I recently had the opportunity to sit down and spend some quality time with the CEO of Mind Candy, Michael Smith. I picked his brain about Mind Candy's newest game, Moshi Monsters, how they're going to attract and protect the kids that play it, and what some of Michael's favorite past-time activities are. Plus, we even discussed a little background on Perplex City, and the status of the anticipated alternate reality game, Perplex City Season 2.
Interested in what goes on in the mind of one of Britain's most innovative game developers? Read on after the break and find out!
Colin Brennan: So we went from the intrigue, murder, betrayal and puzzles of Perplex City to monsters and puzzles in Moshi Monsters. Why the leap?
Michael Smith: *laughs* It was certainly a leap, wasn't it? Perplex City was amazing; one of the most extraordinary things I've ever been a part of. We got a huge amount of buzz, a lot of press attention, but the one thing we lacked with the game was a sizable audience. We had a group of passionate players, but we never cracked into the mainstream. It was too deep and too complex, and we couldn't get the audience we needed.
We love games here at Mind Candy, and I originally had this idea for a game called Puzzle Monsters. I filled up a couple notebooks on it, and then we started working on production side by side with Perplex City Season 2. As we were moving along with both productions, we started looking at which IP would create a larger audience, to solve the problem of Perplex City. We eventually had to make the hard decision to move the entire team to working on the now re-named Moshi Monsters while putting Perplex City onto the back-burner. And now, after a year and a half of development, here we are in the first week of the beta test.
MS: This space is very crowded... when we started thinking about Moshi, no one was touching this space. Then, as we were developing the game, the market became very crowded very quick. To be successful, we needed a very distinct product. We're not building a virtual world; instead we wanted a relationship between the player and the pet. We spent a large amount of time creating an emotional pet that interacts with the user on a deep level, and that can be seen through the range of personality the monsters can express.
Secondly, we're creating a different way to have kids communicate. We're creating communication tools much closer to social networks, like Facebook or Myspace, but for kids. This way, you can just add people as a friend with the click of a mouse and using the pinboard to leave a message. There's no avatar walking around like Club Penguin, and that's part of creating a more connected experience between the player and the monster.
Thirdly, we're distinguishing ourselves with the puzzle aspect. Kids find puzzles to be fun and entertaining, and we can educate kids in a stealthy manner. We can teach and educate them on different levels with topics like logic and vocabulary. And we wanted parents to feel that they could trust our game.
Instead of using voice acting, we ended up deciding that the monsters should speak in speech bubbles, and their moods should use some advanced vocabulary. This way, we're aiding the children with their reading skills and getting them to expand their everyday language in a fun and creative way. I think it's really great to be able to teach kids words like superfluous and exuberant – words that even some adults don't know.
CB: It seems the construction monsters are hard at work at the end of the town. Any hint as to what they're building? Can we expect more monster species to join the party as well?
MS: We want to give our audience more ways of communicating and interacting. More ways of showing off what they're doing. Right now, the players can design the room and have people vote. What we want are players to be able dress up their monsters, have their monsters leave gifts for other monsters, perhaps even a Moshi Stock Exchange with changing item prices and user created content.
We also want to expand upon the current puzzle format. As you know, it's simply an image, a question, and four answers. The puzzles are fun, but it can get a little repetitive. I'd love to give kids the tools to design their own puzzles, so they can show them off to anyone who visits their room. Things like scoring your friends with your own puzzles, and seeing how you rank amongst your friends.
We do want to do more monsters and we're putting together concept sketches, but don't expect it in the short term. There's a lot of animation and scripting involved with creating a new species, so the effort takes at least a couple months. I'm eager to see the monsters getting their own pets. We're going to be able to put out a lot more of these as they will be smaller and have fewer animations attached to them. But, the monsters will be able to interact with their pets and extend that emotional relationship even further.
At the moment, we know, the game can be a bit frustrating with the lack of our in-game currency, rox. However, we're also working on more games like the two that are currently in town right now to give players another way to earn rox more than once per day.
CB: I'll say that it's hard to get rox. Poor Smigglesnuff has a barren cupboard right now. But, anyway, back to the questions. Moshi Monsters is free to play. Where will your revenue come from then? What plans do you have with further product line expansion?
MS: Our primary way of monetizing the content will be a subscription for premium content. In that sense, we'll be very similar to Club Penguin.
Secondary revenue ways will be through offline products, using plush toys, puzzle books, stationary, etc. But we don't want to do that too early – we want to create an amazing online experience before going offline. But every product we will create will have a code associated with it, so you can get something like a rare item, or a new piece of furniture, or a nice pair of sunglasses. So, in that respect, it will be very similar to the Webkinz model of revenue.
CB: Earlier, I heard the magical phrase, "user generated content". How exactly would you put something so variable into a controlled space like Moshi?
MS: The tools we give our users won't give them absolute creative freedom. They will be tools that perform content creation on a very strict basis. For example, users won't be able to upload pictures or give out their location. Obviously, we're doing that to protect the children first and foremonst. But it wouldn't be out of the question to create a tool to allow monster owners to create their own wall paper, for instance, or a tool to create their own puzzles, as I mentioned before.
CB: Along the lines of security, then, how does Moshi Monsters protect the children playing it?
MS: We have a dual layer of security in place with Moshi Monsters. The one bit of freedom given to users is the pinboard, but there's a swear filter in place to make sure no one sends anything nasty. Also, we have moderators taking care of checking these messages as well to make sure nothing gets through.
But, before the message gets posted, we have the receiving player check over the message to make sure it's something they want to display. This effectively prevents cyber-bullying by making sure things the user does not want to post onto their pinboard aren't posted. So, the user is presented with two options – either approve the message or delete it forever.
Also, we have the flagging system, so other users can flag content for moderators to recheck. This way the community can help police itself and make sure that people aren't abusing the pinboard system by approving messages that may have slipped through the first layer of security.
We don't want to wrap kids up in cotton wool and prevent them from saying anything, but we want to still allow them freedom. We want them to be able to express themselves and make new friends, but at the same time we do want to protect them. It's hard, but we think we can do that very effectively through this form of system.
CB: So, we have the challenge of security, and that's the most visible challenge that you have to face when designing a game like this. But what are some of the other challenges that people might not see?
MS: Right now we're running into your standard background challenges, like keeping up with all of the registrations and make sure the site is scaling appropriately. Designing a social network such as Moshi is filled with these little scaling challenges. As your user base grows, the site itself is exponentially growing and becoming more complex. But, I will say this, this is a challenge we like to have. It means the site is doing well and we're doing our jobs well. I'd rather have these challenges than other challenges.
CB: So... spill the beans... you must have a favorite monster type.
MS: Furi species, for sure. I love their voice, and I think they're the most expressive.
As for the players, the most popular is the cute little Poppet. Girls love how cute they are and their voices as well. The least popular is the zombie type, the Zommer. We thought boys would like that, but for some reason, it's very unpopular. We even put in some fun animations, like him popping his eye out and playing with it, and things like that, but it's just not taking off.
CB: I'll make a Zommer just for you, Michael.
MS: *laughs* Ok, thanks a bunch Colin. He'll appreciate it.
CB: When you're not working on Moshi and caring for your pet, or keeping in contact with Headmaster Kiteway of the Perplex City Academy, what are you doing in your spare time? What games do you have on your platter?
MS: *chuckles* I wish I had more time for games! I really do. But, when you run all of your own businesses, spare time gets pretty sparse.
Lately, I've been tinkering around with a lot of kid related game sites to get ideas for Moshi. I've been spending a lot of time in Club Penguin and Stardoll in particular.
If I'm not on there, I really like multiplayer gaming, and for that I go to my Xbox 360. Currently, my favorite game for that is Burnout Paradise – I really enjoy the free-roaming aspects and the car crashes. The racing in Burnout is really intense, and it's even better with friends.
If I had more time, I'd probably be a higher level in World of Warcraft... right now I'm only a level 3.
Also, I personally think Twitter really counts as a game.
CB: Twitter? How so?
MS: This may not be intentional, but Twitter really does carry a bunch of mechanics that mimic game mechanics. The way the system rewards you for posting good content on a frequent basis, the competition you get into with friends for more followers, they're really addictive game design elements at work, in my opinion.
CB: Ok, before I leave you today, I have to ask out of my own curiosity. Perplex City Stories, season 2. What's the status, any dates? Anything we should keep an eye out for? Should I sit on my front porch with a shotgun, waiting for the Third Power helicopters?
We've got Perplex City on ice at the moment. I want to bring it back in the future, but right now at the rate Moshi is taking off we need to put the main force of the team onto Moshi. Once we get things more stabilized with Moshi, we'll look back into re-opening the Perplex files and making a great game. But for now, because of the growth rate of Moshi and all the chaos surrounding that, I'm afraid I can't give you a date.
CB: So I should put my shotgun away then?
MS: For now, but always keep your eyes to the horizon. You never know what might happen.
Thanks again to Michael Smith for spending some time with us and answering our questions! Remember to go adopt your own monster at www.moshimonsters.com and keep an eye on www.perplexcity.com for any future developments.