It’s taken longer than it did (probably) to train up Jack Black in the dark arts of tubby-chub kung fu, but DreamWorks Animations’ first virtual world for kids, is to launch today in the U.S.. Kung Fu Panda World is $10 million-worth of virtual theme park for 8- to 12-year-olds to hone their martial arts talents and learn the thoroughly admirable skills of styling cartoon animals using in-world games and on-site currency, and there will be safe chat rooms.
There are two versions–a pay model, which costs $5.95 a month, and a free version, accessible after a 15-second second ad, including, somewhat controversially, a promotion for MacDonalds’ Happy Meals: ve-ery Spotify, doncha think?–but DreamWorks could find it a hard slog, as kids can be notoriously fickle when it comes to brand loyalty. Just ask Disney, whose attempt to launch a virtual Pirates of the Caribbean world ended in failure. Three years ago, it acquired the $700-million ClubPenguin.com, and its visitors are down, year-on-year, by 7%.
John Batter, formerly at Electronic Arts, masterminded the launch of Kung Fu Panda World, and he is optimistic, largely because DreamWorks took time to make sure that, the technology would be simple, while the world itself would be profound. “Kids want to be challenged and rewarded,” he said. “We’re kind of teaching them what a quest is. And we wanted to make them feel that this is their world and they have a say.”
“Having a say” means that the site’s users will be able to vote which extra games and features will be launched–after all, if Kung Fu Panda World doesn’t constantly evolve, it runs the risk of getting stale. DreamWorks has also taken time to allay parents’ fears over online security for their kids. Chat rooms will be monitored by college graduates and safe software to keep everything just so, and Moms and Dads will have the power to turn off gameplay, should any panda-esque dark circles appear under their kids eyes that smack of sleepless nights in KFP World.
The most interesting part of the venture is the social media aspect. DreamWorks, which has already started developing a similar world for How To Train Your Dragon, seems to have taken a leaf out of the Facebook operating manual, allowing kids to add their own friends to the game, who will then show up on a map, allowing them to go on “play dates” within the world. Toy consultant Christopher Byrne describes Kung Fu Panda World as “very rich, very fast. Kids have become very sophisticated online, and I think this site meets the challenge.”