Is There going nowhere?

Citing profitability concerns, the virtual-world maker is "changing its strategic direction" and reevaluating the consumer side of its operation.

When it was launched late last year, There was considered one of the bolder game ventures in memory. Or at least it would have been if its creators had called it a game instead of insisting on the term "online getaway." Part massively multiplayer online role-playing game, part Friendster, part Sims, the genre-busting persistent world hoped to carve out a unique and profitable niche by appealing to gamers more interested in social interaction, shopping, and chat than they might be in slaying, questing, or doing battle.

Unfortunately, it appears that There's daring experiment may be nearing its end. On Friday, vice president of community Michael Wilson said in a forum post that There is currently undergoing a major reorganization. The game's corporate parent, There, Inc., is now "changing its strategic direction to focus on our technology platform," according to Wilson. As for the future of the There world, the company would "evaluate the consumer service and our ability to meet our financial goals on an ongoing basis."

Translation: The return on investment from licensing the There engine is proving more lucrative than supporting the There game environment. Sources close to the company said a final decision to maintain or shut down the consumer portion of the There business model would be made in the next 90 days.

The company is still accepting new subscribers, but all new memberships now come with a 30-day money-back guarantee on membership fees. And while Therebucks--the coin of There's virtual realm--will still be exchanged in-game, all software updates and bug fixes have been indefinitely suspended. A company spokesperson said There gamers should expect "a slight reduction in services going forward."

However, There shows no signs of letting up its pursuit of business relationships with third parties. Currently, the company has an ongoing deal with the US Army, which is building a massive training simulation on top of the There engine. A There staffer said there was "a lot in the hopper" at the company, indicating that talks were taking place with a number of potential third parties interested in There's core technology. "In 90 days, we could have a completely different story to tell," he said.

Sources at There did not comment on what a closure of There's consumer operations would mean for its deals with Nike, Levi's, and iVillage. Currently, those companies have merchandising agreements under which their products are advertised in There's virtual world.

One industry source told GameSpot that the looming demise of There's consumer side was indicative of a paradigm shift inside the company's boardroom. "The visionaries are gone, and now the venture cap crew is running it--and taking it in another direction." Key members of There's launch team--including the oft-quoted Tom Melcher, Will Harvey, and Amy Jo Kim--are either long gone from the project or remain on the masthead in name only.

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