Top Ten Free-to-Play Games - Battle for the Children

Marketing analysts know that a product must appeal to parents before they can sell it to kids. Check out these slogans that are copyrighted by their respective holders. "Choosy moms choose

Marketing analysts know that a product must appeal to parents before they can sell it to kids. Check out these slogans that are copyrighted by their respective holders. "Choosy moms choose Jif" when it comes to peanut butter. If you’re shopping for cereal, remember that Kix is "kid tested" and "mother approved." The same marketing axiom applies when developers try to target children for their games; you have to get the parents to like your product, too. As my daughter approaches her seventh birthday in April, I decided to take a look at some major titles aimed at children: Free RealmsHello Kitty Online, and Lego Universe. I examined their revenue models and their potential appeal for children and parents.

Sanrio may call it snow, but Ralsu calls the white stuff coating their game is sugar.

Hello Kitty Online

Hello Kitty Online (HKO) might be the best choice for a seven year old girl at first glance; the Hello Kitty franchise is insanely popular with girls all around the world, and my daughter has quite the collection of Hello Kitty gear (backpack, sweatshirt, tee, hoodie, leggings, pencils, crayon case, lunch bag, lunch dish).

It seems Sanrio’s MMOG has as many bells and whistles as my daughter does pieces of Hello Kitty merchandise. In short, HKO accounts for all of the standard features in today’s MMOGs. Players can harvest materials, construct a house, tend crops on a farm, read books to learn how to mix ingredients, and/or battle monsters for treasure and experience. The tutorial and downloadable PDF guide ensure that budding gamers don’t get lost or too frustrated. Everything my daughter could need to make her break into MMOGs is right there in one little syrupy sweet package.

HKO offers a F2P experience with optional microtransactions, so the price is right for my family. Additionally, the low requirements of the browser-based experience guarantee that just about anyone with a computer can play HKO. Thus, the game has a lot of appeal.

But it’s not all unicorns and rainbows where HKO is concerned. A major speedbump with this title in its quest to claim the souls (er, attention) of children everywhere is that most adults and males of any age would rather eat moldy bread than play the game. In the peanut butter marketing test, HKO fails miserably. Sure, I’ll vouch for the game as being age appropriate in accordance with its rating, and I’ll tell people it’s got a solid foundation, but you won’t catch me playing it. I suspect I’m not the only parent to feel this way, too.

Lego Universe

Legos have evolved beyond being little plastic blocks that build things; Lego is a cultural phenomenon that includes games (Lego Star Wars, Batman, and Indiana Jones on various consoles) and specialized play sets (Bionicle and others come to mind). What HKO lacks in appeal to parents, Lego has in Spongebob Squarepants-themed buckets.

Lego Universe is an MMOG with a ton of potential. You can’t find a child who doesn’t like Legos, and many adults are Lego enthusiasts as well. For sure, the Lego world is open for sandbox-style play that could rope in parents and children alike. I know several adults who are ready to be “Day One” customers right now. They love the concept of crafting in a Lego world. They know the fun minigames that could come at launch (Lego Racers, anyone?) and the latent exploration available to the product.

The problem is that the Lego Universe FAQ tells me the game will be subscription-based. The need to spend money cuts off a lot of potential customers, as children may not be able to finesse the money out of caregivers’ wallets and adults would rather pay for a more “mature” game. I’ll reserve full judgment until I know more about the game, but I’d say the subscription fee is a possible handicap for this title.

Free Realms has a look that is pleasing to children but not so cute that adults will vomit.

Free Realms

Free Realms does not use an existing intellectual property, but it no doubt will benefit from one of the most experienced MMOG infrastructures in existence. I have met many gamers who hate SOE, but almost no one can deny the company’s clout in the massively multiplayer market, or its familiarity with what is required to launch and maintain a game.

Of the three titles I considered, Free Realms is the one I knew the least about before I did my research. It is also the one that got me most excited as I learned more. The game offers a lot of the flexibility promised in Lego Universe with all of the standard MMOG trappings dispensed in HKO without an extremely heavy dose of frills, bows, and pink ribbons. The graphics will appeal to children but are in the realm of “stylized” graphics (read: WoW) that also pleases adults.

Free Realms pledges open gameplay that permits the player to choose his path, and the official site is filled with cool videos of fun minigames. Digging through the public information reveals a game that looks to offer all of the fun and frivolity of Wizard101.

Best of all, Free Realms will be a free browser game like HKO, meaning disposable cash and outdated hardware won’t be a barrier for children. SOE’s stated plan is to support Free Realms with in-game ads, which works terrifically for me so long as they are not intrusive. Of course, paying customers will get additional content and features just like they do in any other F2P game. If SOE keeps this division between paying customers and free gamers fair (and doesn’t lock off whole areas of the world), that business model should not be a problem.

Parting Thoughts

Three days ago, I had it in my mind that Lego Universe would be the clear winner in this competition because it appeals to the kid in me. But after a little research, I find myself leaning toward Free Realms. It has the open gameplay that allows children to explore and really learn gaming. We’ll be able to bounce from combat to minigames to a trading card game and more. It isn’t over-the-top childish, so adults might actually try it with their little ones. Finally, the F2P model will result in the largest possible player base. My daughter might just be getting Free Realms for her birthday.

Will you be trying one of these games? Which do you think will enjoy the most success Email your thoughts or post them in our forums!

The Top Ten

Continue to page two to see Ralsu's latest Top Ten list.

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