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Online gaming makes room for Hulk

Vivendi Universal hopes a massive multiplayer online game based on the Hulk and other Marvel characters can make it a little green.

The bustling online-gaming universe is set to get even more crowded, as the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man try to muscle in on the action.

Media conglomerate Vivendi Universal announced an agreement Thursday with Marvel Enterprises to create a massive multiplayer online game based on Marvel comics characters. Vivendi said in a statement that it expects to have the game ready by 2005.

The Hulk and the X-Men will have to fight for attention in an increasingly crowded market. Almost every major game publisher is planning huge virtual universes they hope will draw new customers into the small but lucrative online-gaming market, currently dominated by fantasy games such as "EverQuest."

Leading games publisher Electronic Arts expects to sign up a million players within the first year for "The Sims Online," a multiplayer version of the smash PC game.

"EverQuest" publisher Sony Online Entertainment has equally lofty expectations for "Star Wars Galaxies," an online universe based on the film franchise, set to debut next year. Vivendi is developing an online game based on "The Lord of the Rings," while Japanese publisher Square is set to turn its venerable "Final Fantasy" game series into an online world with the next installment.

Throw in a growing roster of online games based on original concepts--such as EA's new "Earth & Beyond" space adventure and an online version of "Myst," and it's no wonder many are wondering where all the customers will come from.

"I think people are still holding their breath trying to figure how big the market can get," said Schelley Olhava, an analyst for research firm IDC. "You can look at it like cable TV...where there is a population out there that supports all these different specialty channels. Maybe if you provide a great gaming experience, with titles that appeal to specific interests, maybe there is room for a number of big titles. But if it's the same thing over and over again, it's not going to happen."

Most of the high-profile efforts to expand the online-gaming universe are relying on established franchises, but Olhava said the presence of characters popular in other media is no assurance of gaming success.

"If the gameplay is bad, it doesn't matter what the franchise is," she said. "We've seen some real garbage 'Star Wars' games come out, and they sold really poorly. There have been some great 'Star Wars' games, too, and they did well."