Real news from the virtual world:
— ONLINE PLAYGROUNDS: When it comes to massively multiplayer online games for adults, there's "World of Warcraft" and then ... everybody else.
But MMOs for kids are much more competitive, with all the usual suspects (like Disney and Nickelodeon) looking to draw the young-uns into their virtual spaces.
The latest kidvid giant to try its hand at an MMO is Cartoon Network, with its just-released "FusionFall."
It's an engaging adventure that lets players team up with Cartoon Network stars like the Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack and Ben 10, all in an effort to save the world from an invasion of evil clones of the same characters.
Disney has been the most prominent purveyor of kids' MMOs since it launched "Toontown Online" in 2003.
The company currently has three other virtual worlds up and running: "Club Penguin," which Disney acquired in 2007; "Pirates of the Caribbean Online," based on the movie and ride; and "Pixie Hollow," a girl-oriented fairy sim featuring Tinker Bell.
"We're trying to build an online theme park," says Steve Parkis, senior vice president of Disney Online, and the next attraction is "World of Cars," based on the 2006 Pixar hit.
Nickelodeon's "Nicktropolis" has also built a solid base over the last two years, letting kids explore the worlds of SpongeBob SquarePants, Jimmy Neutron and other Nick favorites.
But if you'd prefer an MMO without all the licensed characters, there's Fluid Entertainment's "Emerald Island." Beware, there could be some learning involved here, since the folks at Fluid say it "teaches kids about the environment and eco-friendliness."
— SPORE GALORE: After all the promises made during its development, "Spore" was a bit of a letdown. But that isn't stopping Electronic Arts from trying to turn it into a franchise.
The first big expansion for the PC game comes this spring with "Spore Galactic Adventures," which builds on the space-faring final segment of the original. For kids, EA will have "Spore Creature Keeper," which turns even the most hideous mutants into virtual pets.
There's also "Spore Hero," a standalone adventure for the Wii, and "Spore Hero Arena," a "Pokemon"-like collecting game for the DS. Like it or not, these things will take over the universe.
— PRIZE FIGHTERS: I know you're still angry about "The Dark Knight" getting snubbed by Oscar for a best picture nod. At least the video-game business doesn't shy away from blockbusters; most of the nominees for its prestigious 12th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards were pretty popular too.
Game of the Year nominees are "Fallout 3," "Fable II," "Grand Theft Auto IV," "LittleBigPlanet" and "Left 4 Dead." The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences will announce the winners Feb. 19 at the DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit in Las Vegas.
— NEW IN STORES: 2K Sports heats up baseball's hot stove league with "MLB Front Office Manager" (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3). ... The year's first big media tie-ins are Namco Bandai's "Afro Samurai" (360, PS3) and D3's "Coraline" (Wii, DS, PlayStation 2).