Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Online Game, Made in U.S., Seizes the Globe - New York Times

Online Game, Made in U.S., Seizes the Globe - New York Times

Less than two years after its introduction, World of Warcraft, made by Blizzard Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif., is on pace to generate more than $1 billion in revenue this year with almost seven million paying subscribers, who can log into the game and interact with other players. That makes it one of the most lucrative entertainment media properties of any kind. Almost every other subscription online game, including EverQuest II and Star Wars: Galaxies, measures its customers in hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands.

And while games stamped “Made in the U.S.A.” have often struggled abroad, especially in Asia, World of Warcraft has become the first truly global video-game hit since Pac-Man in the early 1980’s.

The game has more players in China, where it has engaged in co-promotions with major brands like Coca-Cola, than in the United States. (There are more than three million players in China, and slightly fewer than two million in the United States. And as with most video games, a clear majority of players worldwide are male.)

There is a rabid legion of fans here in South Korea, which has the world’s most fervent gaming culture, and more than a million people play in Europe. Most World of Warcraft players pay around $14 a month for access.

“World of Warcraft is an incredibly polished entertainment experience that appeals to more sorts of different players than any game I’ve seen,” said Rich Wickham, who heads Microsoft’s Windows games unit. “It’s fun for both casual players and for the hard-core players for whom the game is more just than a game: it’s a lifestyle. Just as important, Blizzard has made a game that has a broader global appeal than what we’ve seen before.”

Perhaps more than pop music or Hollywood blockbusters, even the top video games traditionally have been limited in their appeal to the specific regional culture that produced them. For example the well-known series Grand Theft Auto, with its scenes of glamorized urban American violence, has been tremendously popular in the United States but has largely failed to resonate in Asia and in many parts of Europe. Meanwhile many Japanese games, with their distinctively cutesy anime visual style, often fall flat in North America.

One of the main reasons Western software companies of all kinds have had difficulty in Asia is that piracy is still rampant across the region. Games like World of Warcraft circumvent that problem by giving the software away free and then charging for the game service, either hourly or monthly.

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