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Online game envisions new virtual worlds

"There," which its creators say is more social and creative than other games of its kind, is expected to get its commercial debut after nearly five years of development.

A new online computer game, which its creators say is more social and creative than other games of its kind, is expected to get its commercial debut on Monday after nearly five years in the making.

The game, called "There," allows people to create virtual personas that can meet with friends, shop and play games. "There" is similar in concept to other subscription-based online games such as Electronic Art's "Sims Online" and Sony's "EverQuest."

But in "There," the digital characters--each of whom correspond to actual subscribers--can be more expressive than in other games, the company said. For instance, they are capable of gestures, such as eye contact, sighing and blinking. The idea is to make a virtual meeting via "There" a more natural and fun experience than an online conversation over an instant-messaging service or an Internet chat room, said Andrew Donkin, chief marketing officer of There Inc., the company that makes the game.

The company designed the game to appeal to adults in their 30s and 40s, specifically women, Donkin said. "There" has few rules, no violence (all activities are PG-13) and no score-keeping. In its virtual world, players can not only chat with each other, but also shop together, sell and auction things, design homes and clothes, go to parties, zip around the game's four islands on "hover boards" and dune buggies and listen to music.

Players can also purchase "Therebucks," game money for virtual shopping. Through the game's marketing agreements with Nike and Levi's, players can "buy" brand-name digital tennis shoes and jeans.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company said it began testing the free beta version of the game in January and has signed up about 27,000 players since then. The commercial version, available starting Monday, costs $4.95 a month plus a one-time charge of $19.95 to get started, or $49.95 for an annual subscription. The game requires broadband or 56K dial-up Internet service and a special graphics card.

The company said it has a number of distribution partners, including broadband services company Comcast, Internet portal iVillage, and Hewlett-Packard. The partners have agreed to promote the game on their Web sites and distribute "There" CDs with their products, Donkin said. The company expects to sign up 80,000 subscribers by the end of 2004, he added.

The company has also signed a $3.5 million, multiyear contract with the U.S. Army to create a separate virtual environment for warfare-simulation training, Donkin said.

Since its start in 1998, the company said it has raised more than $37 million. Investors include Sutter Hill Ventures, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins and Shelby Bonnie, CEO of CNET Networks, publisher of CNET