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Cartoon’s Game for Multiplayer Move

Cartoon Network wants to extend its brand by playing into its young audience’s demand for online games, and now it plans to do so in a massive way.

The animated programming network has announced it is developing its first Massive Multiplayer Online game in partnership with South Korean game developer Grigon Entertainment. The complex game will launch in spring 2008.

Massive multiplayer games (MMOs) are a fast-growing arm of the online gaming industry. With leading titles such as Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft, MMOs differ from other online games in that they create a huge cyber environment run by a server or a series of servers, allowing hundreds or even thousands of simultaneous players to enter and compete.

Games are nothing new for Cartoon Network, which started offering a menu of online single-player games in 2002. Since then, it has been looking to play large-scale massive multiplayer online games because they can draw in a huge audience of simultaneous players, according to Paul Condolora, Cartoon’s senior vice president and general manager of new media.

The decision to go ahead is prompted not only by a desire to reach the channel’s key youth demographic but also the fact that broadband has become mainstream, Condolora said. For proof, he points to the fact that 75% of the visitors to Cartoon Network’s Web portal are using a high-speed connection.

At the same time, the online gaming community also has grown dramatically, with titles such as Warcraft drawing 5 million players, Condolora added. The Cartoon Network site has served up more than 2 billion game sessions per year for the past two years.

A recent ABI Research analysis projected the online gaming market will grow from $32.6 billion in 2005 to $65.9 billion by 2011. In particular, MMO gaming and casual computer gaming will see the most growth, according to the report.

Most of the MMO games have centered on intense, combat-oriented themes aimed at older audiences. In contrast, the Cartoon Network game will be geared for younger players and will draw from the network’s stable of animated characters.

Players will be able to create their own character, meet with other players and interact with the game environment. It also will comply with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) to ensure a safe gaming environment for players.

Cartoon Network isn’t releasing the cost to create the massive multiplayer game, but it would be comparable to development of a new animated series. That typically costs about $450,000 per half hour, said Jim Samples, Cartoon Network’s executive vice president and general manager.

“We’re talking a multimillion-dollar venture,” he said.

To help create the game, Cartoon Network chose Korean gaming developer Grigon Entertainment. The company not only has a strong background in developing massive multiplayer games but also its focus on more casual and cartoon-oriented titles fits better with the network’s creative goals.

Still, Cartoon Network is not looking to build the next PlayStation console and compete with high-end multiplayer games.

“We’re not looking at this as an opportunity to get into the console space where you publish a game and you treat it as a product and you walk away from it,” Condolora said. “What we’re also saying is as a TV network at its core, we have a lot of competency in creating story ideas and nurturing and expanding those story ideas over a long period of time, and that is exactly what an MMO is.”

That complexity means it will take time to develop the game and the support systems. “You always want to be out there sooner than later, but two years is really pushing it,” Condolora said. “Most MMOs take three-plus years for development time.”

The game will probably be fielded in the U.S. from Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s Atlanta Internet content hub, with international hosting locations to be determined, he added.

The business model for the game is not final, but it’s likely that players will be able to download the game software for free and then play for a monthly subscription fee.

“The thing that I like best about this is that we have been gradually adding suites of new ways to enjoy Cartoon Network,” Samples said, noting that includes online and mobile downloadable content.

“I think this is a way to complete that circle, because it is by far the most interactive new offering that we’ve come up with.”