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Nick Ramps Up Virtual Worlds

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NEW YORK Nickelodeon is building up its virtual worlds in a bid to increase revenue in the real world.

The company is expected to announce Thursday that it is developing an entire virtual world based on the network hit SpongeBob SquarePants that likely would add games, avatars and a strong social-networking component connected to the blockbuster show.

Nick also is expected to disclose that it is developing Monkey World, a social-networking and massive multiplayer game based on an original concept and not tied to any of its existing franchises.

The network also is increasing the interactivity on its Neopets site through a new virtual world called World of Neopia, and will add a paid tier to Nicktropolis, the overarching virtual world that's divided into sections based on Nick television shows and other properties. SpongeBob, Monkey World and Neopia also will have paid tiers when they launch next year.

Nicktropolis currently averages about 1.5 million visitors per month, and execs said the paid tier would preserve that traffic by only charging for additional features like personalization. The company declined to disclose pricing details for the new tier or say what it might charge for various virtual words, though it's likely that pay tiers could be a key part of its revenue strategy.
 
The announcements, timed to the Virtual Worlds Conference this week in New York, amount to a digital development slate for a company that is trying to establish itself as a digital heavyweight. Nick hopes to use these worlds not just as a marketing platform but as a separate business, generating revenue from subscriptions as well as in-world advertising.

The company is in an eyeballs race with Disney, which through acquisition Club Penguin and assets like Toontown Online also targets youngsters with virtual worlds. Penguin charges for subscriptions as well.

Steve Youngwood, evp, digital media at Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group, acknowledged that TV nets have found it difficult to create properties from scratch, as the company was attempting to do with Monkey World.

"Now a virtual world is putting its foot out there as another viable medium, not just to extend brands but to create brands," he said.