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Are Online Players Game for More Titles?

Times Staff Writer

Is there such a thing as too much fun on the Internet?

Today’s debut of “The Sims Online” will help the $12-billion game industry answer that question. Based on the hit series from Electronic Arts Inc., it promises to be one of the most popular online multiplayer games in the relatively short history of the genre.

Yet analysts are fretting that the red-hot market for online games is quickly becoming saturated. A slew of upcoming titles is threatening to overwhelm a relatively small pool of game junkies who may not have enough hours in the day to play them.

“There are way more products being launched than the market can support,” said David Cole, president of San Diego-based DFC Intelligence, a market research firm specializing in games. “They’re all going to just sabotage each other’s market share.”

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Certainly, video game makers can be forgiven for trying to grab a piece of the multimillion-dollar success of Internet games such as “EverQuest” and “Ultima Online.” In the rubble of dot-com ventures, games stand out as one of the few successes.

A number of games have developed a loyal following among serious players, who pay $10 a month for access to the fantastical online worlds of trolls and elves. “EverQuest,” which debuted in 1999, generates more than $4 million a month for Sony Online Entertainment, a division of Sony Corp. based in San Diego and Austin, Texas. “Ultima Online” brings in $2.2 million a month for Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts.

But what they may have failed to take into account is that there are only about 1 million online players. Compared with the 35 million households with a Sony PlayStation game console, the community of online gamers is downright tiny.

What they lack in number, however, they make up for in fidelity. Online gamers typically maintain their accounts for years, dutifully paying their fees.

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“The business model is very attractive,” said Gordon Walton, executive producer of “The Sims Online.” “These games tend to be annuities. And the successful games will have five- to 10-year runs.”

In a hit-driven industry, a monthly revenue stream like that is much welcomed, and such predictable profitability has attracted new entrants to the market this year.

Besides “The Sims Online,” EA introduced “Earth & Beyond” this fall. Walt Disney Co. launched “Toontown” last month, and Microsoft Corp. debuted “Asheron’s Call 2.”

In the next two years, more than a dozen additional titles are expected to go online, including “Galaxies,” a game from LucasArts Entertainment Co. based on the “Star Wars” universe.

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In a market defined by a mere half-dozen titles, this constitutes an explosion of new content.

“The big question is whether the large number of new games will cannibalize the same audience, or whether they will attract new players and grow the market,” said Sam Parker, an editor at GameSpot, an online game news and reviews site.

But for devoted fans, the issue isn’t money as much as time. It’s not unusual for addicted players to devote as many as 20 hours a week to one game. At that rate, the number of hours required to play two games amounts to a full-time job.

Makers of “The Sims Online” say their title should do well because it’s bound to draw from more than the pool of traditional online gamers. The game hopes to attract players from among the 9 million people who already are fans of the original PC version of “The Sims.”

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In fact, many fans of “The Sims” wouldn’t consider themselves gamers at all, Parker said. Unlike shoot-'em-up fantasy games, “The Sims” attempts to simulate real life. Players control individual characters who build houses, land jobs, get married and even have children.

Whether these casual players will latch on to the online model is something many industry analysts will monitor closely.

“It’s the first truly mass-market title to debut,” said Edward Williams, an industry analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison in New York. “The performance of this game is key to whether this market will succeed.”


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