Virtual World clues from the big dogs

Quote from Virtual Worlds News & their liveblogging:

When asked about the number one safety feature in each game, Yanover (Disney) said that it’s a question of communication.

Merrifield (Club Penguin) looked to people. Penguin employs 120 of them for security. “We knew what we could trust technology to do and what we couldn’t. We’re making close to 500-1000 changes to our filter each day. Fifty drops a new CD and all of a sudden an innocent word like ‘lollipop’ means something different. Within a few minutes it’s flagged for removal and then cycled back in when it’s safe.”

I (izzy) am personally elated by this quote.  Not because of any safety– but just because this is the first time someone has given even a HINT of what it takes to moderate this genre/demo.  It’s not easy, and people who are entering this REALLY need to do some massive research & understanding of the constant work & dedication it is to update and improve.  

Root has editorial staff going in-world each day to tweak those settings to check both words and phrases. For Reppen it’s the same idea, but “You never rest. It’s always updating and looking for the next wave of what’s out there that we can take advantage of.”

Scalability was an issue as well for the Penguins. The company created its own platform to handle the increasingly large numbers it saw, but many other products are crippled by their lack of scalability.

Root’s conclusion, though he says it is obvious, is to balance staying true to the audience while developing a business model. After that, the problem is to stay nimble and develop: “These things need to be fed. It’s not a weekly model. You have to be always ready to update.”

Leigh Alexander raised the tough question then of how do we know that worlds aren’t just a fad (like Pogs) and how to adapt with the market as it grows up.

For Reppen, the second issue isn’t a problem. MTV Networks, which owns Neopets,  has segmented demographics and plenty of virtual worlds aimed at older audiences. “I think there’s an opportunity to move this audience across our entertainment experience,” she said. “and this generation of kids is growing up with virtual worlds as their new play pals and they’ll demand exciting new play patterns as they get older.”

As far as fads go, she pointed out that Neopets is approaching its 10th anniversary and is still going strong.

“It’s really about setting ourselves up to reinvent ourselves,” said Root. “I hope Nicktropolis is flexible enough that whenever kids want to start playing with virtual puppies or whatever they do, we can do that.”

I hope so too, because Nicktropolis desperately needs some attention, care, and reinvention.  The community is brittle and off-beat, and there is little to do.  They need a second layer of commitment & citizenship. Making an avatar, a room, and roaming endlessly aren’t enough– not to mention the UI of jumping from various sections of the world is cold & unimaginative (dare i say it!), and the ad interaction??? WRETCHED, if not a wee bit insulting/assulting. 

Allowing users the ability to feel like a team, or an acknowledged community, as well as giving them the tools to create their own sub-culture & storylines are very very important.  You can’t just hope that by letting a user walk into a room and talk briefly with a computer-generated “Danny” (Danny Phantom) that THAT will be enough to make them happy.  They tried to add “pet care” with the new Aquarium.  The idea is cool… for five minutes.  I don’t ever really need to go back and visit my fish.  Been there, done that, no connection to maintain. 

Of course they’re Nickelodeon (whom I’ve always favored above all, although lately with some of their “choices” I’ve been less than thrilled), and they’ll have a steady amount of kids filtering in and out of their environments.  Kudos.  But someone who is such a “devoted” organization to the benefit of kids… I just hope they give the same amount of credit to kids online.  

The issue is also that these aren’t products like Pogs. “They’re long-term services,” said Yanover. “Someone wakes up everyday and thinks about how to keep serving those kids. From that sense I think it’s got pretty long legs. From the other side, I think it’s a pretty legitimate form of entertainment and kids are growing up with it. We don’t wake up after a decade and think it’s time for TV to go away.”

Virtual Worlds News: Liveblogging Worlds in Motion: Striking Gold – How Kids’ Worlds Took the Crown

This was great information, and it was fab to get some insight. 

Naturally there is more to the article– click the link above to check it out.

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  1. February 22, 2008 at 6:08 am

    It was great to see the elusive Lane Merrifield out in the public’s eye. Especially when every single VW related presentation showed a screenshot of Club Penguin as justification for their statements.

    After the presentation I thanked him for wasting so much of my family’s time 🙂

    An interesting question / heckler / griefer came up to the microphone and talked about a scenario where he registered online as a child under 13, validated his own account through email, and proceeded to chat his “123 Fake Address.” Neither the filter caught it nor did a moderator come on to correct the chat infraction. With that he then asked something to the effect of, “so where’s your safety?”

    Lane had a classic response, [paraphrasing] “You probably really didn’t chat the message. I mean you might think you did, but you probably actually didn’t. Yeah… That’s about all I can say… It’s a technology thing.” Hmmm… I could have spent the entire session learning more about that little gem. 😉

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