For the final discussion at the Worlds in Motions summit at GDC, a panel talk was held with the people behind some of the most successful virtual worlds running. Amongst them were Paul Yanover from Disney Online, Lane Marrifield, co-founder of Club Penguin, Jason Root, Senior Vice President of Nick.com & NickatNite.com, and Kyra Reppen, Senior Vice President of Neopets. The panel was moderated by Leigh Alexander, Worlds in Motion editor and summit chair.
The panel started with examining how each decided to focus on the kids’ market. Paul Yanover, being from Disney, started off from “[the] revisionist side of things.” In the 90's, Disney Imagineers began experimenting with virtual reality and “though that didn’t really pan out, that team built great tech and art” eventually those ideas became Toontown.
For Lane Marrifield, “We didn’t have an identity to start with, other than we had kids.” He discussed looking at what was available for kids, what they liked, what they didn’t. “ [We] map every decision we make around the experience of six year olds, well, my
six year old really.”
Jason Root said at Nickelodeon they “Saw patterns on how kids were using our site, and the web at large.” 84% of kids are playing games online. “We wanted to evolve [game playing] into a ‘place’, we wanted to bring those things together.” with focus on mixing branded and non-branded content.
With Neopets, Kyra Reppen said that there is a “[natural] emotional connection with pets.” their virtual world “just started out being fun, but it’s endless how much can be done with it.” citing the incredible community of virtual entrepreneurs.
But with success amongst kids comes a concern on how to keep their attention, especially when direct contact and engagement with them can be so difficult.
For Neopets, which has the broadest demographics amongst the panelists, “It’s about listening to the users,” specifying that “we get 30,000 new accounts every day... we need to cater to them, but we also need to take care of the old users who’ve been there for over four years. They have different needs, they’re the experts. So listening to them, making new content every day, keeping them engaged is important. It’s up to us to keep them.”
Paul Yanover agreed, saying “It’s all about participation, it’s about listening. It’s something they have to have ownership of. We don’t want to project something at
them, they need that ownership.” Jason Root followed up with, “For user generated content and professionally created content, it’s about balancing those. Some kids want more of one than the other, but we have to find that balance.”
For Lane Marrifield, who had no corporate backing or licence to work with, “It [was] a whole different gig. The purist nature of creating something for kids helped set us in the right kind of decision making.... all we hoped [for] was it liked enough that we could build a sustainable business model. We just hired our first marketing person!” He proposed that one of the main reason for their continued success with kids, is their commitment to creating a safe online space. “We have over 120 people dedicated to the safety of Club Penguin. We don’t mess around with that. We knew that if we were going to build the trust of the parents, there was no margin for error there. Only one incident and it would’ve been over.” The company’s safety program was thorough enough that they were invited to an F.B.I conference on safety to give a talk. “We’re more focused on that then we are on the gaming community.”
Continuing onto the difficulty of sustaining such an enterprise, Marrifield continues with “There’s no manual on how to deal with 100,000 concurrent users on a single database. So we had to create our own... few have had to deal with that kind of success."
For Jason Root the difficulty lays in, “figuring out how stay true to the audience and [at the same time] how to make a viable business plan... feeding these sites, they need to be tended to.”
Kyran Reppen added that “The work begins
the day you launch.” and also that “It’s hard to get the payment mechanisms in [kids’] hands.” Which is why pre-paid cards for online services have been a boon for them as well as others.
The final question was how to keep the kids’ playing now to stay in virtual spaces as they grow older. For Reppen, Neopets is part of the Mtv conglomerate, who have 11 virtual worlds active along their various brands, covering a wide demographic range. “This generation of kids are growing up with virtual worlds as their play pattern. They’re going to grow up demanding new kinds of play patterns... I can only speak for what Neopets has done, and it speaks to constant innovation.”
Summing things up for all, Marrifield said that “Frankly, that’s part of the fun. It’s not just about building it, it’s about sustaining it. It needs to be a labor of love. Kids will smell a disingenuous product from a million miles away... you got to truly care about kids.”