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It’s A Virtual World


If you think your kids are being inundated with promotions and special offers to join all kinds of online virtual worlds, that’s because they are!

Ever since Club Penguin first came to prominence in 2006, there has been a stampede by toy companies, game developers and others to create additional virtual worlds and tap into the seemingly unlimited appetite for online role-playing, exploration and social interaction among our increasingly Internet-savvy kids.

The desire to compete in this space built to a frenzy when Club Penguin was acquired by The Walt Disney Company in August 2007 for a sum that could eventually approach $700 million.

Now comes a report from Virtual Worlds Management (VWM), a tradeshow company, which claims that there are over 200 youth-oriented virtual worlds either live or in development. These worlds include well-known sites like Barbie Girls, Bella Sara and Nicktropolis, as well as more obscure offerings like MinyanLand (have fun, make friends, learn about money!) and Huru Humi (your AFF – artificial friend forever!).

VWM breaks down the market in terms of overall users of these sites and concludes, perhaps surprisingly, that there is significant overlap between the demographics, with “kids and tweens looking aspirationally upwards and…young adults and teens enjoying worlds aimed at younger audiences.” Even so, the younger kids’ market seems to be the clear leader, with over 100 sites aiming for at least part of their audience to fall in the 7 and under age group.

The business model for most of these sites is fairly simple: Offer free or discounted membership upfront and then attempt to upsell kids (i.e. their parents) into a longer-term subscription or premium membership. The really smart ones like Webkinz and Bella Sara combine the virtual world with a real world toy or game, thereby giving their fans something to cuddle or play with when they are not in front of a computer.

However, it’s hard to imagine that all the sites under development will actually come to market, or that all the sites that are already up and running will still be around at year’s end.

Looks like kids and their parents will have to be very selective in choosing which virtual worlds are worthy of an investment in time and/or money in the months ahead. Shrinking world may prove to be a more apt description for many of these sites, as they find out just how tough it is to carve out space in an already overcrowded market during an economic downturn.

The Online Mom
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