Pens, Paper and Pretzels

Pens, Paper and Pretzels
EverQuest Strikes Back

Dave Thomas | 10 Jul 2007 15:54
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In the beginning was EverQuest, and it was good.

OK, maybe EverQuest wasn't exactly the beginning. Ultima Online deserves a lot of credit. And we wouldn't be where we are today without Meridian 59 or MUD or even Dungeons & Dragons.

But the point is, before World of Warcraft, Sony Online Entertainment made a lot of money dealing Evercrack to the fans. And as any street hustler can tell you, once you've had a taste of the good life, you want it back. Just ask Tony Montana.

Last year, SOE made a move that barely caused a ripple in the game business. But like most really clever business maneuvers, your competitors don't see it coming until it's too late. And what they did was this:

Sony Online Entertainment bought a company, a little company, a little company in Denver no one had heard of. This was a little company in the middle of gaming nowhere that, gasp, carved its niche making online versions of collectable trading card games (TCGs). Played The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game Online? OK, maybe you didn't. But a lot of people did, and they spent a lot of money for the privilege of buying digital cards.

Like a commando strike team, last fall, the suits at SOE swooped into the third floor of a building that overlooked what could kindly be called "Crack Alley" and cleared out Worlds Apart Productions with a flurry of tactical contract offers, buyout clauses and promises of bigger better things.

Since the acquisition, the new Sony Online Denver has cranked out a digital version of the Pirates! Constructible Strategy Game and a TCG based on Stargate.

This, I assure you, is only the beginning.

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Forget Second Life and black market WoW trades. The future of digital property looks more like Magic: The Gathering than Donald Trump.

In Search of Virtual Gold
The interview starts off well.

"I won $33,000 up in Blackhawk," says SOE Denver studio head and former Worlds Apart chief Scott Martins. In the land of low stakes Colorado mountain gambling, where $500 counts as a jackpot, Martin's luck at the table included winning one of those giant piles of cash casinos use to market The Dream to slot machine players.

Martins' luck just keeps improving.

After years building up Worlds Apart from a studio creating text-based multiplayer roleplaying games, he found his ideas about the desirability, and plausibility, of charging players for collectable objects were growing more and more popular.

By E3 of last year, it was time to cash in. Confident after shipping an LOTR game, Martins spent May 2006 on the show floor, bothering anyone with intellectual property he could entice into an online trading card game deal. Even Will Wright was enthusiastically day dreaming about a Spore-themed TCG during closed door demos for his game. Martins' persistence paid off in an unexpected way. After storming the gates of the closed Sony Online Entertainment show booth, he was surprised by SOE head John Smedley's response. "Smed," as he's called in the industry, wanted to buy Martins' company.

Two months later, Smed officially brought Worlds Apart under SOE's banner. In the business domain, where mergers and acquisitions are measured in years, SOE's rapid purchase of the Denver developer counts as the commercial equivalent of getting married after the first date.

Smed insists it wasn't an impulse that led to the purchase, just a classic case of perfect timing.

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