Atari Gets Into the User-Created Online World Game

Atari logoIn the future, everyone will be in the virtual world business for fifteen minutes. UK game industry pub MCV reports that Atari, the venerable company that launched the videogame industry, is now developing a user-created online social world of its own. With Atari’s announcement, there are now at least eleven upcoming virtual worlds which emphasize user-developed content, or at least cite Second Life as a role model.

For those keeping track: Atari is joining an already overflowing roster that includes Sony’s Home, Viacom’s as-yet-unnamed world, along with start-ups Areae, Croquet, HiPiHi, Kaneva, Multiverse, Ogoglio, Outback Online, and Whirled. (SL blogger Onder Skall just posted a marvelously helpful guide to most of these worlds and more.)

With the market so crowded, nearly all of these projects are almost certainly doomed to fail, or just as likely, modestly succeed as niche metaverses. And why are three major multinational media corporations trying their hand in this upstart genre at all?

Used to be, the term “user-created” gave game companies hives, terrified as they are with legal liability. And Second Life, while popular, is still far off from having the numbers of paying customers that companies like Sony and Atari (now a division of EU publishing giant Infogrames) are used to dealing with.

What we’re seeing, I think, is game publishers slowly learning to apply the logic of Web 2.0 on their own medium. Creating content is expensive, and with the sole exception of World of Warcraft (8 million users and still growing), involves an increasingly futile struggle to retain subscribers. Traditional online worlds require a large team of designers and artists constantly adding new content, for fear that players will quickly churn through the existing experiences, get bored, and leave. (Subsequently, most MMOs spike in growth, then quickly plateau and begin declining.) Going the user-created route means new content on a regular basis, produced by subscribers, with the company only spending money to foster and police it.

That aside, the next question is whether these companies will allow their customers to retain IP rights to the content they create. While young and hungry startups can dare to do that, a la Second Life, major corporations are institutionally unwilling to cede any rights. Then again, with the competition already so fierce, they’re likely to start rethinking that assumption soon.

(Hat tip: Raph Koster.)