Cartoon Network preps 'Casual MMO'

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They are two ends of the video game spectrum: the tiny, personal-sized casual game on one end and, on the other, the complex, massive multiplayer online game (MMOG) which can support thousands of players simultaneously. Rarely, if ever, do the twain meet. Until now. The Cartoon Network is about to release a video game oxymoron ... what it calls a "casual MMOG." And it may just be the first of a trend.

Back in April 2006, Disney's "Toontown" had only captured 0.9% of the MMOG market since its launch in June, 2003, but that was enough to convince rival Cartoon Network to begin cooking up an MMOG of its own that it planned to release this spring.

But here it is, the spring of 2008, and the release of Cartoon Network's "FusionFall" MMOG has been delayed twice, first to this summer, and now to this fall, for reasons no one at Cartoon Network chooses to discuss.

"Let's just say that MMOs are very deep, very large games that are ready when they are ready," says Chris Waldron, the game's executive producer. "They take a lot of testing, a lot of polish, and that's what we're going through."

Indeed, Cartoon Network is under a lot of pressure to "get it right" and to clearly differentiate "FusionFall" from the competition in what some describe as a very cluttered, perhaps over-saturated MMOG market.

"When we started building 'FusionFall,' 'Toontown' was the only kids MMO," notes Waldron. "Since then, we've seen a proliferation of MMOs targeting the same young demographic as ours, including 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' 'RuneScape,' and even social games like 'Club Penguin' and 'Habbo Hotel.' So, yeah, it's getting crowded out there and there are many more in the works so it's getting even more crowded. But I honestly believe that ours is a different kind of game."

Which is why Paul Condolora is calling 'FusionFall' a "casual MMOG, one that's easy to get into, very accessible, and doesn't require the time commitment that some of the more hardcore MMOGs demand." Condolora is senior VP and general manager of Cartoon Network New Media.

"We've designed a game that is best for our core audience," he adds, "and we need to be sensitive to the limited amount of time that kids and tweens can devote to a game, which is where the nature of casual gaming comes into play."

In actuality, "FusionFall" is meant to appeal to 8-14-year-olds, a slightly older audience that Cartoon Network's core audience of 6-11-year olds, according to Waldron, who says the strategy is designed to expand the current demographic.

"To do that, we've incorporated 52 of the popular characters from 11 of the TV shows in the Cartoon Network universe with which gamers can interact, but we've advanced their ages a bit and we're depicting them in an anime style," he says. "For instance, Dexter -- from the show 'Dexter's Laboratory' -- is known as a young, very short, elementary school kid. But, in 'FusionFall,' he's older and going to high school. Likewise, the Powerpuff Girls are no longer in kindergarten but are in junior high. It's sort of like reading the Harry Potter books and having the characters grow as the reader is growing. I think that is one of the appeals of the book series."

Another differentiator, says Waldron, is that while most traditional MMOGs are role-playing games (RPGs) in nature "with lots of stats and number-crunching," 'FusionFall' features "platform-style" action, meaning the running, jumping, and shooting that are a feature in many popular casual or arcade games.

"The gamer's skills that have to do with moving around and fighting are much more important here than their character's stats," he explains. "We're not building a game for hardcore gamers who will spend 60-plus hours a week here. If you think of those as hour-long dramas on TV, we want to be the half-hour sitcom. All of our missions are built in a way that they can be completed in 30 minutes at most. That get-in-and-get-out style of play is what makes casual gaming so popular, and we hope it is what will make 'FusionFall' popular."

Similarly, the anime style of art reflects Cartoon Network's plan to create an international game that will also appeal to an Asian audience.

"In fact, our developer is Seoul, Korea-based Grigon Entertainment, best known for its popular MMO 'Seal Online,' " notes Condolora. "We selected them for two reasons. The first is that Korea is arguably the world leader in MMOs. And, second, the casual and cartoony nature of Korean MMOs is very simpatico with the Cartoon Network sensibility."

When "FusionFall" eventually launches, it's still not clear how it will be monetized -- through subscriptions, advertising, micro-transactions, or a combination of the three. Condolora chooses not to elaborate on his business plan which "is still being evaluated."

"I'm pretty certain, however, that it won't be a 'one-size-fits-all' model," he explains. "While, in this country, our business model may mirror what is most common in the U.S. today -- which is a subscription-based product -- outside of the U.S., we intend to tailor our business model to the dominant models in other countries. Which means our revenue may come from subscriptions here, but, say, in Asia, it could be micro-transactions which are most popular there. As for advertising, I don't think that's the dominant model anywhere."

Regardless how "FusionFall" is monetized, Condolora says he expects the MMOG to be successful by virtue of the casual style of gameplay that will be its hallmark.

"And I believe this will become a trend in the MMOG space," he says. "Casual gaming is growing in popularity and I suspect that MMOs will latch onto that -- in terms of their accessibility and playability as well as the time required to get into a game and enjoy it. It very well may be the next big thing, you'll see."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He has covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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