FileBlog: Yaarr! Disney Gets Casual Gamers Playing MMOs the Pirate Way
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Yaarr! Disney Gets Casual Gamers Playing MMOs the Pirate Way

May 15, 2007


I has a flavor. Last week's Online Game Developer's Conference was an illuminating look into the minds of the people creating the next generation of online games (see yesterday's piece about the major trends). The crowd was an interesting mix: developers working on complex triple-A titles with cutting-edge graphics and features rubbed elbows with smaller boutique developers working on casual or indie online games.

And somewhere in the middle stands Disney, who's quietly been carving out a corner of the online space with a series of very successful online worlds aimed mostly at kids (and their parents.) Toontown Online enjoys a sizeable audience and continues to clip along, years after its release. The Virtual Magic Kingdom site, developed in part by the team who created Habbo Hotel, creates a kind of extension of the theme parks into a virtual world.

But Disney's most ambitious online effort is launching this month: Pirates of the Caribbean Online aims to combine the corny adventures of the theme park ride with the wild stunts and combat of the movies. We've just launched the beta on FilePlanet:

Join the Pirates of the Caribbean Online Beta Test!

Yar yaaarrrrr! Yar yar yar. Yar? Yar -- yar yar yar, yar yar. IMHO.

What's it Take to Make a Casual MMO?

At last week's conference, Mike Goslin -- Vice President of Virtual Reality Studios for Disney Online -- gave attendees a brain dump about how to view the massively multiplayer space through a casual gamer's eyes. It was pretty illuminating: There's a lot of complexity, even in hit games like World of Warcraft, that hardcore gamers take for granted. But how do you make a game that a young teenager on a hand-me-down computer will want to play? How do you get mom and dad and all his brothers and sisters to jump in? In short, how do you make sure that a massively multiplayer game can go BIG?

The first step is to reach as many people as possible by lowering the barriers of play. Most families don't have cutting-edge hardware, and in households that do, the kids are still stuck using a hand-me-down system. "Think about that min-spec really hard," Goslin advises. Make sure the game will run on as many machines as possible. More importantly, make the game free to try: lifelong gamers don't have an issue with dropping a few bucks to try out a new title, but your mainstream audience would rather try before they have to invest any cash.

Next you need to reach out to the mainstream audience. And right now, Goslin says its still all about television -- the majority of traffic to Toontown came flodding onto the servers after a series of television spots aimed at kids.

Now that you've got your audience checking out the title, first impressions are huge. Goslin recommends streaming the game in so that people are playing as soon as possible, instead of staring at a loading screen. Disney Online also likes to give players gifts right away, as a kind of welcoming gesture. The game world should look familiar and inviting. Humor is important: Toontown has lots of little in-jokes aimed at adult players so that they feel just as welcomed as their kids. But familiarity is key! Pirates of the Caribbean starts players off in a jail cell with Captain Jack Sparrow, giving them something instantly recognizable and putting players in the mood to adventure right away.

Yar yaaarrrrr! Yar yar yar. Yar? Yar -- yar yar yar, yar yar. IMHO.
Simple graphics help the game run on nearly any PC, while the stylized art gives the game a friendly cartoony feel. Even when battling the living dead.

Keeping Players Involved in the Long Term

So you've built an MMO and you've gotten tons of casual players to give it a go. You won them over with first impressions... but how do you keep them coming back next week? Next month?

Goslin advises game developers to focus on the immediate entertainment. Players won't invest a lot of time in the world, so you need to hit them over the head with fun things to do that don't take a lot of time to get started. In Pirates of the Caribbean, players can instantly teleport to a poker game or a pirate ship fighting a battle. Players of any level can man the guns of a pirate ship -- you're never turned away from the action.

Humor is also important. Goslin says that players are less likely to judge a game harshly when it doesn't take itself so seriously. Neither Toontown nor Pirates of the Caribbean feel like a heavy "virtual society." In either case, the games are frameworks for quick-playing adventures stuffed with gags.

Casual players have this is common with hardcore players: they want to be able to express themselves creatively. Goslin says the game development community in general doesn't do enough to serve this. Disney Online aims to have really diverse character creation, for instance, so that playing around with your virtual pirate's looks is almost a mini-game in and of itself. Of course, one of the main concerns with a casual game is juggling the desire to let players express themselves with the need parents have to keep their kids in a safe place -- Goslin talked at length about balancing this conflict.

Finally, a great casual game will build loyalty among its players, both inside and outside the game. Contests, events, and mailings (both live and digital) keep the game sticky and keep reminding players (especially kids with short attention spans) to come back and keep playing. Plus, regular installments of new content give people a reason to stay involved.

Put it all together and you've got a game capable of reaching as many people as possible and keeping 'em there for the long haul. That's Disney's strategy: the company is happy to let other products carve out the hardcore market while quietly building a huge audience for simplier, punchier games. But here's the thing about building a mass-market game: a lot of the time, hardcore players decide to come along for the ride.

Will Goslin's strategy work for Disney's latest title? Check it out and decide for yourself in this exclusive sneak-peek beta event:

Join the Beta for Pirates of the Caribbean Online!

      -Fargo

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