Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Unfulfilled Potential of Virtual Pet Games – Part 2

Recognizing a dearth of consumer software with characters that displayed emotions or personality, the startup company PF.Magic was formed in 1992 with the mission to “bring life to entertainment.”  We wanted to break out of the mold of traditional video games (e.g. flight simulators, sports games, running-jumping-climbing games, shooters, puzzle games) to create playful new interactive experiences with emotional, personality-rich characters.
- Andrew Stern

Dogz and Catz
What is a virtual pet? In 1995 a breeding game called Dogz, the first well known virtual pet,was released by the company PF Magic. Dogz (later also Catz, Petz and more) were independent creatures that lived on your desktop, and responded to the cursor as it if was your hand. Your Petz were autonomous characters that moved around, played with toys, and if you did not care for them, they could run off. This was a departure from first person games, where a character that represented the user was controlled by the player, like a puppet.

A virtual pet can also be a physical object, like Tamagotchi or AIBO (robot dogs made from 1999 to 2006). The Tamagotchi was first marketed in 1996, as a playful exercise in responsibility. If the pet wasn’t cared for regularly, it would die. It was aimed mostly at kids, although people of all ages got into the craze. But planning your life around the needs of a fake pet is not practical. Schools started to ban the pets, because students were taking care of their little plastic eggs instead of paying attention in class. So the product was forced to adapt, adding a pause button. In time, many pet games would drift from this idea of constant care, to make them more appealing and practical as games.

The idea of virtual pets gained ground, and expanded. Like the Petz games, some focused on breeding animals. Other games focused on decoration, like the popular SuperPoke Pets. You had one adorable pet that barely moved, centered in a scene that could be decorated with a wide variety of items. Many of these games came to focus on new decoration items released every week. Some virtual pets had the appearance of anthropomorphic cartoon characters who could wear clothing, adding costumes to the fun items you could enjoy. At the same time pet games were developing, some companies used the idea of autonomous characters in non-pet games, like the Sims.

In 2005 I fell in love with an innovative, client-based pet game called GoPets. The pets were very customizable. They were also very independent, and even visited other players on their own, both when their user was online, and when they were not. GoPets interacted with each other in various ways, sometimes playing rock-paper-scissors, other times confessing their love and being accepted or rejected, each with a charming animation! The game featured many activities, including designing your own clothing and furniture, which you could also sell or give to other players. The pets were 3 dimensional, initially on the desktop, then on a 2D background, and eventually in a 3D environment. We had a great community of players, and I made many friends all over the world. Sadly the game did not last, and closed near the end of 2009. One difficulty I found in convincing friends to play, had to do with their reluctance to download a client, rather than playing something like a flash game that requires no download. I think today people are more used to downloading games.

Losing GoPets was difficult for me, emotionally. But when I was ready for a new game, I asked my GoPets friends what they were playing.  They said the best pet game out there was Pet Society. I wasn't on Facebook, so I joined up just to play.
Sprite and Friends

Pet Society had such a wide range of activities, and kept adding more. You could play all day if you liked. Of course I’m preaching to the choir here! I quickly realized I loved my pet Sprite, as much as I did my GoPets. I love how she always rearranged her plush toys, she took after me in that, lol.  My family and friends started playing with me, as they had in GoPets. One of my funniest Pet Society memories is teaching my mother-in-law how to run the races in the stadium. We were both dying of laughter, as she tried to navigate the hurdles. I made many new friends in the Pet Society community. But as we all know, Pet Society closed, as well.

Today there’s a dizzying array of virtual pet and similar games. You can play with photorealistic dogs on your phone, with Dog Sweetie and other games. There is a gorgeous game for Xbox called Kinectimals, where you play with charming lifelike tiger cubs and other baby animals, using a motion sensor. You can play with 3D cartoon-like anthro characters in games like Animal Crossing and Happy Street. Almost every pet game today includes some mini games.

In spite of the many games currently on the market, I feel their is still a lot of unfulfilled potential. What’s missing?

Many players bond strongly with their first virtual pets, as I talked about in The Unfulfilled Potential of Virtual Pet Games – Part 1. People often name their virtual pets after real pets that passed away, thinking it will be a lasting tribute, and are terribly disappointed when the games close. Pet game players are among the most dedicated, for example, there is still an active community of ol' fashioned Petz players—people don’t want to let go of the very first virtual pets to exist! And yet game  companies view virtual pets as ephemeral, casual games. This is a disconnect between game makers and customers.

I'd also like to see a virtual pet game on a large scale, similar to a MMORPG, an idea Danine suggested in A New Gaming Model: in Star Wars? I realize many Pet Society players hate violent games, but if you can stomach some violence, and you want to get an idea how great a MMORPG-like anthro pet game could look, I suggest playing the Pandaren starting area in World of Warcraft, for free. You'll have to download the program, and you’ll need a fairly up to date computer to use it. On the character creation screen, choose the panda. You could try other races, but the Pandaren starting area has the newest graphics, and is breathtakingly beautiful!

Pandaren female in World of Warcraft
Also, the Pandaren is the newest and most detailed anthro race in the game. Sadly, to get to the most visually stunning parts of the starting area, you have to fight. But you can get a taste of it, just looking around in the training area where you first arrive, without fighting. Now imagine a world that lush to explore in a virtual pet style game, with only gentle game objectives. I know many people, including some who are non-gamers now, would be enthralled by an immersive game with peaceful, relaxed objectives.

Another thing I'd like to see are more cross-platform games. I'm currently playing a city building game on Facebook that a friend plays on her cell phone, and yet we are neighbors in the game. I hope gaming companies are working to make this kind of connection more common.

So I’ve been toying with these concepts, and I want to wrap them into a complete package. Many game companies today let you managed the games you play on one account. I'm envisioning an account for managing not only your virtual pet games, but also your virtual pets.

Different Versions of Your Pet
You could play with the same pet in multiple games. For some games, you may use exactly the same pet. But for others, you could design different versions of your pet, for different virtual environments–2D, 3D, different graphic styles, the designers would give you options to match the look and animations of each game. You could have multiple pets, and change the name and appearance of your pets. Let's say you have 3 favorite pets you view as brothers. In a game that allows multiple pets, you could play with all 3 brothers together. In single pet games, you'd swap in the one you want to play any given day.  Your account could manage phone games, flash games, client based games, and other platforms as well.

Most virtual pet games today include at least a few mini games. Perhaps the site could host a variety of mini games, and you could play the mini games you like most, then apply the currency won to whichever game you choose.

Your pets would always be available, ready to go into new games even if an old game closed, or the platform became outdated. Your pets would grow with you, and with current technology. But the actual games should also be designed for long term playability, with solid game design and a variety of activities. The goal is to keep them relevant, not yank each game after only a couple years.

How would the company make money? I think there are viable options. For example, some simple games could be free, several others could be covered under a $5 monthly fee, while a full blown adventure game (similar to a MMORPG) might require an extra fee of its own. All games would also have a cash shop. Some clothing or decorative items could have both 2D and 3D forms, and be used between games. You could buy, or perhaps even win, items that you'd be able to give to friends and relatives playing games you don't even play yourself. If the site became popular enough, perhaps they could even sell physical toys or figures customized to look like your pet.

It’s hard to imagine any of the current game companies buying into this, but it would be possible with today’s technology. I've believe the concept would be appealing to a broad audience of low-pressure gamers, and profitable. Grandparents could buy items for grandkids. People could play whichever games they liked best, while socializing with friends on the site. I wouldn’t want it on another platform, like Facebook, subject to their changing game terms. I’d rather see a website made specifically for these warmhearted games. Of course they’d have to start small, with just a few. I think you could get a foothold with a couple solid games and good pet design, if you respect the customers and sell them on the concept.

If they started with Pet Society, that would be icing on the cake. :0)

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