Saturday, March 3, 2007

Kids Are Having Group Sex ... Online

NEW YORK - Online games have so far mainly revolved around the killing of fantasy monsters. The occasional fight with a Stormtrooper provides some variety.

Companies are now developing a handful of games - though calling them that is a stretch - designed to give players a very different option: making love, not war.

In "Naughty America: The Game," set to launch early this summer, players will assume the forms of alluring but cartoonish people who meet, flirt and have sex with other player characters.

Characters will have their own apartment, but the world will have also have "public sex zones" and themed rooms, said Tina Courtney, the game's producer.

"We've got the cowboy room, the make-your-own-porn room... it doesn't just have to be, 'Your place or mine?' " Courtney said.

Flirting and dating have been rife in online games like "Everquest" and "World of Warcraft" - even leading to marriage between players - despite a lack of romantic or sexu al features in the games.

On the other hand, sex-oriented games like "Playboy: The Mansion" and "VirtuallyJenna" have been single-player games with no online component, and thus no interaction between players.

This new crop of adults-only games would combine the player-player interaction of the online games and the graphic sexuality of the single-player games.

Game designer Brenda Brathwaite, who has been in the industry for more than 20 years, sees the new games as a natural evolution of online life, noting that even in the very simple text-based adventure games of the '80s, virtual eyelashes were batted.

"If there were two people playing, eventually those people would start flirting," said Brathwaite, who is working on a book about sex in video games.

Win, lose, date

Multiplayer sexual games are in the works now, Brathwaite said, because Internet connections have become fast enough to make graphically rich online environments and charact ers possible. For the games that envision players also meeting in real life, mainstream acceptance of dating sites like also helps.

In "Red Light Center," a game already available in a test version, players take the shape of three-dimensional characters in a red-light district. They can talk to one another through headsets and microphones.

"Rapture Online," a game Black Love Interactive LLC is set to launch next year, will also have three-dimensional characters, with a lot of attention paid to anatomical correctness. It will feature a networking component similar to that of a dating site, but it won't be necessary to use that feature.

"I'm hoping couples who are in a distance relationship will be able to use this privately between them," developer Kelly Rued said.

Of course, these games raise the possibility of sexual predators lurking in the chat rooms. Naughty America has plans to let users pay for a background check that scans their crimi nal record. Users who do so would have a special tag in their profiles, identifying them to others as someone who's been vetted.

Success for the new games is far from assured, even though they plan to combine dating, fantasy worlds, sexual chat rooms and pornography - four things that have had enduring online popularity.

A few small companies started down this road a few years ago, but have only attracted a small number of users.

"SeduCity" began in 2001 with a simple two-dimensional graphical interface and has 1,500 users, according to David Andrews at Stratagem Corp., the company behind the game. By comparison, Blizzard Entertainment Inc.'s "World of Warcraft" has more than 5.5 million users.

Ren Reynolds, a British technology consultant and writer, believes that players may prefer to continue flirting in fantasy games that aren't explicitly sexual, or they may believe that three-dimensional environments don't improve on text-based chat rooms.

"It's true that you can do more things with text than you can with visuals," Reynolds said. "Why would I want to log on to a game just to have sex with people? It's kind of a nice idea, but I see it as difficult as a sustainable business model."

With the cost of game design increasing, it can be hard to recruit investors for a new type of game. Republik Games said last week it had been unable to close its latest round of financing, forcing it to suspend work on "Spend the Night," another sex-oriented online game that was to debut this year. The studio laid off its entire production team of 12 people.

Where the girls are

In their favor, sex game developers point to the relative success of "Second Life," a three-dimensional online world that gives its participants freedom to do pretty much anything they want, as long as they can master the game's rather intricate controls.

The game is not designed to be sexual in nature, but about a third of the activi ty in its world, which has about 100,000 users, centers on adult encounters, according to its developers.

"Second Life," from Linden Research Inc., also is popular with women, something sex-game developers believe they will have to duplicate.

"At the risk of sounding incredibly shallow, if you have women in a game, the men will come," Brathwaite said. "A lot of the stuff that they're doing is directly targeting women."

Kyle Machulis, a technology consultant who runs Web journals devoted to sex in games, said developers are trying to draw inspiration from sexually charged fiction that has proven attractive to women, like Harlequin romance novels.

Another hurdle for sex-game developers is distribution. Most retailers won't sell games with the "Adults Only" or "AO" rating. Outrage and lawsuits followed last year's revelation that a sex scene was hidden in Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.'s action game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," which was rated le ss restrictively at "Mature."

Publishers can bypass stores by selling their games online, but exposure on store shelves is still an important part of game marketing. Specialist game stores will stock AO games that are already hits, Rued said, but will keep them behind the counter.

"I'm more interested in places where people are already being carded," Rued said. "We're trying to open up some really weird alternative channels, like liquor stores."

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Software Picks Best Baseball Players

Until recently, when it came time to make player acquisitions and trades, baseball executives had to sift through hundreds of pages of handwritten scouting reports and voicemail messages to piece together player profiles. In 1998, IBM came up with software that could consolidate that information, but now IBM is getting competition from E Solutions, an upstart 30-person IT firm with a program called ScoutAdvisor -- web-based software that slices and dices player information any way a team wants it.

"Baseball has changed -- there are enormous payroll costs," says David Ritterpusch, 63, director of baseball information systems for the Baltimore Orioles, an E Solutions client. Late last year the Orioles wanted to sign a utility infielder with strong third-base skills. Using the software, configured with the Orioles' proprietary formula on how to evaluate third basemen, Ritterpusch searched the entire Major League Baseball roster for candidates. ScoutAdvisor spit out 81 names ranked in order of preference, and the team signed No. 3 on the list, Chris Gomez.

While ten of the 30 major league clubs use IBM's PROS software and another ten use homegrown solutions, E Solutions has quietly captured the remaining third of the league. In December the Anaheim Angels became the latest team to sign up, following three playoff teams from last season: the Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Later this year E Solutions will roll out a version of the software for NFL teams, and a basketball product will follow sometime in 2006.

CEO Richard Nicholas, 42, founded E Solutions in 1998 after two decades as an independent IT contractor. Nicholas hired current partner and E Solutions president Michael Morizio, 48, away from IBM after they had worked together on various tech jobs. The two soon landed contracts to build intranets for the Tampa outposts of clients such as Exxon Mobil. In late 1999, E Solutions, two bloc ks from the Yankees' Florida offices, got a phone call from the team. Owner George Steinbrenner was looking for someone nearby to make minor upgrades to his archaic scouting system.

"We were so cocky," says Nicholas. "The Yankees were still doing manual data entry; their scouts were still faxing reports back. We saw a chance to build something huge for them." But Yankees management, happy with a few small tweaks, wasn't interested in overhauling its entire scouting system.

Back then, only a few general managers were using statistical analysis sophisticated enough to call for special software. This was three years before Moneyball, the bestseller by Michael Lewis, profiled Billy Beane as the first manager to look past the most obvious stats, such as RBIs or batting averages, to evaluate potential players. (Beane realized that a player's on-base percentage -- which counts walks -- was a better measure of his offensive worth.) Most MLB teams were running jur y-rigged systems that barely alleviated the workload for their scouts. Says Amiel Sawdaye, 27, assistant director of amateur scouting for the Red Sox: "Baseball, even with its $300 million -- plus organizations, has always been five to ten years behind Fortune 500 businesses."

In August 2000 two reps from E Solutions flew to Long Beach to attend the Area Code Games, a regional scouting event for high school players. E Solutions was armed with software inspired by what Morizio had seen while fixing the Yankees' program. "We walked by the press box and told some reporter that we had a newfangled scouting system," says Morizio. Within 30 minutes E Solutions was surrounded by scouts from the Oakland Athletics and the San Diego Padres. A month later company engineers rewrote the program to match specific requests made by both teams. ("Nobody in baseball wants anyone else to know how they work," says Nicholas.) In early 2003, Moneyball was released, and a growing numbe r of teams -- including Boston, the Cleveland Indians, and the Los Angeles Dodgers -- started hiring Wall Street consultants to help them crunch numbers and select players at the right price. E Solutions was already developing a reputation for excellent customer service -- scouts could call project manager Mike Lane to request tweaks and the changes would be made before they got off the phone. By the beginning of the 2003 season the company had signed up six clubs.

About 80% of ScoutAdvisor looks and feels the same for every team. For less than $75,000 a year, a team gets 14 modules that show data such as game-day reports (a reconstruction of players' performances in the organization's major- and minor-league games), characteristics of international players, and contract information for all MLB players. IBM's PROS provides similar modules, but sells them separately at prices ranging from $35,000 to $50,000. A PROS solution with all the modules runs about $ 150,000, and after the first year, IBM charges by the hour for any tweaks to the software. "We will make any change at any time," says Tony Thallman, a project manager with IBM Sports Marketing, noting that IBM prefers to work with a team's front office rather than with the scouts themselves. "We guide the front office and try to eliminate changes they want to make after deployment."

E Solutions' customized approach is more labor-intensive, but Nicholas says it's worth it. "We've customized this software for one client 30 times," he says. "Those hundreds of data points can be daunting, but it helps that we live and breathe baseball."

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