|A character from Lord of the Rings Online.|
The millions who play Internet-based adventure games like World of Warcraft don't just log on to fight orcs and demons. The games also help them hang out with old friends and meet new ones. They're social networking services - Facebook with broadswords.
But how to preserve these gaming friendships when the players log off?
Cambridge entrepreneur Jon Radoff thinks he has the solution: Guild Cafe, a free social site for online gamers.
Backed by cash from Boston's IDG Ventures, Guild Cafe is a place where players of many different online games can meet and chat.
"There's tens of millions of players of massively multiplayer games alone," Radoff said. "First-person shooters and console-based games and things of that ilk are a much larger market."
If Guild Cafe can sign up enough of these avid players, it will attract a flood of advertising revenue from the world's leading game companies.
"If it's done properly, it's the kind of business that could be extremely viable," said Michael Gartenberg, an Internet analyst for JupiterResearch LLC in New York.
"What you see in the online gaming world today is that it's really the community aspects that are driving those properties," said Jon Karlen, partner at IDG Ventures. "A lot of what keeps people with those games is the fear of losing those people they enjoy playing with every day."
Karlen said that Guild Cafe is for players who want their friendships to outlive the popularity of a particular game. He declined to say how much his firm has invested in Guild Cafe, describing it only as "a reasonably sized seed investment."
Radoff's a gamer himself. In 1991, he created Legends of Future Past, one of the first online multiplayer games. Later in the decade, he launched software maker Eprise Corp. and successfully took it public.
Meanwhile, Radoff's wife, Angela, also an avid gamer, created her own "guild" of players - a group that joins together inside games to fight battles against other groups. Her guild, called Section One, has grown to about 1,000 members, and plays several popular online games, including Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft, and Guild Wars.
The difficulty of keeping tabs on so many people playing so many different games gave Radoff the idea for Guild Cafe.
"In building a group this big, there was a lot of confusion about how you organize them," he said. For instance, some members might stop playing Star Wars Galaxies to concentrate on Guild Wars. "You'd end up losing track of them," Radoff said.
Guild Cafe solves this problem by serving players of many different games. Guild members can use the site to check on a buddy who hasn't logged in to World of Warcraft lately. They can also contact rival guilds, swap friendly insults, and set up head-to-head matches.
Individuals who join the site can take quizzes that try to identify particular types of gamers, to help match them with the right competitors. For instance, some players like to focus on commercial tasks, like making virtual products for sale inside the games. Others would rather just pick a fight. Radoff said that Guild Cafe will eventually have a suite of tools to help gamers find the challenges they seek.
And because lots of games are represented at the site, members can get information on titles they haven't tried yet. A World of Warcraft fanatic, for instance, could chat with Lord of the Rings Online players before subscribing to the game.
Gartenberg said Guild Cafe could become a popular promotional tool for game vendors. Along with on-site advertisements, companies could offer discounts to players who sign up for their games at the Guild Cafe site, with Guild Cafe getting a referral fee for each signup.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.