We read today in the New York Times about the growing success of web sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz, were entertainment companies are building virtual worlds for children. Not only can they experience but they can participate and belong in a part online role-playing game and part social scene. These children’s versions of Second Life are proving much more popular and Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.
More than six million unique visitors logged on to Webkinz in November, up 342% from November 2006. Disney last month introduced a “Pirates of the Caribbean” world aimed at children 10 and older, and it has many themed worlds on the way. Nickelodeon, has the successful Neopets and is spending $100 million to develop a string of worlds. Coming soon are Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and worlds based on D. C. comics properties from Warner Brothers. Not to be left out toy manufacturers Lego and Mattel are entering the market along with many technology companies. There are now over 10 virtual worlds that involve caring for virtual pets.
Disney’s largest online world is Club Penguin, which it bought in August for $700 million and at the time it already had 700,000 members paying fees of $5.95 a month and delivering annual revenue of almost $50 million.
The interesting question all this activity throws up is what comes first? In olden days the books created the story that moved onto the film and then spun out to the merchandise but does this still hold firm? Will we see the virtual world coming first? What will be the impact on the development of new content and the trading of rights? Many questions will be answered by the money. We will always have books that go on to be successful films but will we have ‘worlds’ that go on to sell books?