For gamers, there's a 'There' there

Members of virtual world There.com gather at publisher's offices for chance to share views with execs and finally meet people behind the avatars.

SAN MATEO, Calif.--Ann Coathupe was excited. The Wales native had come all the way here to finally have the chance to meet some of the friends she'd made over the last two years in the virtual world "There."

And while she was constantly being greeted by and giving warm hugs to people stopping over and introducing themselves, she was mostly looking forward to seeing her "sister," Kitty, a "There" member from Seattle.

Coathupe, Kitty and dozens more participants in the virtual world were on hand Friday for the There Real World Gathering, a meeting between "There" members and company executives and employees. And for many of those here, each of whom paid $75 to attend, it was the first opportunity to meet people they'd gotten to know over countless hours prowling together through the fanciful digital environment of "There."

"I'm so excited about meeting Kitty," Coathupe said. "I (usually) have to get up very early in the morning to meet her online." A few minutes later Kitty arrived, and she and Coathupe saw each other and ran to embrace. For two people who had never met before, the familiarity they displayed felt like a reunion of best friends.

"There" first launched in the fall of 2003 to huge expectations. Many observers hailed it as the future of online game play because it offered an environment in which players could socialize with people from all over the world, fly around on dragons, float above gorgeous islands in hoverboats and even chat in their real voices.

But after quickly blowing through nearly $40 million in funding, the company faltered. It suffered in part because it required computers with video cards more advanced than those in the machines owned by much of its target audience--casual gamers. It soon laid off most of its staff and looked headed for shutdown.

Now, however, "There" is alive and well. This spring the company got an infusion of new money that allowed it to hire some new engineers and support staff. And as a result, said President and COO Steve Victorino, it's now adding new members every month and once again looking like a vital entrant in the virtual-world space.

The There Real World Gathering was the latest example of game companies bringing players together with employees and executives. For example, Blizzard Entertainment has brought members of the "World of Warcraft" community together, and Linden Lab, the publishers of the virtual world "Second Life" will do so next month in New York.

And Friday, those who had come to the Real World Gathering looked like they couldn't have been happier. All around the "There" offices, where the event was held, hugs and cheers were in evidence.

One member, Fazzarelli, summed up the experience of many of those in attendance as she greeted another.

"We must have met somewhere in-game," she said. "Probably cruising on a (hover)bike."

To Holly McKimson, aka DreamWeaver, and Kate McMillen-Muir, aka Banshee Kate, the gathering was an invaluable blending of the real and the virtual.

"We have been interacting, in some cases, for more than two years with people that we have come to know and love but have never met," McMillen-Muir said. "It may be a virtual environment, but the interaction is real."

McKimson explained that the gathering was a way to get an even better sense of who the people are that members have spent so much time with.

"We're close to so many wonderful people," McKimson said, "and when we meet, we click even more."

Beyond reuniting in the physical realm with friends from the virtual world, though, many at the gathering found it a rare and valuable opportunity to listen to company executives talk and to pick their brains about how to make "There" better.

Throughout the course of the day, "There" employees spoke to attendees. Panel discussions addressed topics such as "The Customer Support Team: At your Service," "The People of There: It's all about the Community," "Why are we There? A view of what's happening in the virtual space" and more. "There" CEO Michael Wilson kicked off the event with a keynote entitled "The State of 'There.'"

One member, Steph Quick, who traveled to the gathering from New Jersey, said that despite the fact that "There" employees do a good job of interacting with members in-world, it was important to be able to talk with them face-to-face.

"Sometimes the information doesn't get out there" in-world, Quick said, "and so members want to have the opportunity to talk to people (from the company) one-on-one. And this is much more intense."

"There" community manager Ron Meiners agreed that the gathering gave him and other employees a way to share their thoughts with members and thus learn about how the two sides think.

"We can communicate with them directly," Meiners said. "Real-time communications are so much richer, and we can get a sense of who (the members) are. Also, it's really fun, and it becomes something for the community to enjoy with us."

In the end, though, McKimson summed up the reason why so many "There" members were willing to travel so far to see people they spend a significant amount of time with already, albeit inside the virtual environment.

"We're able to give real hugs," she said, "instead of virtual hugs."

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