MMO Family: A parent's look at Toontown Online

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Kids may not even realize they're playing an MMO (you know, one of those games that Mom and Dad talk about all the time and play after bedtime) when they log in to Toontown Online. All the traditional elements are there -- missions, combat, grouping, pets -- but they're all couched in the incomparable cartoon stylings of Disney. In fact, "couched" is probably the most apt descriptor possible, because Toontown is familiar and welcoming, just like that cozy couch you've been nestling into to watch Saturday morning cartoons for ... well, your whole life.

That's not to say that the action in Toontown is laid back. It's anything but. Kids gobble up the zany, cartoon slapstick approach to "combat" (think cream pies and banana peels) and mini-games. In fact, they'll be so busy squirting the boss in the face with their lapel flowers that they won't even realize they're "working" on levels. This is kid-flavored MMO gaming at its candy-coated best.

Toontown Online
Publisher The Walt Disney Company
Developer Walt Disney Internet Group
Launched June 2003

What system does it run on? Finally, a game that runs on both PCs and Macs! The minimum system requirements for PCs: Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7; Pentium II 500MHz CPU; 256 MB RAM; 32 MB 3D graphics card; 150 MB free space in your "\Program Files" hard drive; 56K modem (broadband recommended); DirectX 9.0c or newer; Internet Explorer 5.1 or newer, Firefox v. 2 or newer or Opera v.9 or newer. And for Macs: Mac OS X v10.4.6 (Tiger) or newer; PowerPC 450 MHz, or any Mac with an Intel processor; 256 MB RAM; 150 MB free space on your hard drive; 56K modem (broadband recommended); 32 MB video card; Safari v2.0 or newer.

How much does it cost? Toontown Online is free to play, but content is limited (one character, one pet, a limited number of missions, limited access to fishing areas and mini-game areas, and so on). Full access runs $9.95 per month (discounts for multi-month packages), available by subscription or game cards. Your best bet: try for free, buy to play.

What's the game all about? Toontown is a traditional MMO dressed up in cartoon drag. Villains ("Cogs") are corporate bosses and flunkies -- Micromanagers, Spin Doctors, CEOs – who are trying to change Toontown into a business empire. Players "fight" the Cogs (silly tricks) singly and in small groups to level up. They can also frolick through an extensive system of mini-games or collect and manage pets and houses.

What does the game look and feel like? This is traditional cartoon fare: characters are cartoon animals (pigs, cats, monkeys, bears, etc.), and combat consists of slapstick gags (cream pies, seltzer bottles, banana peels, squirting flowers). This game feels like wandering around inside a Saturday morning cartoon, not like humping your way up the levels in an MMO.

Who's the target audience? Toontown Online is ESRB-rated E (cartoon violence, comic mischief). You might get a more accurate feel for its audience based on its Pan European Game Information rating: age 3+. Definitely kid stuff.
Who plays? Boys and girls from 6 to 13 are the game's core audience. Older players appear to lean toward parents and older friends or family members who've joined in order to play along.

What playstyles does the game most suit? There's an activity for most playstyles here: explorers, collectors, achievers and socializers. The game mechanics are easy to grasp -- "easy to learn, hard to master" -- and entertaining for both new or more experienced gamers.

What game play and features are available? Missions ("Toontasks") advance players in power through turn-based combat for up to four players (or eight, in several boss battle encounters). Any Toon can walk up and join a simple battle that's not full; boss battles are instanced, and players enter all together.

Players recover health in playgrounds, where they can restock and indulge in mini-games including kart racing, robot battles, gardening and fishing. Pets ("doodles"), housing with customizable furniture and clothing, and parties keep the /squee factor high. Later this year, the Cogs will be introducing their sinister new office buildings, "Cog-Dominiums."

How does the game address kids' internet safety? There's no third-party advertising in Toontown Online, which is accredited by TrustE and the Better Business Bureau. Real-time moderation keeps a handle on the social atmosphere in game. All in-game chat passes through several filters that prevent inappropriate language from being seen by others and escalates inappropriate language to the in-house moderation team for review.

Parental control chat tools let parents choose the level of chat freedom they want their child to have. Parents may also choose the email address at which they'd like to receive notifications about their child's account. The parents' section of the Toontown Online website explains the game's code of conduct and offers tips about teaching safe online behavior.

What kid-friendly features help guide kids through the content? Toontown pioneered both menu-driven SpeedChat systems that limit chat interaction for young players as well as the ability to meet up with friends across the game world by teleporting directly to their location.

Toontown's turn-based combat system gives younger players time to think about their responses. The "Laff" point achievement system means that Toons never die; instead, they become "sad" and must receive a "Toon Up" from a fellow player or play on the playground to become happy again. Formal organization and grouping isn't necessary. Kids can dynamically join in and help other players' battles. The safe playground zones give players a break from Cog battles, preventing younger kids from feeling overwhelmed by all the action.

Toontown shopping is image-based (rather than relying on text descriptions). Players earn jellybean currency through playing; it's used with both other players and NPCs.

What's the social atmosphere? All the elements of Toontown's kid-friendly design come together successfully to create a light, friendly, safe environment for even young children.

What else can players do outside the game? offers a robust community with areas for players to discuss the game, share gameplay tips, show off their own fan art and check out the leaderboards. There's a Toontown Twitter feed for older kids to follow. Disney also hosts contests awarding in-game and real-world Toontown prizes (including last year's sweepstakes that sent one family on vacation to Disneyland or Walt Disney World Resort).

Still looking for more details? Read our article on all the different ways you can evaluate kids' games, or visit the Toontown Online website.

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MMO Family offers advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family. Send us your questions and observations about gaming and parenting to lisa (at) massively (dot) com.
This article was originally published on Massively.