Entertainment players go virtual

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Traditional media players have discovered the multiplayer online world and are launching virtual communities that extend their brands, bringing viewers to cyberspace for a different kind of entertainment experience.

"This is about deepening the engagement we have with our audience," MTV Networks executive vp Jeff Yapp says. "TV is a broad-reach vehicle. Certain properties have (enough) interest to go beyond the TV show."

At Disney, "It's about creating new experiences and new entertainment," says Disney Online executive vp and general manager Paul Yanover, who has launched the concept-based "Fairies" and "Toon Town" sites and one themed to its "Pirates of the Caribbean" film franchise. "It's an interesting vehicle that is going to keep a level of intensity around a product," Yanover says.

Pioneers on the virtual frontier will offer a campfire chat about the challenges and rewards of crafting such communities at the Hollywood & Games session "Creating Parallel Community Experiences Between Entertainment and MMOs," June 27, 3:45-4:40 p.m.

MTV stepped into the business of branded virtual worlds last September, with "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills." It also has gotten more than 25 recording artists to participate, giving concerts in the e-sphere and, in the case of Korn and Linkin Park, settling down in customized environments where they can interact with fans. The results have been encouraging. There are more than 800,000 registered MTV VW users, each averaging more than 40 minutes on the sites. "In world," visitors get to create their own avatars, clothe them as well as plan trips and social outings.

"If the show is heading to Cabo for spring break, we do the same online," Yapp explains. In the "Pirates" world, players can undertake any number of swashbuckling adventures. And of course, commerce is an important part of most virtual worlds.

The larger commercial MMO (for Massively Multiplayer Online) sites generate revenue -- both virtual and real -- through the exchange of virtual goods. Visitors to "Second Life," for instance, are greeted on the home page with a ticker indicating how much hard currency was spent in the past 24 hours ($1.7 million at press time) as well as how many "residents" there are (7.2 million).

While Blizzard Entertainment, maker of the popular "World of Warcraft" MMO, doesn't give out revenue figures, the company indicates it has 8.5 million players worldwide, 2 million of them in North America.

Although it can be costly and time consuming to develop MMOs, it is becoming easier. Multiverse is a new company offering a turn-key portal to host virtual worlds. Yanover says creating such worlds is "difficult at multiple levels. Technologically, it's challenging -- a virtual world is a piece of entertainment and a piece of software. On some level it has all the attributes of a game. In developing them, we have to think about the kinds of computers in people's homes and the kind of connection they're using."

At the moment, Hollywood-types seem to be using the virtual space largely in a promotional capacity, but the economic underpinnings are not being ignored. At Disney, they're exploring a subscription model, though entry-level gameplay is free. MTV is pursuing a different model, with Pepsi, Cingular and Procter & Gamble buying into the virtual realm. "These are advertisers that are thinking about pushing the models hard," Yapp says, noting that "For us, how you position brands in these worlds is critically important. Just putting up a sign and letting people walk by is not what we're about."

In an interesting cross-platform initiative, "Hills" star Lauren Conran is partnering with MTV to create a clothing line that will debut in the real and virtual worlds. "Think about it," Yapp says. "She'll have a head start on what her fans think of the various designs, which will, in turn, help retailers."

"The whole thing continues to blur the lines between reality and fantasy," Yapp continues. "If people think they're living in 'The Hills,' we've succeeded."

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