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AOL, Electronic Arts near games site launch

The Internet giant and the computer game company will soon launch a new Web site in hopes of tapping the growing demand for games on the Internet.

America Online and computer game company Electronic Arts will soon launch a new Web site in hopes of tapping the growing demand for games on the Internet.

A preview of the site, made public earlier this month, offers the first glimpse of an agreement that the two companies inked last November. AOL will receive $81 million over five years for Electronic Arts to power online gaming for the Internet service and its properties, including instant messaging service ICQ, Web portal Netcenter and AOL.com.

The site is expected to launch next month, according to Jeff Brown, an Electronic Arts spokesman. The service is in a test, or beta, mode on Electronic Arts' Web site and AOL's online service.

AOL will introduce a tiered service plan for games once the offer begins. The company will charge a subscription fee for high-end, graphics-heavy games, while some of the more basic games will be free to members, according to AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg.

Many large Net companies have embraced online gaming, which has grown in popularity over the past few years. For instance, Lycos last December acquired Gamesville, adding it to its network of sites. Other sites such as Yahoo, Excite, Go.com, NBCi and Go2Net all host rounds of backgammon, chess and card games on their sites. Companies such as Pogo.com and Uproar center their businesses exclusively on gaming.

Part of the appeal for online gaming is the competition. Players can face off against other people in a wide range of contests, from pinochle to movie trivia.

According to Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Forrester Research, about 25 percent of online households play online games at least once a week. That figure alone has raised eyebrows among Web companies trying to not only attract new customers, but also keep their existing ones.

"The whole landscape has changed quite significantly," Schwartz said. "It has become more of a mainstream occupation."