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BURBANK, California (Reuters) - A booming market of tweens is changing the landscape of online games.
This audience of boys and girls aged 8 to 11 has game publishers launching new games like Disney Online's "World of Cars Online" and Sony Online Entertainment's "Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures."
As these tweens grow older, they are also fueling the success of established online games like Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft" and Zynga's "Farmville."
In 2007, when children's marketing research firm KidSay asked boys what virtual worlds or online games they had visited in the past two weeks, 35 percent of boys aged 8 to 11 replied "none."
But a new M2 Research Report, "Kids and Games: What Boys and Girls Are Playing," found 91 percent of boys and 93 percent of girls aged 8-11 are playing games online on a regular basis.
"The number of families with broadband Internet access has increased substantially in the past several years and this has greatly helped make online gaming accessible to a younger audience," said Wanda Meloni, founder of M2 Research.
Over the past few years, video game publishers like Sony Online Entertainment, Electronic Arts and Disney Online have focused on creating new free-to-play gaming experiences like "Free Realms," "Monopoly Online" and "Pirates of the Caribbean Online" to a growing audience of young, connected kids.
It seems the strategy is paying off.
Sony Online Entertainment has attracted over 12 million "Free Realms" players in North America and Europe in its first 16 months and plans on expanding the game to China.
According to John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, 46 percent of "Free Realms" players are under the age of 13 and 75 percent of them are under the age of 17.
"We went out of our way to make sure kids were in a safe online environment, so that's why we're getting such a strong amount of kids registering," said Smedley.
"And we're finding that many of our older players now play this game with their kids."
"World of Cars Online," which just launched on Disney.com, is the latest free-to-play game from Disney Online Studios. The company has had success in this category with games like "Club Penguin" and "Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow."
M2 research has shown that children gravitate to games that have strong brands like Disney's and are marketed on television. Meloni said with the right marketing, these games will be on a fast track to success, as long as the gameplay remains engaging.
"'Cars' fans will be able to experience the characters and story lines they love in an entirely new medium," said John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.
"The 'World of Cars Online' gives players the ability to create and customize their own car characters and worlds in a fun and imaginative way, just as we are working on expanding that same world with our upcoming feature 'Cars 2.'"
Michael Pachter, video game analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities, believes "World of Cars Online" will ultimately attract 3 to 5 million consumers and open the door for in-game micro-transactions for virtual items for gamers.
Meloni said that while tweens tend to play age-appropriate games online such as Disney's "Club Penguin" and SOE's "Free Realms," as they move into their teens (12-15) they start to move away from these games.
"In particular, we are starting to see more references of 'World of Warcraft' and Xbox Live showing up on the 'preferred games lists' for boys, and Facebook games showing up for girls," said Meloni.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith