Disney has begun the process of shifting Toontown, its kids-aimed virtual world, away from being primarily a subscription-based business towards an ad-supported model.
Toontown, a “massively multiplayer online game” which the company launched back in 2003, has traditionally required users to pay a subscription fee of $9.95 a month following a free trial period. But as of late May, a new beta version of the site was made available online that allows users to play the game for free for as long as they’d like.
According to Disney officials, the company is now in the process of talking to advertisers, and by this fall a new, entirely ad-supported version of the site will be launched. Already, executives said they have seen an increase in user response to the MMOG.
“We’ve had such a great success with Toontown that we wanted to make a portion of the game accessible to even more people, which will take our Tooniverse to new heights, beyond the more than 17.5 million Toons that have already been created in the game,” said Paul Yanover, executive vp and managing director, Disney Online. “At Disney.com we are very focused on creating compelling, immersive online communities and Toontown is the embodiment of that goal, attracting a strong audience of both kids and adult players.”
While Disney said it is focused on growing Toontown’s audience by making it accessible to more users, the shift in strategy is also likely being driven by two factors: the growing interest among advertisers in virtual worlds and increased competition – particularly from Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis and the upstart virtual world Club Penguin. Since it went live early this year, Nickelodeon’s kids-targeted avatar playground has surged to 1.4 million unique users as of May, according to comScore, surpassing Toontown’s 1.165 million users.
Nickelodeon says that the free Nicktropolis, which has attracted nearly 4 million registered users to date, will eventually feature advertising. In addition, Cartoon Network has previously announced an ambitious set of plans to launch its own MMOG in 2008.