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There’s big money in the world of online gaming – and not just in the obvious places. While Activision-Blizzard has had a lock on the large-scale multiplayer gaming crown for years, it’s now facing competitors it never counted on. And more are on the way.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular online games around today – as well as a few that are expected to make a big splash in the coming years.
By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 26 March 2010
Subscribers: 11.5 million
While “WoW” wasn’t the first massively multiplayer game, it took the category to new heights. Players pay a monthly fee of roughly $15 to play. And Blizzard keeps ‘em hooked with semi-regular expansion packs, the newest of which is due later this year.
It’s not the largest in terms of subscribers, but it’s by far the biggest in terms of revenue.
Players: 70 million
Need proof that social media sites are a threat to traditional game publishers? Zynga’s “FarmVille” has charmed millions of people, allowing them to tend their virtual farms multiple times per day. It has many more players than “WoW,” but that’s due, in part, to it being free and connected with Facebook.
Zynga makes money on in-game microtransactions – and a lot of it. The company’s estimated income is $100 million per year.
Players: 25 million+
Before FarmVille, Zynga hit it big with “Mafia Wars,” which essentially created the social gaming model (recruit friends and make money with micropayments). The game’s less in the spotlight today, but is still going strong. (Players: 25 million+)
Players: 19 million (estimated)
Although it’s seven years old – ancient in the gaming world – this massively multiplayer role playing title is still a giant, largely due to its fanatical following in South Korea. It had sales of $33 million (USD) in Q3 2009. Add in the sales from the first game in the franchise (which is still an earner after 12 years) and the ‘Lineage’ brand took in nearly $55 million during that quarter.
Players: 9 million
Like Facebook games, “Free Realms” is free to play, but charges money on in-game transactions. It has caught on and has momentum – adding 1 million players between February and March. Sony Online led the online gaming category for years with “EverQuest. " Now it’s hoping to come at things a bit differently.
Monthly Unique Visitors: 8 million
Disney’s role playing game for children flies under the radar, but has an impressive mix of paid and free subscribers – as well as its own merchandising line. The draw (especially for parents) is the safe chat mode that filters swearing and prevents players from revealing personal information.
Copies Sold: 6 million+
NCSoft took a different path with this game, charging players for the retail version, but not a standard monthly fee to play. The tactic worked, with millions buying a copy – though it’s less clear how many are active players. Still...not bad for a 4-year-old game that never sparked with the mainstream world.
Game To Watch
Estimated release date: 2011
It’s not so much that this title is set in the Star Wars universe (previous online games there have only done so-so), it’s the outstanding track record of the game’s developer – BioWare – that makes this worth keeping an eye on. Set 3,500 years before the movies, the game will feature a staggeringly large cast and is expected to be the genre’s next big step forward.
Game To Watch
Expected release date: Unknown
Activision hasn’t formally announced an online version of its hit series, but it has given plenty of clear signs that it’s interested in moving the game into that space. Two years ago, CEO Bobby Kottick discussed the possibility at a Morgan Stanley tech conference. More recently, Mike Griffith, president of Activision Publishing, said in a statement “we are excited about the opportunity to bring the franchise to new geographies, genres and players.”
Game to Watch
Expected release date: Unknown
Blizzard keeps upcoming projects under tight wraps, so no details are available about its follow-up to “WoW,” but the company has acknowledged a new massively multiplayer online game is coming – and it will be the beginning of a new franchise, not an offshoot of an existing one. It’s going to be a while before we see anything though - a year ago, Blizzard’s community manager called it “a shell of a game thus far.” Blizzard is a company that is known for taking its time.