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Turbine stakes its online game turf

Lord of the Rings battling Warcraft

Turbine Inc. of Westwood now has the second-most popular massively multiplayer online game. Turbine Inc. of Westwood now has the second-most popular massively multiplayer online game.

Blizzard Entertainment Inc.'s World of Warcraft dominates the online computer gaming market, but is facing tough new competition from Turbine Inc. of Westwood.

Turbine said this week that its Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) game is now the second-most popular massively multiplayer online game, after World of Warcraft, which claims 9 million subscribers. Turbine said that LOTRO subscribers have created 4 million fantasy characters since the game was introduced in April.

Privately held Turbine refuses to reveal the number of actual subscribers, who pay $50 for game software and a monthly subscription fee of around $15. But since each LOTRO subscription lets the player create up to five characters, the game has attracted at least 800,000 subscribers in just four months. That would give Turbine, and its publishing partner Midway Games Inc. of Chicago, subscription revenue of at least $12 million a month or $144 million a year, plus $40 million for the game software sold so far.

"That's an impressive number," said Michael Pachter, game industry analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. "We knew the brand was going to appeal to a lot of people and we knew these people were good developers, but we didn't know if they were going to execute. This is good."

Pachter believes the market for massive online games like LOTRO and World of Warcraft is relatively small, because they are complex and require players to spend many hours online. He said many of the new LOTRO players are probably World of Warcraft veterans who want to sample the new game. And Pachter predicted LOTRO's growth might come at World of Warcraft's expense. "I would think that as Lord of the Rings grows, you will see a slowing of growth in Warcraft," he said.

Not that World of Warcraft is on the wane. An expansion pack, titled The Burning Crusade, went on sale in January, and sold nearly 2.4 million copies in a single day. But Turbine hopes to keep building LOTRO's subscriber base by providing a free seven-day trial subscription in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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