Sci Fi Ratchets Up Web Games Quotient

Sci Fi Channel (to be known as SyFy starting in July) is doubling down on online gaming as it continues its much publicized brand evolution. Over the next several months, the network plans to beef up its gaming output, particularly in the burgeoning casual massively multiplayer online (MMO) games space, a middle ground between deeply immersive, subscription-based titles like World of Warcraft and easy-to-play-in-short-sessions games like Tetris.

In the works are at least four new casual MMOs produced by Bigpoint, a European game publisher that Sci Fi parent NBC Universal invested in last year. Those games will live in Game Center, the successful game-centric channel introduced in March 2008.

According to Craig Engler, senior vp and general manager of Sci Fi Digital, Game Center now delivers more page views than any other channel on, reaching roughly 500,000 unique users per month ( draws 3.5 million uniques overall, according to its internal numbers). Besides casual MMOs, Engler said that Game Center will roll out about a dozen new casual games over the next few months, bringing its total to over 30.

“Gaming is one our big focuses,” said Engler, pointing to the network’s previously announced partnership with Trion World Network to develop both a series and MMO game that are intertwined. “This [casual MMO expansion] sort of exemplifies our new brand positioning. We’re now more than just a network. When you see a SyFy game, you’ll know it comes from our brand, it’s not just a science fiction game.”

To date, has had success with advertisers, particularly videogame brands, running banner and pre-roll video ads prior to its casual games. But Engler sees even more interesting ad potential with the types of games produced by Bigpoint. The German-based company, which distributed a pair of games on last year, specializes in producing free multiplayer games that can be played in a Web browser and are funded by microtransactions rather than subscriptions. Players can purchase a variety of virtual items in these games, often for less than a dollar.

Down the road, Engler said that sponsors could underwrite these purchases—such as helping a user make a jump to a new level or bolster their character’s strength.

Adam Kasper, senior vp, director of digital media at Media Contacts, said he believes Sci Fi’s push into casual MMOs is a sound strategy that could help the site reach beyond the hardcore gamer demographic. “This takes advantage of the convergence of two major trends: casual games and MMOs,” said Kasper. “This opens the category up to a much wider audience potentially.”

And while his clients have yet to advertise with Game Center, Kasper said he likes the concept of ad-supported microtransactions in games, at least in theory. “For brands, the key is to have it be easy to execute,” he said. “And it has to fit. Games are not for everyone. But there’s absolutely a place for it.”