Dizzywood, a new online world for kids, recently announced that it has secured a total of $1 million in Series A funds, with recent financing from Shelby Bonnie, Charles River Ventures, and individual investors.
The company was founded by former CNet exec Scott Arpajian, who built and launched Download.com, along with Wallop co-founder Sean Kelly and Ken Marden, a game designer and children's book author.
CRV's Susan Wu explained the potential she sees in Dizzywood: "While there has been a flurry of new virtual worlds for kids, Dizzywood is building a meaningful property by developing online environments that extend beyond coinage and consumption, with a strong focus on merit and achievement. This meaningful content has universal appeal to both parents and kids."
Contextualizing The Minigame Format
The free to play Dizzywood's stated goal is to add real life values and skills learning to the kids' online play space. Given that there does appear to be a glut of new online products for kids, all of which claim to be unique from one another but are more difficult to differentiate in a wider-lens view, we asked Scott Arpajian what's different about Dizzywood.
"We looked at what's out there; most of the sites in the space take an approach of menu-driven game environments. You'll have the homepage of the site, and you the basic model is that you accumulate coins by picking from a menu of one-off games -- little Flash minigames." Arpajian says Dizzywood's objectives are different: "We've taken an approach with more of a deeply engaging, activity-driven experience. We've wrapped world in a deep backstory, so there's a bigger sense of place with a lot going on behind it."
Creating a sense of place is an intriguing goal when dealing with this market, and speaks to a very specific motivation for creating a virtual world, as opposed to the type of community site that Arpajian describes.
He says, "Kids, particularly in the age range we're targeting, have tremendous amounts of imagination. And we live in a world now where they're very comfortable interacting online and using computers, so there's not the same sort of barriers in place when talking about older age ranges, in terms of comfort level with the medium. Kids in particular are naturally curious and imaginative, so creating a virtual world in a game for them is really a natural fit."
Creating a Sense of Community
How does Dizzywood balance its objectives of engaging kids through fun and having real-world values play a role in the game experience? "Activities are woven into the storyline so that it creates a more engaging environment where kids definitely feel that they are driving things along at their own pace -- but they also understand there's a lot going on, and a greater sense of community involved." Arpajian says. "We do have mini-games built in, but rather than being one-off games, they are games that vary with the storyline.They're designed in such a way that the playability or difficulty changes as a child becomes better at it."
Arpajian explains that the Dizzywood team is able to track how often children play, how well they do at various activities, and then respond accordingly. "The philosophy there, over time, is to create an experience where kids don't become easily bored," he says. "We want it to be that kind of engaging experience that lasts over time. Obviously, it's also important for business to keep them feeling higher levels of achievement."
Merit and Mutuality
He continues, "Quite a lot of worlds in this space sort of hit upon the notion that kids like to accumulate items. Most worlds focus on purchase -- it's a very commercial environment, where the idea is you acquire coins and spend them on things. We have that – that’s part of what we do. There’s a huge element on our side of growing through merit and achievement."
However, Arpajian says kids' most desired rewards in Dizzywood can't be gotten by simply grinding at arcade minigames for coins. "Half of the total items that you can accumulate can only be accumulated as rewards for achievement-based goals. Rather than accumulating coins and being able to buy anything, most of the really desirable stuff lies behind an achievement wall. You have to obtain certain scores in activities, or help non-player characters in the world to be able to get certain items. We’re changing it in such a way that kids really have to do a whole bunch of things and work together towards objectives."
Some missions require cooperation and others exploration -- the way Arpajian describes it makes it sound quite a lot like Warcraft
for kids. So we asked him about the hard-to-draw line between virtual worlds and MMOs, with so many of the latter's game-based motivational elements beginning to slide into the former.
MMOs Versus Virtual Worlds
"I think we're waiting for someone to come up with a catchy phrase that describes a hybrid between a virtual world and an MMO," Arpajian said. We definitely borrow a lot of game mechanics from more classic MMO gameplay elements as we look to defining and building a steady gameplay rhythm, to have lots of different pathways for kids to follow. Certainly with the level of story involvement, it fits more classic MMO approaches. We borrow from what we like."
On the flip side, though, it is a children's audience. "You have to look at dynamics outside of MMOs to really get kids involved, and to work within a balance that the kids will enjoy," Arpajian said. "There are certainly aspects of virtual worlds as well. There's some similarities, but obviously there are enormous differences in terms of age range, tone and execution."
The big difference in a kids' world is that there's no combat -- kids progress by cooperating with each other on missions, and the superpowers they learn and share allow them to progress past obstacles together. That collaborative element, as well as merit-based gameplay, is what Arpajian hopes will differentiate Dizzywood from other play spaces targeting the same audience.
"The philosophy of our team is, we want to have kids see rewards from working together towards shared objectives," he concluded.