You just had to know it was coming, didn't you? After watching massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft become a cult phenomenon, it was only a matter of time before the original in that genre -- Dungeons & Dragons -- made its own entry into the fray.
I suspect it'll do well. But that could be because of my bias. After all, I was one of those bespectacled, braceface geeks who played the paper game for years. And, yeah, I liked it. My umpteenth-level human thief possessed a wry sense of humor, a (mostly) good heart, and a particular skill with a longbow and a full quiver, which made for a pretty fun virtual costume. (Yeah, I know who that sounds like. You try being J.R.R. Tolkien when you're 10 years old.)
Now Turbine Games wants me to relive my imaginary glory when it releases "Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach" early next year. And I'm not the only one. News.com reports that there are 4.6 million paper adventurers throwing dice in D&D games here in the U.S. The key to luring them online, says Turbine, is to provide a vivid community experience by requiring adventurers to congregate into groups, and then encouraging them to stay together for a whole series of adventures.
That certainly meshes with my experience of years ago. D&D was a group game then, and apparently still is. Isolated adventures are eschewed in favor of lengthy campaigns built around a few themes, like the difference between a short story and a full-length novel. Interestingly, the existing D&D alternatives -- including Warcraft and EverQuest -- have apparently been unable, or unwilling, to replicate that experience online. Or at least that's what one Foolish colleague tells me. In these other games, it's entirely common to swap play partners or jump storylines several times during a single gaming session.
The idea of continuous campaigning has proven to be the secret sauce of D&D ever since TSR first introduced the game more than 30 years ago. I think it still has appeal, which is what has me inspired by the news. Imagine the investing consequences. Were D&D to draw others who've remained committed to paper into the virtual world, then an already-burgeoning market led by Warcraft and its 4 million worldwide players could increase dramatically, a trend which has not fallen on deaf ears. Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection Shanda Interactive (Nasdaq: SNDA ) recently rolled out its own version of D&D online in China, competing against The9's (Nasdaq: NCTY ) official Chinese version of World of Warcraft and potentially creating a few new addicts in the process. Whatever the outcome, it appears there's still a few billion gold pieces left for the ultimate winners in this quest for market dominance. And that's a story any Foolish investor ought to be able to appreciate.
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Fool contributor Tim Beyers longs for the days when the biggest challenge was how to get past a horde of orcs barricading a fortress. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.