Internet phone calls aren't just for telecommuters and grandparents anymore. In the coming months online games and virtual worlds, including Linden Lab's Second Life and Sony's Star Wars, plan to start charging players to call one another over the Web—even when they're not immersed in a game.
The idea is to forge tighter bonds between the virtual communities and the people who inhabit them by helping players make real-world connections from their phones. On May 20, Second Life operator Linden Lab will announce plans to introduce features to connect its 650,000 active members via land lines, cell phones, and PCs. One service, called "Dial an Avatar," lets players call other characters in the virtual world, or dial into a virtual meeting from their cell phone—even when they're not sitting in front of their browser. The company plans to roll out new features throughout the year and may charge subscriptions to make calls into Second Life.
Linden Lab isn't the only online world operator experimenting with paid Web calling. Sony (SNE) Online Entertainment plans to introduce new Internet calling services this summer for its online fantasy role-playing games, EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies. "It's a community-forming feature," says Russ Shanks, chief operating officer of Sony Online Entertainment. One service would let users talk with friends, no matter what Sony game they're playing.
Minting Revenues from Virtual Worlds
For online worlds and games, such Internet phone features could provide new sources of revenue in a Web world whose users are increasingly being asked to shell out for virtual products. Facebook and MySpace (NWS) recently began testing virtual currencies that let users buy digital goods on their sites.
Second Life's users already spend an average of more than $100 a year on virtual clothes and property for their avatars, and make a billion minutes of free calls on the site every month, Linden Lab says. So why not paid calls? "I think it can be a very substantial revenue stream for us in 2010—one of the larger businesses in our portfolio," CEO Mark Kingdon says.
To be sure, Linden Lab and other sites will be competing in the Internet phone calling market with eBay (EBAY) unit Skype, which lets users call each others' computers and phones. Skype sales surged 44%, to $551 million, last year, and eBay plans to spin the unit off to harvest more of its value. Skype declined to comment.
Sony May Charge for Advanced Features
The efforts by Linden, Sony, and Lenovo also underscore how Web calling is becoming a must-have feature on any site. "It gives me more incentive to play the games online," says Jon Arnold, principal at industry consultant J. Arnold & Associates. Skype buttons are available on many pages of eBay's auction site. Facebook doesn't provide Web-calling services, but third-party developers provide Web calling for users through widgets that appear on the site.
Sony, which has let players of its fantasy role-playing games EverQuest and EverQuest II make free calls since last year, is now considering more advanced paid features such as voice mailboxes in which players can leave messages for one another and technology that lets players disguise their voices as those of other characters. "There's definitely a business opportunity there," says Sony's Shanks. This summer, Sony plans to launch a desktop application called Station Launcher so players of the EverQuest and Star Wars games can chat with teammates and opponents. The program uses technology from software maker Vivox.
Lenovo has more ambitious plans. The company's eLounge site—available on the Web to any PC user—will let customers talk to Lenovo sales reps, and voices will get louder as avatars get nearer to other residents of the site. "It allows us to create a cocktail party effect" in which people can listen in on several conversations at once, says Nic Sauriol, leader of Nortel's Web.Alive unit. Open Universities Australia of Melbourne plans to use the Nortel software to let prospective students chat with instructors and each other.
Rob Seaver, founder of Vivox, says the biggest benefit of incorporating voice calls into games and virtual worlds may be enhanced time spent on the sites. For example, EverQuest users who make voice calls are less likely to quit playing the game. Sales of items in the game can grow, too. "There's a clear correlation between the time people spend on a site and sale of virtual goods," Seaver says.
For Web sites reckoning with a slump in Internet advertising, every little bit may help.
Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.