Internet Games Create a Niche Market

Playing online is becoming a big business

A parallel phenomenon is occurring as the Internet becomes an important part of work: It has also become vital to play.

Games over the Internet have become a huge niche for Internet access providers, software makers and content peddlers. More importantly, Internet gaming is the front-runner of the online entertainment market.

"The next untapped frontier on the Internet is entertainment," said Mark Fedor, director of engineering and resident gaming expert at PSINet, Herndon, Va. "We're trying to position ourselves as the premier interactive gaming provider."

The word "interactive" is key. Gamers don't want to play against computers, they want real opponents. The same people who are likely to use the Internet are the same ones spending hours on computer games, and they expect a lot from their entertainment. A system that slows down just when a player is shooting an alien, for example, is simply unacceptable. "It has to be a positive experience or people won't do it," Fedor said.

With help from partner Mpath, Cupertino, Calif., PSINet claims to have come up with a sophisticated system that combines a reliable network with a platform.

However, the gaming business, from both an access and a content perspective, is becoming fiercely competitive. A recent search using Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alta Vista World Wide Web search engine yielded 600,000 sites with the keyword "games," while "cars" only garnered 200,000.

Recent acquisitions in the industry also point to the trend. IDT Corp., Hackensack, N.J., this week bought Genie, the struggling online service founded by General Electric Co., with a main goal of offering Genie's games over the Internet.

America Online, Dulles, Va., has lately plunged into the gaming business, although its offerings are only available to its subscribers. AOL recently bought games developer ImagiNation Network Inc. from AT&T, Basking Ridge, N.J.

In addition, AOL's innovative greenhouse project has been nurturing several games, including GemStone: DragonRealms, developed by Simutronics Corp., Washington. A version of that game, GemStone III, is already one of the most popular in the online world with about 200,000 people logging on every month. "It's like stepping into a book," said Eric Slick, DragonRealms product manager. "Our players are the characters."

Greenhouse also recently launched Antagonist, which includes reviews of games, chat rooms for gamers, daily contests, and a huge offering of shareware and freeware games.

Other entertainment worlds on the Internet already include movie sites, gambling and rotisserie sports clubs.

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