['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column examines the growing influence of youth-oriented virtual worlds.]

WebkinzImagine the fun of a Massively Multiplayer world inhabited by adorable penguins, cute fuzzy animals, or some of those incomprehensibly popular Disney television characters. A disturbing, post-apocalyptic vision of future gaming? To hear veteran Massive designer Raph Koster talk at GDC earlier this month, that's not the future: it's the present. At the Massive Games: Past, Present, and Future panel held on Wednesday of GDC week, Koster spent much of his available talking time discussing the successes of quirky online games aimed at kids, like Club Penguin and WebKinz. You think World of Warcraft is America's most popular online world, right? Club Penguin averages 1.6 million unique users a month. WoW may have 3 million subscribers in the states, but how many log in each month? The online gaming world is changing, and the new thing is new people: kids.

Today I'm going to do a quick rundown on the future of the youth-oriented Massive game. While subscription-based fantasy titles certainly have all the headlines, non-traditional games are quietly taking over the world. The increasing popularity of these titles raises a number of contradictory issues, and I certainly don't have any easy answers. Today we'll discuss a little bit about the business aspect of the market, some of the social issues these games raise, and what these titles mean for future entries into the Massive genre. Make sure to grab your fuzzy pet on the way out the door.

Massive Markets - Smaller Users

Club Penguin SketchIf you think about it, it's actually a no-brainer. Adults play online games as a stress reliever; we come home from a long day at work and kill orcs to get our minds off of the idiosyncrasies of our workplace. Kids, though, play online games to feel empowered. Tweens, especially, feel the need for some control over their (virtual) lives. For kids old enough not to be 'babies', but not old enough to do 'teen stuff', the likes of Club Penguin must seem like an oasis in a desert of annoying siblings, homework, and after-school activities. These markets, then, are a built-in gold mine for the companies running these services. Aging kids will tire of your world after a few years, but new customers are always 'on the way up'. With only a narrow window in which to grab them, you have to have aggressive marketing, of course, and they do: the users themselves. The viral nature of these games is self-evident. If your best friend is playing this game, talking about it at school, why wouldn't you give it a look? Most titles have a freebie trial period, making it even easier for the game to get 'sticky'.

If you think Mr. Koster is overselling the importance of this trend, you should know that CNN Money would tend to agree with him. In an article posted to their site in March on the popularity of kiddie MMOGs, they mention the recent launch of a Nickelodeon-branded online space and the upcoming release of a similar Disney product. Both of these worlds will leverage the extremely popular brands that these companies have on offer, and both are (somewhat callously, and unlike Penguin) ad-driven. While this has the danger of driving away easily-annoying youths and some media-cautious parents, the dangers may be worth the reward.

Though the tie-in that WebKinz has with plush toys already makes it a 'commercial' product, the marketing of brands like 'SpongeBob' and 'Hannah Montana' is sure to tap even more of the monetary value of this tween market. According to the CNN article, there are "29 million U.S. kids ages 8 to 14, with a combined annual purchasing power of $40 billion. Nearly 90 percent of these children are now online." Aside from the over-commercialization of the young in general, the integration of virtual worlds with toys and youth-oriented products may be cause for concern among some. As consumer-driven as youth culture already is, how much worse can it be made if persistent virtual spaces become standard fare for children's toys? In response to a recently announced doll tie-in world, legendary MUD developer Richard Bartle asked 'what monster have I unleashed?' Though he certainly meant it in jest, there may well be cause for concern.

Small People, Serious Issues

Virtual Disney WorldAt the moment, though, the heavy hitters seem to have their hearts in the right place. Reading over the documentation on sites like Webkinz World or Virtual Magic Kingdom, the language seems to be focused on 'keeping kids safe' and 'ensuring a fun experience'. Several of these titles only allow constructed statements using canned words or phrases. Webkinz doesn't even allow kids to see this canned chat if your chat buddy isn't on your friends list. While any company can talk a good talk, these companies honestly do seem to be keeping online safety at the forefront. Club Penguin has a parental guide front and center on their main page. They talk up their safety standards, but don't dodge the issue either: "While the Internet has opened up an exciting new world of educational, entertainment and social opportunities, online activity does not come without risk. Our goal is to minimize that risk as much as possible and protect Club Penguin users by continually upgrading our systems and policies."

The flip side to this, of course, is the question of the rights these children have. Future titles like Nicktropolis or Cartoon Network World may not have such a focus on online safety. The goal of Nicktropolis, certainly, is likely to revolve more around commercial success via purchases, branding, and advertising than around social network development. On a higher level, in her post about Nicktropolis, Sara Grimes is down on the safety measures used by these kid-oriented titles: "You will note that -- similar to the Disney.com revamp and CBBC's planned venture -- Nickelodeon's MMOG has incorporated an array of so-called safety measures (in collaboration with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children). This aspect of the sites should not go unexamined...with DOPA-esque legislation back on the block via the recently proposed 'Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act' it will be interesting to see how children's rights and/or agency are limited in the hopes of quelling parental anxieties about online predators and bullying."

To layer another confusing element onto this discussion, there's the question of whether a title is even 'aimed' at kids in the first place. Certainly titles like WebKinz are aimed at youth culture, but what about a game like Puzzle Pirates or Habbo Hotel? Both have elements that would appeal to younger gamers; stylized graphics and some humorous elements. Certainly Daniel James has spoken of the occasional challenges of younger players, and with a game like . Habbo, at least, is intended for audiences 13 years and older, but how often do 9-12 year olds find themselves on the service? Moderation in Habbo is an ever-present possibility, allowing parents some peace of mind ... but again raising issues of privacy and personal growth for the young people using these services.

Welcome to the (Fuzzy) World of Tomorrow!

HabboPutting aside for a moment business and social issues, what does the general popularity of kiddie-oriented Massive games mean for the genre? Are there any lessons that the AAA titles can learn from these outfits? What can we expect to come of the trend towards 'a virtual world with every product'?

First and foremost, it seems fairly easy to imagine that these games are priming younger people to appreciate Massive games in general. Kids now between 10 and 12 will be looking to games like WoW or EverQuest 2 in just a few years time. Well-developed typing skills and an inherent understanding of the virtual world metaphor, as well as experience with other types of games, will make these kids savvy consumers of AAA subscription titles. Certainly the popularity of the free-to-play title RuneScape is indicative of this interest. As Mr. Koster put it at a GDC panel: WoW is the game these kids play when they have the allowance money to do so. RuneScape is what they play otherwise.

Money is going to be a major sticking point with these folks, and that's an issue that I feel will have to be addressed by subscription titles sooner rather than later. Within a few years, the newest crop of AAA players are going to find the idea of paying $15 a month for these services alien. They'll consider it an affront, their access to a virtual world a default assumption. On the flipside, they'll be completely unsurprised by the inclusion of advertising in a virtual space. They'll be comfortable with the idea of being charged on a per-item basis, and won't squawk if they have to pay a fee to get to 'extra' content. Once they are in the front door, they'll expect to be charged; they will just expect the door to be left open for them.

This open door policy is likely extended by these players' blurry understanding of what a virtual world is 'for'. While primarily Massive spaces have been platforms for games, the likes of Club Penguin definitely shave off the 'G' from MMOG. Intended as a social setting first and a location to play games second, the connection many new spaces have with specific products is easy to understand. If all you want out of your virtual world creation is a place for users to talk about your product, buy virtual items related to your product, and play games themed around your product ... compare that to the content requirements of a AAA title and things start to sound fairly straightforward.

These games and these game players are, from a realistic point of view, the future of the Massive genre. While many of us spend time talking about World of Warcraft or EverQuest 2, titles aimed at the young and vigorously technologically-savvy will be taking over the world in the background. It's going to be fascinating to watch the crash and burns, the huge successes, the increasing mainstream understanding of what virtual worlds are ... all of which will result from spaces aimed at fuzzy pets and Disney characters.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]