NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - "EverQuest" is regularly referred to as "EverCrack" in the gaming world, due to its addictive qualities and immense popularity. Add "EverCash" to that list of nicknames.
Some 432,000 players currently shell out $12.95 per month to play North America's most popular persistent world game. That gives the game a significant profit margin. Now, Sony is exploring a new way to take advantage of players' intense loyalty.
Sony Online Entertainment's first widespread experiment in online distribution is set to occur later this month. The company plans to sell "The Legacy of Ykesha," a small expansion pack for the PC version of EverQuest that is only available via download. So far, according to Sony, nearly 200,000 players have pre-ordered the game for $17.99.
If those numbers are accurate –and distribution goes smoothly – it could herald a new era in game distribution.
"What we're seeing here is an attempt to demonstrate the massive strategic potential of a massively multiplayer online game," said John Taylor of Arcadia. "By definition, the relationship between the game developers and the game player is direct. There are no intermediaries. ... This is the most perfect business model one could have."
|Tonight, we have dragonburgers! - "EverQuest Online Adventures"
It's loyalty like that that makes "EverQuest Online Adventures" (the just-launched PlayStation 2 version of the game) so promising. There are a lot more console gamers than PC gamers – making the potential player base a lot broader. Sony Online Entertainment expects to have 100,000 subscribers within two months. To help it reach that number, the company is spending $5 million to market the game. It's also slightly reducing the subscription price – console gamers will only pay $9.99 per month after spending $50 for the game.
Even with the lower price, though, analysts say Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) might be a bit optimistic in its subscription forecasts.
"If you look at the history of the ramp of subscription products, I think you'd have to conclude that's ambitious," said Stewart Halpern, managing director and analyst at RBC Capital Markets. "But at the same time, if you look at the pace of sales of Xbox online kits and PS2 adaptors, clearly there's strong interest in the online product."
Sony is counting on "EverQuest Online Adventures" to help drive the PlayStation 2's online component. The next round of starter disks that ship with network adaptors (essentially, the PS2's equivalent of a modem) will include a demo of the game that allows seven free days of gameplay. By the end of February, the company hopes to have a system in place that will facilitate rentals of the game at stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. The current plan is to have retailers give an account key to each person who rents the game, which would let them play online for up to a week.
One thing you won't see is PC "EverQuest" players mingling with those using a PlayStation 2. The games will remain separate entities.
"On the PC, it's a different experience," said Scott McDaniel, vice president of marketing and public relations for Sony Online Entertainment. "It's a much more competitive environment you're in. ... [The PS2 version] is a lean-back, casual experience."
Sony is confident enough in the game's potential that a stand-alone expansion pack is already being developed – and scheduled to be released at the end of the year.
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All this focus on online console gaming doesn't mean Sony is abandoning the PC side. It has, however, cancelled one of its high-profile projects.
Work on "Sovereign," a massively multiplayer real time strategy game, has been terminated after more than four-and-a-half years of development. Ambitious in nature, the game had hoped to replicate a continuous global war that supported up to 500 players. Diplomacy would have played as significant a role as the player's tactical abilities.
"We came to a decision that it was not going to be what we wanted it to be," said McDaniel. "It never really had the magic."
Two other high profile persistent world games for the PC are about to hit stores, though. "Star Wars: Galaxies," which lets players explore and be a part of the "Star Wars" universe, is scheduled for release April 15 (I'll give a more hands on report on that title in a future column). Meanwhile, "PlanetSide" is nearing completion, with a public beta test scheduled for the end of this month.
The game, which has seen "drastic design changes in the last four months" according to McDaniel, combines the excitement of first person shooter games with a large-scale, persistent world. It is, perhaps, the most significant departure from the current crop of massively multiplayer games, which tend to stick close to the sword and sorcery formula.
"Building in our hooks for the community element was a challenge, because you don't have time to stop and type when you're running and gunning," said McDaniel.
"PlanetSide" is a slightly riskier venture, since most first person shooter games offer their own multiplayer components, but "Galaxies" is expected to be one of the year's best selling games. If those players are even half as loyal as the ones in "EverQuest," imagine the financial possibilities.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.