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Yahoo tests paid game service

The company is experimenting with a premium service for online games as Web and game companies look for ways to make money from popular but low-profit ad-supported games.

Yahoo is experimenting with a premium paid service for online games as Web and game companies look for ways to make money from popular but low-profit advertising-supported games.

A notice on Yahoo Games invites customers to sign up for testing of the Yahoo Games All-Star Package. The paid service would not add any new games to Yahoo's current lineup, which includes checkers, blackjack, hearts and others. Instead, subscribers would get access to additional services such as the ability to host tournaments and game leagues, engage in voice chat with fellow players, and eliminate pop-up ads.

One of the most significant new features would be the ability to create private chat rooms with access limited to players the subscriber wished to communicate with, bypassing "the riffraff in the public rooms," according to the Yahoo notice. The chat rooms of most online games are virtual free-for-alls, with players able to chime in on anything from game mechanics to sexual innuendos.

Proposed fees for the service would be $7.95 a month, $19.95 per quarter or $59.95 for a full year.

A Yahoo representative confirmed the test but had no details on the trial service. "Yahoo beta tests features and products on a regular basis to ensure the highest standard of consumer quality," the representative said.

While analysts and industry figures have touted the potential of online gaming for years, the market currently is in flux. Online role-playing games such as "EverQuest" and "Ultima Online," have attracted hundred of thousands of customers willing to pay monthly fees for access to huge virtual worlds, but the audience for such games is thought to be limited.

Card games and other simple activities offered by Yahoo, Electronic Arts' and other sites attract more of a mass-market audience, but it's hard to make money from such games, which are largely advertising-supported.

see related story: David Cole, president of market researcher DFC Intelligence, had doubts about Yahoo's approach. "It's been very hard to find a middle ground, to get people to pay for a higher-quality version of the mass-market games," he said.

The private chat room feature makes some sense on the surface, Cole said, but anyone who spends a lot of time with online games has already learned how to deal with off-topic posts.

IDC gaming analyst Schelley Olhava said that while she wasn't familiar with the trial Yahoo service, it's not out of place with what other online services are considering.

"I think there's going to be a lot of experimentation about how to get money from online gaming," Olhava said. "Some of it will be coming up with new content; some of it may be figuring out better ways to deliver what people already like."