Movie Viewing Meets MMOs

gaia-online-theater.jpgEarlier this year, the managers of popular MMO Gaia Online tried an experiment: they streamed George Romero’s horror classic (and public domain) Night of the Living Dead in one of Gaia‘s virtual theaters, to see if anyone would watch. Within two weeks, CEO Craig Sherman told me recently, a million Gaians had shown up to see the four-decades-old, black-and-white zombie thriller. The attendance, he said, “Totally blew us away.”

Not only did Gaia learn something about the movie-viewing tastes of its 2.5 million monthly active users, most of whom are in their teens, but it suggested a new source of revenue, which goes into effect now: Gaia is partnering with both Sony and Warner Brothers to stream their content into the world, reports Variety, screening movies and TV shows for the Gaia Cash equivalent of $1.99 per viewer. (The company earns part of its revenue through virtual currency that users buy for real dollars.)

With tens of millions of people already active MMO users, and that number expected to grow to 80 percent of all active Internet users by 2011, this is a potentially revolutionary deal.

While most of the focus on Internet-driven video has been on the technical and business aspects, watching movies and television are ideally a social experience — the challenge is how to recapture the magic of sitting on a couch with friends and family for users who are actually sitting alone at a desk in front of a computer monitor.

The answer may be this marriage between movies and MMOs, a phenomenon that I’ve noticed in my Second Life reporting. In Second Life, where it’s been possible to stream Quicktime video since 2004, friends often get together for Mystery Science Theater-style viewings of horrible movies, offering running commentary in chat. Another favorite is virtual-to-real screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture show. And when we interact as avatars, the Internet becomes a real social space. As one Stanford researcher notes, in an online world, we even recreate our unwritten rules of eye contact and personal space.

Or as Sherman said, “[The c]oncept of having presence in a physical space is a really good idea. The movie is only half of the experience. [The other half] gives you something to riff off and hang out with your friends.” To promote the new Nancy Drew movie in Gaia Online, Warner Brothers promoters created a Nancy avatar who invited Gaians into a theater to watch the trailer. As a result, said Sherman, Gaia Online became the movie’s No. 1 online referral site — beating out even MySpace.

While Gaia Online will continue showing some video content for free, it’ll be interesting to see how many of their users pay the $1.99 for new content from Sony and Warners. If it’s as compelling as past experience suggests, this may evolve to become one of the standard ways videos are watched (and paid for) by the net’s next generation. Then again, it may end up as a novelty that wears off, or only work with specific movies that fit the setting. After all, what’s a more ideal place to watch a movie like The Matrix than a virtual world alongside your favorite avatar friends?

Wagner James Au is also GigaOM’s games editor and writes about Second Life for his blog New World Notes.