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Gaming

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.

For MSN, games appear to be more than casual. Its parent company, Microsoft, owns the popular Xbox game console. And online, the company offers games like "Uno" and "Sudoku Too" in the United States, making it the fifth most-popular games site, according to Nielsen NetRatings. But it could be looking to expand its presence.

"Games such as 'Eccky,' available in the Netherlands, and others like 'Uno' or 'Sudoku Too' in the United States, deliver on our goals of adding new interactive dimensions to the Windows Live Messenger, and helping our customers stay in touch with the important people in their lives in new and fun ways," according to a Microsoft representative.

For MSN, the Netherlands is an ideal test bed for simulation games on Messenger because a high concentration of people, 5 million, use MSN Messenger, according to Verhart.

Eccky's quick virtual maturity
To play, people must register and fill out a personal profile on the site. Then, the user can search for a mate, if they don't already have one, with whom to rear a virtual child. Once "born," the unique Eccky (which is derived from the Japanese word, ecci, meaning "naughty") has its own profile page and is added to the MSN Messenger contact list of each parent.

The virtual child grows and ages three years for every one day of game play. As an Eccky ages, its vocabulary matures. Within six days, the Eccky turns into an 18-year-old with an individual character and leaves the nest, thus ending the game. Players are rated at the end of the game by the happiness of the child, which is measured by attention and game play. For example, if the parent neglects to command the child to go to the bathroom when it's full, or forgets to feed the Eccky, then the child's happiness rating suffers.

Verhart said "Eccky" is a sophisticated computer program that includes chat-bot technology and a Java application when played on the mobile telephone.

Media Republic, which has 60 employees, was founded in 2002. In the last two years, it developed a popular game for the Sony PlayStation, later selling the division to Sony, Verhart said. Now, the company is primarily focused on developing social entertainment software around IM and text messaging, which then can tie in with advertising.

Earlier this year, Media Republic launched an advertising campaign on "Eccky" in partnership with Doritos. Through the ad campaign, people could get a special code from Doritos to log on to a Web site, where they would "flirt" with other Eccky players or win prizes, according to the company.

Industry executives see this as a natural evolution of simulation games that will only get more advanced thanks to portable PCs and communications technology.

"It's a very natural evolution," said Amy Jo Kim, creative director of ShuffleBrain, a design studio for games and network services. But she offered a word of caution: "Virtual pet games are very addictive--they tap into guilt and a core part of being human."