By MARK OLLIG
An Internet-only game that's generating excitement and receiving praise from the industry press may never appear at retail.
In April, Multitude will begin selling a limited edition of its online-only game "FireTeam" directly to consumers, but the developer has not yet decided whether to release the title in stores.
Multitude president and CEO Edward Lerner said he is ambivalent about a retail version of his company's first title, a PC game that lets users talk with each other over the Internet while playing.
He said a retail release raises questions about server capacity and the economics of selling online-only games in stores. Lerner said Multitude will begin selling a "late beta" of FireTeam, an action game that lets players talk to their team members using Internet voice technology directly through its Web site and toll-free telephone number in April.
Multitude said it hopes to ship between 5,000 and 7,000 copies of the early version at a special $19.95 price. Gameplayers who buy the limited edition will receive free online play until the final product ships.
By May or June, Multitude said it plans to sell the final version of FireTeam directly for $49.95, plus $9.95 per month for Internet play, Lerner said.
Multitude will include a headset it will put in each FireTeam box that enables online communication, but adds significantly to the developer's cost of goods.
Although the game doesn't require the hardware, the headset's earphones and hands-free microphone allow gameplayers to talk to their team members without distractions.
"When you yell or scream or laugh or curse, it captures all that," Lerner said.
The Windows 95 game, which uses what game players call a three-quarter view, showing the perspective of someone about 50 feet above the action, works best with two to four four-player teams participating in a single 10-minute match, he said.
Multitude will consider a retail version of FireTeam, but the mass-market rewards of that strategy may be offset by its risks. The company is exploring an affiliate-label program for channel distribution, Lerner said.
Although the majority of PC games sold at retail include online components, neither retailers nor publishers appear to have reached a consistent formula for selling titles that are only playable over the Internet.
Ultima Online, Origin Systems' online-only adventure game, surprised some industry watchers by selling more than 87,000 copies from October through December, according to sales estimates from PC Data, in Reston, Va.
But Lerner said reports that rampant sales during Ultima's first days of release severely taxed Origin's servers contributed to his concern about selling FireTeam at retail. He worried that a successful launch, with thousands of users clamoring to play online, could strain Multitude's servers, which direct the massive and lightning-fast flow of data necessary to deliver a rewarding online gaming experience.
"We can only grow at a certain rate because of infrastructure issues," he said.
Retail tends to sell a lot of copies really fast if it's a hit," Lerner said.
But retail's ability to produce impressive short-term sales couldn't be discounted, he said.
"If you believe in the Internet, you almost have to believe you can sell through the Internet. But how about today?" Lerner said, adding that he viewed retail as an ancillary revenue source for FireTeam.
According to Lerner, a retail release could also raise inventory questions about whether the company should supply retailers with a second, software-only SKU without the headset.
"If we're priced high and it doesn't fly off the shelves, or we're priced low and it doesn't work for us, that's a problem," he said. "We're not sure if retail is going to help us, or make it difficult for us."
Have a great week!