One Studio to Rule Them All: Warner Bros. Buys Turbine, Secures All Rights to Tolkien Games

4/20/10Follow @wroush

The Burbank, CA-based Home Entertainment Group of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, a unit of media giant Time Warner (NYSE: TWX), has purchased Westwood, MA-based online game maker Turbine. The companies announced the deal after markets closed tonight.

Turbine is best known for its massively multiplayer online (MMO) game world Lord of the Rings Online, based on the famous series of books from J.R.R. Tolkien. A Time Warner subsidiary, Snowblind Studios, already holds the rights to all console and PC games based on the Tolkien books, and the Turbine acquisition gives the company control of the MMO rights as well. “Now all games rights for the LOTR franchise will be unified under the Warner Bros. shield,” the company said in a statement.

Time Warner did not release financial details of the acquisition, but an unnamed source cited in the Boston Globe put the purchase price at $160 million.

If that price is correct, the Warner Bros. purchase does not represent a massive return for Turbine’s investors. The 16-year-old game company has raised at least four rounds of funding from a group including Polaris Venture Partners, Highland Capital Partners, Tudor Ventures, Columbia Capital, and Granite Global Ventures. Most recently, last August, it collected $6.6 million in the first tranche of a planned $50 million Series D round. Assuming that no more of the $50 million was collected, Turbine’s total venture funding since inception amounts to a bit more than $100 million.

Turbine is also known for its online games Dungeons & Dragons Online, which recently adopted a free-to-play model driven by virtual goods sales, and Asheron’s Call, its first title. Asheron’s Call is still online today, though it’s frequented by a dwindling audience of loyalists who—like Lord of the Rings players—pay about $15 per month for access.

With about 300 employees, Turbine was North America’s largest privately held online game studio prior to the acquisition. Martin Tremblay, president of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, said in a statement that Turbine is “recognized globally for its industry-leading technology, groundbreaking graphics and its unique ability to create and operate massive and persistent online worlds which greatly enhance players’ social gaming experiences. The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online have both been an enormous success for Turbine and we look forward to working with their talented development team to continue creating award-winning online games.”

Turbine president and CEO Jim Crowley, meanwhile, said joining Warner would allow Turbine to reach bigger audiences. “This acquisition is very exciting because it allows us to expand globally while continuing to focus on creating spectacular online games that our loyal fans and players have come to expect,” Crowley said.

Turbine is the second Boston-area company to become part of the Time Warner empire this year. Time Inc. acquired Cambridge, MA-based shopping recommendation site StyleFeeder in January.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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