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Media & Entertainment

Gamer nations: Apps cash in on country-sized player populations

E3 comes back as Among Us and Fortnite boast more people than Indonesia or Pakistan

The online strategy game Among Us boasts 500 million monthly users. (Photo courtesy of Innersloth) 

TOKYO -- More than 10 video game titles boast at least 100 million users worldwide, opening up lucrative secondary markets for in-game purchases that are larger than most nations.

E3, one of the world's biggest gaming conferences hosted in the U.S., opened this weekend as a virtual event after canceling last year. Microsoft stole the show Sunday by announcing that hit title Among Us will be made available for download on Xbox consoles.

The strategy game, in which crewmates and "sus" -- i.e., suspicious -- imposters on a spaceship try to eliminate each other, was previously released on mobile devices, PCs and the Nintendo Switch. Among Us has nearly 500 million users globally, according to a U.S. analytics firm. That is more than the population of the U.S., Indonesia or Pakistan, just to name three countries.

Besides creating new virtual worlds to navigate -- Fortnite players as a whole log 3 billion hours on the combat game each month on average -- these games have spawned markets where consumers spend real money.

The gaming platform Roblox, with its 150 million monthly users, created buzz last month when a digital-only Gucci bag sold for $4,115 -- a higher price than a real one from the Italian luxury brand. The in-game item worn by avatars originally sold for the equivalent of $5 in limited quantities. But the bag quickly sold out, and holders flipped the product on the virtual market until it reached that four-figure price.

Fortnite, developed by Epic Games, has demonstrated the possibilities of the in-game marketplace.

Fortnite's user base spends 3 billion hours on the combat game each month on average. (Photo courtesy of Epic Games)

In April 2020, the rapper Travis Scott held a 10-minute online concert using a Fortnite avatar, drawing 12.3 million people as the pandemic canceled in-person shows. That concert led to bumper sales of merchandise.

Such tie-ins with video games are becoming no-brainers for movie and music distributors. Warner Bros. is among the old-line media companies that places ads for new movies on Roblox.

The number of internet users worldwide doubled from 2 billion in 2010 to 4 billion in 2019, according to Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. A decade ago, the only online platforms that claimed 100 million users were social media giants such as Facebook.

Now, popular games are joining the 100 million-user club, with the number of gamers globally approaching 3 billion, according to Dutch research firm Newzoo.

Driving the growing popularity of video games is the advance in technology. The online maps of some games have areas exceeding Earth's surface.

Games are adopting tech that supports the expanding consumer markets within their virtual spaces. Last February, Microsoft tested a limited-time service in which players can bring in nonfungible tokens to Minecraft. Sellers can credibly claim the item is one of a kind, fetching a high transaction value.

Epic Games sells items tied to characters on the Marvel film series on Fortnite, with part of the proceeds going to the copyright holder. Roblox will allow users to sell in-game items if they pay a 30% service fee. The global gaming market has reached $177.8 billion, according to Newzoo, but the monetization of the virtual market will likely drive further growth. More than half of this market is on mobile devices.

Fortnite is "evolving beyond being a game," said Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney. Such titles have deepened long-distance relationships between players, with some of them even leading to in-game wedding ceremonies of real-world couples.

But as the value of the gaming community climbs, so too do unforeseen problems for developers. Last year, Nintendo expanded its ban on in-game political statements after Joe Biden's presidential election team established a "field office" within Animal Crossing: New Horizon.

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