In fact, these aren't the only relatively well-known kids' titles to be shut down over the past year. And while it might be premature to signal the death knell for kid MMOs, it's a good time to do an assessment on what's working and what might be hampering success. In this week's MMO Family, it's time to do a little state of the (kid-friendly) industry.
At first glance, news of the impending closing of POTCO and ToonTown might create mild unease, but there are actually several other titles that have shut down recently or will soon. Pixie Hollow will also suffer from the Disney shutdowns. Meanwhile, Cartoon Network shut down the FusionFall servers a few weeks ago, ending a five-year run. Other titles, like World of Cars and LEGO Universe, came and went even though both were based on popular franchises. While MMO shutdowns are now an accepted part of life, many of these titles represented the vanguard of the kid-friendly genre, so their closings raise the question of whether the kid-friendly boom might be experiencing a bit of a bubble.
The human element
One problem with kid MMOs is that it's practically impossible to make an MMO that's completely kid-friendly. When you get down to it, the only thing that really separates an adult MMO from one that's more family friendly is the theme and subject. In order to have a true virtual world, you need social interaction, and that interaction comes with risk, as we saw with Habbo. But studios who choose to remove that risk with things like chat filters and pre-set messages and emotes also remove the one thing that makes an MMO stand out from other types of video games. The effort to make a safe game actually results in a game that's not very compelling.
You would think that MMOs are a perfect fit for kids because kids love to play pretend and use their imaginations, and MMOs are designed around roleplaying an avatar in a virtual world. But many kid-friendly MMOs lock players into rigid paths that prevent that. Instead of wandering around in any direction they want and creating their own adventures, kids are corralled into pre-set content that actually prevents them from feeling immersed in the world. Overly complicated UIs, invisible zone barriers, and tracked content all get in the way of actually feeling as if you're seeing that world through the eyes of your character.
Bland content with pretty colors
One of the more refreshing quotes from SOE Live came when EQ Franchise Director Dave Georgeson said, "Enough is enough. Enough of the same game already; it's time to get some new ideas into the genre." The same could be said of kid-friendly MMOs, which tend to come with the same familiar features. Once you've collected outfits, farmed your crops, selected your pets, and put your table, lamp, and bed in your isometric-angled room, there's little desire to do it again somewhere else. Many kid-friendly MMOs are also just prettied-up versions of grown-up MMOs with linear progression, and many kids don't enjoy grinding levels and doing errand quests (nor should they!). The problem is that adults are making the MMOs that they are used to playing with some kid-friendly paint on top.
If you can't make the world, let the kids do it
We might be at a crossroads with kid-friendly MMOs. We're seeing that there's mixed success with current kid-friendly virtual worlds, and some of the reasons it's struggling are hard to fix. But instead of making the game and hoping for the best, why not build the tools to let kids (and adults) make their own games, as Roblox and Minecraft have both successfully done? Thousands, if not millions, of young gamers have essentially become budding game developers thanks to those two titles, and they're building games and worlds that rival what game studios have been able to create.
Why would anyone want to do delivery quests or farming in an MMO when they can play laser tag, throw dodge balls, play hide and seek, run parkour courses, fly to the moon, survive the Titanic, explore Hogwarts, run through a Wipeout course, or live on a five-star island? That's just a tiny sampling of what players in these two titles have created and played, and that doesn't include the many amazing outfits (in Roblox) and character skins (in Minecraft) that players have designed on their own. These kids are thinking like game designers, and the best of them are learning the finer points of making a fun game, like zone layout, challenge level, and the pace of the content. As a result, they're taking away much more from their gaming sessions than they would if they were being led by the nose in a "safe" but uninspiring MMO that's supposed to be tailor-made for them.
It's not just child's play
The kid-friendly genre might be suffering from some growing pains, but if it is struggling a bit, it's not alone. You could easily replace "kid-friendly" with "adult" and draw similar conclusions about the MMO industry as a whole. We're seeing some studios renew their efforts to design better (and more fun) MMOs for adults, and perhaps we need to see more of that from the kid-friendly genre as well. The recent wave of kid-friendly closures doesn't mean the end is near, but it's a good opportunity for the industry to take stock and think differently.
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.