alternate reality games computer games conferences games design GDC 2008 massively multiplayer web 2.0

GDC08: Thinking Outside the Virtual World


Speaker: Michael Smith, MindCandy

Another half-hour-long introductory topic talk from the Worlds In Motion summit. Short but sweet. A nice overview of lots of different things going on in the use (and sales) of real-world goods as part of online games / virtual worlds. Misses out plenty of things, but does a good job of giving a taster of the sheer variety that’s going on right now.

Like Adrian’s talk from yesterday, I would have loved a second follow-on talk – now that everyone’s been brought up to speed – that explored where we could be going with these, and looking at how these have been used in more depth / detail.

My own commentary in [ square brackets ], any mistakes/misunderstandings my own fault :).


This is the first time we’ve spoke about it outside the UK. I hope some of my quirky, eccentric, leftfield thinking might spark off some new thoughts amongst the game designers here.

We could talk about anything from economics to worlds you take anywhere on your mobile phone. But I’ve got limited time, so I’m going to focus on what you can do with physical toys and merchandising.

Every major toy company either has an on/offline toy product at the moment or is currently developing one. Currently a $22billion industry, led by Webkinz. I believe there’s still a huge amount of opportunity in this space – there’s still a long way to go before WK catches up with beaniebabies, who people said were too late to the space, but are still way ahead in terms of overall sales, and have now started doing it too with

Whistlestop tour of new stuff coming out now…

But why should we care from the game design perspective.

1. It’s a major new revenue stream, a new opportunity.

2. More importantly, it allows consumers to connect with our virtual worlds wherever they may be, and makes our worlds more fun.


It’s a games company I setup focussed on creating social games. First product was PerplexCity [no longer running], played by thousands of players around the world, using lots of different media, e.g. emails, websites, distributing data by phone.

We buzzed players with helicopters, put stuff in newspapers, lots of offline stuff.

The players were trying to locate a real $200,000 treasure we buried somewhere.

Second major product is MoshiMonsters (MM). Imagine tamagotchi mixed with Facebook, with a bit of braintraining mixed in. Aimed at kids, early testing suggests we’ll have a big audience outside our target of 7-12 year olds – teenage girls especially.

Timing – Why do MM now?

– Flash technologies have advanced
– Broadband penetration has increased

Wanted to create a life-like pet in the browser, with great animations. We also wanted to build a very deep behavioural engine: how often you visit, whether you take it shopping, how much you play with it, etc.

Second important point was desire to create a lot of social tools. What you do with your pet you can show off to other players…

– We made a pinboard which lets you post notes, like the Wall in Facebook.
– We think the product is very well suited to being widgetized, we expect our older users to do stuff with Bebo, Facebook, etc.

Final element that is right at the heart of what we do at MindCandy is education.

– Build a product where kids are learning in a stealth way, they don’t realise they are doing homework.
– Vocabulary-boosting by the pet telling you their word of the day, or monsters talking about their current moods (emotional learning) etc.
– General IQ boosting by having a daily “puzzle-challenge”, 60 seconds of challenges that earn you in-game currency

[Adam: there’s currently no other way to get in-game currency, and there’s no trading facility at the moment]


We’re in beta at the moment, going live in about two months. Business model is very similar to Club Penguin: tiered subscription where you unlock premium content when you buy a Moshi Passport. Many of the products we’re releasing in the real world, such as offline puzzle books, will have unique codes that get you stuff in-game.

The first product is the Mopod, which you attach to your phone. It’s quite sensitive – will go off when walking down the street next to other people, so people attach to their bags even though they don’t have a cellphone.

[Adam: brief dewscription of Michael’s background where he explained – “like Sharper Image but cooler and hipper” :)]


They retire certain models over time, creating a strong secondary market, like with Beanie Babies (BB). Recently added new merchandising – can now get figurines you buy, that then also appear in the gameworld.

Other clones:,,,

Doll-specific clones:,

BG taken early lead because you don’t need the USB key on you at all times in order to play, unlike BeBratz.

Card-games with scratchoffs to reveal unique codes that unlock stuff online:
Bella Sara
Maple Story (NB: WotC webserver seems to be AWOL at the moment reporting webapp config error, but I *think* that’s the right URL…)

Other merchandising:
– – business cards
– – design your own clothes from your doll and buy them for you to wear in real world
– – get a physical model of your personal WoW avatar
– – awarded small badges (Leitmarks) [Adam: sadly no longer available, perplexcity isn’t running any more]
– – fill tube with water + special liquid, then hold up to screen, and the alien has a sensor that changes status based on what’s on the screen
– – like the Keys you get in kidrobot, but random what’s in the box, USB dongle to unlock
– – (Tamagotchi) newer models have infrared to allow you to meet other people on the street
– me2 (from – motion sensor which you attach to yourself like a pedometer, records your physical activity, then USB dongle gives points to your virtual avatar based on how much you walked that day
– – detects which emoticons you receive over IM and glows different colours based on them
– – e.g. umbrella that changes handle colour based on weather predictions downloaded from net
– – unique codes, websites, etc hidden in the fabric [also the labels etc]

–, wi-fi detector t-shirts, proximity detectors that you buy as a pair and when next to each other the t-shirt design changes

…end of the whistlestop tour of what’s going on that’s interesting and unusual.


New revenue streams
Increased PR opportunities
New avenues for viral growth due to physical visibility to people on street
Increased user engagement because of ongoing conversation with the product