FreeToPlay.biz The Business and Design of Free-To-Play Games

12Sep/089

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.