There are three things going on with Hello Kitty Online that render me completely unable to look away.
The first is the whole massively multiplayer online game aspect. That's the last video game genre next to first-person shooter I would have thought of for a Hello Kitty game. Developers Sanrio Digital and Typhoon Games along with US publisher Aeria Games think it's a good fit, though, because the game is aimed at women aged 17-30 who crave a social experience instead of, say, a kids adventure game. To that end, they've gotten rid of some of the primary aspects of most MMOs and punched up or added other aspects to create an MMO where there's less direct competition and more things to do besides collect rat butts. This makes for an MMO where you do level up and you can go questing for experience points – but there's no pressure to level grind and you can get just as much XP mileage out of tending your garden or designing a house as you would "fighting" enemies on a quest.
That's the second thing that's got my attention: the persistent quest story. I know most MMOs have plots and sometimes those plots actually have an effect on the persistent world of the game. However, it's not always executed well and the motivation to move through the story is kind dampened for some by the fact that they can't be the sole hero of the land because everyone else in the land is a hero, too. The story that provides a persistent world backdrop for Hello Kitty Online involves a mystery where Sanrio characters fall into enchanted sleep. All players have the chance to solve the mystery and awaken some of the Sanrio characters – but even though it's a mystery instead of a "go here, kill this" story, I wonder whether Hello Kitty Online's story will somehow feel different from other plotted MMOs.
The third thing that paralyzes me whenever I look at Hello Kitty Online is the sheer cute factor. Every aspect of the world from the licensed characters to the Sanrio-ized version of London and Paris look exactly like something you'd see in one of their stores. Even beyond appearance, though, there's a charm to the world of Hello Kitty Online that practically yanks the 6-year-old girl in me out to play, even though I'm actually not that fond of MMOs. Part of the charm comes from the "friendly" design of the game that lulls me into participating in basic MMO practices I've come to loath on principle like resource-whoring and level grinding. Technically, you do both in the game, but it's just so cute and charming it doesn't really feel like you're slaughtering the same half-dozen wild boars or so for that next level. For example, to get between towns, you have to cross adventure areas, which are loaded with resource points and cute little animals. The animals will eventually agro on you if you get to close to them, but when it's time to "fight," you just whip out a magic wand and charm them to sleep – and then go on harvesting their natural habitat. Isn't that adorable in a way that makes you almost sick?
There are two more things about Hello Kitty Online that aren't quite as interesting (at least not to me), but still good to know. The first is that while Hello Kitty Online is technically a Free to Play MMO that functions on micro-transactions, Aeria Games says you can earn items and equipment equivalent (but slightly different in appearance) to what you could buy in real life just through questing. Apparently their goal is to change the stigma of "Free to Play" to "Play for Free" by letting everyone get as much mileage out of Hello Kitty Online as they want without getting out their wallets. Without spending a dime, they say, that's over 100 hours of gameplay just grinding through the main quest.
The second interesting thing is that you can charm animals in the world to be your pets. Pets in Hello Kitty function like two parts Tamagotchi, one part Pokémon and one part stat buff. You have to feed them and pet them and clean up their poo to make sure they don't run away; you can cross breed them with other pets to make totally unique pets with special talents; and depending on the level of the animal, your character can score a stat buff. The reason this isn't that interesting to me is because I've got a track record of killing Tamagotchi.
Hello Kitty Online is due to go live this fall. I'm all set to get a better look at the beta later this month with a serious binge. I return frothing pink foam at the mouth, consider that my preview of what you can expect from the game.