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Online games prove a nontrivial business

October 13, 1998
Web posted at: 4:45 PM EDT

by Lessley Anderson

(IDG) -- The splashy relaunch of Sony Online Entertainment's the Station game site late last month was proof that online gaming is big business - especially when it comes to trivia.

The Station unveiled multiplayer versions of its old standbys - online Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune - which let players select avatars, join teams and chat with each other in cartoonlike bubbles. The site has 1.5 million registered users, and hosts 1 million games a week, attracting support from advertisers that include AT&T, Procter & Gamble, American Express, Microsoft and IBM.

SOE President Lisa Simpson compares her strategy to a three-legged stool: TV game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, the Sony-owned cable station the Gameshow Network and the Station Web site work together to build an audience of game-show enthusiasts. This fall, eight-second promo spots on the TV shows will advertise the Station, and online tournament winners can compete on television. TV game show audiences are a plum demographic, and Sony hopes to attract advertisers to its online properties, which are mostly supported by ad revenue.

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"We want to build audience and brand first, then later we'll introduce some customer fee games," Simpson explains, referring to the Jeopardy and Wheel brands. (Sony has introduced three new sci-fi, pay-to-play games targeted at the traditional gamer audience.)

Trivia should attract large audiences. It's been a succesful formula in American pop culture: In the '20s, a game called Ask Me Another became such a craze that it inspired a popular song; in the '50s, television became the platform for trivia gameshows; the '80s saw the hit board game Trivial Pursuit. Today, "Pub Trivia" flourishes in U.S. dive bars, and Jeopardy remains a huge hit.

Sony's strong TV brands will undoubtedly help attract a Web audience, but so far the company is playing catch-up to a rival that has no TV card to play. Game site Uproar, is currently beating the Station on traffic. It's the seventh most visited game site on the Web, according to RelevantKnowledge, while the Station doesn't even make the top 10.

Uproar offers free multiuser trivia games and awards $5 checks to selected winners every hour. The site has also attracted major media advertisers, including Disney and CBS. The audience, like the Station's visitors, is skewed toward women between the ages of 18 and 44, many of whom are professionals with college degrees. This is a far cry from the adolescent boys who frequent most game sites.

Online trivia games might seem less flashy than many computer games. However, Uproar founder Mike Simon says the apparent simplicity doesn't make managing multiple-player trivia games a simple business. Software originally developed to keep fighter pilots from crashing into each other is used on the Uproar site to deliver multiuser game play that works regardless of the speed of each player's connection.

"Our backend is very sophisticated, but the user doesn't see that. We find that if people have to read any rules, the game is over," says Simon.

However, Uproar has yet to resolve a key technical hurdle: enabling office workers behind firewalls to play. Sony has mastered this problem - and derives much of its traffic from slacking cubicle dwellers.

Site Founded In Charge Business Model Cool Prizes Unique Monthly Customers
Uproar 1997 Mike Simon, CEO Ad-supported. Owned by E-Pub, one of the few public Net companies in Europe (trades on Austria's Vienna stock exchange). Every hour, a $5 prize is awarded to a winner; the winner of the special college tournament received $10,000. 2,500,000
The Station 1997 Lisa Simpson, President of SOE Mostly ad-supported with a few subscription or pay-per-play model games. Part of Sony Online Entertainment, Sony's umbrella for Web properties. Winners of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune get auditions for TV shows. The winner of the college tournament gets a dorm room full of Sony products. Number of registered users: 1.5 million; unique visitors: N/A.
Riddler 1994 Scott Cohen, Senior VP of 24/7 and GM of Riddler Owned by 24/7 Media, a public company. Ad-supported. Hats, T-shirts, books, games. 600,000
MadTrivia 1998 Nat Goldhaber, CEO of Cybergold A CyberGold property; ad-supported. Daily winners (50) get $15 each. 300,000

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