January 24 2008: 1:21 PM EST
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Online golf game handicaps productivity

A web-friendly golf game is teeing up in offices everywhere. U.S. productivity, meet your new worst enemy.

By Josh Quittner, executive editor

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(Fortune) -- Whether the economy improves or weakens over the next year is anyone's guess, but I'd like to make a bold prediction for 2008: by June, white-collar productivity will fall through the floor like a Looney Tunes anvil dropped from a skyscraper.

How can I be so sure? I hesitate here only because I worry about the ethics of doing what I am about to do. In sharing what I know, I could be blamed for the looming meltdown. Would Einstein have published his theory of relativity had he known it would lead to the bomb? Like him, I can't hold back the inevitable.

Three words then: World Golf Tour.

Where I live, in San Francisco's Bay Area, someone is always gassing on about the Next New Thing or the Killer App. Increasingly, the Killer Thing they're buzzing about has to do with gaming.

I'm not talking about the Wii stuff your kids play in the living room. I mean games you play online on your computer. It's a fast-growing segment of the industry that market research firm Strategy Analytics estimates will generate $5 billion in revenue this year - and more than twice that by 2011. Internet gaming, after all, is what drove Activision into Vivendi's arms last month, creating one of the largest digital game publishers in the world.

So when a friend sidled up to me and whispered "World Golf Tour" in my ear, I chalked it up to the usual hype. I mean, digital golf games are as old as Moses and about as much fun. But then I checked it out one afternoon. Days later I stumbled away from my computer to eat and, if there was time, bathe.

I'm not going to give you the web address. Anyone who wants it can Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) those three magic words and enter at his own risk. The game is still only a demo; in its current state, you play nine holes of a closest-to-the-pin competition. But when the full site goes live, sometime in the next six months, you'll have access to all 18 holes of the famous Ocean Course at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort. A half-dozen real courses will be online by year-end. That's when business life as we know it grinds to a halt.

World Golf Tour combines three elements that could prove irresistible to corporate slackers: (1) It puts you on world-class golf courses in stunning, high-definition color; (2) it streams the game through any garden-variety browser without extra downloads (which means you can play in your cubicle without running afoul of the corporate firewall); and (3) you'll be able to play with your pals - to meet up for a virtual foursome or play in a league - from your desktop.

While that last point isn't new to web-savvy teenagers, it's a pretty radical step for games aimed at older guys. World of Warcraft, for instance, Vivendi's bestselling multiplayer game, has attracted more than nine-million mostly male combatants who meet online to engage in quests and smite each other with battle-axes. It's also a cash machine that generates nearly $1 billion a year.

It was World of Warcraft that inspired YuChiang Cheng, co-founder and CEO of World Golf Tour. He was working for a company that handles back-office systems for casinos and gaming sites last January when he had his big idea. "I was watching things like World of Warcraft take off and spending way too much time with my fantasy football team," he recalls. He started thinking about what "mature men want to play online." World Golf Tour, he says, aspires to be "World of Warcraft for older sports guys."

Cheng partnered with co-worker Chad Nelson, who had a hand in creating scores of games for the PC (and who claims to be a scratch virtual golfer), and J.F. Prata, the former COO of game companies Westwood Studios and Maxis. Together they devised a novel way to map the rules of Newtonian physics that drive animation-based video-games onto high-definition photos. In other golf games that use video, a relatively small number of canned shots are recycled to simulate play. With World Golf's technology, however, the video feedback is virtually infinite. You feel as if you are really there.

Backed by first-round funding from venture firm Battery Partners, the World Golf team has been taking high-resolution pictures of every square inch of far-flung golf courses - from Pinehurst in North Carolina to the Bali Hai Golf Club in Las Vegas - using a small fleet of helicopters and radio-controlled drones. It takes a dozen people six months and $200,000 to make one World Golf course simulation, says Cheng. But that's a bargain compared with the millions it can cost to design, animate, and distribute a conventional video or PC game. Cheng says the site will make money through advertising, sponsorship deals, and various premium offerings.

To date, 100,000 Internet duffers have found the demo site through word of mouth. One top-rated player is reported to be playing 30 hours a week. "He's an adult, and he has a job," says Cheng. "His whole office is now playing." You've been warned. To top of page

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