Sony Sees Promise in Broadband PC Games

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Hoping to build on the online success of EverQuest, Sony Online Entertainment will launch free and subscription versions of a broadband-based Star Wars
game this spring.

It also plans to launch Planet Side, a first-person online action game.

As broadband proliferates, gaming companies are starting to look at developing more broadband content. About one-third of EverQuest's 400,000 subscribers have broadband connections, said Sony Online vice president of marketing Scott McDaniel.

That means roughly 100,000 of the country's 7 million cable-modem subscribers pay $9.89 a month to play EverQuest.

"Games are a medium for a community," McDaniel said. Like EverQuest, he added, the online Star Wars games "will be a persistent universe."

EverQuest
is part of the 40-game lineup for Sony's online gaming site, www.station.com. Puzzle, card and trivia games — like Wheel of Fortune
and Jeopardy!— have been played on the Internet for years.

EverQuest, which launched in 1999, kicked Web-based gaming a notch higher. Although narrowband users can play the game, broadband users enjoy a richer experience, McDaniel said.

McDaniel said EverQuest's user base has grown each month, and the game now makes money. (With 400,000 subscribers paying roughly $10 a month, that equates to a tidy $48 million in annual revenue.)

The average user life for EverQuest
is between 10 and 12 months, and since its launch, there have been 750,000 users over time, said McDaniel.

The relationship between online subscriptions and sales of the EverQuest
PC games is perhaps even more revealing. To date, 1.5 million PC versions of EverQuest — or ancillary expansion sets — have been sold, McDaniel said.

Many gamers typically buy expansion sets, so perhaps 1 million unique buyers have purchased the 1.5 million copies of EverQuest. That means a high percentage of those buyers — perhaps as many as 750,000 — have paid extra money to play others online.

SUBS WANTED

"What we found is a retail product backed by a subscription-based service is the most logical," McDaniel said. About 60 percent of the EverQuest
audience is between 13 and 30 years old, and 86 percent are male.

Sony Online has had preliminary talks with cable operators about offering gaming content on their cable-modem platforms, McDaniels said. But the economics must still be worked out, and gaming's effect on broadband traffic patterns could cause further complications.

There also have been discussions with operators about downloading video games for sale over the cable-modem platform, he said. Theoretically, cable operators could "host" games at their headend.

"The real challenge with migrating the content to different platforms comes in the form of the input devices and storage capacity," McDaniel said. "These games are persistent worlds, and there needs to be secure data storage on the client machines.

"In order to keep the data flow low, we place most of the actual graphics, world maps and sounds on the client machine. This forces a 600-megabyte footprint to be available, and accessible at high speeds on the client's end machine."

Sony Online is separate from its PlayStation 2 division, but both share an interest in broadband.

"It will be interesting to see how connected consoles will do," McDaniel said.

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