Over the last year, I've noticed a new migration pattern among children's television networks. No longer content with running some of the most popular websites for kids on the net, the kidnets have started launching their own MMOGs. Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis and YTV's GalaXseeds both hit the ground running earlier this year, attracting players (Nicktropolis' population reached just under 4 million in June) and critical acclaim (GalaXseeds won an Octas award ). The Cartoon Network, which has been maintaining a successful massively single-player online game based on the cartoon Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends for over a year now, recently showcased its upcoming MMOG FusionFall at Comic-Con. Even the BBC is getting in the game with CBBC World, which goes live this summer.
A similar trend is also taking place in the toy industry. In July, Scientific American crowned Mattel's BarbieGirls.com the "fastest-growing virtual world ever." The site attracted 3 million members in its first 60 days online and continues to add 50,000 new members every day. Ganz is experiencing comparable success with an MMOG that allows kids to play with a virtual version of their Webkinz. Meanwhile, everyone waits with bated breath for the arrival of NetDevil's LEGO Universe.
One of the reasons for the sudden growth in the kid-targeted MMOG field has something to do with the fact this market is enormous and untapped. The vast majority of boys and girls play online games, and they spend more time gaming than any other age group. According to last year's Video Gamer Segmentation Report, 45 percent of "heavy gamers" and nearly one-third of "avid console gamers" (the largest group in the study) are between the ages of 6 and 17.
Oddly enough, until now, there weren't very many MMOGs that allowed players under the age of 13 (most are rated T), driving kids to either lie about their age or restrict their online play to casual games and online game communities. The one exception is Disney's Toontown, which launched in 2003 and has a current population of 1.165 million subscribers.
Unlike adult-oriented MMOGs, which for the most part operate on player-based revenue models (via monthly subscriptions or pay-per services and items), most of the new kids' MMOGs will be supported by other revenue sources, particularly in-game advertising. The trend is so pervasive Disney has decided to release its own free, ad-driven version of Toontown in order to compete, despite its past success with a monthly subscription format.
The going theory is an ad-driven revenue model will allow a greater number of kids to participate. Of course, this ignores previous success stories like Toontown and Club Penguin, not to mention the many analogue examples of kids' games and collectibles (like Pokémon cards and Beanie Babies) that require ongoing financial investment. It also runs counter to current estimates that kids aged 8-14 have a combined purchasing power of around $40 billion.