Hello fellow online gaming addicts, and welcome to the latest edition of MMO Weekly.  In this week’s edition we’ll be exploring the virtual elephant in the room.  I’m referring to a large – no, strike that, a huge – subset of MMO games.  This subset is definitely something of an underground phenomenon, and it’s flying below the average gamers’ radar.  Despite this, these MMOs are both incredibly popular and hugely profitable.  If you’re an adult, it’s most likely you’ve never set one digital foot in any of these virtual worlds.

However, your nieces, nephews, younger cousins, and your little brothers and sisters are probably playing these MMOs right now.  And if you have kids of your own, you know they’re not only playing these online games, they’ve probably spent a nice chunk of your hard-earned cash in-game, too.

Of course, I’m referring to MMOs that are oriented towards kids. As a gaming journalist with a penchant for MMOs, I’ve covered nearly every virtual world in existence.  I’ve interviewed the developers, gone to the conventions, perused the press kits, played the demos, and basically run the gamut of MMO games.  Despite this inundation with all things online and virtual, a lot of these games have even flown below my radar. 

How can this be?  Why are we, the MMO hobbyists, the hardcore gamers, and the MMO journos, so oblivious to this huge segment of MMO space?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  The companies that make MMOs for kids aren’t ones that you’re familiar with, and they aren’t interested in marketing their product to you.  In other words, the developers of kid-based MMOs are ignoring you.

But they’re not ignoring teens and preteens.  This past Saturday, I sat and watched a bit of Dinosaur King on TV with my young son (basically, it’s a Pokemon style show, in which kids call forth dinosaur companions to fight for them).  As the show went to commercial, a familiar tune caught my attention.  It was a commercial for Free Realms, the kids based MMO that just went live this past month.  Since I don’t see MMO advertised on TV all that often, this caught me off guard.  I suppose it shouldn’t have.  Within 15 minutes, another kids MMO had a 30-second advert on the same show, and the pattern continued for as long as my boy and I continued to watch.  Mixed in among the commercials for Lego sets, sugary snacks, noise-making swords, Nerf guns, and remote controlled racecars, there were commercials for kids-based MMOs. 

I did a bit of checking around with my buddies (all adults), and virtually none of them had even heard of these games.  Kids know them quite well, and we adults are clueless.  Hmmmmm.

This inspired me to do a bit of digging, and I found that there are a surprising number of these games.  Despite the sheer numbers, I found that most of these games are very similar to one another, and I thought I’d scratch out a primer for all the adults out there.  You know, a little something for all the oldsters, so they know what the heck is going on in Electro-Penguin Fantasy World Hotel MapleScape Live.  I’ve done this in a list format because…well, there really wasn’t a good reason.  I just felt like doing it in list form, ok? 
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So without further ado, consider this the Highly Unofficial Guide to What’s Going on in Those Kids MMOs, brought to you by IncGamers.  Here goes:

•    Kids MMOs are free to play.   I couldn’t find an exception to this rule – kids MMOs are free.  Why is this?  Because, from the developers’ point of view, getting your kid to download and play these MMOs is half the battle.  If they can just get your kid to try the game, pretty soon he’ll want to send the developer some of Mom and Dad’s money (keep reading for details as to how this works).  And yes, your average 12 year old has more than enough skills to download the client themselves.

•    No, no credit card or age verification is required to download and install the client.  So, again, your 12 year old could, in theory, be playing several of these MMOs and you’d never even know it. 

•    The hardware requirements for kids MMOs are minimal.  If an old clunky computer has got a functioning hard drive, a motherboard, and a monitor, it can probably run all the kids MMOs out there.  This makes perfect sense.  The developers are very well aware that adolescents don’t have cutting edge gaming rigs.  However, adolescents have plenty of those old laptops that their dads aren’t using any more.  What’s even better is that those laptops are sitting right on their desks, in their rooms, fully connected to the household wireless network right this minute. 

•    Kids MMOs aren’t about killing orcs and raiding dungeons.  In fact, most kids MMOs aren’t even fantasy based.  Most are set in a modern environment.  In your average kids MMO, kids have a house or apartment of their own.  A central feature of these games is that the kids can invite each other over to hang out, and every apartment is custom decorated by the kid.  Getting rare or unique items in your home is very desirable. 

•    Clothes and accessories are also very important.  The free client (you know, the one your kid downloaded without you even knowing about it two weeks ago) provides some basic pants, shirts, shoes, and hats, which the kids can color and otherwise customise a bit.  However, the really cool stuff doesn’t come with the base client. 

•    In many kids MMOs there are a lot of mini-games.  Kids go out of their homes into the public areas to play these games.  So there may be a rock and roll game (like Guitar Hero) a ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ style game, a skateboarding game, a racing game, and some puzzle games. 

•    If there is PvP violence at all in these games (PvP is highly regulated in these games, and many don’t allow any player-on-player violence at all), it’s pretty cartoonish.  Kids may, under certain circumstances, fight it out with other kids using baseball bats, big pillows, or boxing gloves.  Most of the time, this results only in someone getting knocked down with stars appearing over their head, and they quickly recover.

•    If there are PvE enemies in the game, they’re obviously evil.  In many of these MMOs, these are aliens, environmental destroying monsters, evil robots, or other non-humans.  The developers are very aware that the killing of other human beings is, um, somewhat distasteful to parents.
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•    While some kids MMOs allow players to acquire loot drops by adventuring, that’s not always the case.  If they do allow this kind of exploring and adventuring, players will fight enemies and get loot drops, just like in adult MMOs.  However, it’s a much simpler affair.  There are no complicated strategies for overcoming a raid boss.  Generally, some platforming skill is required.  If the player and his buddies are good at dodging the rockets the evil robots fire at them, while simultaneously being able to hit the robots with electro-rays, they’ll do well and will get some decent loot. 

•    Some of these games don’t even really have any adventuring areas at all.  They are all about furnishing your house/apartment, playing mini-games, and buying new clothes.  Basically, these games are like Second Life for kids (but without all the perverts).

•    Speaking of pervs, the developers have taken a variety of steps to keep potential paedophiles away from these games.  Some games disallow chat – you can only “talk” to other players using a limited number of menu choices.  Others monitor the chat, and flag players who use inappropriate terms.  The whole idea is to keep any perverts who find these games from enticing underage kids into compromising situations.  Be aware that some games have practically nothing in terms of protections for players.  However, overall, the systems we saw to keep pedobear from chatting up your pre-teen were reasonably solid.  

•    Virtually every single kids-based MMO makes money the same exact way:  they offer cool items for sale, and buying these items costs real-world cash.  In a nutshell, the game can be played for free.  However, junior will be playing for about a week before he asks you to buy him some TurtleDollars, which he will promptly spend on a better bubble cannon, or a cool animated top hat.  A week later, he’s going to want some more TurtleDollars, guaranteed. 

•    The developers are very good about offering a non-stop supply of new, limited edition items to tempt young shoppers.  Everything from flaming swords to jet packs to gorilla masks will be on sale this week, while next week will feature ride-able rockets, baby pet llamas, and big screen TVs for your house.  There are holiday-themed items, special events, big sales, and promotions of every conceivable kind. 

Ok, get the overall idea?  Kids MMOs are about socialising with other kids, buying cool limited edition clothes, furniture, and other doodads, playing mini-games, and (depending on the game) going on adventures and slaying non-human enemies.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you, my friend, are between 9 and 13 years old.  If it sounds like a way for development companies to get Mom’s credit card number, then you’re absolutely correct.   
On that note, we have to depart.  If you enjoyed this foray into the world of kids MMOs, come and visit us over at WanderingGoblin.com, where we dig up obscure and outlanding MMO news each and every day.  For now, ciao!

Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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