The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games


The War on Geekiness and 4 Other Trends from Virtual Worlds Expo 2008

[Editor's Note: Contributing writer Simon Newstead is CEO and Co-Founder of Frenzoo, a startup in the 3D fashion and lifestyle space and the writer of the VR Fashion blog.  He can be contacted at: simon at frenzoo dot com.]

Entranced by the success of IMVU, Club Penguin and Habbo, investors have poured millions into virtual worlds with new services blossoming out of stealth mode every week. But where is the space headed?

At last week’s Virtual Worlds Expo, several hundred insiders huddled to offer their own opinions on the future. Operators new and old alike, technology providers, and a smattering of advertisers and Hollywood players came together, and five interesting trends emerged:

1)  The War on Geekiness

Electric Sheep Company’s Sibley Verbeck summed it up well, coining the phrase “Multi-Global War on Geekiness”.

There was recognition that to hit mainstream, the industry has to leave its geeky roots behind and focus on a simple and fun user experience. Barriers to entry plaguing early entrants - difficult navigation, large downloads and complex user interfaces - have to disappear. The presented alternative to shedding our geekiness was fairly stark:  waiting years until Generation Z “Club Penguin” kids grow older. Not a new idea, but one that is really being taken seriously.

New players are paying attention – one example debuting in the US market at the show was Freggers – a game that made avatar signup and orientation a breeze. And it’s working - already Freggers has picked up a user base of over 500,000 in their home market of Germany, which interestingly includes many users in their 20s and 30s - despite a young, pixel-art style.

2) Say No To Large Client Downloads

“If uses have to download a client, you’re dead. You’re a science project only.”- Sean Ryan, Meez CEO.

One of the most lively panels was with the founders from Meez, Vivaty, Three Rings and Small Worlds and all shared the same opinion: standalone, heavy-client virtual worlds were going to fall away.

Daniel James from Three Rings, makers of popular Puzzle Pirates, believes 90-95% of visitors will not install a separate client. His new MMO, Whirled, is 2D Flash and his previous projects have both been Java.

However the panel disagreed about whether Flash was the only option for the masses, weighing up its lack of support for hardware based 3D.

Vivaty CEO Keith McCurdy argued for a light, single-click install, plugin being viable for masses. Installed in under a minute, he approximated a successful install rate of interested visitors in the 40-50% range (note- with Frenzoo we also see similar rates in our early field testing).

Google has taken the browser 3D plugin approach with its Lively service.  And Avatar chat plugin Weblin recently hit 1 million unique users.

In Korea, a bellwether market for many a trend online, 3D browser plugins have been successfully used for some time, including just recently in MiniLife from Social Network pioneer Cyworld.

3) Virtual Brands Go Terrestrial

With so many entertainment and consumer brands moving into virtual worlds, it’s easy to overlook the opposite trend starting to emerge.

A handful of successful online brands are starting to move onto store shelves through licensing and partnership agreements.

Neopets is the poster child in this space and Habbo, on the back of some early dabbling in the space, hinted at the show of a major offline brand tie-up to be announced soon

Look out for more of these crossovers to come in coming months.

4) Branded Items: Not Free For Long

So far, in many virtual worlds such as Meez, branded items have been free. But at least for some items that will soon change.

WeeWorlds head of marketing, Lauren Bigelow, explained the plans of the 25 Million strong WeeMee community: to date, all branded items had been free, but some items will soon cost money, such as premium branded items like an upcoming Paris Hilton.

Why? Charging money for branded items increases exclusivity - and therefore buzz - driving the marketing campaign's objectives. Obviously a revenue stream is a happy side effect as well.

Used well, it sounds like a win-win. Expect experimentation on branded item pricing to happen in coming months.

5) Taking Virtual Responsibility Seriously

Kids world Dizzywood, which announced at the show it had hit 500,000 users, recently used in-game activities to promote respect and responsibility by partnering with the Arbor Foundation for Earth day to encourage kids to plant virtual trees.

Club Penguin has done a lot with WWF and Habbo also has embraced social responsibility when it comes to their users, with a policy in place now restricting the maximum that can be spent on coins each month.

Do these socially responsible activities really pay off? It’s too early to say but respecting users and building up trust surely can’t hurt.

Comments (9) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Thanks for the coverage, but the event is actually Virtual Worlds Expo. Virtual Worlds Forum is another thing entirely.

  2. I will scold Simon appropriately.

    I’ve changed it.

  3. Ha, no problem. And thanks!

  4. Oops, as a paid attendee you’d think I would have got the name right! Thanks for the correction :)

  5. Has anyone seen any platforms out there besides that you could license to get a ready-to-go portal with a decent set of multiplayer Flash games? After Real acquired GameTrust, many sites removed their platform, including the big ones – MiniClip…

    On the large client downloads – I’ve recently wanted to trial european World of Warcraft and was really surprised by the streaming technology behind it – just in 10 minutes from getting to the site and creating account, I was already in the game!

    Everyone should also look at how Asian portals require installing ActiveX download clients to fix those traditional IE download f*ck-ups. ActiveX is a regional sensation, but that works in any case – when the player sees that his game is downloadaded by some native installer with publishers logo, it adds some calmness and trust I guess. And if that installer pushes the right message (not an ad), it adds a value to the brand.

    As you are going to force the player to download few gigs anyway and if you have several games out there, is it worth to have a unified experience?
    Take a look at NCSoft client. Some players might be grumpy and get annoyed by the extra installs, if they are overbloated, but don’t forget that opinions exposed on forums (I’m tired of ‘em!) always belong to vocal minority and most of people wouldn’t care to keep their list of programs virgin with Solitaire and Minesweeper.

    All the casual portals do it – some do better job, some worse. BFG, iWin, RealArcade, WildTangent with their own clients – big or small, with long annoying autoupdates after install or minimalist functionality. The other way is – minimalist downloader application is great, but including ads at this stage seems like an overkill.

    One of the the other aspects of having “portal clients” for companies who are self-publishing their products – is it worth to cross-promote own products? Should a company provide a player an easy access to SO many games, or let a player focus on a single product and get the most out of it? I haven’t seen such kind of researches, but I guess there’s no universal recipe and each case is unique.

  6. Hi Anatoly, good comment..

    I think some portal clients from the large multi-game operators can still be viable in the future – especially as you mention, the brand is trusted and they don’t “take advantage” of the client by spamming unnecessary ads.

    One benefit I can see in this is account (including identity, in-game currency) and user 3D avatar portability between different games, something that for example in Asia, 9You has been talking about for 2 years now..

    Large single product downloads will be a lot tougher going forward, especially given how much you can do in browser (instant action is just the beginning) The big games / Worlds like WoW / AoC where the product is solid and people already know what to expect will be ok, but the rest?

  7. Thanks Simon,

    Avatar portability is one of the next big things that won’t happen along with the other types of portabilities, e.g. socialgraph for social networks. You could see it working in products from NHN (some casual multiplayer games at and few other Korean portals, but it’s a rare exclusion, that doesn’t make any sense as you can’t have you avatar in both 2D and 3D games, especially when he’s both a warrior and a belly dancer. Being a generic Mii jerk would suck, let’s see what 360 will come out with and what level of in-game adoption we’ll see besides Xbox Live Arcade.

    With Meez API contest, we’ll see broad adaption of unified 3D (ok, prerendered, but the term 3D in browser is blurred) avatars in standalone Flash games.

    I don’t think we could hope for avatar portability between competitors, with more than 120+ titles f2p MMO titles out there in USA from 30+ developers and publishers, there’s no chance anyone would do that during this iteration… We’ll have to wait for the next major leap to come so everyone will be prepared. What will it be, hmm…

  8. Why do more MMO not use Shockwave 3D as a platform? Be good to hear your views.

    Looking from the outside – it is on almost 60% of PC’s, mac or windows, provides genuine 3D, a very well recongised consumer brand and is easy to code. When I see how easy it is to use MaidMarion virtual worlds then it seems surprising to me that other companies do not use this platform.

    I develop in the corporate and education world where client installs, exe’s and large downloads are a complete no go. Shockwave 3D is probably the best option for this. I guess there must be reasons why it is not used for mass consumer virtual worlds.

  9. It’s a reasonable option, certainly MaidMarion just works “out of the box” on many machines with Shockwave previously installed.

    In our case we compared the different environments including Java and Shockwave 3D, programming environment and multi-platform (Mac, iPhone, PC) support, also weighed up ease of install and stability (v important), and finally decided on a browser plugin.

    Even though there is a disadvantage of being a barrier to entry for many users, the advantages for us at least outweigh the disadvantages, and actually more people than expected are ok with browser plugin which is very lightweight and simple to install.

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