May 31, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Can Mickey and Frodo revive virtual worlds?
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.
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.
Online world building is picking up steam as Disney begins testing its Virtual Magic Kingdom.
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.
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
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