The Walt Disney Co. is buying online social-gaming company for $563.2 million, the latest sign the company is becoming a formidable player in the video-game industry.

Disney said Tuesday it is buying Playdom to strengthen its digital-gaming portfolio. The purchase will help bring Disney’s characters, stories and brands to customers in new ways, through Facebook and MySpace.

Playdom, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., has about 42 million monthly active users, who play games such as “Social City” and “Sorority Life.”

The company operates a studio in Chapel Hill, N.C., which is manned largely by executives and designers from Merscom.

Playdom acquired Merscom, a venture-backed social gaming company, in April.

Playdom itself had been on an acquisition binge in recent months before Tuesday’s announcement.

In addition to the purchase price, Playdom shareholders may also earn another $200 million if the company meets certain financial targets.

The deal comes less than a month after Disney announced it bought Tapulous, the maker of the popular iPhone music game “Tap Tap Revenge.” And Disney bought the popular online kids hangout Club Penguin for $350 million in 2007.

Disney is snapping up Playdom amid a boom for online social games, which are played for free by millions of people and make money through ads and, more importantly, sales of virtual goods for small amounts of money.

The leader in the space, by far, is privately held Zynga, which boasts more than 235 million monthly users who play its “Farmville,” ”Mafia Wars” and poker games in Facebook and elsewhere online.

Another social game developer, Playfish, was snapped up by Electronic Arts Inc. late last year for $275 million.

Financial details of the Merscom were not disclosed.

Merscom is currently developing a number of titles, including several with high-profitle partners such as Sea World, National Geographic and NBC Universal.

“Playdom also plans to use the acquisition to leverage the talented North Carolina game development community,” the company said in a statement.

The Research Triangle Park area is the third largest game development hub in the U.S., according to data compiled by Wake County Economic Development.

"We believe that brands matter and that over time, as the social gaming industry matures, games which incorporate content from popular culture and widely respected brands will garner larger market share than those without it," said John Pleasants, Playdom’s chief executive officer. "Merscom has 16 years experience working with content owners and we intend to call on this experience as we move into this promising area of our industry."

Merscom had developed more than 250 games before the acquisition.

“Founders Kirk Owen and Lloyd Melnick and their team of over 20 producers, designers, artists and engineers will lead Playdom’s efforts to partner with artists, entertainment companies and other IP holders to co-develop the next generation of social games,” Playdom said at the time of the sale.

Merscom had been financed by Piedmont Angel Network Two LLC, Paul Sunu and J. Stephan Vanderwoude.

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