Second Life is looking for it’s Second Wind. There.com isn’t quite there yet. The media hype that surrounded virtual worlds just a year ago has ratcheted way back. Real world companies who came in not understanding what they were getting into quickly faded away after they didn’t get what they were expecting.
But one demographic seems to be doing quite well in the virtual space: Kids. If you have one of these living under your roof, you probably know that they are actively participating in online virtual/social networking spaces. They are joining online social networks at increasingly early ages (pre-school in the case of Club Penguin) and in those spaces, they are forming relationships that are very real.
This high level of participation has made kid-oriented worlds like Habbo, Gaia Online, Neopets, Webkinz and Nicktropolis more successful that adult oriented virtual worlds. Disney’s launched Virtual Magic Kingdom in 2005 with a target audience of 8 – 14 year-olds. Seeing business opportunity in the virtual space, they paid $350 Million to acquire Club Penguin last year. This year, Disney launched Pirates of the Caribbean Online to attract a somewhat older, but still teen aged audience (mostly boys) and Pixie Hollow (targeted at girls) is set to be launched later this year. The longer range plan, according to Mike Goslin, VP of Disney’s Virtual reality Studio, is to “have a large number of virtual world for a range of different audiences… sort of like a theme park.” The strategy also includes making the different worlds “feel like a common experience” including the ability to move your social contacts between virtual experiences.
Last Week, Shel Israel posted an fascinating video interview with Goslin and other senior team members from Disney’s Interactive Studios.
In the interview, the Disney team talks about the differentiators that they bring to the game. The most interesting one for me was the idea of Context. Like physical playgrounds, Disney sees their virtual worlds as socializing environments. In them, kids are learning collaboration skills, communication skills and social skills, but as with most everything Disney does, these interactions and communications are done in the context of a story. Disney believes creating social environments and communities around a context adds value to both consumers and business. On the customer side, building environments around a theme drives engagement by communities of interest who are passionate about that theme (think “ESPN Fantasy Football”). This leads to large communities that are defined by their common interest as opposed to the relatively small number of people that may be in your friend list. Those large communities with common interests provides a context for a business model like advertising. Because the community is all there for the same reason, they will likely engage in predictable ways (i.e. minimize random and inappropriate behavior).
Conspicuously absent from the interview was any mention of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom (“VMK”). VMK was launched in 2005 as part of the Disneyland 50th year celebration. In it, participants create rooms themed after Magic Kingdom attractions, play mini-games, collect inventory and make friends. Just seven months after launch, Disney announced the game surpassed one million players and over 1.3 million personalized in-game rooms. Last month, with no advance notice, Disney announced that they would be shutting the doors on this virtual theme park on May 21. Predictably, the outcry from the “community” has been loud and is growing as the date approaches. A number of petitions have collected thousands of signatures, boycotts are being threatened and one group, VMK Kids Unite, is organizing a protest at the gates of Disneyland on May 10 which may be covered by CNN and CBS. Obviously, adults are helping to organize these efforts, but the kids are the driving force. Kids who are already comfortable with the participatory web and who want to have their voices heard.
So here’s my takeaway. From the interview, its clear that Disney understands the business opportunity in Virtual Worlds & Social Networks. The also have a pretty good idea how to build communities through contextually engaging virtual experiences. On the other hand, Disney’s decision to shut down VMK demonstrates that perhaps they don’t really get the “social” component. In these social environments, Disney’s role is to provide the frameworks (architectural, security and creative) and the context, but the real content is created by the participants. In shutting down VMK, they aren’t just closing an amusement park attraction. They are throwing away the work of the thousands of dedicated, passionate kids who have spent countless hours building and sharing wonderfully imaginative experiences, and in the process, will be alienating many of their most dedicated and influential advocates.
What do you think? Is closing VMK “just business”? Will the kids get over it? Is this consistent with Disney’s brand?
Update #2: My daughter wrote a song and created a video about saving VMK. Check it out here.