LOS ANGELES (CNN/Money) -
More than a year after launching the online component of the Xbox, Microsoft has finally brought the gaming industry's largest publisher on board.
Microsoft and Electronic Arts announced Monday that EA Xbox games would begin supporting online play in July, with the release of "NCAA Football 2005." All totaled, EA plans to release at least 15 Xbox Live enabled games this year, including "Madden NFL 2005," "Tiger Woods," "NASCAR," "Goldeneye: Rogue Agent" and "Battlefield: Modern Combat.
"I know it a while for us to get here but EA is committed to creating great experiences to help [Microsoft] grow the Xbox Live community," said Don Mattrick, president of EA worldwide operations. "The big winners of this are the people who love games,"
|Halo 2 will be released Nov. 9.
Microsoft also announced "Halo 2" the eagerly awaited sequel to the system's best selling game, would hit store shelves on Nov. 9. Over 4.5 million copies of the original "Halo" were sold. The internally-developed sequel will allow players to compete with each other via Xbox Live.
EA has long supported online play on the PlayStation 2, but has refused to support Xbox Live, citing concerns with Microsoft's business model. In the past, Microsoft has not paid publishers a bounty for online subscribers that play their games online.
Last September, EA CFO Warren Jensen told a Banc of America conference "we're not about to support a model where the content provider does not get paid for the content provided."
Microsoft would not comment on the specific terms of Monday's deal.
The lack of an EA presence on Xbox Live has helped Sony grow its own online unit. EA's latest Madden game alone attracted nearly 500,000 online players last year.
The two companies signaled a shift was coming in early April, though, when Microsoft cancelled its entire 2004 line-up of internally developed sports games.
EA's sports titles regularly trounce the competition in sales. "Madden 2004" sold more than 5.5 million copies, as opposed to under 160,000 copies for "NFL Fever 2004," according to The NPD Group.
The likely breakthrough that brought EA (ERTS: Research, Estimates) onto Xbox Live was a shift in the way Microsoft handles its online audience. Previously, all Xbox Live players were kept in a closed network, owned by Microsoft, which was the centerpiece for the company's ranking system.
Recently, the company began allowing partners to run their own servers in an Xbox Live environment, giving EA control of leagues, tournaments and pay-to-play functions on their own games.
Launched in November 2002, Xbox Live has been quite successful for Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates), signing up just shy of 1 million subscribers, each paying roughly $50-70 per year to compete and play co-operatively with other Xbox owners. The system's features and quality have received widespread praise.
Sony's (SNE: Research, Estimates) online service for the PlayStation 2 (which does not carry a monthly fee) has attracted 850,000 users.
To further boost the appeal of Xbox Live to a widespread audience, Microsoft also plans to launch a line of arcade, card and puzzle games this fall. The games will include classic arcade titles such as "Dig Dug" and "Galaxian" and more recent mainstream hits such as PopCap Games' "Bookworm". Distribution and price have yet to be determined.
An Xbox Live subscription will be required to play the games.
Bringing in card and classic arcade games won't help Microsoft attract core gamers, but could appeal to older adults and women, who traditionally play such games on the PC.
Converting that audience could be a tremendous boost for Xbox Live. A February study by Digital Marketing Services for AOL found that women over 40 are the most active players of online games, beating men and teens. Women in this group, the study found, averaging 9.1 hours of online play time per week.