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Urbaniacs Site Thinking Outside the 'Burbs

The Van Nuys creators of a youth fantasy realm have won a cellular deal. Next are ad space and products.

February 13, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

Like most superheroes, Joshua Fisher lives a dual life.

During the day, Fisher works full time as a development executive for an animation studio and is the father of two young boys. He sits in traffic, pays bills and changes diapers.

At night he becomes "Mayor DaMan," running the streets of Urbanville, setting interest rates, chairing community meetings and overseeing battles.

On a suburban street in Van Nuys, Fisher, along with his next-door neighbor Barry Collier, has created an interactive universe at www.urbaniacs.com filled with hip-hop music and bell-bottomed superheroes.

Over the last year, Fisher, 36, and Collier, 29, have spent their nights and weekends building and developing this quirky virtual rabbit hole -- and tens of thousands have followed them.

Through word of mouth, the site has become a choice destination for teenagers, who register free under names such as Mystical_Moon_Chic and Booyah. The same inexplicable urge that has sent millions to Neopets to foster and feed virtual animals is sending teens in droves into this immersive realm, where they put together a custom avatar, or virtual personality, who does their bidding in Urbanville. Registrants can train their characters in martial arts, spend "urbos" currency on gold tire rims from the pawnshop and write rap songs about their prowess.

Urbaniacs seems to have hit a cultural nerve. In eight months, with no advertising, more than 30,000 individuals have become residents of Urbanville. Last month, 3 million visitors passed through the virtual community to play games and participate in message boards.

Fisher and Collier, who live close enough to share a wireless connection, say they lose about $400 a month maintaining the site. But they are scheming to make Urbaniacs more than just a complicated hobby.

In January, the partners announced a deal with mobile phone publishing company Smartphones Technologies Inc. to take Urbanville to the world of cellular. They want to deliver custom hip-hop and funk ring tones, video clips of Urbaniacs street battles and some of their many Web games to users through cellphone carriers.

"We love doing it, but we've made so many sacrifices to our wives, our families and our sleep patterns that we really want to be able to just do this full time," said Collier, who previously headed the programming department at Neopets Inc., which along with Pokemon trading cards has served as a model for Urbaniacs.

Collier and Fisher say that when they first met in the street in front of their houses, they quickly hit it off and began talking about developing toys together.

"We saw we had the opportunity to create something more than a toy," Fisher said. "But instead of a physical toy, we built a virtual world that the toys could actually live in."

Having created the world, the partners now want to develop concrete products -- such as Moocho Macho Hombre dolls and Lunar Moonbeam Princess T-shirts. And they want the products to be played with and worn in Urbanville as well as the real world.

But some wonder whether Urbaniacs' goofy sensibility can ever evolve into real dollars.

"I'm not sure that I appreciate why somebody needs an avatar," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. "The question for these guys is, what do they want to be when they grow up?"

The partners are confident that their fast-growing audience will translate into an earthly means to make money.

They estimate that 50% of the site's users are between the ages of 13 and 18. The average Urbanville resident spends five hours a month on the site, and Fisher and Collier are constantly evolving this world to keep that resident there.

"As we grow from 30,000 to 300,000 to 3 million, that is a lot of eyeballs, and I know advertisers are looking for ways to connect with these viewers outside of television," Fisher said.

Urbaniacs is one of hundreds of popular sites on the Web that cater to young audiences. But it seems to have combined the social communities of sites such as MySpace or Friendster with the interactive amusement of big online gaming portals such as Pogo.com and GameSpot.

"It's not much of a stretch to go from MySpace or PureVolume to a world where you're represented by an avatar," said Eric Garland, chief executive of Los Angeles market research firm BigChampagne, which analyzes digital media.

Garland sees Urbaniacs as a pioneer in the U.S. in the trend toward online avatar communities, which have been popular in Asia for several years.

"People want more than passive and programmed entertainment. I think it's clear we're going to see more and more varied iterations of this," he said.

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