[Over at virtual worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, we've restarted the Worlds In Motion Online Atlas, originally written by the now Kotaku-tastic Leigh Alexander, and now penned by 'Scotsman in Canada' du jour Mathew Kumar. First up - an intriguing overview of Moshi Monsters, a educational, social MMO aimed at "little kids and big kids alike" from Mind Candy - yep, the company who originally did Perplex City.]

2008_05_02_moshil.jpgName: Moshi Monsters

Company: Mind Candy

Established: April 2008

How it Works:
Flash; it runs directly in the browser window with no installation required. All navigation and gameplay is performed through use of a mouse.

Overview: In Moshi Monsters, users "adopt" one monster from a range of six species to care for. Users are placed in charge of ensuring the monster remains happy and fed by purchasing goods from the local town (either food or furniture and items to decorate their monster's home) and raises money to purchase these items by taking part in daily Brain Age style puzzles. Players can also play some games in town for fun, plus interact with other users by visiting their monsters' homes and leaving messages on their pinboards -- specifically those that have been designated as "friends" by players who know each other's usernames.

2008_05_02_monsters.jpgPayment Method: Moshi Monsters is currently free-to-play, however the game is monetized in some small way with Mosh Monster Mopods -- phone charms which can be purchased and include secret codes for special items. There is no cash value attributed to any in-world items, however.

Key Features:
-A cute monster to look after
-Daily educational puzzles
-Safe interaction between users (only friends can post on friends' pinboards)
-Monsters can gain levels and popularity by having a nice room and doing well at puzzles

Moshi Monsters: In-Depth Tour

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The Moshi Monsters experience begins by "adopting" your monster from a selection of six species on the website. Players have a limited number of color schemes with which to personalize their monster (one of eight main colors and one of eight secondary colors) and apart from that (and choosing the monster's name) there are no other options to personalize the "base" monster that you create. But with six monsters on offer there is a nice range to suit different tastes -- from the "ninja kitty" Katsuma to the Yeti-esque Furi -- and Mind Candy have hinted that clothes will soon be available for monsters to purchase.

Each created monster has his own room visible on the web by anyone, though visitors this way have no way of contacting the user (or even interacting with the monster or room) in any way unless they sign in. The pages clearly indicate the user's age and location. You can view Worlds in Motion's Moshi Monster, Shibito (a "Zommer") here!

Shibito already has a personalized room, but when you begin playing Moshi Monsters your room is empty and basic -- plain wallpaper and carpet plus ordinary windows and door.

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With your monster you have only two real forms of interaction directly -- you can either click on it (to "pet" it), which usually results in your monster saying something (generally mildly amusing), or you can tickle it by dragging your mouse across it holding down the mouse button.

After I adopted Shibito (and after briefly tickling and petting him) I began what is arguably the main point of the world -- playing the educational puzzles. These puzzles are selected by pressing the puzzle button in the monster's room, and can be played once a day to receive Rox, which are Moshi Monster's currency, and to raise the monster's level (which has no immediately obvious meaning.)

Players must raise Rox in order to pay for food (to keep up their monster's health) and decorations for the monster's room (to keep up the monster's happiness) which both maintain the monster's mood.

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The puzzles take the format of simple Brain Age tests, such as counting the number of blocks in a cube or finding the missing letter. Though they're initially very easy, they automatically calibrate their difficultly to how well the player is doing, and after only a week of maintain Shibito and playing puzzles each day they're already a real test of my arithmetic and ability to search for letters and numbers.

After my first set of puzzles I instantly set off down the shops, easily reachable just by clicking on the monster's door. There is a selection of three -- the gross-ery store (food), Yukea (furniture) and Bizarre Bazaar (decorations) and I quickly purchased some new wallpaper, a new floor, a dartboard and a cabinet for my monster, before placing them in his room -- much to his approval.

When it comes to the "single-player" game, there's not much more to it than that. In town, there are two games which can be played (Flutterby Field and En-gen) both of which are fun mini-games, but there isn't as much impetus to play them as there could be, as you can't gain Rox from successful play -- though Mind Candy promise that this will soon change.

Yet Moshi Monsters is intended as a social game, and it's here that it's different take on things is obvious. Moshi Monsters has been built as a sort of equivalent, or companion to, social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. You can, for example, embed a Moshi Monsters widget into your MySpace page, which doesn't offer full functionality but is an easy way for your MySpace friends to find your monster.

2008_05_05_moshi5.jpgThis kind of thing is particularly important as within Moshi Monsters there is no way to interact with other players without already knowing their username. You may notice that poor old Shibito has no friends! Well, if he did, he'd be able to receive messages on his pinboard (from friends) and in turn, leave messages on his friend's pinboards. Any logged in player can view another player's pinboard or room (as long as they know their username) but the only initial interaction with another player is to ask them to be friends.

This limited social interaction is part of Moshi Monster's core philosophy to allow the worlds to be safe and enjoyable for the intended audience of children, and the website has a good deal of information for parents who may worry about the possibilities.

After taking care of Shibito for only a week, I'm already quite attached to him. I'm able to stop by for mere minutes each day to make sure he's happy and play through my daily puzzles, and can't help myself from eyeing the more expensive items for sale in the shops with the aim of decorating his home as well as possible.

Moshi Monsters: Conclusion

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When you first look at Moshi Monsters there should be something that stands out to you above and beyond almost all other youth-orientated social worlds -- the consistently excellent art. Reminiscent of the work of Pete Fowler or designer vinyl toys, it's instantly pleasing and attractive, with clear crossover potential outside of its intended market. After all, I don't think I'd have spent so much time looking after my monster if I wasn't simply captivated by the way he looks.

If you'll have an initial reservation, it's got to be the limited customization of your monster. With only 64 color combinations per monster there isn't a lot of space to be completely unique in the world, but with luck that will be expanded on greatly for the future official launch.

As cute as the monsters and world are, when you get down to it, Moshi Monsters is a very simple experience. It seems entirely geared towards quick daily visits rather than attempting to snare the user into spending a lot of time in the world -- ten minutes or so a day is easily enough to play your daily puzzles, check on your monster and your friends, and purchase any new goods if you're feeling flush.

As a result, as a tool to get me to do daily arithmetic (something I'd never usually bother with!) Moshi Monsters is a great foil. That's not to say I haven't struggled with some aspects of the beta. After 10 days of taking care of my monster, I've run into errors causing my puzzles to stop working mid-way 4 times, and with only one chance each day, it's been frustrating to say the least. The world has been stable otherwise.

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It's also unfortunate that the items that you purchase for your monster's home (such as a dartboard) have no use other than as decoration. Your monster, although he'll wander about his room, will never interact with anything, and spends most of his time standing about staring into space – though they'll occasionally emit a random pithy comment.

Another slight problem is the complete inability to get rid of items that you've purchased but don't want -- I foolishly purchased two sets of the same window, and now I'm running out of Rox to pay for food, I bitterly regret it!

Though the world is geared towards a short play time, I have to admit that currently, that decision just isn't satisfying. Even when I've managed to get my puzzles to work I've noticed that they repeat quickly, and other than posting messages on other player's boards, there just isn't much to do! This kind of complaint would lead me to dismiss the world out of hand usually, but the art style is so interesting (and the monsters so fun) that it's hard not to just wish for more to keep you in the world on each visit, and for more ways to connect with your monster.

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For example, Flutterby Field and En-gen are both fun little mini-games (particularly En-gen, which is a nice twist on the usual "match 3" games) but there isn't much impetus to play them, as your monster doesn't take part. It seems like a missed opportunity.

Of course, a lot of these complaints come from the perspective of an adult player. Looking at the world from the viewpoint of a parent or child, there is a lot to like. The interface is intuitive. The community is as closed as can be -- I expect children will mostly only interact with others that they already know -- and it's easy for parents to keep an eye on, especially if they keep a monster themselves.

Although it's currently in beta, Moshi Monsters is a world which is artistically fully realized, and is therefore very attractive to new players. Sadly, many players will find themselves waiting for the designers to catch up with the artists to gain full enjoyment from it, but as a daily timewaster I can think of few worlds which can compare.

Useful Links:
Moshi Monsters Community Blog
Moshi Monsters Mopods.