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Game makers grapple with online push

As Sony and Microsoft rush to plug their video game consoles into the Net, the people who write and publish games are still wondering how to make it all work.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--As Sony and Microsoft rush to plug their video game consoles into the Internet, the people who write and publish games are still wondering how to make online gaming work.

That's obvious from discussions and corporate pitches at the Game Developers Conference here, where much of the attention this week has been focused on the financial and technological challenges posed by online gaming.

"I think what you're seeing is people trying to figure out what business models make sense for online gaming," said conference director Alan Yu. "Especially when you talk about connected consoles, it's a whole new business for them to go online."

Much of the attention has been focused on multiplayer games--titles such as "EverQuest" and "Ultima Online" that offer huge virtual worlds for players to explore. Such games account for the few financial success stories to emerge so far from online gaming, and game publishers hope to push the concept to a much broader audience with upcoming titles based on franchises such as "Star Wars" and "The Sims."

But publishers who enter the online business need to be prepared to spend exponentially greater amounts of time and effort to develop successful online titles, said Eric Todd, development director for "The Sims Online," publisher Electronic Arts' upcoming online version of the smash PC game.

Traditional games can be considered a success if they offer a dozen or so hours of entertainment, but online titles have to keep customers engaged and satisfied for 40 hours a week over many months, posing a much greater quality challenge, Todd said.

"The player has to feel safe making an ongoing investment of time and emotion," he said.

And online publishers have to keep on delivering--if service or support fall off, subscription-paying customers will leave in droves.

"With single-player games, you're selling a product," said Todd. "A massively multiplayer game is really a service that starts with the sale of a product."

Traditional publishers also may not realize how important it is to hook online customers early. Well-managed online forums that allow potential players to discuss an upcoming game create word-of-mouth publicity that can make or break a title well before a product actually ships, said Ralph Koster and Rich Vogel, lead developers for "Ultima Online" who are now working on "Star Wars Galaxies," an upcoming online game based on the George Lucas universe.

"The earlier you create a community, the sooner you lock in a user base," said Koster. "You want them to feel like the game belongs to them."

Online gaming also poses untold technological challenges, as evidenced by the myriad companies at the conference pitching back-end services and products for running online games.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Cybernet sells software and consulting services for game publishers to set up efficient online gaming networks that utilize distributed computing techniques to efficiently allocate network resources. Vice President Charles Cohen said that, especially for companies primarily involved in publishing console games, there's increasing recognition that online infrastructure requires outside expertise.

"Especially for the console developers, their distinct competency is making good content," he said. "All the back-end technology--why in the heck would you try to do that from scratch?"