Sprawling virtual worlds in which electronic avatars do battle with mythical beasts may offer game publishers a unique chance to combat piracy, especially in Asia, where the format is wildly popular.
On Thursday, the video game industry gathered at Europe's largest games convention in Leipzig to tantalize the 200,000 expected visitors with upcoming offerings that include an array of new MMOs -- massively multi-user online games.
Players usually have to buy the software to play the game, a model that invites bootleggers to get a cut of the action, so publishers are increasingly looking to offer the software for free.
Instead of paying 150 euros ($205) to buy a permanent membership to the Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar gaming world, for example, companies would then charge only for performance enhancements each time a player wants to upgrade his online alter-ego.
Speaking on the sidelines of the GC, Ubisoft's Chief Executive Yves Guillemot raved about the prospects of the genre and in particular this new form of MMO-lite for avid gamers.
They all have the ability to get it, and if they want to progress you can sell (enhancements) to them, he told Reuters.
Chinese companies like Nasdaq-listed CDC Corporation and Shanda Interactive Entertainment helped pioneer this revenue model with their MMOs Yulong and Legend of Mir II in 2005.
Electronic Arts said the enhancement-based model was certainly the best strategy for Asia, where the online gaming market over $3 billion and there is virtually no demand for protected games software due to rampant copy infringement.
We had many people playing but nobody paying. The online games drive the pirate out of the business, said Gerhard Florin, general manager of international publishing at the world's largest video games company.
Best known through Vivendi's World of Warcraft, online video games revolutionized the industry by taking a pastime that had retreated to the privacy of one's home from their arcade hall origins back out into the social sphere in a fantasy cyberspace inhabited by hundreds if not thousands of gamers.
The genre's success has both been the subject of research by a Stanford University PhD graduate and a spoof on The Simpsons. MMOs also have a darker side, though, having been linked to addiction and even the death of several hard core gamers who could not stop.
Stanford's Nicholas Yee concluded that the average MMO gamer spends about 22 hours a week playing, motivated just as much by a desire to socialize and build relationships, and suggests they might have a greater sense of control in their lives than do people who passively watch TV.
France Telecom games unit GOA and its distribution partner Electronic Arts aims to release Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning early next year, while Frogster is showcasing The Chronicles of Spellborn and Funcom unleashes Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures that it promises to be both bloody and barbaric.