Four years ago Mind Candy was a pretty small game company. They were best known for their revolutionary but short lived ARG Perplex City, and had no other successful franchises to fall back on when that ended. Their plan to save it? Start a free online social game for children ages 7-12 called Moshi Monsters, where kids can create monster pets, raise them, and socialize with one another in a controlled, safe environment.
In four years, it has become the new Pokémon—at least in the UK.
The game itself is very clever, because kids can microblog, write on each others walls, and play simple games the way older people can on Facebook. But where Moshi Monsters differs is in the way it treats the identities of its users. Instead of representing themselves on Moshi Monsters, children use avatars as surrogates for themselves. The only pictures other users can see are of the monsters themselves. The most information a child can provide in their profile is their age, country, gender, and in-game screen name. If they become friends with another user, they can reveal their first name if they choose to. They are kept from sharing anything more or behaving inappropriately by intensive moderation of all facets of the game.
Kids also don't have the opportunity to run up their parents' credit cards, as they can in many freemium online games—everything in the Moshi Monsters game itself is free. All of that is wrapped in a charming fantasy universe that combines anime and western animation influences into something so cute and colorful it's almost hypnotic, like most great children's media properties.
Whatever its exact appeal to children might be, it is a powerful one. Earlier this year, Mind Candy announced that the game had reached 50 million registered users. Half of all children in the UK between ages 6-12 own a pet Moshi Monster.
Mind Candy has done a remarkable job of cashing in on all their online cache in the physical world. The Moshi Store sells lines of toys, trading cards, and other merchandise. Mind Candy is set to make 60 million pounds this year on that merchandise alone. Moshi Magazine launched last February and has sold 80,000 physical copies of its first issue. They even had a Moshi Monsters pop-up store in West London for a time earlier this year, a nod to Pokémon's retail home in Tokyo.
Moshi Monsters might not be at the Pokémon level worldwide yet, but last summer Mind Candy took the Moshi Monsters into a realm where Pokemon never dared to tread—music production. They've recorded a number of parody songs, which all have done pretty well on YouTube.
"The Moshi Dance" above by Moshi Monster character Lady Goo Goo has become a minor internet sensation, garnering nearly 4 million views on YouTube since it came out in June. It will be available on iTunes next week. If it succeeds there, Mind Candy CEO Michael Acton Smith said in Develop that the company might start their own label and produce songs by a variety of in-game parody artists like Dustin Beaver and Broccoli Spears.
To recap, Moshi Monsters now consists of a video game, social networking, trading card game, merchandise, music, and print elements. Once they get a Saturday morning cartoon show, the world will officially be under their control. All of this from an indie game (it has taken on capitol investment, but isn't a part of a larger game company) that never cost any money to play.