Marvel's Cryptic Deal

Partnerships often act as the spoon that stirs the sauce in the fanciful world of comic books. Take Batman and Superman, for example. Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) DC Comics long ago dubbed the pair the "World's Finest" superhero team in a comic of the same name.

Marvel Entertainment (NYSE: MVL  ) has also sought to sell comics through unlikely pairings. My favorite remains the now-defunct Marvel Team-Up, in which Spider-Man would join with a fellow hero to trounce bad guys. The Fantastic Four's Human Torch was a constant favorite among fans of the series.

But that was the '70s. Today, an altogether different Marvel team-up is taking place, and it is about as unlikely a pairing as Spidey and Howard the Duck (issue 96 of the old series). Marvel Entertainment yesterday announced that Cryptic Studios will write the software for "Marvel Universe Online," a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game featuring Marvel characters.

It's a huge victory for several reasons -- first, because it allows Marvel to create name recognition for lesser-known characters before they hit the big screen. Second, because it opens a new market for Marvel MMOs that the company previously had little investment in. And finally, because it leverages a partner that knows a lot more about developing video games than Marvel does.

Indeed, Marvel is a comic book publisher first and a movie studio second. Game development isn't really in its DNA. But it is very much woven into the fabric of both Cryptic and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , which will publish the "Marvel Universe Online" for Vista-powered PCs and the Xbox 360.

Of course, that's hardly news to Marvel. It sued Cryptic in 2004 because Cryptic's City of Heroes video game allowed players to create characters similar to those that live in Marvel's virtual universe. Hostilities ended in December with a joint agreement to dismiss. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed, but I imagine somebody finally had the guts to broach the idea of working together.

Or maybe not. NCSoft, after all, was the primary defendant in the case, yet this statement makes it seem as though the firm was caught off guard by Cryptic's deal with Marvel. And check out this quote from Cryptic Studios president Michael Lewis: "As an independent developer, Cryptic Studios has the freedom to make games and forge partnerships that we are truly passionate about."

If there's bitterness at NCSoft for being left out in the cold, I can understand why. MMO gaming has become a huge market in recent years. Consider The9 (Nasdaq: NCTY  ) , which has seen blowout earnings as a result of distributing Blizzard Entertainment's hit World of Warcraft. More than five million paid accounts take part in Warcraft as of this writing. There's at least that many comic book readers today in the U.S. alone. Is it really that much of a stretch to believe many of them would at least try Marvel Universe Online?

So look out, World of Warcraft, here comes the Spider-Man ... and the X-Men, and the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four, and -- well, you get the picture.

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Fool contributorTim Beyersdidn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get the skinny on which stocks he owns by checking Tim's Foolprofile. Time Warner is a Stock Advisor selection. Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyis super-powered.


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