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Fun and games fuel fight for online dollar
Fox, MasterCard among firms touting 'interactive extras'

"I shall return." -- Gen. Douglas MacArthur

With apologies to the general, those may be the three most important words in the world of commerce. Little wonder then that Web-based businesses are scrambling these days: The race is on to capture the fancy of the surfing consumer.

"What companies are looking for now are interactive extras - games and features to keep people coming back," says Jack D. Smith, who founded PeopleSpace Inc. to help online businesses stand out in an increasingly saturated marketplace. "Our niche is community development and retention through entertainment."

PeopleSpace, based in technology-minded Charlottesville, Va., has been lending its creative expertise to the Web sites of some high-profile clients, including Sesame Street, Fox Sports, MasterCard, Service Merchandise and iVillage.

"The concept behind PeopleSpace is 'people plus games equals community,'" says Smith, borrowing from his company's motto.

PeopleSpace creates trivia games and custom "gamelets," which Smith describes as "single-player action games with a small download," tailored to a company's product line and Web site. There also are multiplayer gamelets, which tend to create what Smith repeatedly emphasizes: community.

Community, of course, implies a gathering of people with a common interest or interests. The challenge for online businesses is to create that sense of community around their Web sites.

"Providing top-notch interactive community features and services is a key element in growing a successful business on the Web," says Tony Morelli of iVillage. "PeopleSpace is a long-time partner of iVillage. They have tailored their products to fit the integrity of our community and targeted interests of our membership. Our Baby Name Finder (developed by PeopleSpace) is a favorite among members of our parenting communities."

As it is, many companies spend $100 to $150 - and, sometimes, considerably more - to draw a single person to their Web site. PeopleSpace aims to cut that cost dramatically by helping to bring first-time visitors back again. And again, and again

"We know we're not the only game in town," says Rich Libero of Fox Sports. "Everybody in sports media has their own Web site where you can get scores and highlights, features, and what have you. To build a following, you've got to offer something more, something interactive to get folks involved with your site. That's the sort of thing we had with the hockey game PeopleSpace did for us. It was a cool little hook for our Web site."

"That's what we're about," says Smith. "If your product is sports, we'll make you a sports-related gamelet. If you make bug killers, we'll do a gamelet where you've got to zap the spiders with a spray can before they bite you. If your product is soft drinks, maybe we've got your bottle zapping heat demons, and every time you're hit, the level in your bottle drops. The point is, it hardly matters what your product or service is."

Smith knows both the market and the technology. He also is founder and president of Chaos NewMedia Ltd., and has served in management positions with Kesmai Corporation (whose Web operation was launched by Smith) and GEnie, the former online service of General Electric. The common threads are technology and fun. Smith has married the two, and the result is PeopleSpace.

"We have the tools and the creative talent to bring fun to your Web site," Smith says. "And, of course, where fun goes, people follow."

-- 11/10/98 --