It has been over a year since I previewed Hello Kitty Online and I wondered why it was still in beta. I soon discovered the reason when I spoke with Executive Producer Grant Wei of Aeria Games who is bringing the Hello Kitty Online world to the North American market. I had participated in the Founder's Beta - the very first beta run that although was in English, was not the North American Beta. I was playing a version created for the Asian market. Little wonder than, that the GMs I spoke to in-game were based anywhere from Malaysia to the Philippines. This is Hello Kitty for the North American market. Localized, to American spelling, pop-culture references and, I am told, it's much less of a grind.
Targeted at the 13+ Hello Kitty fan, Hello Kitty Online may not be COPA complaint, but Grant stresses strict chat filtering, strong GM presence in game, moderated forums and a zero-tolerance policy for cheating and exploiting.
Hello Kitty Online is a social world with an overarching quest story line. The Denizens of the world, Hello Kitty and her friends, are falling asleep and you have to find out why. Traveling through wilderness areas to larger cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Beijing and New York, you will undertake quests from various NPCs you encounter, learn to harvest, craft items and bake, farm, build a house and breed pets. There are cities and wilderness areas attached to them and travel is via portal. Players have to build enough faction and complete enough quests before you can advance from one city to the next and progression is fairly linear.
Hello Kitty Online is a surprisingly busy world. The landscape is filled with waving trees and flowers and cute little critters that aggro. It's also very, very pink. So cute, it may make your eyes hurt. Hello Kitty is not a leveling game but a skills and exploration game. Players do not have levels but skills. You acquire skills and better them through practice. You travel and find a fairy in the corner of a wilderness that gives you a task. It is actually a crafter's dream as the best items and coolest outfits in game are player made. Virtual farming? Check. You plant, water, fertilize and harvest. Put in scarecrows and sprinkler systems, and turn your produce into food and drink through the baking system. Farming can be charmingly compelling. Your crops grow and turn into plump, beautiful fruit and other produce. Lovers of Harvest Moon will especially enjoy this feature. A new day and night cycle feature will send players with planted farms a message when a new day cycles to remind them to tend their farms as fruits left on the vine will wither.
You also get to build a house - which is a social affair, a virtual barn raising. Depending on the plans you buy, you can build the cutest pink, candy-cane (or chocolate donut for the so inclined) house you ever did see and you furnish it with more player crafted items. Other than crafting and growing produce, you collect pets and level them by caring for them. By that, I mean petting them, feeding them and cleaning up after them. Yes, your pets do poop virtually. You can also go to an NPC pet breeder and cross-breed your pets. Merchants in different cities will breed different pets.
"Features have been localized for North American consumers," said Grant. For instance, North American gamers are more concerned with customization of the avatar than Asian, and different character expressions are available to players, who have to earn them in game. "The mini-games are much easier as well," said Grant. "Some features are repetitious and that's not something you can get away from, but it's not a grind." Building a house, for example, will still require a large number of different resources, but not quite the number that will seem overwhelming to the gamer here.
What about combat? Yes, there is combat of a sort. There's no PvP in Hello Kitty Online, nor do you kill critters. Instead, you will whack cutesy little starfish, scorpions with googly eyes and cubical crabs with a magic wand and make them fall asleep. Of course if they don't fall asleep the first time, you whack them again, and perhaps, again and again. When they are finally asleep, complete with little Z's floating up from them, they may yield the item you need from them, or drop a pet card. If not, you whack a few more.
Sanrio Digital has built a social space around the game at www.sanriotown.com with forums, Dream Studio that is a tool to create your own in-game video, mini-games and personal blogs. "Bringing Happiness to the World" is Hello Kitty's motto and Sanrio Digital emphasizes that, declaring that it's a game that one can play free, trying to keep it away from the connotations of the slew of Free-to-play games out in the market place. Players can also use their software tools and get blogspace for free just by registering for an account.
The North American version Hello Kitty is currently in closed beta, although anyone can sign up on the Aeria Games site. When they go into open beta, they plan to roll it into retail launch, and the item mall will be open at that time. Details aren't available as to what items will be found in this item mall, but their plans for monetization is more through merchandizing outside the game via their Kitty Shop for Hello Kitty merchandise, and plans to allow players to create their own merchandise featuring their in-game avatars are not far behind.