Archive for the 'Social Networking' Category

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)

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.

Club Penguin Founder Discusses Disney’s Latest, World of Cars

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Rachel DiPaola, Lane Merrifield of Disney Interactive Studios and the launch of World of Cars

Start your engines! Disney’s newest virtual world, World of Cars, is at the starting gate! World of Cars recently went live and is the latest online community for kids. The LA Times posted a great interview with Rachel DiPaola (shown in photo above) who is the Product Director for Disney Online and commander in chief for Cars Online. Reading the piece reminded me that just a few months earlier I had a conversation with Lane Merrifield (also in photo above) about Cars. Merrifield, founder of Club Penguin, now oversees all virtual worlds for Disney. Below are highlights from our conversation together as he discusses the thinking behind Cars Online. This interview was conducted in the Spring of 2010 and has been edited for clarity purposes.

QUICK QUESTION PICKER:

In our last interview together, Club Penguin had just been acquired by Disney. Today you’re in charge of all virtual worlds for Disney. How many virtual worlds are you managing?

You were made the Executive Vice President of Disney Online Studio. Where do you start with this role?

What makes World of Cars unique compared to other virtual worlds?

What 3D solution are you using for Cars, Unity?

Was John Lasseter involved with this project?

In addition to Cars Online, what else can Cars fans look forward to in the near future?

INTERVIEW:

Scott Traylor: In our last interview together, Club Penguin had just been acquired by Disney in August of 2007. Today you’re in charge of all virtual worlds for Disney. How many virtual worlds are you currently managing?

Lane Merrifield: We have four actively launched virtual worlds. ToonTown was the first, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Pixie Hollow, Club Penguin, and soon to be World of Cars. That’s four live currently with a fifth virtual world actively being worked on. It’s a lot of worlds to manage, but we have really strong teams who own the product, who are passionate about it, and passionate about their audience. For me, I’m less inclined to feel like I have to manage the worlds themselves, and more inclined to make sure that the values are lined up, the priorities are right, the expectations on quality are consistent. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: You’re under Disney’s wing now, which was nothing unfamiliar to you since you first worked in the parks at Disney as a teenager. You’re brought on as the Executive Vice President of Disney Online. Where do you start with this role? Do you focus on business models for these virtual worlds? Do you coordinate branding? Do you modify these virtual worlds to meet the business objectives of Disney Online or maybe the entire Disney enterprise?

Merrifield: When I first came onboard, almost all of these worlds, with the exception of Cars, had already been launched. So all of them had a nature. They were all in different parts of their life cycle. Some were struggling a little more than others. Pirates, which had great content, was not technically functioning as well as it could. It wasn’t working well on all machines. The team had reached pretty far with what they could do technically, but as a result, had made the site less accessible. For Pirates, we put a halt on a lot of new development, went back to the drawing board, and retooled to get it to a place where it is now. Recently we started to move the content ahead again, and the experience is far more accessible. You can play it in a browser now. Anyway, these virtual worlds are all on different paths, and a lot of my focus has been stepping in, bring the two studios together (the Club Penguin studio in Kelowna, now called Disneyland Studios Canada, together with the Disneyland Studios LA,) and bring together a lot of shared learning.

It’s interesting, the two studios are almost identical in size, although one was focused on just one product and the numerous facets of that product, and the other was focused on multiple products. One studio wasn’t involved with as many languages. The other wasn’t as tied into their consumer products and other things. One was driving very deep, and the other was focused on all the pieces. Internationally, Club Penguin was really leading the way, and now the infrastructure that we developed for Club Penguin is going to allow all of our virtual worlds to be able to grow internationally in the same way that Club Penguin did. The sharing between the two studios has been a great cross learning experience. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: What makes World of Cars unique compared to other virtual worlds that compete in the same space?

Merrifield: Well the most obvious is that it starts from such a strong place in terms of its intellectual property. People know the product, people know the characters, they know what Radiator Springs should look like and feel like, although they haven’t necessarily experienced it like this before. There’s great strength in that, but it’s also a double-edged sword. It means people’s expectations are going to be higher. We already had a head start in the narrative, and in the environment and the characters. I don’t like to focus on the technology, but we’ve also created a way of doing 3D in Flash that’s pretty unique and different from Papervision and some of the other technologies out there. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: The front-end is in 3D using Flash? You’re not using Unity?

Merrifield: We’re using Flash, at least until some of these other tools get to the same adoption rate. Our goal is never to try and perpetuate the technology. We’d rather come in behind it once it’s already reached a significant adoption level. This is not to say we’re not looking at all of these other new tools, playing with all of them. Just the same, we’re not locked into Flash either.

We always talk about being technologically agnostic. That’s a big focus for us. It’s difficult to bring a Pixar 3D movie to life in 2D. Not to say we didn’t experiment with it, but it just wasn’t the same thing. The character of the cars, and the ability to bring them to life, and the way they are articulated, we knew we had to address that problem. And yet, the requirement was always not to chase technology. If we’re going to do it in 3D, it has to have a 98 percent install base, which is what Flash has. It was a tough challenge, but the team rose to it. In part, it’s also why we’re making sure everything will work right for the launch. This is a technology approach that hasn’t been done before. We need to make sure when there are 60 cars driving around on the same page at the same time, that it’s still as strong an experience as if there were just two cars driving on screen. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Was John Lasseter involved with this project?

Merrifield: Yeah, John’s been pretty involved. He would do check in meetings throughout. He also has the dedicated gurus of Cars at Pixar who are involved in work on Cars II and the Cars Land Experience. The relationship has not been like a licensing situation where we say “Okay, can you tell us everything about Cars, and we’ll go make it.” It’s been a real collaboration. In fact, there are elements of what we’ve created that are being incorporated into the Cars manual, the Cars bible. Some point down the road, it could be incorporated into future movies or theme parks or whatever else. It’s neat to see this. It’s a collaborative effort, more than it is one way. John’s been a big fan, and he’s very interested in this because it presents a new medium for storytelling. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: What you have shared with me so far is that there’s a new Cars Virtual World, a new physical world theme park called Cars Land, you’re also talking about the next Cars movie. I’m seeing a “tent pole” approach with the Cars brand that has many different elements circling around that center pole. Fans of the Cars franchise are soon to see much more than just the Cars virtual world, is that correct?

Merrifield: There is a lot of cool stuff coming out. The neat thing about everything you mention is that the center pole IS the story and IS the narrative. People sometimes say, “The virtual world is the connection point.” The Internet may be the connection, the vehicle, and Cars Online will be a browser experience. However, as devices get more and more connected and smarter, as we connect more with mobile, as we connect more with console games, as we connect more with the physical environment, my hope is that this next evolution of engaging with the Cars franchise will be more about this connected experience. Disney has been making similar connections from a franchise perspective for years. It’s not just about the replayability of these various experiences. It’s really about one continuous story across multiple experiences. (Return to Question Picker)

Kids, Virtual Worlds, and TV Ads

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Cartoon Network's virtual world Fusion Fall

For those that follow my blog, you may remember a post I wrote last winter where I explored the world of children’s television commercials, just before and after the last holiday season. At the time my focus was mostly on the world of technology toys, and how toy companies promote their wares to children through television. Over eight consecutive weekends, I had watched about 100 hours of children’s television across seven stations, which loosely added up to over 3,000 commercials viewed. That many commercials edited end-to-end would fill an entire day of watching nothing but commercials.

A couple of months ago I was reviewing the data I had collected, deciding if I might undertake a similar effort again this year (I’m looking for sponsors), when I realized I was sitting on a ton of stats related to virtual worlds and kids. After pulling my head out of the world of toys, and instead focusing on social and virtual worlds for kids, I realized that many virtual worlds were advertised for the first time ever on television during the latter part of 2008.

In the months leading up to last year’s Christmas holiday, at least nine virtual worlds were advertised in the US to older kids and younger tweens. These destinations included Bella Sara by Hidden City Games, Build-A-Bearville by Build-A-Bear Workshop, Mattel’s UB Funkeys, Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall, Irwin Toy’s Me2 Universe, Disney’s Pixie Hollow, Hasbro’s MyEpets and LittlestPetShop, and Wizard 101 by KingsIsle Entertainment. Most companies offered commercial spots in 15 and 30 second lengths to promote their online virtual worlds. All commercials were placed on channels that aired children’s programming with the heaviest rotation appearing on weekends.

The company that had the most commercials in rotation was for Cartoon Network’s virtual world Fusion Fall. Cartoon Network ran an AMAZING number of spots in 10, 15, 30 and 45 second lengths to promote Fusion Fall, but all of Fusion Fall’s advertising was on a single channel, that being Cartoon Network. The shorter spots were placed strategically as bumpers around all show entry end exit points. I can’t cite the exact number, but the amount of Fusion Fall impressions per hour was impressive and more than any other competing site.

The Pixie Hollow and Wizard 101 virtual world commercials were the next heaviest in rotation after Fusion Fall, but for these worlds, they were advertised across multiple channels. Next in line was Build-A-Bearville, Bella Sara, and Funkeys. Each virtual world destination experienced an increase in unique visits to their virtual world but none more than Fusion Fall and Wizard 101 in the November to December 2008 time period. Both of these desitinations experienced an increase in web traffic 3 to 5 times more than before those on air campaigns began. All virtual worlds lost traffic to their sites after the holiday season as advertisement campaigns wound down, all except for Disney’s Pixie Hollow. However, gains remained for seven out of nine of the virtual worlds advertised when measured over a two month period, though only three out of the nine had experienced any significant gains. Out of the collection of these nine virtual worlds, seven companies offered a tangible product that was sold as part of their virtual world service.

Over the summer months, I’ve had the opportunity to check in on a few children’s channels to see what’s being advertised. A new crop of virtual world commercials are running on air this summer. One big surprise to me was MapleStory which is a virtual world that started outside the US. It makes sense to try to reach out to kids during these months to grow an audience base. I’ve been thinking that this might be a better and cheaper way to gain visibility as opposed to winning kids over during the winter holiday season.

Outside of children’s television, I’ve also been keeping a close watch on a number of virtual worlds for kids. Every now and then I’m surprised by how some site just explodes. Moshi Monsters has had my interest most of this summer. This is a UK virtual world for kids that has yet to take off here in the states, but has been doing great at home. I’ve wondered why it has been so successful in the last two months. Only recently did I came across an interview with Michael Smith, CEO for Moshi Monsters on YouTube. (Thanks Joi Podgorny for the tip!) In this interview Michael discusses the growth in visitors and subscribers to his site as a direct response to advertising on TV.

If you’re interested in learning more about the data I have, shoot me an email. One thing is certain though, we should all be prepared to see many more commercials of virtual world advertised to kids in the months, and years, ahead. What used to be a vital part of toy promotion is now expanding to the virtual world as well.

What Works For Virtual Play? – Questions to ask about Web-enabled toys

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

[The following is an article I wrote for Playthings Magazine which appears in the May 2009 issue.]

Photo of girl holding her stuffed animal while playing on a laptop computer

When toy companies talk about new toy products, there’s often a lot of discussion around a toy’s play patterns. What is it about the toy that resonates with a child? What play patterns will the toy tap into? Will the play pattern extend across age and gender differences?

Sometimes answering play pattern questions like these are pretty straight forward, other times their answers are not as clear cut. Potentially even more complicated is describing the play pattern around a toy product tied to a virtual world or online experience. What kind of play pattern are we talking about now? How does the play experience through an avatar in an online world differ from that of a child playing with a physical toy in the real world?

These are hard questions to answer, but they are ones I’m betting more and more people will be asking in the world of youth marketing.

The 2008 American International Toy Fair was a big year for virtual world toy products. Unlike years before, 2008 saw many virtual world product announcements, a first for the show. Some of the biggest announcements came from the likes of Disney and Techno Source with Pixie Hallow and Clickables, iToys with the Me2 Universe, Ty with Beanie Babies 2.0 and TyGirls, and 10Vox with Tracksters and KooKeys. Each of these companies offered a virtual play experience through the purchase of a tangible toy product—the business model of preference being one in which the consumer buys a tangible product that grants access to an online world.

Fast forward to 2009. It seems almost every few days we learn of a new virtual world for kids. While a number of virtual worlds were announced on the show floor during the 2009 Toy Fair, even more were announced outside of the walls of the Javits Center. What was surprising was the number of new product announcements, not just updates to old products launched a year or two prior. Take note for the future: February could very well become the product announcement month of choice in the virtual world space. Such announcements started in 2008 and today appear to be picking up steam.

As you can imagine, any announcement attached to a toy industry event will include some tangible toy product as part of the virtual world offering. Most often plush toys are the vehicle of choice for promoting virtual worlds to kids, but changes are underway within the toy-related niche of the virtual world space. Just about anything these days can include a password key on a piece of paper to allow access to an online destination. Also added to the mix are new solutions that include USB thumb drives that plug into your computer and become the keys to playing in these online destinations.

When I look back on the last two years of tangible toy/virtual world product announcements, I notice two trends, in particular, related to the software portion of the announcement:

  1. At the time when a company first makes a virtual world announcement, the virtual world is generally far from completion. If the virtual world has been in development for a long time and is in the process of a sizable public beta effort (meaning many actual consumers are testing the virtual world to flush out problems and improve the quality and stability of the product), this is a good thing. A sizable public testing effort should be the norm with all such products, but sadly it is not. As a result, first-year launches can be challenging for both the companies that make the products as well as the children who use them, typically resulting in poor reviews out of the gate.

  2. After a product has officially launched, it tends to be improved and expanded upon as sales grow or as web traffic proves what is working and what is not within the virtual world. These sorts of improvements are generally seen with products that have been in the marketplace for at least two years.

As it relates to the overall offering of both the physical and virtual parts of the product, I have these additional observations related to the buying and selling of these items that can lead to consumer success:

  • How “giftable” is the product? For example, one of the things I love about Webkinz is that the current line of plush toys makes for a great gift idea. They are priced right and are easy to give. Also, the cost to get online is attached to the purchase of the tangible item. This removes the burden from a child of figuring out how they may have to pay for the online experience.

  • Related to cost, are there any hidden fees to gain access to the online world? Sometimes the purchase of the tangible product will not allow full access online. Some virtual worlds can be tiered or gated in a way that premium content is restricted until a credit card is used. A number of different financial models exist related the sale of such products. Be sure to ask if the purchase of the tangible good is the only fee involved or if other fees are part of the online experience.

  • What kind of tangible toy selection is possible? Are there only a small number of items at one specific cost or are many SKUs available across a variety of price points? A variety of products and pricing options can be of benefit to sales.

  • Is there more to the virtual world than just game play? Few of the latest virtual world announcements offer an experience beyond games. Two products to watch that offer something more include Jacabee’s The Jacabee Code, which promotes a unique approach to learning history and Tales 4 Tomorrow, a destination that is all about animal conservation (with plush toys from Fiesta).

  • How deep is the online experience? How many activities and how much content is available? What is the mix of games to creativity tools? Newer sites may not have as much depth as sites that have been on the market for some time.

  • Who does the product appeal to, boys or girls? Historically, very few of these virtual world offerings have had an appeal to boys 9 years old and older. However, this too is changing. New destinations with a greater appeal to boys include products like the car-centric Tracksters, Revnjenz (Revnjenz) and KizMoto (KizToys); and the dinosaur-themed Webosaurs (Reel FX) and Xtractaurs (Mattel).

  • What about younger users? While it may be surprising to find even younger users interested in similar online destinations, many of the social and communication tools available to older users are just not of interest to younger users. Age-appropriate products for young users have been in short supply. However, Ganz recently announced a younger version of Webkinz called Webkinz Jr., and since 2007, Gigapals has offered an eponymously-named site with related toys for the same audience: ages 3 to 6. When thinking up products for younger children, consider the amount of reading and audio instruction provided within these worlds. This demographic may be computer savvy enough to get to your site, but they may still be challenged by the inclusion of too much text once they arrive there.

  • If the online world allows its users the ability to communicate with one another, is the method of communication “canned chat,” “filtered chat” or “open chat”? In addition, what kind of monitoring is provided to prevent inappropriate conversation or cyber bullying?

It’s hard to easily describe the appeal of online worlds for kids. An answer may be found with the sense of independence or a feeling of being in complete control over the digital universe. There might also be an aspirational component to these worlds, as well, that is hard for an adult to fully understand. Part of this new play experience may be an extension of pretend play we’re all so familiar with, related to kids and toys in the real world. One thing is certain, virtual worlds are an expanding part of a child’s play options, however you choose to define the play pattern. And because new virtual worlds are being announced more frequently, chances are there’s one that’s a perfect fit for any girl or boy, or maybe even the child at heart.