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  Toontown Impressions  
Posted 2004-03-08 by Tony Walsh
I opened a trial account with Disney's Toontown to check out this kid-friendly massively-multiplayer game. It's been mentioned by both Liam O'Donnell and Jos as worthy or examination. In a nutshell, Toontown is a 3D environment populated by human-controlled avatars and AI-controlled characters. It was designed to be 100% safe, which means communication between avatars is done using pre-set phrases (actual chat is reserved for real-life friends who exchange some kind of code). Even the name of your own avatar must be approved by moderators if it is not generated using pre-set name components.

Given the restriction on inter-player communication, I wouldn't say Toontown is really a social game in the same way that Ultima Online or Everquest can be. Toontown does, however, encourage-- even mandate-- teamwork. The basic premise of Toontown is that the cartoon land is plagued by "Cogs," evil corporate robots (no relation to Disney itself) and the citizens of Toontown must rid their habitat of the malignant machines. I played for about an hour, and found that constantly battling robots got incredibly stale. For a kid-oriented game, it'd be great if the focus of the game wasn't violence. The game could easily be shifted towards a non-violent approach simply in the way the battles are depicted. Currently, the Toon characters employ cartoon gags to harm the Cogs. Once the Cog has had enough damage, it braces itself in pain and then explodes. An easy way to make this less violent would be for the Toon attacks to cause the Cogs to laugh. Too much laughter, and the Cog explodes in a fit of giggles. This seems so obvious, the only reason I think the developers didn't go this route is that violence-fed boys would be uninterested in a carnage-free game.

Battle might be the main activity, but it isn't the only one. There are a lot of mini-games to be played, which can increase your skill levels and win you Jellybeans-- Toontown's currency. With enough Jellybeans you can buy upgrades for your avatar's wardrobe and house. Yep, you get your own house. And, Sims-like, you can arrange and change your furniture. It didn't appear that the furniture was interactive, though, so I'm not really sure what the big deal is.

Toontown seems to have some promise, but the level of interaction in the game is so "lite" that I don't believe it offers much to youngsters except idle entertainment. An argument can be made that the minigames offer some edutainment value, but there are plenty of other games and CD-ROMs that offer more substantial value in this department.

In order to offer something really decent, I think Toontown could be expanded to include some group-based problem-solving, more complex mini-games, and a greater range of canned communication options-- or at least communication options that are more open-ended, such as a greater number of textless emotes. It could be worthwhile to break up Toontown into areas that cater to your social and agression needs, so if killing Cogs is more attractive to you than tickling them, you can hang out where your type of action is.
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Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 8, 2004 @ 3:30 pm
Some more thoughts about the violent theme of this game. Currently there is only one way to deal with Cogs: destroy them. The problem is that players are not made aware of why this is the only option: Can they be reasoned with? Could a co-habitation arrangement be reached? Would another, unpopulated part of the "world" be a more suitable habitat for them? Are the Cogs merely unhappy or misguided?

Failing to answer these questions for players might teach children that violence is the first option in conflict resolution rather than the last. Toontown could offer so much more in terms of actual educational/experiential value if it gave players other ways to deal with the Cog invasion.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 8, 2004 @ 6:13 pm
As lame as posting comments in your own blog is, there's an article about a recent Toontown expansion here.

The article covers some improvements to Toontown gameplay which address a few of my concerns.

Interestingly, writer Jinny Gudmundsen calls Toontown "nonviolent." I don't see how blowing up robots is nonviolent. I mean, the word "battle" is in the quickchat menu-- how nonviolent can a battle be?

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