This year’s technology-devoted Toy Fair 2011 conference and expo, Engage!, featured about 20 booths filled not so much with toys as . . . ideas. Or, rather, LCD screens with flashing bullet points and reps eager to discuss things like “Virtual Worlds Rights and Law” and “Virtual World Brand Development.” There was definitely less to play with on this level of the Center, but a lot more to conceptualize. The conference included six “tracks”: App Strategy and Development; Social Games, Casual MMO’s and Virtual Worlds; Digital Monetization Strategies; Business Strategies; Creative, Design and Development; and Gamification.
Brand expansion is nothing new; the trick now is how to extend characters and brands interactively. As relatively established as the virtual world concept is, and as much representation as it had at Engage!, the only born-a-book virtual world on display was “Dorothy of Oz,” an interactive virtual world commissioned from Dubit by Summertime Entertainment. Summertime is currently at work on CGI films derived more from the original L. Frank Baum books than from the 1939 film, and the Dubit representative talked enthusiastically about “bringing the classic book forward.” More recent book franchises are still navigating the best ways to bring their stories “forward.” Twilight, for example, launched a virtual world platform with Habbo in November 2009. This world had readers create avatars of themselves, socialize, and decorate virtual rooms with things like virtual Twilight posters—a prospect that seems a little too much like a recreation of what’s already available to the average American tween. To participate in the narrative itself seems more the province of virtual reality. Why hang virtual posters of Edward and Bella when you could be virtual Edward and Bella?
Which leads to rights. Say you do license your character and shell out the bucks for a virtual world/RPG platform—what’s in place to protect your intellectual property even as you’re letting fans manipulate the story? Intellectual property law firm Pillsbury has 36 lawyers discussing these questions at its Virtual World Law Blog.
Virtual Piggy, creation of Moggle, Inc., and officially launched on February 14, 2011, was the belle of the Engage! ball. Virtual Piggy is a rigorously COPPA-compliant online payment processing system with parental permission built in, and it’s a low-friction, squeaky-clean-legal way to reach young shoppers: kids do the choosing and “buying,” but all information collected is the parent’s. How this could look in practice: I’m a 13-year-old girl who got an eReader for my birthday and am now devouring paranormal amounts of YA fantasy romance. My dad puts my allowance (from his credit card/bank account) into my Virtual Piggy account every month; he also controls which sites I’m allowed to buy from. Next time I find a new book I havehaveHAVE to have from a participating online vendor, I click “purchase” using my Virtual Piggy the way an adult would use a credit card. A message then gets sent to my dad’s phone showing him what I want to buy next to two big buttons: “Accept Purchase” or “Reject Purchase.” Hopefully for my ravenous romantic appetite and Publisher X, dad clicks “Accept.”