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MSN Messenger's got game

Microsoft launches a new games service for its instant messaging software, a move that comes on the heels of updated software from America Online's ICQ.

Microsoft on Thursday introduced a new subscription service for playing games using its MSN Messenger instant messaging software.

The move, which coincides with the release of an upgrade to the software, comes on the heels of a new version of America Online's rival ICQ instant messaging program, which also features games.

MSN Messenger, ICQ, AOL's AIM and Yahoo's IM program are competing to attract millions of computer users who want the ability to communicate online at quick speeds, without many of the hassles of e-mail exchanges.

Microsoft said its MSN Instant Games Clubhouse initially will offer four head-to-head games: "Wheel of Fortune," a word game called "Upwords," an online billiards game and a version of chess. Customers in the United States can play all the games for free as part of a 14-day trial.

Monthly subscriptions for "Wheel of Fortune," billiards and "Upwords" cost $4.99 per game, while a monthly subscription to chess costs $3.99. Microsoft also is offering introductory price discounts for year-long subscriptions.

"The popularity of online gaming is booming, with nearly 50 million people already jumping on the Internet instead of pulling a boxed game from their closet when they want to play games," Blake Irving, Microsoft corporate vice president, said in a statement.

MSN Messenger already offers seven free games including checkers.

Microsoft said the new "clubhouse" games offer the ability to keep track of wins and losses and ranking among friends. In addition, players who subscribe to a clubhouse game can play it with any of their MSN Messenger contacts in the United States, whether or not those friends subscribe to the game.

Microsoft said its free IM service has about 120 million users each month. The company's new IM software is called MSN Messenger 6.2. Customers need MSN Messenger 6.1 or 6.2 to play MSN Instant Games.

Earlier this week, AOL's ICQ subsidiary released ICQ 4.0, which is designed to let consumers personalize the service and allow developers to access the software's application programming interfaces. New features include a multifunction message window, birthday alerts, new games and the capability to forward messages to cell phones.

ICQ has about 20 million audited monthly users, mostly in Europe, Asia and South America, an AOL representative said. AIM, by contrast, counts about 36 million monthly users, mostly in the United States, the representative added.