Virtual parenting poised for growth spurt

Former Tamagotchi addicts can find a new way to challenge their parenting skills without making a real baby. Images: Parenting with Eccky

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands--Technically, making babies is getting easier.

A Dutch online game called "Eccky" lets would-be parents find each other, create a virtual baby based on their personal characteristics, and then raise the child with the use of the Web, MSN instant messaging and a cell phone. Parents can feed their virtual kid, play games like chess with "Eccky," or send the child to an online babysitter--racking up points for raising a healthy, happy adult in a matter of six days, when the game session officially ends.

Eccky

The game is only in Dutch, but it's poised to reach a wider audience soon with the help of Microsoft's MSN Netherlands, a partner of "Eccky" game maker Media Republic, based here. According to Media Republic CEO Bas Verhart, the site has spawned tens of thousands of unique virtual children and acquired 310,000 registered users since its debut in April 2005; and the game maker plans an April 2007 launch in the United Kingdom and China, among other countries.

"We have a deal with MSN Netherlands to roll out internationally," Verhart said.

A Microsoft representative would not confirm international plans, including any in the United States, but said: "We are looking into options for making 'Eccky' available in other countries, but have nothing to announce at this time."

"Eccky" is the next step in an evolution of popular pet-simulation and community games like "The Sims," "NeoPets" and "Tamagotchi," which collectively have lured tens of millions of kids and adults to care for--sometimes obsessively--digital critters or entire virtual families. The difference with "Eccky's" program is that it leverages automated chat technology and cell phone text-messaging to form potentially more powerful bonds with players. For example, by the time an Eccky matures (within six days), it can talk on 4,000 different subjects and respond with 60,000 unique answers via IM or mobile text messaging.

"Consumers are looking for attention and 'Eccky' talks to you," Verhart said.

Simulation thriving

"Eccky" could be a harbinger for MSN's plans to tackle one of the most thriving sectors of online games: simulation. The popularity and addictiveness of games like "The Sims" and "NeoPets" have already spurred Web portals to develop and try out avatars and virtual environments, alongside casual games like Uno, to inspire repeat visits and loyalty among visitors. The next step would be to incorporate simulation games into their communications and Web networks.

Portals are after the community aspect of these games because you can translate that into advertising dollars and keep people attached to your portal.
--Billy Pigeon,
gaming analyst, IDC

"Portals are after the community aspect of these games because you can translate that into advertising dollars and keep people attached to your portal. Expect to see more games like this pop up on cell phones and IM," said Billy Pigeon, a gaming analyst at research firm IDC.

The ranks of casual online gamers in the United States is expected to grow from 112.5 million this year to 142.3 million by 2010, according to figures from IDC. Revenue from advertising, downloads and subscriptions related to U.S. online games is also expected to mushroom from $1.7 billion in 2006 to $4.9 billion within four years, according to IDC. Global figures were not available from IDC.

Simulation games have already struck a nerve with a large swath of people in the U.S. and abroad. Electronic Arts' "The Sims," a virtual-life game, holds the record for best-selling PC game, and its U.S. online game site is the No. 2 most popular destination in the category behind Yahoo, according to Nielsen NetRatings. Since the 2005 release of "Nintendogs," a pet-simulation video game from Nintendo that asks players to raise a dog, it has sold roughly 6 million copies.

"NeoPets," an online pet-simulation game, has been a phenomenon among kids since its inception in 1999. Now owned by MTV, the service has more than 25 million pet owners worldwide. In Japan, the Tamagotchi was fashionable in the late 1990s. It's a handheld digital pet in the form of an egg-shaped computer. With the push of a button, owners can feed it, play games with it, or check its emotional state.

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