After writing my article on virtual economies in MMOs, I received a number of interesting emails; one of which was an invitation to meet with Eric Brassard, the CEO of Woozworld. Woozworld is a web-based social game designed for tweens (ages 9-14), which doesn't fall into my typical coverage zone of more mature MMO games.
Nevertheless, since I happened to be in Montreal over the Christmas holidays, I decided to drop by and see what it was all about. At the very least, I figured I ought to see what kind of in-game economy Woozworld supported.
Woozworld's tale begins with Tribal Nova, a company that produces educational games for children. Part of the web-based technology developed at Tribal Nova was co-opted to produce the underlying basis for Woozworld. This project, which targeted an older audience, was spun off from Tribal Nova, launching as an independent company around December 2009.
CEO Eric Brassard explained one of the major shifts in going from Tribal Nova to Woozworld was shifting from producing "educational software" to producing "entertainment software." You don't market directly to children; you market to their parents. And parents want to buy educational stuff for their kids. However, once kids get older, they don't want "educational" toys anymore; they want big kid games!
The basic idea of Woozworld is a combination sandbox and social game. Each user creates their avatar (Woozen) and can create a number of personal spaces (Unitz). Then they buy stuff to put in their Unitz, decorating them in a tile-based manner not unlike The Sims.
The stuff is bought through the game’s two currency systems: Beex (a free currency obtained by playing the game) and Wooz (a premium currency purchased with real money). Players can invite friends over to their unitz, visit popular unitz, socialize, and engage in various role-play activities and games. Eric took me on a tour of the live game, showing me all sorts of different activities and games players had made up within the game world.
Given my background in virtual economies, I was particularly interested in that aspect of the game. Because the game is targeted at a younger audience, there is a good bit of hand-holding in the economic system. Everything in the game has a default price set by the game’s creators: this is the price at which the item is sold from NPC shops. There is no finding items in the game world: no looting or harvesting.
And once purchased, you cannot sell something back to the NPC shop. Basically, it’s a lot more like an item shop than a game economy. That said; there are vending machines that players can place in their areas, then place items in the vending machine to sell to others. When an item is first entered in, the default price shows up; players can chose to change it if they wish.
As a result of these systems, “profit-making” is not really a primary activity in Woozworld, the same way it is in more traditional MMORPGs. Although items do come and go from the NPC stores – and certain items often go out of stock, requiring players who want that item to buy it from another player – the primary activities of the game are not generally based on a player-driven market. In fact, most of the stores Eric showed me were based on the role-play aspect of running and shopping at a store, rather than the meta-gaming desire to get more gold.
Besides, of the two currencies, the paid currency – Wooz – plays a very important role in the game. Rather than have some items only cost Beex and others old cost Wooz, most items Eric showed me cost a mix of both Beex and Wooz. And it’s nigh impossible to obtain anything for Beex alone and turn around and sell it for Wooz. This meant that buying Wooz was a major part of playing the game.
I wondered about how viable such an operation would be. Considering that most tweens probably don’t have credit cards, how are you going to monetize this operation? Turns out such an operation is very viable, thanks to two main strategies: SMS and parents. In Europe, where the game launched to a very strong start – Eric indicated that France was a particularly important test-best for launching new social games – one of the main ways of collecting payments from people is via premium messages sent to cell phones.
This allows Woozworld players to buy packs of in-game currency and pay it on their cell phone bill. In North America, Eric describes a somewhat different situation. Here, parents make a lot more purchases online with their credit cards, so it seems quite common for tweens to ask their parents to buy things for them online. Woozworld also features a credit-card VIP subscription feature, allowing parents to buy a monthly subscription for their tweens which provides a weekly Wooz allowance.
Woozworld isn’t limited to just these two main avenues, however. A partnership with a European game card distributor has led to a growing segment of game card sales. Future partnerships are being examined for other markets. Eric describes Tweens as a very strong market target for online social games.
Not only is that age group the largest in number of players, it’s also the largest in the percentage of players who are interested in spending money online. This in stark contrast to us older jaded folk who trudged through the trenches of shareware, piracy, and free-to-play; the penny pinchers who endlessly debate every last click of the “pay now” button!
Another big success for Woozworld has been integration with Facebook and Facebook credits. Eric describes how parents who use Facebook might end up with some extra Facebook credits; either through purchases or just by playing games there. By linking Facebook and Woozworld, parents with Facebook credits can convert them into points for their children to use in Woozworld. In a way, parents and their tweens can play together... albeit in their own separate social environments.
The separateness of the Woozworld social environment is very important for the success of the game. Abiding by the various online child protection acts in the countries in which it operates, Woozworld tries to provide a safe environment for its players. Vigorous use of filters, monitoring, and chat logging helps reduce incidences of swearing and verbal harassment. Closely working with the RCMP and Interpol has also kept the game free of child predators.
The game currently operates in only two languages: English and French. However, its success spans the world. Eric talked about large groups of Woozworld players in South East Asia and India as well as Europe and the Americas. Plans to translate the game into other languages, as well as localize it for special markets, are being looked into, but the game is still young and the team behind it still somewhat small. Right now they’re staying focused on their core product: with a 2-3 week development cycle, Woozworld produces new features and items regularly to keep their audience playing (and paying!).
This cycle is tied in to their payment methods too. Often, new items are introduced for VIPs only, then made available to everyone, then phased out entirely. This product cycle prevents players from becoming overwhealmed with legacy items in the stores, and creates a “shopping” experience where users aren’t sure what they’ll find in the stores when they go to check them out.
In fact, because items are placed in NPC stores with limited quantities, it’s perfectly possible for players to show up and find nothing at all! Eric and I encounter that problem a few times when he was showing me the game. Of course, it was also the week before Christmas, so all the kids were out of school and playing Woozworld and possibly buying presents for each other.
In addition to further regional localization, Eric said that they have plans to produce a mobile version of the game. He couldn’t go into details about what platforms they would target or how much functionality would exist in the mobile game, but he did suggest that they would be looking into a number of handsets, both traditional cell phones and more powerful smartphones like the iPhone and Andoid. Conversely, there are no plans for a console port at this time.