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SuperSecret Goes Live, Announces Distribution Partners, Flash Developer Opportunities

SuperSecret is officially launching its social MMO/virtual world for tweens, in which growing up - a metaphor for leveling up - requires a subscription; Gamasutra speaks to president Tony Espinoza to find out more.
Today, SuperSecret is fully publicly launching its social MMO/virtual world for tweens, a game which has been in development for two years and which has been in beta for some time. It has also announced distribution partnerships with WildTangent and Spil Games, and Gamasutra speaks to president Tony Espinoza to find out more. The game, which secured $10 million in Opus Capital venture funding last month, is targeted at 9-13 year old players, so-called "tweens", who, in the words of SuperSecret president Tony Espinoza, have graduated from kids' virtual worlds and are looking to move to something more advanced: "[CEO] Ted [Barnett] is a parent, and has three tweens at home, and watched them all start to get bored with Club Penguin and Webkinz. So there was kind of an existence proof there. But at the same time, we had been studying the casual gaming space and all of the social stuff happening with all of the different social platforms. "What we found pretty quickly is that if you talk to these kids in this age group, they want to do all of the stuff that adults do, or at least that teenagers do. In fact they're pretty obsessed with growing up -- so that's where we decided to start." Barnett's background includes stints at PF Magic, the original developers of Petz, as well as AOL and Apple. Espinoza is also an Apple alum, and also worked at Electronic Arts, among others. The game's metaphor for leveling up is growing up. Says Espinoza, based on research the company conducted, "What we found pretty quickly is that if you talk to these kids in this age group, they want to do all of the stuff that adults do, or at least that teenagers do. In fact they're pretty obsessed with growing up -- so that's where we decided to start." Players start at 10 years old in the game world and can level up to 12 playing the free version; for levels (ages) 13 to 15, players must subscribe. Sixteen and beyond, up to 18, are currently in the planning stages and will be added. Each new year of growth brings your character the predictable physical changes, but also additional responsibilities and perks -- a pet, a customizable dorm room, and once 16 is added to the game, a drivers' license. Over 250,000 players joined in SuperSecret's public beta. As mentioned, while the game is free to play up till in-game age 12, a $4.95/month (or $19.95 for six months) subscription is required for more advanced play. When asked why the company is concentrating on subscriptions rather than the microtransaction model espoused by its obvious competitor Habbo Hotel, Espinoza says, "What's the best business model for this particular customer? If you think of it this way, we have hopefully built a service that kids will fall in love with and play a lot, and ask their parents to pay for it." Though he admits, "We will probably attack the digital goods model at some point, but it would probably be a slightly different approach." One interesting feature of the game is that while it features an explorable world with MMO-style gameplay mechanics, it also acts as a portal for external Flash games -- which are integrated into the environments, launched from clickable objects, and which offer players experience points in the broader metagame of leveling/growing up. External developers provide these Flash games; SuperSecret so far features 40 Flash titles. "[Our subscription model] gives us revenue to share with game developers who put games on our platform. We feature, already 40 games, developed by third parties, that the kids love playing, and we expect there to be hundreds of these," says Espinoza. "One of the big problems with Flash games is that there aren't a lot of strong revenue models for the developers, and advertising as we all know isn't putting out the same revenue that it did, once upon a time." The game is built on the company's proprietary WorldBuilder technology, which it promises will allow the developers to deliver more content to players quickly, and without major code changes. Says Espinoza, as with many virtual world projects which marry games industry knowledge with web development techniques, "It's been really fun to try and combine the strengths of building super-scalable internet services with really great content, and to build a system that is flexible enough to meet the technical needs well." "At the same time have a lot of creative control over what users experience in the world. WorldBuilder is what we built to bridge this gap." Espinoza sees SuperSecret as a safe and rewarding place for kids to spend time online -- keeping them from unmoderated services like MySpace and YouTube while allowing them to test the waters of the "adult" net. "Kids are spending a tremendous amount of time online; this is more of a structure to spend this time rather than expanding it." When it comes to SuperSecret, Espinoza thinks that "Parents do value that kids are learning to be socially responsible online." When it comes to safety, Espinoza says his game offers "a safe way to play on that imaginary scaffolding of what it'll be like to grow up. It gives them a way to stay young, and satisfy these needs, which is pretty safe." With features like chat locked until you reach 15 in-game, and then only activated when parents give explicit approval, children will be protected from unwanted interactions -- and, of course, chat filters, user blocking and live moderators are also employed.

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