Battling in an online world

A focus group in Malibu was conducted by Abandon Interactive, an online game company, to test its new virtual game, Freaky Creatures. The game is targeted toward the younger market.

A local game developer competes for an edge in a hot market.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

The online game industry, once thought of as a computer nerd’s fantasy land, now grosses an estimated $20 billion internationally in revenue, rivaling movie box office sales. The medium has become a hot bed for creativity, with giant corporations like Sony Corp. and video game industry giants like Electronic Arts, Inc., and small independent companies all competing for an edge in the market. It is estimated there are currently 6,000 independent gaming companies, of which 95 percent have less than 50 employees.

Jamie Ottilie, a 19-year Malibu resident, heads one such company attempting to hold its own.

Coming from a family immersed in the computer world (both Ottilie’s parents are computer programmers) and after working in Silicon Valley for 15 years, Ottilie now heads the software gaming company, Abandon Interactive Entertainment.

The company is set to launch a new virtual game world, Freaky Creatures, this September, where creatures battle with other gamers’ creatures. Consumers will be able to purchase a package containing two action figures, which come with a USB port, and upon plugging into a PC, the game is installed and the creature and virtual world come to life.

In the past few years, gaming has broadened its spectrum of users from a selective target audience to a variety of age groups.

“I think Nintendo led the charge to attracting older people, women and young children by making hardware and software that had broader appeal than the older offerings,” said Michael Pachter, an equity research analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities.

Nintendo is the producer of Wii, a game made for television that uses a handheld “wand” device, used in single or group games, which let’s the gamer participate interactively, similar to online games.

Though executives at Abandon Interactive Entertainment believe all age groups can play Freaky Creatures, children are a large marketing target, as has been shown with the advent of popular games like Webkinz World and Club Penguin.

Webkinz also requires the purchase of a product at a store (a stuffed animal), which has a code, with which gamers then can log in online and play all the site’s games for free for one year (a new “pet” must be purchased for each year).

If gamers want more options, this is where the dollars start coming in for the online companies. With Webkinz, virtual (not real) features such as furniture or clothing for a virtual pet can be purchased for real dollars, ranging on Webkinz from $4 to $9. Club Penguin offers additional features for a monthly fee, starting at $5.95 per month. Freaky Creatures requires a monthly fee after purchase of the action figures and registration online.

Industry experts predict children will double their participation in gaming worlds in the next five years. Usage on Webkinz was estimated at increasing 800 percent in 2007 alone.

With the increasing popularity of online games, “game addiction,” in which players are glued to computer screens hours upon hours and the cost of such games have been voiced as concerns regarding those games targeted toward children.

“The explosion, availability and frequency of use [of video games] is a tremendous concern to physicians,” said Dr. David Baron, Malibu family physician and chief of staff at UCLA Medical Center.

“Parents need to be screening what [their children] play with and make sure they make healthy choices,” said Baron, who sees a direct correlation between increased video game usage and increased childhood obesity rates.

He also said further studies on game addiction need to be done to yield conclusions, but believes it is a valid concern.

Sarah Priga, vice president of marketing for Abandon Interactive, said she is aware of criticism other children’s game companies have received, and the company plans to address those concerns.

Creative Director Matt Saia said children would not be tied to playing their game for consecutive hours, as the game allows for a 10 to 15 minute play experience.

Jeff Hillbert, owner of Digital Development Management, a company that represents video game developers, said it is the parents who need to keep a balance.

“I do not think it is a company’s responsibility to raise someone’s child,” he said. “Companies want to make compelling games. It is their responsibility to make sure they properly adhere to the ESRB rating standards and adhere to federal and local laws. It is the parents’ responsibility to make sure their kids do not become addicted to games and TV.”

The ESRB, or Entertainment Software Rating Board, is a nonprofit organization that assigns ratings and guidelines for video games.

With the amount of changes in the online game industry in the past few years, experts say it’s hard to determine the next step or shift, or whether groups such as women and children will continue to be market targets or mobile games will increase in popularity.

As seen with the recent success of nontraditional methods and means, taking a creative chance is often rewarded in the industry. Abandon Interactive already has games in the works post-Freaky Creatures.

“We can experiment with new ideas with community and online aspects,” Ottilie said. “Matt’s been thinking of the next eight products; we’ve talked about the next two or three. We want to create compelling experiences, not take on the one hundred pound gorillas.”