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Google to end virtual world

Pham is a Times staff writer.

Not all Google Inc. endeavors turn into gold. Lively, a virtual world the Internet giant launched less than five months ago, will be shut down at the end of the year so Google can focus on its bread-and-butter search business.

The Mountain View, Calif., company said late Wednesday that it supported experimentation but “we’ve always accepted that when you take these kinds of risks, not every bet is going to pay off.”

As of Thursday morning, Lively had 10,000 active users who logged into the virtual world at least once in the last week.

“When you’re talking about building a business, those are not huge numbers, especially for a company the size of Google,” said Chris Sherman, executive director of Virtual Worlds Management, an Austin, Texas, company that manages trade shows and publishes research on virtual worlds.

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The statement suggests that Google, which is notorious for keeping slow-to-catch-on products in beta, may be choosing to cut bait more quickly now that there are fewer ad dollars to go around. It may also be a reflection of Google’s growing up, Internet analyst Greg Sterling said.

“This is a watershed time for Google,” he said. “They grew up under this enormous boom where engineers were free to experiment with products like this. Now Google is seeking to grow under pressure from the economy, and it may be trying to do so in a more planned way. So the freewheeling nature of its earlier culture may be giving way to reflect their status in the market.”

There’s another lesson, Sherman said: “Don’t launch a half-baked product.”

Although Google succeeded in creating a virtual world that was easy to use, he said, it didn’t give people enough things to do. Lively had no virtual currency and few advertising opportunities to attract businesses to set up shop, among other deficits.

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“There’s a lot of power and potential with all the Google offerings, like instant messaging, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Checkout,” Sherman said. “But a lot of these things weren’t integrated [into Lively]. It was very disappointing.”

Here’s another lesson, courtesy of other virtual worlds that have collapsed in recent years: Turning Lively off come Dec. 31 may not be that easy.

“People in virtual worlds establish a sense of community and belonging” that’s difficult to uproot, said Dmitri Williams, assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “It would be the equivalent of someone erasing a neighborhood community center. It’s bound to ruffle feathers. These are important spaces for people.”

Such was the case for Walt Disney Co.'s Virtual Magic Kingdom, which Disney closed this year despite protests from thousands of players.

But it’s not as if people will have nowhere else to go. Dozens of virtual worlds have cropped up over the last two years, fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in venture financing.

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alex.pham@latimes.com


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