Mickey’s game day

Disney bows multiplayer Toontown online

HOLLYWOOD — Disney’s Internet unit today officially rolls out Toontown Online, an ambitious entry in the small but hot business of massively multiplayer online games.

The Disney Online offering is the first such game designed to appeal to children and their families, and will use a novel new approach to handle billing. In a distribution deal with AT&T, customers will be able to buy what looks like a long-distance phone card at retail checkout stands, then go online to punch in a code that pays for the $9.95 service for a month. They then will download the client software that allows them to play the game.

The novel approach dodges several of the new service’s challenges, including getting the title in front of mass-market auds that normally wouldn’t go to game aisles or retailers, and encouraging impulse buys and trials. The approach also allows children to make online purchases even though they can’t have credit cards, which are the normal way online transactions are paid. Participating retailers will be announced in coming weeks, perhaps as part of next week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the massive vidgame convention in Los Angeles.

Virtual Mouse

The game is the company’s first step in creating what execs hope will become an online theme park.

The aud for Toontown is expected to include adult gamers in their 20s and 30s, as well as many tweens aged 7 to 13 who are a bit young for existing massively multiplayer games such as Sony Online Entertainment’s “EverQuest,” Microsoft’s “Asheron’s Call” or Electronic Arts’ “Ultima Online.” Those titles, each a few years old now and set in fantasy universes, have attracted several hundred thousand players, who pay about $10 a month in subscription fees to play.

The Toontown title will be of a very different nature, with no violence to turn off watchful parents. Players try to fend off “cogs,” a group of haywire robots created by Scrooge McDuck that are trying to take over the game world. Disney has developed chat and other communications features within the game that will allow players to talk with each other while protecting the identities of young players from potential predators.

“There’s a lot of people out there who like to play games and don’t want to kill things,” said Ken Goldstein, exec VP and managing director of Disney Online. “What kind of opportunities do they have?”

More generally, Disney is hoping the offering, which has been quietly undergoing beta testing for six months, will open up a new audience for massively multiplayer games, create a new monthly revenue stream, and become the first component of a broader collection of related entertainment assets online that people will pay to enjoy.

Opening gates

“We really studied Walt’s plans for the theme parks, especially Disneyland,” Goldstein said. “We want to create the whole notion of an online theme park, and this is the first land in that online theme park. We see this as the first gate in a broader world.”

Followup worlds could include an online game pitched toward older players, Goldstein said.

One obvious possibility would be an online version of the 3-million-selling PlayStation 2 game “Kingdom Hearts,” which Square-Enix developed using dozens of Disney characters. Square is already working on an online version of its popular “Final Fantasy” franchise, as well as a sequel to “Kingdom Hearts.”

Goldstein said Disney will push the game on its full range of promotional platforms, including ads and cross-marketing deals with its cable, TV, Radio Disney, publications and other outlets.

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