Only a few years ago, online games still lurked on the fringe of American culture.
One category catered to young males interested in wreaking havoc - at others' expense. And then there were the complex, virtual communities that more closely mirror the real world in their social interactions.
Today, those never-ending online "massively multiplayer" games like "EverQuest" have matured into mainstream, vibrant attractions, drawing hundreds of thousands of paying customers - male and female.
But their growth appears almost stagnant compared to the popularity spike for multiplayer online shoot'em-ups and other mostly war-themed fare geared toward users of console systems, led by Sony Corp.'s Playstation2 and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox.
Already this year, two "persistent" fantasy world online computer games have been scrapped, one before it even made it to store shelves.
Broadband Internet access, meanwhile, has helped bring connectivity to consoles that wasn't even an option two years ago. Now, 750,000 players use Xbox Live, each paying $50 a year to be able to play against people elsewhere and download updates.
Sony says it has sold 2.4 million of its $40 network adapters that enable Playstation online gaming, through broadband or a dial-up connection.
By 2008, 40.2 million gamers worldwide will be going online with video game consoles, says market research firm DFC Intelligence.
"There's no denying that this is the next level of game play," NPD analyst Richard Ow said. "The console business is all about multiplayer."
Nearly 50 games with some sort of online feature have been released for the Playstation2 in the past year, and twice that number are planned by year's end. Microsoft expects about 100 games using Xbox Live in stores by May.
"It sort of has become an expected feature," said Seth Luisi, senior producer of the military shoot-'em-up game "SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs" for the Playstation2. Of the 920,000 copies sold, about half are being played online, Luisi said.
Troubles in the land of persistent online worlds, meanwhile, surfaced in February, when the multiplayer feature of the adventure game "URU: Ages Beyond Myst" was canceled.
Before its December launch, creator Rand Miller speculated that at least 100,000 subscribers - each paying between $10 to $15 a month - would be the sustenance required for "URU Live" to succeed. The number of initial subscribers was never released.
Weeks later, Microsoft canned a Norse mythology online game in development called "Mythica" after what the company described as a "careful evaluation of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) landscape."
Despite a $300 million investment, "The Sims Online" from Electronic Arts Inc. only has about 80,000 subscribers more than a year after its release, far short of the company's stated goal of 1 million.
The bar is higher for persistent games because they require a deeper time investment than console games, said Sony Online Entertainment spokesman Chris Kramer. The company debuted the medieval fantasy game "EverQuest" five years ago.
"You can't jump into the massively multiplayer space the same way that you can into a regular single-player game," Kramer said. "You have a game where the strength of the game is relying on people to come back to it. No one is going to want to give you $13 a month for `just OK."'
Massively multiplayer games have no such problems in countries such as South Korea, where a high percentage of homes have broadband Internet connections and millions of gamers play online. Korean-based "Ragnarok Online," for example, boasts 17 million users worldwide in a game where players can battle, chat or obtain pets.
In the United States, PC games like the futuristic battle game "Unreal Tournament 2004" are quite popular with people who want to blast each other online. But those games are free to play.
By comparison, most MMORPGS charge monthly fees in addition to upfront hardware and software costs.
Alan Cates, a 55-year-old Internet marketing consultant and gamer from San Marcos, Calif., thinks online PC games are better if they appeal to both hardcore and casual players.
"It seems to be a problem for the game designer. What do they do with those that spend 100 hours a week playing the game and those that spend four hours a month?" Cates said.
For the genre to really reach the masses, online games need to broaden their appeal beyond males between 15 and 25, said Sheri Graner Ray, a game designer with Sony Online.
"The market is not growing as fast as the game industry. It means we've got to expand our market to attract more women," she said this month at the South by Southwest interactive festival. "It's not about making games with fluffy pink kitties. It's about understanding what barriers are out there preventing females from accessing games today."
At the electronic hangout "There," users pay $5 a month to chat, buy and sell virtual items and drive dune buggies. It has gained tens of thousands of players since it launched in October. Its creator, There Inc., won't say how many subscribers There has but notes that nearly half the users are women and 55 percent are over age 25.
At Electronic Arts, spokeswoman Susan Lusty said the market for massively multiplayer online role-playing games is still in the early stages.
"It's a matter of figuring out the perfect blend of financials and game play that will really propel this style of game play forward," she said.
Most big multiplayer games in the works don't appear to be moving very far from the young male demographic.
Blizzard Entertainment, part of Vivendi Universal SA, plans to launch a persistent online game called "World of Warcraft" this year. South Korean-based NCsoft Corp., meanwhile, is putting the final touches on "Lineage II" - a sequel to "Lineage: The Blood
Pledge," one of the most popular online games ever.
The swords and sorcery of "EverQuest" return too, with "EverQuest II" due in the fall.
By Matt Slagle