Thursday, November 7, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Starwave Wants To Take Kids To Castle Infinity -- Firm Breaks Into Online Games

Seattle Times Business Reporter

It's a pretty simple formula: pick some information that people really want and make it available on the Internet 24 hours a day.

It's made Starwave's ESPNet SportsZone - which offers sports scores, statistics galore, chat rooms for fans and more - one of the World Wide Web's most popular sites. Other sites, such as Outside Online and Mr. Showbiz, cover the outdoors and entertainment.

Now, with a product called Castle Infinity, the company is journeying into a new area: online gaming for children. With a $39.95 CD-ROM providing the graphics and audio, players from around the world can log on to the Internet and join friends to try to save dinosaurs from lurking evil monsters.

Starwave officials admit that it's a gamble on an unknown market. The product is targeted at children ages 8 to 14. The company has to overcome parental fears about letting their children get online, as well as persuade parents to open their checkbooks for the CD-ROM and, in some cases, for the cost of Internet access and computer hardware.

But Starwave, headquartered in Bellevue, is betting the recently released product will keep it a leader in online content.

"My feeling is that large-scale, multiplayer games are going to be the 500-pound gorilla" on the Internet, said David Gedye, Starwave's director of online games.

Backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the privately held company has expanded to roughly 300 employees since 1993.

There has been talk for months that Starwave might go public, but company officials won't comment on whether that will happen. The company will not disclose any revenue figures or say whether any of its ventures have made a profit.

Starwave charges subscription fees for some services. But company officials have indicated that roughly 70 percent of its revenue comes from advertising and 10 percent from other CD-ROM games.

There's little doubt that Allen is willing to patiently invest now in technology to develop a market that may pay dividends in the long run.

That's what Castle Infinity is all about.

"This is one of the ones that seemed pretty obvious for us," said Tom Phillips, a Starwave senior vice president. "Games are already a big thing for computers. . . . What we had was the resources to commit the money (to online children's gaming) before others."

Added Gedye: "We don't expect Castle Infinity to pay off that investment. Our main goal is to help establish the multiplayer games."

Starwave is not alone.

Microsoft says it has 150,000 users logging on for classic games such as checkers, chess and Hearts. And it offers some online interactive games - including a monster-truck race for adults - while promising more on the way.

And other companies are trying to create games for children, said Caroline Jones, a reviews editor for ComputerLife.

Like Starwave's other products, one key to Castle Infinity is creating a sense of community, a place to go and interact with others online.

A player starts the game in his or her bedroom. From there, each player can venture to common areas where other players from around the world gather. They can chat among themselves, about the game or life. Then they can travel from one area of the game to the next, avoiding evil monsters and meeting the dinosaurs who've made Castle Infinity their home.

The game is more about working with fellow players than against them. Even when things go wrong, it's not that bad.

"You don't really die, you just get sent back to your room," said Dave Dekema, Castle Infinity marketing manager.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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