LOS ANGELES -- To makers of electronic games, Vic Raolji, a Web programmer in Wilmington, Del., is a cash cow.
Raolji -- friends call him a hardcore player; he says he's just avid -- spends $10 a month for access to an online world called "Everquest."
He's rarely there, but he's got buddies who are addicted to the game, which is always open and lets players log on as virtual warriors who fight pixelated monsters.
Now the rest of the industry wants its $10 a month, too, scrambling to create new games that it hopes will addict not just the hardcore, but the casual player.
"It is the only business model that works," said Mark Jacobs, president of Mythic Entertainment, a Fairfax, Va., company that plans to introduce an online world based on Camelot this winter.
"These things can be cash cows," Jacobs added.
The legendary Star Wars universe also is headed for the Net next year, also care of Sony. The best-selling "Sims," in which users get to play God and manipulate the fates of ordinary households, is also expected online in 2002 from Maxis.
Meanwhile, Maxis' parent, Electronic Arts of Redwood City, has been making a name for itself at ea.com, which charges as little as $5 a month for access to online sports, action and strategy games.
And EA is working on even more, including "Majestic," an "X-Files"-style mystery with monthly installments that will play out through faxes, streaming video, phone calls and instant messages to players. It will cost $9.99 a month.
Some of these games require players to buy a separate piece of software for $20 to $50 before they can subscribe. Other games are downloaded free from the Net and charge only the monthly fee.
Most games will be offered on personal computers first, but it's the owners of Sony PlayStations and Microsoft Xboxes who are expected to carry the trend in coming years, as North American ownership of next-generation consoles grows into the tens of millions.
Whether subscriptions will overcome the more wallet-friendly way of getting games -- spending a one-time $20 to $50 at the local software store -- isn't certain, but game makers and analysts say the industry really has no choice but to demand a bigger share of players' budgets.
"Online gaming is at the forefront of every large company's business strategy," said Scott McDaniel, vice president of marketing for Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego. "People are not willing to support the vast number of games that have come out in the past; there are too many other types of entertainment."
But if a game company can make just one title that keeps people coming back, it might never need to develop another game again, saving millions of dollars and months in research and testing.
"An entertainment you can count on is a wonderful boon, instead of shooting a firework and seeing what takes," McDaniel said. "Subscription-based content is not all that different from magazine publishing."
The financial stakes are breathtaking.
Sony won't say how much it's profiting from "Everquest," but does say the game is making a profit off of the $3.8 million it gets every month in subscriptions.
That goes for major rival "Ultima Online," whose maker, Origin Systems, says it is profiting from its 240,000 subscribers.
Couple that with a new Datamonitor study indicating that the number of online game players is expected to go from 20 million this year to just under 120 million in 2005, and the potential for revenue as much as $4 billion isn't unlikely.
But as excited as game makers are, parents are not. And it's not because of the money.
Bob Elder of Irvine, Calif., said his 9-year-old son already spends too much time in front of cathode ray tubes. Enticing Matthew with slicker online versions of his favorite titles certainly won't help, Elder said.
"We are trying to knock it down," Elder said of his son's game play.
Elder's household includes two PlayStation 2s; a Nintendo 64 and a Game Boy. His son plays for about an hour a day.
"We would like him, in the summer, to be outside more," Elder said.
But other game fans, including "Everquest" member Raolji, say it's just a matter of time before more people get roped in.
"Say I am going to play this game for 10 hours a month," he said. "That is a dollar per hour. That is how I think of it. And a dollar per hour is good entertainment."
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