On Thursday, multiplayer game site mplayer.com revealed that it, and other virtual communities, are experiencing enormous growth, drawing more users and keeping them online longer.
"These community sites are reaching critical mass," said Paul Matteucci, president and CEO of Mpath Interactive, which runs mplayer.com. "It's not just us. GeoCities and others have grown in the last several months."
'This is clearly a different kind of Internet experience than surfing from place to place, following a chain of hyperlinks.'
-- Mpath CEO Paul Matteucci
In January, the multiplayer game service would have grabbed the No. 11 spot among Web sites, as measured by Media Metrix Inc.'s PC Meter service, with its 60 million user-minute score. While Media Metrix did not place the company -- although a spokesperson said the numbers were accurate -- the score would have tied for 11th place (with Disney.com) on PC Meter.
In addition, Mplayer claims that use of its site has skyrocketed since last November, from 38 million user minutes to 71 million last month.
Strong growth ... but where?
The numbers are promising for online game services and other virtual communities.
Yet is it the increase in number of users, or the length of time users remain on the site?
A bit of both, it seems. In early February, mplayer.com announced it had 400,000 subscribers, and is growing at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per day. The traffic in chat rooms has also doubled since January.
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"We have added over 30 games since November," said Matteucci. "Our users have also been bringing their family and friends online."
According to the company, 40 percent of the time online was spent in chat rooms. Another 28 percent of the time, users played classic games.
Do user minutes matter?
For virtual communities, where people spend a great length of time online, user minutes is a very flattering measure of a site's popularity.
Yet from an advertising point of view, it is a different story. Selling to a large audience is far more preferable than to a small, dedicated community.
"While user minutes is more valid for game services, it's not a good indication of how many eyeballs are out there," said Seema Williams, an analyst with industry watcher Forrester Research Inc.
But some advertisers might be interested, said Matteucci. The service is offering new opportunities to sponsor various aspects of the site. Intel Corp. signed on last November to sponsor the Action channel, while other companies' names appear on the backs of playing cards of other games.
"We would like to have advertisers think about the experience differently," said the president "It is a deeper experience than TV or other media."