I decided to take a peek at some of my (and the kids') favorites, along with a few games that we've done first impressions on, to see what they've been up to lately. Since there are too many great kid-friendly MMOs out there to fit into one column, this will be the first of what will probably be many follow-up entries covering other games, so if you don't see your favorite family-friendly game here, fear not!
Little Space Heroes
The little game that could has been busy since our first impressions column. As I mentioned at the time, one thing I like about Bubble Gum Interactive is that it tries to provide out-of-game activities to complement the game. The site offers several printable mobiles for young players to color and assemble, and more recently, it has posted have colorful wall stickers and printable artwork that bring the characters and the world of Little Space Heroes to life.
What's particularly exciting, though, is the announcement of a new cartoon series that follows the adventures of the main characters as they travel through space to confront Lord Shadowbot. The cartoon will give the back story of notable characters like Ace, Professor Q, and Gizmo the Robot as they go off to rescue the cute little Glows from Lord Shadowbot. You'll be able to watch the series through mobile devices, online, or on TV (although it looks like it's being produced in Australia, so no word on whether it will be available in other countries). The game finds a nice middle-ground between providing a conflict to drive the story and making sure it's not too scary for young children, and the cartoon series is sure to follow in that vein. Any time a kid-friendly MMO extends itself into other forms of media, it's a good thing.
I haven't played this game with my kids in a few years, but I was curious how one of the grand dames of the kid-friendly genre was faring. First, it's stuck to its roots of requiring players to purchase either a retail, plush pet, or a virtual equivalent before being able to get in game and play. It might be tempting to join the ranks of the free-to-play club, but requiring an initial purchase (not unlike purchasing the game itself, with a bonus gift) would seem to cut down on the potential for spammers and bots. At the same time, it doesn't look like it's kept the world from being chock-full of cute, plump, nicely dressed little animals. Our trip to the adventure park, for example, showed about a dozen "parks" at the player limit, and we had to scroll down before we found one that had space.
When I tried it a few years ago, it had a "cruise-ship" atmosphere. Players roamed around doing all sorts of games, there was a daily list of "must-see" activities, and everything was all centered around fun. I still have that impression today, but I noticed a little more of a progression-minded take on things. We couldn't access the curio shop or the employment office, for example, until we fulfilled the necessary requirements (spending kinz cash and completing classes at the academy, respectively). There are also some new areas that are locked unless you purchase whatever novelty item provides the necessary code.
But just when I was about to get grumpy about being nickel-and-dimed, I tried out some of the games, and I was surprised to see several nice additions since my list time in game. Of course, the kids loved games like rock, paper, scissors, and the classics like Checkers, Link'd (Connect Four) and Dogbeard's Bathtub Battles (Battleship). But one that really hooked us in was Eager Beaver Adventure Park, which was a cross between Scrabble and Tetris. The kids and I had to link letter tiles together to make words, but every now and then, a random letter would be marked in red, and if it reached the bottom of the screen, you lost. For new readers, it was easier to piece together words in this game than in Scrabble because there were more options to work with, but it was still quite challenging, even for adults. I'm a fan of MMOs that make learning fun, and while Webkinz always had that as one of its features, with games like Quizzy's Challenge, it's nice to see something a little more like a game than a trivia contest.
I still remember when this game first came on the scene, and in an age of mega PR, lengthy betas, and years-long waits for launch, this one launched almost as quickly as it was announced. It's always offered some fun games, but over the past year, it's moved more toward getting players to do more together in-game rather than solo through all the minigames. The recent arrival of the Battle of Umbara zone capped that off, and after my visit there last week, I can say it's still as busy as ever. SOE has added in other bits of content to keep the area fresh and interesting, such as the new experimental collections and a ramped up rate of droid invaders in the landing area. In the past, the terrific housing system was one of the main outlets for socialization (it's worth adding a few builder friends to your list to visit their amazing structures!). Now, with Umbara, players who are more interested in combat and adventure have lots of new opportunities to do things together, and still come and go as they please.
I haven't had as much time to play this lately, but if my inbox is any indication, there have been a lot of changes since my first impressions. The game celebrated X-Men month by adding in new heroes like Psylocke and Angel. The team rolled out several new booster packs and card quests and announced new voice-overs for all of the heroes (many of whom use the same actors as the cartoon series on TV). More recently, the devs announced a new deal with Upper Deck to produce a new trading card game. The game has a solid foundation that it's building on, and it's great to see it expand and keep things fresh for players.
Whether you're a kid or a kid at heart, it's worth taking some time to check out these games if you haven't in a while. These games have definitely been keeping busy and getting better and better with age.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.