Gamer's site for gawking

June 01, 1998|By James Ryan | James Ryan,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Virtual Pet Cemetery (www.lavamind.com/pet.html) is one of the more oddly compelling Web-side attractions to have sprung up along the Internet.

A million or so visitors find their way there each year to gawk at the eulogies posted in loving memory of Misty the Brown Mutt or Moretta and Her Kittens. Most visitors probably are unaware that they have been flagged down by a larger-than-life roadside attraction, like a Paul Bunyan statue. Once there, perhaps the tourist will stop by the gift shop and make a purchase.

At least that's the hope of Steven Hoffman and Naomi Kokubo, a husband-and-wife design team in their 30s who operate the cemetery as a come-on for Lava Mind, their home-based company in San Francisco.

Lava Mind is best known for a series of zany CD-ROM business simulation games for PCs, including "Gazillionaire" and "Zapitalism," which receive high marks from reviewers for playability, and from educators for instructional value.

(In "Gazillionaire," players putter from planet to planet in funky spaceships buying and selling oddball commodities in an effort to outwit alien competitors. "Zapitalism" is a more advanced variation played out in a tropical archipelago complete with monks and pirates.)

Despite the games' popularity, selling them has required creativity in the past few years, as the industry has consolidated around a handful of big publishers and shoot-'em-up action titles such as "Quake" from Id Software. Small publishers such as Lava Mind with niche titles like "Gazillionaire" have been all but squeezed out of retail stores.

"It's impossible these days for a small, self-published game to get shelf space, no matter what the genre," said Elizabeth Crocker, publisher of Happy Puppy, a game review and resource Web site.

So Lava Mind, which had been struggling with its retail-distribution network, decided to shift to a marketplace with infinite shelf space: the Internet. This year, sales on the World Wide Web, averaging about $6,000 a month, have been their primary source of income.

"It gives us a good feeling to know if somebody really wants to get our game, they can," Hoffman said.

Though it is difficult to gauge how much of the game sales can be attributed to the Virtual Pet Cemetery, it is worth noting that the pet site receives three times the traffic of the Lava Mind home page itself.

Whatever the leaping-off point, customers who have discovered Lava Mind through the Internet include prison inmates and a parochial middle school in Albany, Ga., which recently ordered 14 copies of "Gazillionaire" for a class in personal finance.

And when the authors of a top-selling introductory college business text, "Understanding Business," fell in love with "Zapitalism" after stumbling upon it on the Internet, their publisher, Irwin/McGraw-Hill, bought 1,000 copies to send to professors to gauge their interest. The response was so favorable that the firm is considering bundling the CD with the book.

"What got me excited was the combination of good business sense and their sense of humor," Susan McHugh, co-author of the textbook, said of "Zapitalism" and its creators. "I tried it out on my own kids last fall, and they're still playing with it. They came in the other day and said, 'Mom, it tricked us. We're learning about business.' "

Lava Mind estimates that 150,000 copies of "Gazillionaire" have been sold.

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