Time for TimeSink?

Amidst all the turmoil of the current online game service wars, one company thinks it has come up with a novel solution to winning those wars.

Amidst all the turmoil of the current online game service wars, one company thinks it has come up with a novel solution to winning those wars. Or at least carving out a nice chunk of the online gaming pie for itself.

That company? Pennsylvania-based TimeSink Inc., founded by PSINet veterans who helped in building the structure of the Internet.

TimeSink's solution? Free games. Playable for free.

"What our goal is, and what we are moving toward," said Doug Sherman, marketing product manager for TimeSink's first offering, a game called WarSport, "is building a game that is very similar to what you would find in a retail product, but is based on Internet culture. That means it's free. That means that it's multiplayer; there is no single-player version of WarSport. And that means it gives you instant gratification - the game is instantly accessible via a download."

(That download takes up to 45 minutes over a 28.8-baud modem, but it is perhaps quicker than making a trip to the local Egghead, Software Etc. or CompUSA. The game is also available on CD - to be found in selected computer magazines, Sherman said.)

WarSport has been in an open beta test format since June in the free area of the MPlayer online gaming service. In the strategy combat game, players control teams of 50 robots that attempt to score points by eliminating their opponents, capturing opponents' territories, and for crossing the game's equivalent of the 50-yard line. Each WarSport bout runs 30 minutes and can support up to eight players.

Sherman said the beta test is attracting approximately 1000 new gamers a week to the MPlayer site. The fact that TimeSink is running the Ultimate PC Battlestation Sweepstakes through Dec. 31 certainly isn't dissuading people from stopping by. (Every time players play WarSport - up to five times a day - on MPlayer through Dec. 31, they're registered in a drawing for a Pentiumcomputer, along with weekly modem and daily T-shirt giveaways.)

Sherman says the company expects an official launch of the game, which he insists TimeSink will continue to update even after its launch, in January.

Which begs the question: If this game is free, and playing it is free, then how is TimeSink, which, it is reported, has invested $1 million in WarSport, going to make its money? And that questions brings us to a magical little word - interstitial.

That word refers to advertising, advertising that pops up on your computer as you're viewing a web site, or in this case, as you're playing a game. Advertising - and interstitials - are how TimeSink expects to earn its money. WarSport seems perhaps uniquely suited to the interstitial. The game takes place inside an arena, on the walls of which TimeSink will place clickable advertising banners. The WarSport scoreboard "Jumbotron" will feature animated advertisements as well. And during the game's halftime, those full-screen interstitials will appear, to occupy gamers' attentions when they aren'tbusy plotting the course of action for the game's second half or forming alliances with other players.

"We have opportunities for advertising in-game as well as in pre- and post- game stuff," Sherman said.

This isn't the first time interstitials have been used. Berkeley's You Don't Know Jack netshow features advertisements between rounds. But in TimeSink's case, the payoff is even greater for gamers, who don't have to buy a CD in order to play the game.

On the whole, it would seem to be a plus for gamers. Web sites are already crawling with online advertisements, and putting up with a little streaming audio ad might be worth the price of not having to plunk down another US$49.99 for another game.

TimeSink has a second title in development as well, a graphic adventure along the lines of Riven or Myst, tentatively titled Ancient Magic.

No word yet on how TimeSink plans to incorporate advertising in that game.

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