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AOL looks to games for subscriber boost

The company expands its offerings with a service that gives AOL subscribers exclusive access to new online games and downloadable demos from leading game publisher Electronic Arts.

America Online is the latest Internet company to turn to the thriving game industry for an economic boost.

The company announced a new gaming service Tuesday, AOL Games First Play, offering AOL subscribers exclusive access to new online games and downloadable demo versions of upcoming PC games. Subscribers will also receive discounts and other offers on promoted games.

AOL has increasingly turned to content to boost its subscriber numbers, as advertising revenue continues to dwindle. The company earlier launched First Listen and First View, free services offering AOL subscribers exclusive previews of upcoming music and movie releases, many from corporate sibling Time Warner.

Most of the content for First Play will come from leading game publisher Electronic Arts, which pledged at least $81 million to AOL in 1999 for the online giant to promote EA's retail games and its advertising-supported Pogo.com online-gaming site. The first title to be offered as part of the First Play service will be an online version of EA's "Need for Speed" series of racing games.

Other Internet companies have turned to the growing game industry to support premium paid services. Yahoo has debuted several premium game services this year, including online rental of popular PC games and a premium version of its online card and board games. Dedicated game sites such as IGN and GameSpot, a division of News.com publisher CNET, have also launched paid premium services.

Publishers used to widely distribute free game demos to build interest in upcoming titles, but the files have become valuable properties as interest in PC gaming has grown and Web sites trying to appeal to gamers look for exclusive content, said P.J. McNealy, an analyst for research firm Gartner. "Gamers want the latest and greatest," McNealy said. "The more exclusive content game sites can offer, the easier it's going to be for them to differentiate themselves."