Inside Move: Gaming universe to expand

New niche looks to turn up the volume

It’s been five years since Ultima Online, the first massively multiplayer online game, arrived and began shifting the vidgame business from something like a book publisher to something like a cable system.

Despite Ultima’s success, and that of Sony’s “EverQuest” and Microsoft’s “Asheron’s Call,” the cost and complexity of such titles has kept competition slim to date.

That’s about to change, as several recent announcements make clear:

  • McDonald’s and Intel signed product-placement deals with Electronic Arts for “The Sims Online.”

  • EA also launched “Earth & Beyond,” the first of several soon-to-launch sci-fi MMOs.

  • Vivendi’s VU Games announced “Middle Earth Online,” based on “The Lord of the Rings.”

  • VU also licensed 4,700 Marvel comicbook characters for an MMO.

  • Viacom unit Simon & Schuster Interactive is about to release “Eve Online,” and Sony Online Entertainment is readying “Star Wars Galaxies,” part of a phalanx of MMOs headed online.

You can thank “EverQuest” for all the activity. Its subscription base has swelled to more than 400,000 players, who pay about $12 a month to hack and chat in a fantasy universe that persists when they log off.

Players keep coming back for the same reason they return to AOL chat rooms: community. As a result, “EverQuest” has thrived for four years, grossing more than $50 million annually and spawning a sequel, due next year.

But MMOs require huge investments in computer systems and customer service. And to cover those costs, game makers typically need remarkable technology or prominent licenses to attract hundreds of thousands of players.

Only big companies can afford those licenses and other up-front costs. And only big companies can afford more than one title, which allows them to amortize administrative costs, saving millions. Expect a shakeout in coming months from lesser challengers with shallower pockets.

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