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A child-safe website that appeals to boys is growing into a monster for its founder

Dominic Williams has a noisy, vigorous weapon in his battle to take on the mighty kingdom of Moshi Monsters: he has four sons under the age of 10. The hugely successful Moshi gaming network might have reached 50 million users, spawned countless merchandising spinoffs and be expanding into TV, but it has also created a new market where there’s yet more monster-based potential, says Williams.

The lesson from the rough and tumble at home is that Moshi Monsters and rival Club Penguin are just too feminine and sweet – so Williams has spent a year creating “Boys want more of a game than a social environment, with a bit of push and shove and more competition – an extension of what boys do offline,” he says.

Rather than compare the site to Moshi, Williams thinks there are closer parallels to cult Japanese animation franchise Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!, a card-trading game so complex that kids have used its characters to invent their own, simpler games. FightMyMonster’s game dynamics are based around trading, collecting and fighting monsters, much like a digital version of football card trading.

It’s certainly more visceral than Moshi, with players facing the humiliation of their monsters being eaten if they lose a fight, and having to assemble their monsters from various body parts. Players have to fight each other and complete mini-games to earn “nuggets” of money. The basic game is free, but a fixed paid subscription of £4.95 a month (via a parent’s credit card) buys advantages including a monster generator and monster insurance.

Williams claims the site recently added 25,000 new users in a weekend. The number of registered users – 90% in the UK – is approaching 250,000, each spending an average of 30 minutes per visit. There are just five core staff, and until an angel round that included serial investor Dylan Collins, Williams had self-funded the site. This time next year the staff will have grown to 12.

“Boys aged seven to 12 are a commercially lucrative demographic,” says Collins. “But online, boys fragment into lots of locations.” Moshi has shown that one “transmedia” brand can span a game, TV, mobile, merchandise and a social site.

Acutely aware of the need to keep its young users safe, FightMyMonster avoided usernames and passwords – instead developing a unique symbol-based login; one could be “bomb, smiley, cat, spider”. It means that if a child’s password is discovered it can’t be tried on other, more revealing sites, such as Bebo or Facebook. FMM also uses parents to moderate the space – a strategy that Williams says is more scalable than using community managers. A parents’ centre lets them read all their children’s communication with other players, including instant chat. “As a parent you have responsibilities in the real world, so you should have a role online too. When we started the parents’ centre we were terrified kids wouldn’t want parents watching them, but we’ve not had a single piece of feedback to that effect.”

The site’s biggest problem seems to be prioritising what to do next. TV production companies have already approached the site, recognising that characters from games such as FMM need to be created early on in a way that makes them work for TV. Mobile has huge potential for the game, where location-based events such as rain could trigger in-game missions. An iPad edition is also important because it would take advantage of video sharing.

“This generation is willing to embrace so much more,” says Collins. “They are the first generation who’ll go straight on to a game like this, but what will happen when they get older, and how will the game follow them?” That means that Fast Eddy the dealer, Grod the God and FightMyMonster’s helpful animated gorilla could all be around for some time – not least on a TV screen near you. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds