Success: Online fun more than kids' stuff

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Game that teaches children about music can be a major money-spinner, believes entrepreneur.

Chris White is looking for capital to fast-track the growth of his computer game, particularly in the US. Photo / Success
Chris White is looking for capital to fast-track the growth of his computer game, particularly in the US. Photo / Success

There's big money in kids' games, says Chris White, founder of Big Little Bang, an online 3D virtual world for children aged 7 to 14.

MTV Networks paid US$160 million for Neopets in 2005. Two years later Disney bought Club Penguin in a deal valued at US$700 million (US$350 million upfront, with the remainder dependent on the online game achieving revenue targets).

In Britain, Moshi Monsters is estimated to be worth US$200 million ($242 million) after a founding director sold his stake in the company last year.

These are the sort of numbers that White believes will fire investor enthusiasm as he seeks expansion capital to further develop Big Little Bang, particularly in the United States. Stephen Tindall's K1W1 fund and angel investor Sparkbox Ventures provided initial seed capital, and have committed to the expansion capital round. Other angels provided additional funding to develop the prototype into a commercial game, which launched in July.

It now has more than 31,000 players, more than half of them American children, despite the game only becoming available state-side before Christmas. White is now in the US seeking "accelerators and incubators" to help fast-track Big Little Bang's growth.

Once a US marketing role is filled, the company will establish an office, probably in Los Angeles. For now it is still burning money, but White notes that Moshi Monsters' balance sheet bled red ink for the year following its launch.

"We're looking to hit the break-even point in the next 18 months and at that point really accelerate our growth to hundreds of thousands of new users each month," says White.

Kids' games may be big business but they are also touched by controversy. Disney's Club Penguin has been criticised widely by parents' groups and internet advocates for teaching consumerism.

While Disney has been an innovator in creating a safe online environment (children can choose from a menu of phrases for internet chat so the risk of online swearing is minimised), it encourages online buying of add-on features that, critics say, creates a culture of haves and have-nots.

Disney argues that it teaches safe money management and improves maths skills. A cynic might add that it also prepares children for the inequality of real life.

Big Little Bang also encourages buying add-ons through its premium features - a bigger spaceship, jetpack, etc. However most of its revenue, like Disney's, is earned through a flat subscription fee of $6.95 per month. But there the similarities end.

White's game is about socialising and creating music in space, using planets, rocket ships and musical wormholes. As a former music teacher, this website strikes me as an astonishing amalgam of creativity and commercial exploitation. It comes as no surprise to learn that Mike Chunn, music legend and advocate for making music the building block of learning, was involved at an early stage.

Players create an online avatar and, equipped with a spaceship, jetpack and mixing desk, boldly go into the 3D universe of Big Little Bang. On each planet (a new planet is unveiled every month) are the building blocks of an original song.

"Every song materialises as a miniature planet and you can explore music by flying from planet to planet," White explains. "You land on the planet and all the bits of the song [drums, samples, bass, guitar, vocals] are scattered across the landscape.

"Every player has a virtual [mixing desk] and if they find a drum loop or a sound effect, they drag it on to the mixer and play it." To get to the next planet, players fly their spaceship through a wormhole, where they are rewarded for hitting musical flotsam and jetsam floating in space.

The music has been supplied by indie favourite SJD, specialist kids musicians Fatcat and Fishface, and hip-hop artist Dei Hamo (the commercial arrangement between website and musicians is a little unclear).

It is perhaps no surprise that White originally envisaged the game as one for people of his generation, aged 18 to 45 (he is 35): "It wasn't until I went through that Spark entrepreneurial challenge ... that I learned that 30-year-olds already have [the ability] to be social and express themselves musically. The younger [people] - that was where the fire was, in terms of wanting to be social and creative with music."

The Big Little Bang idea is a great example of the creative fostering that is now embedded in New Zealand corporate culture.

White, who has a master's degree in creative arts and a bachelor of science, has been through the Spark programme, was adopted by the Icehouse business incubator ("I had access to the executive in residence") and was assisted in forming relationships with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Santiago.

The latter's business postgraduates provided independent market validation of the strategic plan and research into target markets in the US: "Large populations of the target age group are in California, Texas, the East Coast and Florida," White says.

The next stage will include the use of mobile phones for payment (thereby increasing the game's geographical reach) and perhaps engineering a real-world outlet for Big Little Bang's creative endeavours, although White admits the concept is plagued with copyright issues.

You can hear the enthusiasm of White's original idea when he talks about the possibility of an adult version: "One place I'd love to go to is a Radiohead planet; if we could achieve that I'd be a very happy man."

In the meantime, the inaugural Deloitte Fast 50 Rising Star award is on the shelf and he's gained entry to the NZTE beachhead programme in the US.

Revenue is rising and he's confident a bright future awaits.

"We aren't in the billions, but it's certainly a scaleable and cash-generative business - the top 20 companies are all highly profitable.

"It's not like social networks where Facebook is right up there and fourth down the line [is losing money]."

- NZ Herald

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