instrument. At first, you experiment and press buttons. At some point you realize you can compose music. You might even start to perform. Eventually this toy becomes a tool to express one’s self.

Scott: Is it accurate to say that the opportunity for creative expression is also a central part of your games?

Will: it’s one of the more powerful benefits of technology. We can do things now that allow people to come in and craft more interesting experiences and share them with others. Somebody can take something from their imagination, create an external artifact, and then share it. They can even collaborate on larger imaginary structures. This is something that used to be confined to a small number of people that had very high skills in language. These individuals could write a book and describe some imaginary world, like Alice in Wonderland. But not many people had that skill set. Now average people are getting these tools that empower them, to create entire worlds, external to their imagination, to share with other people.

Scott: You have this amazing ability to translate complicated systems into successful play objects. What is your thought process?

Will: First, how much are these things representations of the real world? When I get started it’s usually with something that contains some aspect of the real world that fascinates me. I’ll start to imagine if I had a toy planet, what kind of things would I want to do with it? What kind of processes would I like to see? By connecting the toy to real world, it maintains a relevance. Later that toy becomes the scaffolding for building a more elaborate model. When people get to the point where they realize the toy’s limitations, they start discussing and debating what their more elaborate model is relative to that toy. When players first started playing SimCity they didn’t know what was going on. They started building things, they started exploring what caused land value to go up or down, they explored issues around crime, or pollution. Eventually they get to a point where they say, “I don’t think that’s the way traffic really works” or “I don’t think the land value model is very accurate because of this or that.” They could not have formalized these thoughts without the toy. When a player realizes the limitations of a toy, the user has created a better model for themselves internally that transcends the toy.

Scott: Once a certain of level of mastery is achieved with a game, that’s the point when a player will go out and look for additional information to improve upon those models, those systems that they have in their mind?

Will: Yes, that’s the real model we’re building, actually. The computer is really just a compiler for that model.

In a Montessori classroom you will see thousands of tangible manipulatives. This photo is an example of bead work

Scott: What you have described in a sense are games that are digital manipulatives. Tangible manipulatives are a big part of the Montessori world and early learning. Sometimes I hear educators debate the benefit of digital manipulatives over tangible ones. Even if a digital manipulative doesn’t perfectly represent a system, they lead a user in a direction that helps facilitate further learning and growth and discovery that is more accurate and representational of the actual model.

Photo above: The typical Montessori learning experience is based on time with tangible manipulatives, such as these base 10 beads. There’s 1 bead, 10 beads, 100 beads, and 1,000 beads, in the form of a block. These physical manipulatives help young learners understand small and large, base-10 counting, and maybe even geometry (point, line, plane, volume). Substitute beads with the elements of a city, where you can freely experiment with a different kind of units and rules. Get the idea?

Will: Think about it. That’s what we call the scientific method. Quantum mechanics does not describe, is not reality, but it’s our best model so far for describing what we observe to be reality. it’s not the first model we built to describe it and it’s not the last model we’re going to build either. Each model is making a more accurate understanding of reality. They’re all just models and none of them are accurate representations of actual reality.

Scott: Does the knowledge a user gains through game play transfer into the real world? Do you have an example of people playing games where the user transferred something they learned from a game into the real world?

Will: There are a lot of things people learn from games that can’t be measured on any test. On the surface games don’t necessarily feel like education. But when you look deeper into them they really represent a fundamentally deeper level of education. There’s a common story I hear from players of The Sims. Someone will be playing the game and they really get into it. They make sure to take care of the basic needs of their Sims, getting them fed and rested before they go to work the next day. These players can get totally obsessed over making their virtual lives perfect. In doing so, a Sim might get a promotion at work the next day. At some point many players experience an “a-ha” moment — that its 2:00 in the morning, and they have to go to work the next day. Then somehow the players understand that they were taking better care of their Sim than they were of themselves. They were making sure their Sim got to bed on time, was well rested for work the next day, while the players were staying up late playing this silly computer game. For these players this is where they started understanding the strategy within the Sims as a time management game. it’s a game where you juggle many factors. Sometimes a player will step back for the first time and see their real life as a strategy game. As a player, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, they were making resource management decisions that would impact their Sim in the short term and long term. Then there’s the paradigm shift: What if your real life was a game, and you actually had these resources, and had to develop structures, how would you play it? This is one of those things you’re not going to measure on any standardized test. Through playing the player would walk away from the game thinking deeply about every aspect in their life. “Do I really need to do this now?” or “Should I really spend that money?” For the first time, the game caused them to clearly see the decisions they were making in every day life.

Scott: If the game is the model of a system, which happens to loosely or exactly parallel your own life, at some point, you might reach that a-ha moment.

Will: Right. People who think of themselves as really good strategy players, for some reason never think of their real life as a strategy game. If I were to treat my life as a strategy game how would I play it?

Scott: Will, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on play, learning, and games. While we have talked about a variety of inspirations and influences across a number of professions, is there one person that has done more to shape your thinking than any other?

Will: My mother, Beverlye Edwards. She supported me with all my crazy ideas as a child. If there was something I was interested in trying or doing, she believed that I knew what I was doing, even if at the time certain ideas seemed slightly odd. Just her believing in me allowed me to keep on trying new things, made me believe in myself, made me confident that I could do something big, something special. I thank my mother, for everything I have, everything I achieved, for her wonderful spirit and the great support she gave during my childhood years and in the years thereafter. I credit all my success in life to her unconditional belief in me and support in my trying something new.

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