This article is inspired by Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: Today and The Future, a session in the Marketing and Entertainment track of Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City. It is part of a series on Virtual Worlds 2008.

Nic Mitham at K Zero put together an analysis of growth in registered accounts for the virtual worlds industry. He segmented virtual worlds into four categories based on their primary age demographics: up to 10 years old, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and 30+ years old. When virtual worlds are analyzed through an age-specific lens, very different trends emerge in each segment.

Kids Up to 10 Years Old

Kids oriented virtual worlds are going through explosive growth. While parents have known for a couple years that their kids spend big money in Club Penguin and Webkinz, a wake up call went out to the venture capital industry when Disney acquired Club Penguin for $700 million in August 2007. Since then, there has been massive investment in kids-oriented virtual worlds.

In 2008 and 2009, the competitive environment for kids-oriented virtual worlds is going to get a lot tougher. Big brands, like Mattel and Disney, are making significant investments in the virtual worlds space. Mattel’s Barbie Girls is on its way to becoming the largest virtual world. Disney is investing up to $100 million in a portfolio of up to 10 different virtual worlds.

As toy and entertainment companies move into this space, it’s going to get increasingly difficult for greenfield startups to make a successful play. Although Mattel has found that kids are now more interested in online content than physical toys, there is an undeniably synergy between pairing offline products with online content.

Kids Between 10 and 20 Years Old

Currently, this is the largest segment of the virtual worlds industry. The biggest player, Habbo Hotel, has 90 million registered users globally which dwarfs the 15 million registered users claimed by Club Penguin and the 10+ million registered users claimed by Second Life.

The biggest challenge for virtual worlds targeting this age demographic is migratory exploration. Kids have short attention spans, and if a virtual world doesn’t keep a user entertained, she can easily find another place to play. These worlds can keep their experience fresh by focusing on what kids in this age demographic want: fashion and clothing, music, self-expression, and live events.

MTV’s Virtual Worlds are the shining star here. They currently have 1.2 million registered users and are growing by 4,500 registrations per day. In 2007, vMTV served up 160 million minutes of entertainment with an average session of 20 minutes. Six hundred thousand people visited an MTV virtual world in the last 4 weeks.

MTV’s strategy is to pair its TV programming with virtual world experience; MTV has released virtual worlds for its major properties including The Virtual Hills, The Virtual Real World, and Virtual Pimp My Ride. They aggressively program live events into their worlds. For example, vLES (Virtual Lower East Side) often features performances of local bands from New York’s Lower East Side Neighborhood.

As with kids-oriented virtual worlds, teen-oriented virtual worlds will likely be dominated by large entertainment companies that can create an entertainment experience that spans multiple forms of offline and online media.

Adults Between 20 and 30 Years Old, Adults Over 30

While Second Life is often in the limelight, there is very little activity (and even less success) in virtual worlds for young adults and middle age adults. Second Life, Kaneva, and are the major players. Rather than aggregating mass audiences, this segment seems to be evolving into niche verticals that cater to specific interests. For example, Second Life has over 60 different disease specific support groups. Perhaps there’s an interesting model in taking the CarePages concept into a 2D or 3D virtual world. There are also opportunities in the enterprise space; IBM recently announced that it would host sections of Second Life behind its firewalls so that its employees could use Second Life as a virtual meeting area.

I’m skeptical that virtual worlds aimed at older users will gain much traction. I think these efforts will go the same way as Eons, a social network targeted at the over 50 set. Its not that adults won’t use virtual worlds. They certainly will, but they’ll use the same ones as younger users. Either they’ll co-play with their children (see Confessions of a Middle Aged Webkinz Addict for an amusing account of this phenomenon) or just give into their younger whims like the millions of 30+ players of World of Warcraft.