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Think Big. Move Fast.

Wagner James Au has a great post on GigaOm about Gaia. Gaia is a casual immersive MMORPG that describes itself as:

“The world’s fastest growing online world hangout for teens.”

In an interview with Gaia‘s CEO, Craig Sherman, he quotes that Gaia has gone from 0.5m unique users/month midway through last year to 2.5m UU/mth last month. (nb Comscore only has them at 700k UU/mth in March). Furthermore, he claims 300k users log in each day for an average of 2 hours per session, and in their forums area they are getting an average of 1m posts per day for a total of over 1 billion posts so far. And its mostly (85%) US traffic. Impressive stats. Gaia has been pretty quiet about its growth until recently, but Susan Wu was finally able to get them to break their silence by getting Craig to speak at her panel at Web2.0 Expo last week.

Casual immersive worlds have not previously been as popular in the US as they have been in Europe (Habbo Hotel) or Asia (Cyworld). ( I draw a distinction between casual immersive worlds and games such as Runescape and World of Warcraft). Even press darling Second Life, currently reporting 1.7m log-ins in the last 60 days, is lagging Gaia‘s usage.

Interestingly enough, Gaia isn’t the only casual immersive world that is getting meaningful usage in the US. The original casual immersive world, Neopets, is still going strong, with 4.2m UU/mth in March according to Comscore.

Neopets® is the greatest Virtual Pet Site on the Internet. With your help, we have built a community of over 70 million virtual pet owners across the world! Neopets has many things to offer including over 160 games, trading, auctions, greetings, messaging, and much much more. Best of all, it’s completely FREE!

Club Penguin, who Susan also got to speak for the first time on her panel at web2.0 expo, is also growing like crazy – 4.1m UU/mth in March.

Club Penguin is a kid-friendly virtual world where children can play games, have fun and interact with each other.

* Kid-friendly chat
* Lots of fun games
* Nothing to download
* Lots more!

Webkinz, who I mentioned last week as one of the few sites getting their users to visit more than 10 times per month, is also at 4.1m UU/mth.

Webkinz pets are lovable plush pets that each come with a unique Secret Code. With it, you enter Webkinz World where you care for your virtual pet, answer trivia, earn KinzCash, and play the best kids games on the net!

And a dark horse entrant that I was unaware of until recently – Millsberry, run by General Mills (the manufacturer of cereals), is getting 2.2m UU/mth.

Millsberry is a fun virtual city for you to explore. You create a citizen of the city and discover Millsberry through his eyes. You’ll need to make sure he takes care of himself, so you’ll need to get food (from the shopping area) and make sure he exercises (by playing games), but you’ll also get to go on adventures, solve mysteries and have all kinds of fun while visiting Millsberry!

.

Even Lego has announced its plans to release a casual immersive world in 2008

These worlds are all exploring different business models. Some are mainly ad supported (Neopets, and effectively Millsberry), others rely on subscriptions (Club Penguin) that deliver certain privileges, and others rely on transactions, either in the real world (Webkinz) or for digital goods (Habbo Hotel, Gaia.

Its worth noting that all of these are websites with no download required. This has likely helped them grow more quickly than other casual immersive worlds such as Second Life and IMVU, which are also growing fast, but not as fast.

One can’t help but notice that all of these immersive online worlds are targeted at kids and teens. If demographics are destiny, then we can expect more and more people to interact with each other in casual immersive worlds over the next few years. Susan Wu thinks so too, and her prediction about web 3.0 (are we there already?) is that it will be:

continuing down this path of improving the user experience of living and socializing online. This story is about human context, social proximity, and a sense of place.

I think she is right. What are your thoughts?

UPDATE, April 26th, 2007: Barbie is now also getting in on the action with Barbie Girls.

UPDATE, April 29th, 2007: Techcrunch reports that IAC’s Zwinky is also launching a casual immersive world. In this case, they are also employing a different business model than the other virtual worlds as the toolbar that enables much of the functionality includes a search box and will be usable both when the user is and is not “in world”. Note that the search box occurs to the LEFT of the URL box… This tactic worked great for previous IAC products such as Smiley Central and Cursor Mania.

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