Last week, Numedeon--the virtual world company behind Whyville--launched a brand new, virtual world focused on sports, called SportsBlox (www.sportsblox.com). We spoke with the firm's COO, Jay Goss, about the new site and the firm's expansion into new virtual world's.
Tell us a little bit about SportsBlox, and what it is?
Jay Goss: It's a site that is basically taking a page out of the playbook of sports talk radio, and is targeted at guys and gals who like to talk, debate, and argue about sports. Especially this week, with March Madness, every person in a sports bar in the country is talking about last night's games, games from thirty years ago, and the phenomenon of sports. That's why sports talk radio exists, and why this is the perfect audience to build a virtual world around. The company, Numedeon, is best known for Whyville, which we've been running for over the last nine years. In fact, Whyville turned nine just this month. Over the last year and year and half, we've become a virtual worlds company--that's plural, on worlds. We've got a number of initiatives rolling out. We've just rolled out SportsBlox in beta, which is an instance of our company's ambition to become a media company, specializing in this new media form which we call virtual worlds. It's just like a media company with a number of magazines under it, or which owns five radio stations. We're a media company in the particular media form called virtual worlds.
It looks like SportsBlox is quite different from Whyville, did it take lots of development to create this, or not?
Jay Goss: That's the million dollar answer. We set out on this strategy a year and a half ago, and in the ivory tower theorized that we could be better, faster, and smarter about launching virtual worlds than just about anybody. We've been doing this for nine years, which in virtual worlds is an eternity. There's no one as old as us. We built our underlying technology engine first, and then have run a number of virtual worlds on top of its for the last nine years. That said, we didn't know what it would take to take our skeleton and build a new skin around it. What we ended up doing, is getting this first new virtual world launched, fully loaded, for less than $200,000. We know what the big boys are doing in respect to virtual worlds, and it takes them millions, and eighteen months to do something like this. We got this off the ground in a matter of months, and with less than $200,000 to staff it up to write the code and generate the artwork. What we found was that from the business model standpoint, we are faster and more nimble than the extremely well-funded media companies and studios in the virtual worlds space. And, we figured that if we can't be significantly faster, we won't survive. This is the second full media product we have, though we have done this private label for others over the last few years--this is the first media property that we as a company have operated since Whyville launched in 1999. We're pleased that we way exceeded our expectations, and got this done ahead of schedule, under budget, and with a pretty aggressive schedule and budget.
You've got lots of educational features in Whyville--what kind of features are planned for SportsBlox?
Jay Goss: What we are going to do is two things. We've got a flow of product features and a product rollout map. That includes new things that are relatively easy to anticipate in a virtual world--things like supporting blogs, virtual currency, and a reputation system. For example, you might want to go into a pool hall and either shoot pool or throw darts. We've got that technology essentially for free, because we have that in the Whyville engine. But, our philosophy of how we develop the virtual world experience revolves a lot around watching our users. That's one of the underappreciated dimensions of virtual worlds. It's the first medium, in the history of media, that you can actually watch--and really watch--a consumer consuming your media. You can put together a panel if you're a publisher of a magazine to see how people use your magazine, but you really can't watch them day to day flipping your magazine, or watching when they are seeing your TV show. However, I can literally sit down in front of a computer, move around, see what people are talking about, react to people, and read their chat bubbles. We are going to be doing lots of listening and watching. That's how Whyville developed over the last nine years. We anticipated some features, but there were some we never though of, which we implemented by seeing what kids wanted. For Whyville, that was roller coasters and theme parks. On SportsBlox, our first real feature is a brackets game, which has the dimensions of the brackets you see on Yahoo or ESPN. However, it goes to the next level, and is more social, more competitive, and easier to fill out and follow. It's a perfect example of what we're going to do.
What's the business model behind this - similar to Whyville with advertising and sponsorships?
Jay Goss: It's the same blend as Whyville, but the ratio is likely to be different. For no other reason, this customer has a credit card. In Whyville--other than mom--they do not. It will be ad supported, but also eventually may have a subscription model. There's also the sale of virtual goods--for example, you can buy a virtual beer at the bar with a four cent micropayment, or maybe you might decide to upgrade your avatar with a cardinal and gold rugby shirt for $1.99 for the college you went to. Ultimately, we hope to work in a licensed way with the sports league, and take the idea of virtual goods that the MMOGs are doing so well with, and apply it to sports. On day one, you're able to paint your face--if you like UCLA, you might paint it blue and gold. But, what we would like to have is a real, licensed UCLA T-shirt you can pay for, one with a bear on it and UCLA. And, the NCAA would get a royalty on that. Eventually, we'll go for revenue on virtual goods. So it will be a combination of free, virtual goods, and subscriptions--with more weight towards advertising. We believe we're doing a good job of that with the Whyville side, and we believe that the value proposition from a CPM standpoint is significantly stronger in a virtual world. The reason why is because we can give the user an experience with a brand that passive or broadcast oriented media just can't do. In a virtual world, you can take advantage of video game-like activity which makes advertising a lot stronger. It's a higher quality impresison your brain is receiving. A lot of that stuff we've been pioneering in Whyville will carry over to the SportsBlox side, at least we think and hope.
You mentioned other possible virtual worlds earlier, what are your plans there?
Jay Goss: Our goal is to get to four or five worlds in 2008, which will probably look like the following: Whyville, Sportsblox, which is in beta; an international product around summer, a Whyville-like product for Europe; and another homegrown enthusiast vertical like SportsBlox is for sports. The fifth will be an acquisition; we're focused on acquiring a Tier 2 virtual world in the next few months. That will round us out in 2008 with five, and in 2009 we will keep on going. That goes towards our underlying business ambition of getting to be a relatively large media company, with first one, then five, then ten virtual world properties. With all of those--except those that we acquire--it will be common technology. It's the printing press model--if you can print one magazine, you wake up and realize that with your core asset, why not publish a second or third magazine to better use your asset? Also, you can leverage your salesforce, with one common sales program to represent all of your media products. There's five different sites a sales person can pull out of their briefcase and present to the ad community, whether that's on Madison Avenue or anywhere in the country of world.