I noted earlier this year that big companies have led the latest surges in virtual worlds, with many of these virtual worlds targeting kids and teens. Today’s New York Times concurs in an article about web playgrounds for the very young, which focuses on Club Penguin and Webkinz but also namechecks a number of newer or upcoming virtual worlds aimed at kids:
…Now the likes of the Walt Disney Company, which owns Club Penguin, are working at warp speed to pump out sister sites.
“Get ready for total inundation,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.
… Disney last month introduced a “Pirates of the Caribbean” world aimed at children 10 and older, and it has worlds on the way for “Cars” and Tinker Bell, among others. Nickelodeon, already home to Neopets, is spending $100 million to develop a string of worlds. Coming soon from Warner Brothers Entertainment, part of Time Warner: a cluster of worlds based on its Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and D. C. comics properties.
Add to the mix similar offerings from toy manufacturers like Lego and Mattel. Upstart technology companies, particularly from overseas, are also elbowing for market share. Mind Candy, a British company that last month introduced a world called Moshi Monsters, and Stardoll, a site from Sweden, sign up thousands of members in the United States each day.
Disney, and likely the other big media comapnies, are taking a “lifetime value” approach to virtual worlds for kids:
Still, one world [Club Penguin], even a very successful one, does not alter the financial landscape at a $35.5 billion company like Disney. So Disney is pursuing a portfolio approach, investing $5 million to $10 million per world to develop a string of as many as 10 virtual properties, people familiar with Disney’s plans said.
Tinker Bell’s world, called Pixie Hollow, illustrates the company’s game plan. Disney is developing the site internally — creative executives who help design new theme park attractions are working on it — and will introduce it this summer to help build buzz for “Tinker Bell,” a big-budget feature film set for a fall 2008 release.
Visitors to a rudimentary version of Pixie Hollow, reachable through Disney.com, have already created four million fairy avatars, or online alter egos, according to Disney. The site will ultimately allow users to play games (“help create the seasons”) and interact with other “fairies.” When avatars move across the screen, they leave a sparkling trail of pixie dust, a carefully designed part of the experience.
“We wanted to come up with a way to make flying around the site feel really good,” said Paul Yanover, executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online.
Disney’s goal is to develop a network of worlds that appeal to various age groups, much like the company’s model. Preschool children might start with Pixie Hollow or Toon Town, another of Disney’s worlds, grow into Club Penguin and the one for “Cars” and graduate to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and beyond, perhaps to fantasy football at ESPN.com.
As these big companies spend real money against virtual worlds, it will create a more crowded landscape for startups targeting kids, while simultaneously vindicating the space.