Two online virtual worlds

* Two fascinating players in the virtual world market: Small Worlds and Whyville

In the marketplace of virtual online worlds the 800 pound gorilla is, without doubt, Second Life. But they don't own the market as much as feature as the poster child. The consequence of that is a small crowd of wannabe's who have their sights on taking a shot at some kind of market ownership.

Given Second Life’s debatable success why would these upstarts care? Simple, because the potential market is enormous. This year (according to eMarketer’s “Kids and Teens: Virtual Worlds Open New Universe”) just looking at the pre-teen and teen market some 12 million children and teens will visit virtual worlds -- that’s 34% of all Internet users from 3 to 17 years of age -- and the figures are projected to keep on growing rising to 53% of all Internet users in that age bracket by 2011 (that’s over 20 million of them!). Whichever way you look at it, that is a serious market and one that simply has to attract the attention of product companies from soda manufacturers through toy makers to publishing houses and computer game makers.

In this edition of the Web Applications Alert I have two fascinating players in this market for you: Small Worlds and Whyville.

Small Worlds is a just launched project in its inevitable Web 2.0 beta phase that uses a Flash-based browser interface to display a virtual world. This world, designed apparently for young adults, is an isometric view of a 3D environment and your avatar perambulates around it interacting with other users and objects.

Avatars in this world are bobble-headed cartoon characters that I find rather unappealing – they have a degree of anime-style bizarreness that I don’t find engaging (your mileage may vary). Your choices for customization of your avatar are rather limited and you get to optionally have a pet that is equally limited in choices (a dog or a cat, pointy or floppy ears, and so on).

When you sign up you get your own room, which you can furnish with a YouTube TV set, Flickr posters, and stereos that play Internet radio channels. You can visit other people’s rooms (by invite) and go to other places in Small Worlds such as spas. You can also play games against other users such as having a samurai sword fight and get ranked. I was rather disappointed by the sword fight game – it was hardly exciting and I seemed to defeat two opponents by simply clicking as fast as I could.

Be that as it may, the detail of the world is pretty good and the graphics and navigation are clever and in many ways more accessible than, for example, Second Life.

On the other hand Whyville is completely different from Small Worlds. Launched in April, 1999 as an educational vehicle, Whyville has gathered almost 3.5 million users (kids) to date with no marketing, no media promotion, and no existing brand. What’s amazing are the stats: 3,500 new registrations each day, an average of 3.5 hours of use per user per month, and an average of 400 page views per user per month – that’s 14 billion page views per year, which the creator of Whyville, Jim Bower, states was not a goal of the site!

Whyville isn’t, from a user interface perspective, that sophisticated and again uses cartoon-style avatars, but given its target market they are much more in keeping with audience expectations.

There’s a huge amount of insight to be gained from Whyville’s success and rather than explain what the service looks like and how it’s organized I’ll point you to a video of Jim Bower discussing the thinking and lessons learned from the service and let him explain the successes and nuances of Whyville. What will strike you is just how extraordinary Whyville is and why its success is so remarkable and so important.

The market for virtual worlds is by no means exhausted or limited – the winners will be those platforms that provide the right mix of social networking with the right level of complexity and ease of use. Of course making money in the process is another matter entirely.

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