On-line / Off-line Toys

by Mr. Cheap

My last Wacky Business Idea was quickly debunked as someone is already doing it, so I decided to make it a “two-fer-the-price-of-one” this week and post another.

Webkinz is an incredibly popular toy for kids (at least it was incredibly popular last year) created by a Canadian company.  I thought the whole idea was great, so I bought one for my girlfriend at the time to check it out.  The basic idea is you buy an overpriced stuffed animal that comes with a “secret code”.  You enter this in their website, and it creates a virtual version of the stuffed animal.  You can then buy things for your virtual pet (toys and home furnishings), name it, play games with it and whatnot.  Each new webkinz you buy gives you another “friend” to play with.  Eventually they introduced “trading cards” that you can use to add new items for your pets (or sometimes new pets).

The actual “world” they created was kinda lame (the games weren’t much fun and the production quality wasn’t so good).  Apparently kids ate it up though, and would quickly discard the stuffed animals (but were happy to be paying $12 for the next virtual pet it represented).

It seemed to me that there were all sorts of ways this idea of tying virtual objects to real objects could be executed.  One possibility might be action figures (think GI Joe) that come with a code.  On-line, you can send your men into battle accomplishing missions using the skills at their disposal (so if you buy a figure with a flame thrower, you can use this to overcome obstacles in the on-line game).  You could buy different equipment, that would then be used in the virtual missions or battles with friends on-line (maybe a plastic med-kit could be bought for a buck, then given to one of your figures to save him if he gets injured).

Another idea might be lead miniatures, like those used in Warhammer.  Hobbyists could purchase figures and units and paint them and do battle in real life.  Each would also come with a code which would let you have an identical virtual army, that you could fight with using the same rules on-line (against a computer opponent or against other people).  Perhaps your virtual soldiers could even improve as they fought battles, getting better as time goes on (so your regiment of high-elf archers might become veterans after a number of battles and get some sort of bonus).

World of Warcraft did something SORT OF along these lines, when they had special rare cards in their trading card game that would “unlock” special items for your on-line characters, but it wasn’t an integral part of either game.  I think an important part of making something like this work is to strong tie the real world object to the on-line version.

One of the challenges with computer games is their isn’t usually any sort of scarcity.  If I’m playing a computer wargame, I can build an army of any size I want, and switch to a different sort of army if I get bored with the first.  This makes a large, well-constructed army unimpressive, since anyone can quickly and easily make one.  Limiting players’ options to only the pieces they’ve purchased, while being profitable for the company, would also have the effect of making an army more impressive.    In real life, its always impressive when someone has a big army they’ve assembled themselves, and typically if you don’t own certain figures, you can’t use them in a battle.  Newer players wouldn’t be able to participate in larger battles (or would have to play a smaller role), just because they don’t have enough soldiers.  Players would also become more invested in the army that’s theirs, because its theirs (and isn’t just something they created 10 minutes earlier in the software program).

I’m not so sure either of these ideas is a amazing, but I really think that Webkinz will just be the first of many toys / hobbies entering this space.  Any other ideas for something along the same lines?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Potato

If you can get the kids hooked on it, it’s a great cash cow… but there’s usually a lot of backlash against buying your way to the top, especially when skill and time sinks are options.

For some games, like Pox Nora, that’s just the name of the game.

There are some neat reversals to this for WoW: you can get items made with your character on them (I can’t remember now if it was just T-shirts and coffee mugs with their picture, or if stuffed dolls or action figures were options…)

2 Mr. Cheap

Potato: Yes, there was something I read about where they’d sculpt your WOW character (with their notable equipment and clothes). Quite neat (but not something I’d spend money on).

There have been parent backlashes against Webkinz (that its training kids to be hyper-consumers). Ultimately, anything you make and sell that targets children will draw complaints from SOMEONE (e.g. D&D, Harry Potter, Webkinz, Narnia, Barney, etc).

3 Shevy

Yes, some folks are anti-Webkinz, either because they believe it encourages consumerism or because they oppose children spending time on the computer.

That`s not me. My 5 yo loves Webkinz. It teaches all types of computer and mouse or touchpad skills, eye hand coordination, typing (especially the game Lunch Letters), plus helps with math skills (Booger), matching (Smoothie Moves) etc. My Dear Child can type in her own user name and password all by herself and is reading a lot of things on the site.

From a financial point of view, it also teaches that things cost money and you have to do various things to earn money or you can`t have all the fancy clothes, toys etc. you want. Plus the pets need to be fed, you can garden, have your pets take classes. Most of the games are actually pretty fun for kids and my DC can get to level 7 on Bananza and level 3 on the easy version of Lunch Letters.

Right now her computer skills are almost equivalent to my grown sons when they were 10 or 12. My Number 1 Son is now a team manager for an ISP. DC would probably be ready to join his team by the time she`s old enough to get her first job. Plus, she has a much better concept of being able to afford things than she did 6 months ago (she got her first Webkinz 9 months ago).

Additionally, their production quality is actually very good compared to the other people offering similar sites. I can`t remember which one it was but the graphics on one were something I would have expected 10 or more years ago.

Anything that would be similar to this (in terms of purchasing something that unlocks a complex virtual world), but geared to an adult audience would be worth considering. Of course, this idea requires serious technical skills so wouldn`t be for just anyone.

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