Dis' 'Pirates' sets sail with MMO game

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With "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" cruising along, the Walt Disney Co. is charting the course for an online offshoot to follow in the blockbuster's wake.

Walt Disney Internet Group aims to capture an audience much broader than the typical video game aficionado with the summer launch of "Pirates of the Caribbean Online," a new massively multiplayer online game based on the "Pirates" franchise. The subscription-based game, found at Pirates-Online.com, is in beta, where WDIG continues to develop it; no launch date has been set.

With its open-sea challenges, "Pirates" is designed as a game but even more as a virtual world in which players build their own stylized characters, form pirate communities and embark on ship- and land-based treasure hunts.

Paul Yanover, executive vp and managing director of Disney Online, described the MMO — defined as a computer game set in an ever-present virtual world that's capable of supporting thousands of online players simultaneously — "as the next big piece in Disney's longer-term strategy to create virtual world experiences as natural extensions of Disney franchises."

" 'Pirates Online' allows our guests to really get involved in that franchise and to continue that relationship with Jack Sparrow and those characters," Yanover said.

"This is an important game (for Disney) in terms of being a high-profile publisher who deliberately is gearing it toward a nontraditional gaming audience," said Richard Aihoshi, editor-in-chief of gamer guide IGN Vault Network. "Realistically, the future of gaming as an entertainment medium lies in attracting more people who don't play a lot of games."

Not to be confused with the franchise's just-released console game, "Pirates" was first conceived in 1999 and has been in development at Disney's Virtual Reality Studio since the success of the first film three years ago.

While participants can play cooperatively or competitively, it all starts with character creation. Players begin with a basic silhouette, which can be enhanced with a kit full of parts forming millions of combinations of shapes, colors and clothing. They impart traits to their fictional pirates, like ethnicity, sex and age. Accessories (eye patches, peg legs, tattoos and scars) provide more detailed characteristics.

"Because these games are based on subscriptions, you really want people to get invested in the world and in their character," said Mike Goslin, vp at VR Studio, Disney Online.

Once players create their own pirates, they can customize and captain their own ships, venture on a quest for buried treasure, use voodoo magic to cast spells on enemies and master a variety of such pirate skills as sword fighting and card playing.

Characters in the movie franchise exist in the "Pirates Online" world, with the addition of a new villain, Jolly Roger. While great effort was put into re-creating the world of the movie and capturing the elements that made the films successful, Goslin said the game's design stresses accessibility.

"The real goal behind the game is to form a community of people who are excited about this world, and to make it easy for people to play, start playing and know what to do," Goslin said.

To that end, the graphic characters in the online world — known as avatars — appear stylized rather than photorealistic, allowing them to work visually on a wide range of computers. Initially launched on the PC platform, the game also will be available for Macs.

Goslin said the game's supernatural aspect and its farcical take on the world of pirates is its key to a broad audience. Players are gradually guided through a tutorial that explains how to play as it introduces them to the game's story line.

Most notable, however, is that participants can play the game a third of the way through without subscribing (though they will see ads). For unlimited access, players pay a monthly fee of $9.95. "If 10% of players upsell, that's still good," Goslin said.

To date, nearly 100,000 people have registered on the game's Web site requesting information about the game as well as a chance to participate in its current beta status. While the new MMO already has been marketed online and virally through the site, a large marketing campaign is slated for its official launch.

Goslin, who was also part of the team that created "Toontown Online," Disney's first online game effort in 2003, said that while that game was designed to introduce MMOs to kids and families by targeting children ages 8-12, "Pirates Online" is geared toward teens and fans of the film in general.

While Disney doesn't disclose subscriber numbers, "Toontown Online" was considered highly successful by Disney's online division, with more than 17.5 million "toons" (characters) having been created since its launch. WDIG also has plans to create a virtual world based on its "Create a Fairy" Web site, which is geared toward girls.

But Aihoshi said that MMOs based on games have a mixed track record.

Although the more recently launched "Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar" has garnered a strong following, according to Aihoshi, previous MMOs such as "The Matrix Online" and "Star Wars Galaxies" haven't fared as well.

"What Disney is doing with this and their previous one ("Toontown Online") is reaching out to different segments that have the potential to expand the overall gaming audience," he said.

In "Pirates Online," additional community-building features include the ability for players to chat offline once they join a band of pirates and to create their own Web pages displaying their character's picture and those in their pirate group along with game stats and leader boards.

"These games are the opposite of the anti-social video game because you're playing with other people whether together or remotely," Goslin said. "Dads are playing with their kids, moms are playing with their kids — you can even play remotely with your cousin from Kansas if you choose."

For Disney, the game, which will be continually updated with additional features after its initial launch in the summer, will provide a wealth of demographic information about its users.

"It's part of that broader strategy to have consumers 'live in your properties' and to have that ongoing dynamic daily relationship with your fans," Goslin said. "It's the glue connecting all the other things — the books, the movies, the DVDs — it helps to bridge the gap between those."
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