Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 1999; Page E1 Now for the $64,000 Question:
What is driving the great parlor-game revival at the turn of the century?
c. The Internet.
Contestants who guessed "b" or "c" may continue competing for the big prize. People who picked "a" can go home now.
Women are the key force behind the surging popularity of online card and board games, a boom so big that even the action-oriented subscription Internet gaming sites are adding free "recreational" games.
Millions of people are signing online to join in multi-player versions of bingo, spades and other standbys from the pre-computer era. Most games offer an assortment of prizes and live chat. For the most part they are free, following the familiar Net model of giving away a service and supporting it (or trying to) by selling advertising.
Web game shows are being added to tens of thousands of sites because they draw what every site wants repeat visitors who stay awhile. People often wind up spending 30 to 90 minutes per session, becoming targets for ads such as corporate logos that morph into chess pieces.
Computer gaming is creating a more playful, social Net, one that some industry watchers think could hold the missing ingredients needed to spawn the long-awaited mass consumer market for online entertainment.
"I believe that after e-mail, online gaming is the killer application for the mass market," said David Becker, president of Uproar.com, an innovative European start-up that is shaking up Internet gaming. "It's entertainment. And when people flip on their $500 personal computers, the first thing they are going to want to do is something for fun."
Yahoo entertainment chief Michael Lathem, a 15-year gaming industry veteran, believes the social aspect of Net games gives them mass appeal: "The missing thing in the games universe was that I could build a game for one person, or for the person sitting next to them, but we couldn't generate a communal experience."
At Yahoo and all the big portal sites, you engage in group or private chat while you play, typing in comments as you await your turn. You can play against robot-like computers, your best friend or total strangers.
On Total Entertainment Network, you play live bingo with thousands of people your own age and hear a male voice calling out "G23" and "N45" through your computer's speakers. On Uproar.com, you can pick a cartoon-like head called an avatar and plop down in front of a TV screen to compete with others trying to identify a celebrity face.
The audience numbers are attracting attention, especially from advertisers. On weekdays, Yahoo's parlor games draw 25,000 to 30,000 simultaneous players at their evening peak, a number often matched or exceeded by the online gaming leaders, Sony's Station and Microsoft's Gaming Zone. Both offer a mix of paid and free games. All the big sites have registered more than 2 million gamers.
Uproar, traded on the Vienna Stock Exchange, has a team of programmers in Budapest creating Web trivia games that mimic TV quiz shows. Pearson Television, a European company that created classic TV game shows, bought an equity stake in Uproar last month. The two are bringing several TV shows to the Web, with "Family Feud" slated for the fall.
Sony says its multi-player Web versions of "Jeopardy," "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Dating Game" are experiencing fast growth. "They are enormous drivers of audience and advertisers," said Lisa Simpson, president of Sony Online Entertainment.
Women account for more than half of Uproar's and Total Entertainment's players a reversal of the action-oriented computer game market long dominated by men. Several networks said nearly 60 percent of their players are over 30. These demographics, along with the absence of the violence that defines many computer games, is heightening advertiser interest.
Eric Hachenburg, chief executive of Total Entertainment, which supplies games to a dozen large portals, said the focus on casual, easy-to-play games creates an advertising environment more like television's, because gamers don't arrive with a business goal in mind. "Television is a fantastic medium for advertising because you are not sitting there trying to get things done," Hachenburg said. "You are taking a break from work. We offer that same kind of opportunity because we are engaging people in a leisure-time activity."
Bingo games on his network, for instance, are separated by two-minute commercial breaks, allowing oversized ads to fill the game board. This month, the back of each playing card in Total Entertainment's spades rooms are imprinted with Intel Corp.'s logo.
Uproar's Becker says his company tracks game play in ways that eventually will allow personalized advertising: "We know how many questions you get right, which questions you get right, what time you play. These patterns reveal the interest of the player, creating a behavioral profile which drives an understanding of how to build" a gaming network.
Uproar aims to use its profiles to create both programming and advertising schedules customized for players. In other words, Uproar might route you to a name-this-tune-quiz show if you show aptitude on popular-music trivia questions. It might have the announcer cry out during your two-minute break in spades, "By the way, did you know that Amazon.com has the latest CD from the Backstreet Boys on sale today?"
Throw in a few bonus points to those who click on the Amazon.com ad redeemable at your 10 favorite stores and you can go home with a prize, even if you didn't win the game.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company