DWA rolling out 'Panda' virtual world

Web theme park marks first such venture for the company

NEW YORK -- After about 2 1/2 years of work and an investment of about $10 million, DreamWorks Animation has started rolling out its first online virtual world -- a browser-based Web theme park tied to its "Kung Fu Panda" franchise.

The marketing push for "Kung Fu Panda World," which comes at a subscription cost of $5.95 per month, but can also be sampled after watching an online ad, kicks off Monday after a soft launch at the end of March.

DWA's first effort in the virtual world space particularly targets 8- to 12-year-olds and follows the creation or acquisition of virtual worlds for young demos in recent years by such entertainment biggies as Walt Disney (Pixie Hollow, Club Penguin) and Viacom (Neopets, Petpet Park).

John Batter, DWA's co-president of production, and Rick Rekedal, head of production for DWA Online, told THR that the virtual playground will allow "Panda" fans to pick a kung fu style fitting their personality (monkey, tiger or panda) and customize the look of their character, which particularly girls spent much time on in tests.

Users can then play in-world games (from dance/rhythm to jump-and-run and fight games with such names as "Manis and Crane" and "Kung Fu Beats"), unlock additional abilities and games over time and use in-world virtual coins they earn to buy items, such as clothing or scrolls and potions to enhance game play. The goal is to boost their kung fu mastery by earning colored sashes that stand for ever-improving levels of skill.

To make the virtual world experience fun for the long-term, DWA also plans to add new locations, games and features over time.

The idea is to simulate the growth and journey of Po the Panda, the title character of the 2008 film, which is due for a sequel next year.

"Kids want to be challenged and rewarded," which is why games are simple to learn, but difficult to master, said Batter. "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." For example, DWA will let members vote on what additional games and features will be launched.

A lot of work went into making the experience kids-friendly to avoid frustrating or confusing young users. For example, click buttons were made large enough to make navigation easy. Users can add friends who show up on a map when entering the world, which allows kids to go on "play dates" inside the world. And tests showed that kids were concerned that if they hit "quit," they would exit games in the virtual world and lose all their accomplishments and points. So, DWA changed "quit" to "keep rewards and return to the world."

And since parents often tell kids they shouldn't download programs, DWA built the virtual world as an in-browser experience without the need to download or install programs.

Will DWA build more virtual worlds? "The experience of building this will help," said Batter, adding that a "How to Train Your Dragon" world is currently in the works.

"Not every franchise makes a great online world," said Rekedal. "But Kung Fu Panda, its story and its characters lend themselves to such treatment. And so do dragons."

DWA also took care to make sure parents need not worry. For example, college graduates and software monitor and moderate chat interactions to keep things clean and avoid that players are taken advantage of in the trading of virtual items.

And parents must confirm their kids' membership and clear them to use the virtual world's chat function. Plus, they can turn off gameplay for certain days or hours to ensure kids do their homework or the like. Parents can even play games, too, and win their kids bonus points.