Lessons in launching virtual worlds

It started out promisingly with an email from the PR agency for Vizwoz, a virtual world for kids (yes, another one) inviting me to their VIP launch event.

Hi

We would like to invite you to have a VIP sneak preview of the next big virtual community before it launches this Friday 21 March 2008. Set to become the most dynamic virtual world, this online gaming experience offers entertainment, interaction and advanced game play through new and innovative technology.

This Thursday (20 March) at 17:00pm (GMT) you will get the chance to meet the founder, Dan Laurence, within his unique online creation who will give you a virtual tour with a difference in the comfort of your own computer.

To enter the virtual world for this exclusive experience, you need a VIP access code so please RSVP to us asap and then see for yourself, virtual reality in its most realistic form.

So clearly with phrases such as ‘the next big virtual community’, ‘Set to become the most dynamic virtual world’ and ‘virtual reality in its most realistic form’ Vizwoz sounded like a pretty exciting place. My excitement grew further when I checked out the countdown timer on the website earlier today.

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So, I turned up and logged in at 4.55pm to beat the rush. First impressions, a standard 2.5d flash-based UI with click and glide avatar customisation. Ok, so what’s the differentiator here? How does this world plan to stand out from the (growing) number of MMOG’s and VW’s aimed at kids? What’s the revenue model? And where is everyone else?

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I was given the wrong URL, no big deal. So, a quick logout and login took me back.

The founder was set to arrive at 5 to give a tour of Vizwoz. Excellent I thought. And a chance to ask some questions beforehand. Even better.

I managed to ask five questions before he had to leave.

1. What’s the target age range? Dan said 11 – 14. I actually asked this question to the PR agency before hand and they said 7 -14.

2. What’s the gender split from the beta? 47% boys

3. How many people were on the beta? 5,000.

4. What’s the business model? Premium, was the answer. Premium what?

My fifth question was the one I was most interested in – differentiation. I managed to ask it but unfortunately Dan had to leave at this point. This was a shame, but one should remember that the site had just gone live to the public. He did briefly give me the answer of ‘have you seen the GUI?’. Yes, I saw it, but that’s not differentiation – it’s a means to an end. The overall experience is good, it’s smooth and the interface works well but I still a feeling of something missing.

The PR agency to their credit managed to email me some bullets in answer to my question. As follows:

  • Is there room for another virtual community online? Our new teen virtual community, VizWoz (www.vizwoz.com), scheduled to launch on 21 March 2008, is set to be a mass market highly immersive online gaming experience aimed at 11-14 year olds. The fast-paced and ever-evolving teen sector has a large appetite for online communities and a new and innovative way of chatting to their friends, a way to make new ones and also playing games using the most advanced technology. We are confident VizWoz offers all this and more, mixing chat, single and multiplayer games, interactivity in a stimulating, interesting and safe space for kids and teenagers to explore. Following an extremely successful beta launch there is not only room for our virtual world but a strong demand for our online offering that is set to become the future of chat and gaming. During just 20 days of the beta, users sent 250,000 chat messages, played 25,000 games, logged in on average 3 times and spent over 30 minutes online. Amazing stats for just 4,000 beta users…
  • What does VizWoz offer that hasnt been seen before? VizWoz is the most dynamic and realistic virtual world for teens offering entertainment, interaction and advanced game play. With the combination of unprecedented flash animation and innovative technology, created by our strong team, the service aims to produce a catalyst for interaction and virtual entertainment. It is also the first virtual community to have its own online virtual police force ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the VizCops! The moderation process is extremely advanced, provided by key word screening, artificial intelligence and human moderation. Enforcement is either automatic (3 strikes and out), or by the VizCops ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the online VizWoz police force who patrol the community and will be available at any time to offer immediate assistance.
  • What advantages does your Flash animation bring you that you might not be able to find on any other site? With its advanced userface and outstanding graphics our flash animation is available with no download and VizWoz boasts constant movement on the site and speed of gameplay. Teen users create and customize their own avatars all of whom move on futuristic hover boards which from a technical point of view makes the character design much better and smoother transition as they move around the site making it quick and easy to navigate the visual world of VizWoz.
    The GUI is also a key benefit giving users full command of all the key features on the site with a cool one stop shop that links to a whole host of detailed interactive features on offer. This also includes the Go To functionality which is unique so users can instantly find their friends wherever they are on the site, as well as sending free SMS messages to friends who are offline.
    The flash animation in VizWoz allows us to be even more ambitious and flexible with delivering new and exciting features to enhance the online gaming experience. Whether that is through film and showing clips, showcasing content through the virtual cinema or the VizWoz disco and DJ booth with dance floor which users are going to be shouting from their laptops with delight! It also provides us with a really strong platform to talk to partners about commercial opportunities and strong brand exposure to the teen market.

I don’t know – am I being overly harsh here? I can’t really see the differentiated product. Most other kids worlds are flash-based. They all (have to) have strictly moderated chat. Most of them have single and multi-player games. Avatar customisation is no longer a feature – it’s a prerequisite.

A message to all companies planning to launch a kids or tween world

1. This space is already competitive and will get a lot harder to penetrate in the very near future. Some of the smartest people in the gaming and entertainment sectors are working on virtual worlds for kids. We will not see another Club Penguin in this space for a while. See graph below.

2. You need to have a differentiated proposition (something new, ownable or both) in order to attract and retain your customers – that’s the residents. Being first into the market with a differentiation offering gives you a head-start.

3. Or you need a significant marketing and advertising budget in order to get the attention of the market. Note that I said advertising and marketing as opposed to PR. Your target market does not read press releases.

4. You need to work like hell on viral mechanisms.

5. Repeat. You need to work like hell on viral mechanisms.

6. My opinions don’t really matter (and I’m not a VIP) but if you’re going to have a ‘VIP’ launch then make sure the founder is around to answer the questions if that’s the basis for the invitation.

7. Children are fickle. If they don’t get the point of your proposition almost instantly then you’re finished. Recent case history – I gave my oldest son (age eight) a new’ish virtual world to play with. I left the room and came back in two minutes later. He was watching TV.

8. Launching your new world is the beginning not the start.

9. Do not underestimate the future value of virtual goods. This is where the money is.

Related reading: Kids and Tween worlds case study.

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