Friday, May 16, 2008
Disney is hoping that after kids check out the new "Chronicles of Narnia" movie this weekend, they'll want to go online and chat about it using game characters dressed in fashions from the movie's dreamworld.
This week, the entertainment company is launching a virtual play environment that kids can access through Nintendo DS devices and their computers. The software for the service, called DGamer, comes free on copies of a video game tied to the movie, "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian."
As companies scramble to replicate the success of recent surprise hit sites such as Webkinz, where kids tend to the lives of stuffed animals, some industry watchers say DGamer is the latest entry in a category that is about to get crowded. As one venture capitalist put it, kid-oriented online worlds are "popping up like mushrooms everywhere."
There's no question kids are spending more time online. According to research firm eMarketer, 12 million kids between ages 3 and 17 will regularly access virtual worlds this year. The firm expects that figure to rise to 20 million by 2011.
"This is still experimental," said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the firm. "From a business standpoint, companies like Disney are still trying to figure out how much time kids want to spend in virtual worlds."
Williamson said the list of companies entering the market is practically a who's who of kid entertainment. Nickelodeon launched a virtual world called Nicktropolis last year, and Mattel has launched one for its line of Barbie dolls. Online words from Lego and Time Warner's Cartoon Network, among others, are on the way.
It's difficult to forecast which of these online worlds will catch on, said Sharon Wienbar, managing director of Scale Venture Partners, a venture capital firm.
"Some get phenomenal traction, some don't," she said. "It's completely unpredictable."
Wienbar said this space drew a lot of investor interest after Disney bought Club Penguin in a deal worth $700 million last year. Club Penguin is a snowy virtual world where kids interact with one another and play games in the guise of penguins. It was designed by programmers in Canada and launched in 2005. At the time of the deal, the service counted 12 million users, including 700,000 who paid a subscriptions averaging $6 per month for access to in-game perks.
Ever since that deal, kids sites have seemingly been launched or announced on a regular basis, Wienbar said. It's similar to the wave of social-networking sites that debuted after the sale of MySpace to News Corp. for $580 million in 2005, she said.
DGamer isn't Disney's first virtual world aimed at the youth market. It has launched one themed around the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film series, and one inspired by the Disney-Pixar movie "Cars" is on the way.
Disney pitches DGamer as part virtual world, part social-networking site. "It's a little bit of everything we thought was appropriate to this trend," said Michelle Golding, the service's senior producer.