By SETH SCHIESEL
Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment wanted to make a big splash
in the video game world back in March when it introduced Matrix
Online, a massively multiplayer online game based on the once-hot film
franchise. The game made a big splash all right, like a belly flop.
Over its first three months the game signed up fewer than 50,000
subscribers, a pittance, so in June Warner cut bait and agreed to sell
the game to Sony. Last month Matrix Online was downsized from nine
virtual "realms" to three, because users were having a hard time
finding one another in the game's vast digital ghost town.
The troubles of Matrix Online were partly of Warner's own making; many
players and critics agree that the game is a mediocre experience. But
the online market used to make room for mediocre games. Now, the
broader phenomenon is that so many contenders, including Matrix
Online, simply cannot stand up to the overwhelming popularity of
online gaming's new leviathan: World of Warcraft, made by Blizzard
Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif.
With its finely polished, subtly humorous rendition of fantasy gaming
-- complete with mages, orcs, dragons and demons -- World of Warcraft
has become such a runaway success that it is now prompting a debate
about whether it is helping the overall industry by bringing millions
of new players into subscription-based online gaming or hurting the
sector by diverting so many dollars and players from other titles.