Toontown Online – "MMORPG Training Wheels"
The Ironic Challenge of Getting Kids Into Games
The majority of MMORPG gamers are adults. The games are violent, they require a credit card and typically, the uncertainty of the content in an online world has parents keep their kids away. MMOs are a paradoxical genre in an industry that many perceive, however incorrectly, as being for kids. Enter Disney's Toontown Online, the only major MMORPG aimed at children. They face an odd challenge. They need to convince children to play their games, and parents to pay for it. The game does not have the advantage of a box on a store shelf to draw a kid's attention, and it requires a monthly fee from a credit card that no child has. How then does it succeed? It has been the support of hardcore MMORPG players who wish to show their friends, family and children what draws them in has made Toontown a modest success.
Recently, MMORPG.com had a chance to chat with Steve Parkis, the VP of Premium Products at Disney Online, and Mike Goslin, the VP of VR Studio who produces Toontown Online and the recently announced Pirates of the Caribbean Online which will be designed for a somewhat older demo, about the challenges of making an MMO for kids.
Many of their customers are online gamers who also happen to be parents. We often mystify our friends and family with the hours we dedicate to online games and want them to understand our passion. Toontown Online can act as a wonderful introduction to the genre for a new player, or even a break from the more serious games of the more experienced players. There is probably no way to get an eight-year-old to play EverQuest, even if you did think it appropriate. Toontown has positioned itself as a game that will allow you to bring your friends, children and family into online gaming with a product aimed at them.
In Toontown Online, evil robots called Cogs have invaded the cartoon world of Toontown to make money and transform it into a boring, adult, Wall Street-like world. As a toon, you must combat these enemies not with guns and swords, but with comedy and cream pies. They respond with attempts to stifle your humor, such as tying you up in red tape! The premise is simple with enough basic humor and visuals to keep kids interested, but also enough intelligence to snare their parents. Your eight year old will be amused when the enemy ties them up in red tape, but will they catch the joke? Most likely not. Like many modern cartoons that have attracted both their target youth audience and curious parents, Toontown employs humor for all ages.
This all-ages audience has been one of the biggest surprises for the folks at VR Studios. They expected children, and they got them, but the number of adults who play has made them reconsider their focus. Recent and future expansions have provided a lot more depth to the experience to ensure that fans young and old enjoy the game.
To reinforce their position as an introduction to the genre, Disney has gone to great lengths to ensure that the game is easy to find and easy to play. In fact, they view their online distribution as a strong point; an interested player can go online and connect to their world in ten minutes or less. They have also gone to great lengths to ensure that the interface is easy to use and straightforward, the tutorial is solid and the game play easy to learn. They have done all of this to draw players, young and old, into their world from the get-go.
While this simplicity is great for kids and in some ways, the allure for adults, they stress that this game is open for all ages. "The game play is easy to learn, but hard to master," they insist. As the game has aged, they quickly noted that they had two radically different core audiences and adjusted correctly. There were the target children, and their parents who wanted experience that is a little more robust. As they introduced new content expansions, all of it free to subscribers, they were keenly aware of their duel audience. With this in mind, they have gone to great lengths to create content with more depth. For example, the recent Cog HQ expansion features complex challenges, and even some console-style game play that requires jumping, timing and other elements not typical to the MMORPG genre. Yet, at its core, Toontown remains true to its roots as a simple, fun and easy to play game that makes them in their own estimation "training wheels" for the MMORPG genre.
Recently, Disney and VR Studios announced Pirates of the Caribbean Online. I asked Steve and Mike what this meant for Toontown. They believe it can only mean good things. It will help broaden the market, give the developers more experience, and they insist that they simultaneous development will in no way detract from Toontown. The company continues to look at ways to improve and expand the game, including talk of more localization. The game already appears in five countries (USA, UK, Germany, Spain and Japan), with more to follow. They also made it clear that while they will never rule anything out, there are no plans to introduce a boxed copy or to release a pay-to-purchase expansion pack. They are committed to continued creation of free content for their subscribers.
As a game, they have a healthy 10,000 simultaneous players, which in my estimation suggests over 100,000 subscribers. They continue to provide free content, and fill an important niche as the only kid-centric MMORPG on the market. The game is available for online download, and costs $4.95 a month for the first month, followed by $9.95 from then on. There are also other pricing plans available. If you are a parent who loves online games and are interested in a like a lighthearted distraction, or to introduce your kids, friends and family to something you are passionate about, Toontown may just be the place to start. It is after all the "training wheels" of the MMORPG genre!
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