August 20, 2008

Webkinz, I Need To See You In My Office.

Because it's getting out of control. I understand that the social networking and community aspects of virtual worlds based on real world plush toys are quite powerful draws, especially for the youngest, least marketing savvy consumers who are your targets.

And I realize that the only thing better than selling addictive plush toys to the parents of demanding children is selling addictive virtual objects to these children online, because really, what's better than selling something where the per-unit production cost is zero?

And I understand that it's the wave of the future and all, and that after spending $700 million to buy Club Penguin from the dads who started it like four years ago [yeah, I know, makes me wonder what I've been doing, too], Disney is rolling out like two dozen new pay-to-play virtual worlds for all their properties.

But seriously, is the virtual world concept's reproducibility really as infinite as it appears?


seapals_plush.jpg

Because now there's Seapals, who live in SeapalsWorld [make sure you get the domain right], which is essentially Webkinz in an aquarium. After you buy your plush fish [or in my case, after the Seapals' publicist sends me a plush lobster, which turns out to be a finger puppet], you log him on, then you start decorating his aquarium. And his room.

seapalsworld_tour.jpg

And then you take him out to go shopping with his friends and to dine at fast food restaurants serving what looks an awful lot like Big Macs and Coke [I guess the virtual food partnership deals are still pending].

seapals_bigmac.jpg

So Seapals rates at least a 5 on the Webkinzy scale, fine. It looks to be decently done, and the toys are nicely made. They have as good a shot as anyone, at least until Nemo and the Little Mermaid's World launches.

According to a new Toy Industry Association report on the online play habits of kids ages 2-14 titled, "Online Play: Earning Mom's Trust and Children's Interest," [WTF? Are you joking? You stay put, TIA, I'll deal with you later. -ed.]:

These online-offline web-connected products offer enhanced play value and are the glue that bonds these digital natives, Generation Z (kids 2-14) to a new generation of play, according to TIA officials.
Which means everyone, not just Disney, is trying to fit their products into the "new play pattern" that's emerging. Even if those toys were developed before the the Webkinz concept was proven, and even if those toys were nominally online-themed anyway.

emotes_c2005_nite.jpg

Take Emotes, for example, by Hong Kong-based Evergrow, a toy, gift, and pet product manufacturer. When Emotes previewed in 2005, they were a gang of "human-like" vinyl monsters who lived "inside the Internet," and who were fighting a never ending battle with the evil villain trying to control the net, Dr. Soul Snatch. They were mischievous little Web Smurfs, with Pokemon-like powers, transparently adapted from the email emoticons that provided their name.

At the 2006 Toy Fair in New York, Emotes debuted alongside another Evergrow collection called Loconauts, vinyl doll incarnations of various mental disorders:

"Baxter Burnout, Anna Anorexia and Barry Bi-Polar...you can see the theme. Each figure also has a tagline about his or her specific ailment. Shirts and hats will be available as well as key chains and travel mugs.
[Surprised those haven't hit the market yet. Anorexia's probably most toyetic disorder out there right now for the lucrative pre-tween demo who have trouble losing their baby fat.]

Anyway, by the time Emotes' ad agency sent me a sample pack of merch last month, Dr. Soul Snatch had become Dr. Viro, and the kind of prototype-looking stuffed Emote doll had a dog tag around its neck telling me to use the "secret code and go online for extras and bonus games!" What began as an idea to turn chatroom icons into sellable toys had been reconcepted as a Webkinz-style online-offline play.

emotes_books.jpg

It has also been overlaid, for good measure, with a thick, overwritten slab of childhood development educationalizing. Perhaps taking a cue from stories of how autistic kids learn to read emotional cues by watching Thomas the Tank Engine's stop-action set of facial expressions, Evergrow drafted a young LA actor-turned-therapist to create books with Important Life Lessons for the Emotes to teach. Then they re-relaunched the series at a librarians conference in the spring. Check out the "Blogaboutit' section on Emotes.com for some informative video. The behavior modeling in "Boom's Anger Story" is not to be missed.

Whether online-offline interaction is the future arrived today or the flavor of the month, it seems like it's going to complicate--or at least haunt--the toy buying process for a while. Personally, I'd rather not have to deal with any of it; just the thought of it makes me tired and cranky. Maybe that's why the Toy Industry Association is focusing on moms...

Visit SeaPalsWorld, McDonald's opening soon? [seapalsworld.com]
Emotes [emotes.com]
Toy Industry Association Study on Kids and Online Play, 28% of Kids Who Use "SGE's" have Purchased Products [virtualworldsnews.com via wonderlandblog]

5 Comments

I just want to know what comes after Generation Z? Generation 1? Generation AA?

I'm not sure if I'm proud or ashamed to say that I have no idea what you're talking about, Greg. So now you're going to make me kill another 15 minutes of productivity at work so I can go figure out yet another media craze I'm oblivious to.

I've only vaguely heard of webkinz mentioned without knowing what they are (and seeing stuffed animals ominously/ceremoniously displayed behind the counter of our local toy store with a sign saying that they weren't to be touched, or something like that). Sounds like we're safely outside of the target demographic.

I like that my 2 1/2 year old is in Generation Z, but his 3 month old sister is generationless. She's the lost generation. She's the new Aldous Huxley. Or, at least she is until she's able to drive purchasing decisions. Enjoy your un-marketed moments, little babies! When you turn 2 you're theirs.

My daughter, 6.5, loves Webkinz. She buys them with her allowance, but I haven't told her, nor has she discovered for herself, that there is an online component.

My son is a big webkins fan. He has bought many and plays them online. He just bought his first seapals and he tried going to the web sight, but nothing is opening. Have you heard of a of any problems like this?

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