Moshi Monsters Review

So, spurred by the recent updates to Moshi Monsters (http://moshimonsters.com), I though I’d take a look at the product overall.

Economy

Given the background of MindCandy’s founder, and the core of it’s previous product (Perplex City – a tradable collectible card game), it’s hard to imagine that Moshi Monsters isn’t pushing as rapidly as possible towards a heavily trade-based experience.

However, as a long-time player (and based on conversations with other players), I suspect that the economy of MoshiMonsters is far too illiquid right now to allow for this in any meangingful way. Mind Candy really needs to achieve a couple of things:

  1. Devalue the currency. Even Rich players don’t hang on to much currency. This has been largely driven by the source/sink economy with near unlimited sinks and very very limited sources. For instance, the amount of new + limited availability purchaseables made available for purchase each day exceeded the possible MAXIMUM rate of earning by a factor of 10 or so. No-one has had any opportunities to liquify their assets, nor to counter the source/sink imbalance
  2. Increase the volume of coinage. The currency – Rox – are currently too coarse-grained to be useful for purchases. A Rich player has literally hundreds of them. Even if other things are done, players need to be using currency that they routinely possess in the thousands, where a rich player has at least tens of thousands, preferably hundreds.
  3. Provide exit points / liquification opportunities. Thanks to the above two problems, before they can allow player-trading either Mind Candy is going to have to wait a long time for there to be enough currency with a low enough value, or … they’re going to have to provide ways for players to liquify assets into coinage.

A shop was added recently to allow players to sell their goods and generate Rox. However, the lack of trading possibilities – and hence the lack of ability for players to arbitrage on anything except raw price – combined with the *probably* non-fluctuating prices in that shop mean it’s going to be largely ineffective / punitive as a liquidation mechanism.

On the whole, I’m sure Mind Candy have their eyes on this, and probably have already gone a long way to developing the systems to effect those changes in one form or another. I’m interested to see how they decide to do this.

Market, monetization, etc

The impression I get, both from comments from current and ex MindCandy staff (including Michael), and from looking at the self-stated ages of the people who send me friend-requests, is that Moshi Monsters is doing extremely well at attracting children in the 5-12 years age range.

There’s been a noticeable uptick in the number of players over the past 4 months, which is obviously great news, and I’m sure that the long-delayed appearance of the newsletter has done a lot to drive that. There are now (finally) some avenues for socialization in this game, although they’re still limited ti out-of-band things – nothing is embedded directly into the core game itself. I suspect that some such embedding is on the near horizon…

I’ve seen plenty of “children’s games” and “online experiences for children” that have sucked and divebombed. Without any knowledge of the real player-figures, I’d still say that Moshi Monsters clearly does not suck and – overall – is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. This would suggest good things.

But … looking at Firebox (Michael’s previous company, where Moshi Monsters exclusively launched the only part of the product that monetizes), the Moshi Monsters don’t appear anywhere on the top 20 popularity list down the left-hand side. That’s not a great sign. To be entirely clear: I’ve been focussing on playing the game, on interacting with the world, and in interacting with other players – I’ve not paid much attention to the sales side of the Moshi Monsters business. So it’s quite possible that I’m unaware of some other revenue stream, or that MM is selling-through extremely well in some retail outlets.

Yet, doing some Googling (“http://www.google.com/search?q=purchase+moshi+monsters“) Firebox comes up as the second highest retail link, and the bulk of the top 15 search results are articles written in Autumn 2007 – very nearly 12 months ago – when the product first launched.

So, how are these things selling? How is Moshi Monsters being monetized at the moment?

My guess – based on Mind Candy‘s general approach, and the successes of the variety of merchandising products that were the core business for Perplex City – is that they’re currently still just trying to build up the numbers of free players, get them addicted, drive up the per-player engagement metrics (using the game design elements highlighted below), and then launch a suite of new ancilliary products that trade on the brand, and probably provide e.g. a stream of Rox to your monster(s).

Although in that case I’d be really interested to see whether it wouldn’t just be better to cut out the middle-men (and all the product-development costs!) and simply sell subscriptions direct to the players: Give us $5 a month, and we’ll give you a “Salary” of 500 Rox a day?

Core game-design

There continue to be a few flaws in the core game-design of the individual games. This isn’t necessarily an immediate threat to the overall popularity of the experience itself, but it strikes me as a potential
weakness in the face of increasing competition in the market for these kinds of games (mostly driven by people’s eagerness to repeat the $700 million Disney / Club Penguin acquisition).

I see three big issues:

  • The metagame is tedious, poorly balanced, and user-unfriendly
  • Some of the minigames betray misunderstanding of the teaching aspects
  • Insistence upon using a user-unfriendly input system

Tedious, imbalanced metagame with weak user interface

The metagame for Moshi Monsters is a rehash of the Tamagotchi. Your monster has two percentages, shown as a number between 0 and 1000. One of these is “happiness”, the other is “health”.

“Happiness” measures the amount of time you spend the game, and how often you come back. Cynically, it’s a direct metric of your engagement with the product, giving credit only for a limited range of non-creative, robotic repetitive tasks that you have to do on a fairly punishing schedule, or rapidly lose all credit gained so far.

That’s fine for time-rich schoolchildren (and the unemployed), although personally I feel it’s a real pity that the rich opportunities for artistic expression and creativity that are already built-in to the game go unrecognized in the core metagame. You do get some small recognition, in the form of user-ratings of your room, shown as a 1-5 stars rating. However, the metric here is extremely coarse and uninteresting, with no user-interaction (who’s rating me? why did they rate me? do they have suggestions? comments?). Again, there is a channel for freeform text ratings, via a completely separate user interface and rating system, the pinboard.

But if you look at something like Kongregate.com (or read about the 20 or so ratings systems embedded in Kongregate), and compare the non-integration of Moshi Monsters user-user ratings / interaction systems to the “all in one place” approach of Kong, MM seems to come off a significant also-ran. In the long run, I’m confident that the “communicate freely and easily” approach of Kongregate et al is going to win-out here. Or a similar approach adopted by any upcoming competitor to Moshi Monsters that aims for the same children-friendly market.

Still, I think that’s not a problem *today*, and there’s plenty of time to experiment with it and improve upon it.

By contrast, the “Health” rating is more immediately problematic. It drops continuously, and whereas “Happiness” is increased (in small amounts) by a variety of things, the only thing that increases Health is to purchase and use-up consumables. These eat into your hard-won, easily-spent Rox.

An unsatisfying minigame that’s straight out of the 1980’s Sadist Designer school of game design exerts an orders-of-magnitude influence over your ability to recharge Health, even AFTER spending your hard-earned credits:

  1. Each food has a randomly-assigned but non-fluctuating price.
  2. Your monster has an (apparently randomly assigned) non-fluctuating affinity / disaffinity for every food
  3. You have to memorize every combination of Food + Change in Your Monster’s Health, and optimize the best effectiveness/price ratio
  4. There is NO USER INTERFACE SUPPORT for doing this – not even a record of the combinations you’ve tried so far
  5. There are hundreds of different foods

That amount of memorizing + analysis + recall + optimization is generally considered punitive even by adult standards. I’m not convinced it’s a great experience for young children (although I’ve been there, and done that, myself when I was that age, thanks to the 1980’s Game Designers ;)) – and I’m sure that other people could improve on this fairly effortlessly right now.

Fundamental misunderstanding of the teaching / education / learning aspects of minigames

For instance, “Word Cross” by it’s very nature is considerably HARDER the fewer letters are available. Looking at the other games, which all start off easy and get progressively harder, the game author for this one has got it wrong. They appear to have assumed that “fewer letters == easier”, even though there’s plenty of well-known research around that shows that people recognize words by shape, hence “fewer letters == harder”.

There are other similar mistakes, less obvious, such as the choice of potential answers in the Clock game – but it’s really hard to get the right learning objectives into a game, so I think it’s unrealistic to expect perfection there.

I’m more concerned at how thoroughly the learning possibilities generally have been scuppered by never telling people WHY they were wrong, nor what would have been RIGHT. If Moshi Monsters is aimed at children (and looking at the demographics of current players it seems to be succeeding), then a huge opportunity for educational work is being passed-up here.

Flawed user-input systems

I suspect I know some of the background to this UI – Michael was dead-set against allowing keyboard input when we experimented with making the time-based puzzle games during Perplex City. Which is perfectly reasonable, but the challenge was to find some other input system that wouldn’t be even worse than using the keyboard. We never found one back then, but I don’t think Moshi Monsters has done any better yet. This is a seriously hard problem, but IMHO the system used by Moshi Monsters is still, sadly, an inferior alternative to the keyboard.

It has some advantages:

  • you don’t get any benefit from already knowing where the numbers lie on the keyboard (although – again IMHO – this was always an over-emphasised “problem” with using the keyboard when we did the original puzzles)
  • where the “natural” answer for a question is a word or phrase, they can get you to click on a long textual representation of that instead of requiring you to do a mental mapping to a key.

It has also fixed some basic UI mistakes from earlier incarnations of the Moshi Monsters game:

  • where the answers have a “natural” positioning, the buttons used to ignore / override that positioning. For instance, the Jigsaw Jam game places 4 pieces in 4 positions and provides 4 buttons in the same positions, but in MM1 the buttons and the pieces that they referred to were (for no apparent reason) jumbled up.

However, it has some flaws that haven’t been improved in the new Moshi Monsters, and if anything have got (slightly) worse:

“You cannot click on the correct answer”

This is the most annoying, since “click on the thing you are referring to” is surely one of the most basic elements of UI design, going right back to the invention of the computer mouse itself.

For some reason, Moshi Monster puzzle games actively prevent you from “just clicking on” the correct answer. Instead, you have to refer to a separate Key which gives you somewhere else to click to indicate – indirectly – which answer is correct.

This shows up as a particular annoyance for games with direct representation of the answers on screen, for instance Jigsaw Jam, Color Chaos (a simple Stroop test), Sneaky Snakes, Block Party.

“There is no correlation between the answer to a question and the position of the button that you have to click on.”

To be clear: we’re not looking for the correct answer to a question to “Always be the bottom-left button” or similar. Rather, we’re looking for “answer of ‘5’” to always be in the same position.

Since MM does NOT adhere to this basic expectation, every game requires you to play TWO games: the first game is to solve the puzzle. The second game is called “Hunt the Button” (which someone else made into a whole series of Flash games).

This distracts from the primary game and undermines the learning/improvement part of the whole Moshi Monsters product – your score (and Rox that are awarded) is being rewarded/penalized for your “random button-hunting ability”.

This got worse with MM2 because you can now play one puzzle at a time, exclusively, and so the non-determinism of where the button for a given answer is placed becomes more obvious. Mostly because – under the enforced time-pressure – you tend to accidentally press the wrong physical button because your brain remembers that that’s where “answer ‘5’” was less than 2 seconds previously.

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