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Vivendi, Marvel to Take Superheroes Online

Vivendi Universal Publishing, eyeing projections for the future of the nascent online massively multi-player (OLMMP) games space, took a further plunge into the arena Thursday when it forged a 10-year worldwide licensing deal with comic book juggernaut Marvel Enterprises , which holds the rights to characters like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men.

While no OLMMPs currently on the market have been able to overtake Sony's EverQuest in popularity in the U.S., Vivendi was the distributor behind Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot, which was one of the fastest selling online games of all time, according to David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a research firm focused on interactive and digital entertainment.

Vivendi has also signed on to distribute World of Warcraft, the first online entry in Blizzard Entertainment's highly-popular Warcraft franchise. In addition, Vivendi is developing an OLMMP based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Through Thursday's deal with Marvel, Vivendi gains access to Marvel's universe of more than 4,700 superheroes, and will also be able to tap Marvel's worldwide fanbase as customers, a demographic the company said already largely overlaps with the core gaming audience.

The video gaming market is an attractive one: millions of dedicated game console platforms are already in homes worldwide, and together with the PC gaming market form a multi-billion dollar industry that has already surpassed Hollywood in terms of revenues.

The online gaming market is currently only a small percentage of that industry, though it is growing. Top online games, like EverQuest, are already capable of generating revenue in excess of $100 million each, according to Cole.

The Korean massively multi-player online roleplaying game (MMORPG) Lineage boasts more than 2.5 million subscribers, and EverQuest, which is notorious for players who use online auction sites to sell characters and equipment from the game world, is reported to have a virtual economy that makes its setting the 77th largest economy in the world. In his paper, Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier, Professor Edward Castronova, from California State University at Fullerton, calculated the numbers and found that Everquest's kingdom, Norrath, has a gross national product per capita of $2,266, making its economy larger than either the Chinese or Indian economy and roughly comparable to Russia's economy.

DFC Intelligence's Cole predicted in June that 114 million people worldwide will be playing online games by the year 2006, and that online game usage is expected to increase nearly six-fold in that period.

"Online games should garner significant usage over the next few years," he said. "The major question mark is whether individual companies will be able to monetize that usage."

Vivendi has taken that message to heart, which explains why it has gone after intensely popular licenses like Marvel's Universe, or Lord of the Rings, as well as proven franchises like Warcraft.

"We believe there are only a few franchises existing today that are compelling enough to be a leader in the massively multi-player games market and Marvel's universe of superheroes is clearly one of them," Vivendi Universal Games Chairman and CEO Ken Cron said in a statement Thursday.

Vivendi plans to release the first game based on Marvel's license in 2005, and plans to update the game with releases as Sony does with its EverQuest offering. Further details have yet to be hammered out.