Dis into uncharted waters with 'Pirates' MMO game

Looks to expand genre via free play

Disney Online will offer the legions of fans who have flocked to see Captain Jack Sparrow in movie theaters a chance to star in an original video game adventure for free with "Pirates of the Caribbean Online."

The massively multiplayer online game, slated to launch in the spring in conjunction with the May 25 theatrical release of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," will bypass retail and be available via a free download at www.PiratesOnline.com.

Disney Online will offer consumers two ways to play the game, both of which will include a free electronic download (there will be no retail PC box version of the game at launch). Gamers can choose to play the free version of the game, which will incorporate about one-third of the game world and content. Gamers who want to upgrade to the full "Pirates Online" experience will be charged a $9.95 monthly subscription, which offers such extras as more customization options and characters and the ability to take part in tournaments and engage in player-to-player combat.

Disney Online is selling advertising for this version of the game, which will be featured in a frame that envelopes the PC screen. There will be no ads or product placement within the actual game world.

"We've taken away all of the barriers of entry to the MMO gaming space," said Steve Parkis, vp premium content at Disney Online. "We've optimized the game to be downloaded and played on PCs with minimum specs. We've eliminated the retail box and its costs. And we're offering free ad-supported content that won't infringe on gameplay."

All of the actors from the film have granted Disney Online the use of their likenesses, including Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. The game will use voice-alikes for the original dialogue. Within the first hour, players will interact with the characters from the film.

The unique aspect of the online world is that after players design their own playable avatar, such film characters as Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann will appear in cut scenes with the player's original avatar, putting the gamer in the film experience.

Disney Online has been working with the film production crew, including producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with the MMO.

Parkis said Disney is looking at this MMO game as the backbone of the franchise, since the game will expand and evolve for years, well beyond the release of the films and DVDs.

"We're working with the studio on how to drive movie and DVD fans to the online game," he said. "The online game community will receive advanced notice on everything in the franchise."

The game takes place in an alternate universe, with a new story arc that introduces Jolly Roger as a new nemesis. Players must help Sparrow get his crew back together to find the Black Pearl and restore order. The story line will span hundreds of hours of gameplay, and Disney Online will launch free expansions for the game every two to three months.

While the game's launch will include content from the first two films, the first expansion download will incorporate content and characters from the third installment, and players will explore landmarks and locales from the movies. The game also will feature music from the films as well as new music composed for the interactive adventure.

Mike Goslin, vp Disney Online's Virtual Reality Studio, said that the progressive distribution of "Pirates Online" is a "gutsy move" by Disney.

"We're a mass-entertainment company, and this is certainly a mass-market game," he said. "If you're going to gamble on a game, this is one the one to gamble on."

Goslin said the key to this game's success is simple — release a great game. "As an industry, we can't keep making MMOs that are the same as all of the others," he said. "We're theme park designers, we know how to reach the mass market."

Although there are more than 100 MMO games in the global marketplace, only one, Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft," has truly crossed over to the mass market, with more than 8 million paying subscribers.