DreamWorks rolls out "Kung Fu Panda" virtual world

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - After 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” movie franchise.

Panda characters stand on the red carpet at the DVD release of "Kung Fu Panda" at the Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California November 9, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

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.

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

John Batter, DreamWorks’ co-president of production, and Rick Rekedal, head of production for DreamWorks Animation Online, told the Hollywood Reporter 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. In tests, girls spent a lot of time on this activity.

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 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, Dreamworks 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, Dreamworks changed “quit” to “keep rewards and return to the world.”

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

Will DreamWorks 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.”

DreamWorks also took care to ease parents’ concerns. For example, college graduates and software moderate chat interactions to keep things clean and ensure players are not 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. Also, 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 bonus points for their kids.