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Can Mickey and Frodo revive virtual worlds?

Disney gets into the online gaming business, as signs of new growth in "massively multiplayer" games emerge. Images: Online gaming worlds going mainstream

If ever there were a sign that the wilds of online gaming worlds are going mainstream, Disney's entry into the virtual real estate business may be it.

With little fanfare, Disney began testing an online version of its venerable theme parks this week, as a prelude to a larger launch scheduled for summer. The game, dubbed the Virtual Magic Kingdom, is at least half advertisement for the company's offline parks, but the company appears to be creating the foundation for a new online gaming community for children.

Virtual games

Indeed, the world's three-dimensional blend of jungle elephants and pirates, rocket ships and the old West is being taken by some as part of a resurgence for online virtual worlds and "massively multiplayer" gaming, after a string of letdowns that clouded the genre's future.

"It's a great sign that we're starting to see more diversity in the kind of virtual worlds being launched," said Betsy Book, manager of the Virtual World Review, a site dedicated to online gaming, and one of Disney's early beta testers.

With games on the way based on top franchises including the Lord of the Rings world, and others aimed at the new Net-connected Microsoft and PlayStation consoles, the idea of virtual world building is again picking up steam.

For game companies, the attraction of steady monthly subscription fees is a powerful one. Virtual world partisans have touted their games' seductive flexibility, allowing everything from collaborative dragon-slaying to running virtual businesses that pay real-life money.

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What's new:
Online world building is picking up steam as Disney begins testing its Virtual Magic Kingdom.

Bottom line:
Disney's foray into the online gaming business could be part of a resurgence for virtual worlds and "massively multiplayer" gaming, after a string of letdowns that clouded the genre's future.

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But for all this promise, the genre has never quite made it past next-big-thing status.

The runaway success of "EverQuest"--called "EverCrack" by some for its addictive nature--drove designers in the early 2000s to find similar success. Titles based on "Star Wars," "The Matrix" and earlier game hits like "The Sims" were viewed as a way to break through to a wider audience that remained unmoved by the successful fantasy world's mix of busty elves and orcs.

But "The Sims Online," released by Electronic Arts with high expectations in late 2002, proved to be a watershed moment in the industry. Drawing barely more than 100,000 people at its peak, and quickly plummeting to less than half over the course of 2003, its attempt to appeal to women and casual gamers misfired, leaving many questioning the genre's broader success.

Then, late last year, along came "World of Warcraft," drawing close to 1.5 million subscribers in just a few months of play, helping to nearly double the number of active game subscriptions in the United States.

Game developers say that has sent new energy into the genre, even if some big publishers remain gun-shy.

"That brought more new players into the game space, a number of whom are now back into checking out other games in this space," said NCSoft Austin Executive Producer Richard Garriott, whose Ultima Online game was the first big massively multiplayer game in the market. "It's been nothing but a huge benefit to all of our games."

Can Mickey succeed where The Sims failed?
Expanding the virtual world populations beyond a core audience of fantasy and science fiction gamers remains a struggle, however, and most of the new titles coming out over the next year or two remain in these genres.

The eagerly anticipated "Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar" game, shown off at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), is slated for early 2006. Garriott's new science fiction action world, dubbed "Tabula Rasa," unveiled after a redesign at the same E3 show, is also expected early next year.

Microsoft has said that "Final Fantasy XI," one of the only massively multiplayer games to cross between the PC and the PlayStation 2, will be available for the Xbox 360.

"The market is coming back from what was a slow 2004," said Bruce Sterling Woodcock, an independent games consultant who keeps a running monitor of the massively multiplayer game business. "We're nowhere near saturation. And 'World of Warcraft' has pushed them to bigger budgets, so there will be more (visually) appealing games on the way."

Developers' attempts to reach beyond these genres remain muted, however. Broader social worlds such as "Second Life" and There.com, which aren't grafted onto a traditional game structure, have had some success, but remain small by commercial game standards.

"Second Life," which has prompted the creation of virtual businesses that make as much as $100,000 a year in real money, remains just under the 30,000 subscriber mark, for example.

Disney's foray into online world building, though targeted at children instead of older teen and adult players, is thus drawing interest inside the gaming community.

Disney isn't providing much information on its plans, saying only that the Virtual Magic Kingdom will be free, and will allow visitors to play online games, explore online versions of the theme parks, chat with each other, and set up their own "rooms." According to a note on the company's site, it has been developed in conjunction with Sulake, a company responsible for the earlier Habbo Hotel community.

"What often happens with kids' and teens' communities is that the kids go in there and start doing all kinds of things that the companies never even imagined."
--Betsy Book, manager, Virtual World Review

"VMK is an opportunity to extend the Disney theme park experience to any home with an Internet connection," Paul Yanover, senior vice president for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online, said in a statement. The company will provide more information at launch, a spokeswoman said.

Giving children who have grown up with computers a crack at a free virtual world could help give the model a bridge to a broader audience, even if Disney's ambitions are relatively modest, some hope.

"What often happens with kids' and teens' communities is that the kids go in there and start doing all kinds of things that the companies never even imagined," Book said. "My hope is that Disney really listens to them. If they do that, they'll find that this project will have exceeded their expectations."