AOL Plays Games in New AIM, Confirms Video Plans

America Online is making big changes to its AOL Instant Messenger IM client, in an effort to expand the appeal of its popular IM system while making money at the same time.

The company said today that it would add online games to the client, enabling users to play each other. AOL also said it is just months away from launching controversial videoconferencing services within the client.

AIM Games will debut in AIM version 5.5, which is currently in public beta. Some of the titles will be available for free to users, as they’re being sponsored by advertisers — Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Inc., for instance, is offering two games to promote its dnL drink.

Other games, however, will require users to pay before downloading. For time being, AOL offers two free invites per Buddy and a handful of trial plays, which helps to promote the service.

Available titles at present include action games Blasterball 2 and Blackhawk Striker, and two sponsored puzzle games, dnL Reversi and dnL Checkers.

The introduction of games bring the AIM client up to parity with rival offerings. Microsoft recently debuted a new version of MSN Messenger that incorporates multiplayer games, while Yahoo! has offered such features since 2001 as part of its IMVironments “skinning” feature.

AOL’s move to add streaming video messaging into the AIM client also would help America Online compete with features offered by its two main rivals. (Yahoo! Messenger has offered video since 2001, while Microsoft began offering it through a partnership with Webcam vendor Logitech earlier this year; Microsoft launched an improved service as part of the new version of MSN Messenger.)

America Online expects to deliver a new client with those features by the end of the year or shortly into 2004, and into its flagship AOL service — which has its own, built-in IM client — shortly thereafter.

The company received the green light for such a service just last month, when the Federal Communications Commission removed a two-year-old restriction that had prohibited AOL from offering advanced, high-speed Internet services — like videoconferencing — over its IM network, which was and remains the largest in the industry.

When it issued the ban in 2001 as part of its approval of the AOL-Time Warner merger, the FCC had said that it would lift the ban if the media and telecommunications giant could prove to the FCC that it no longer was the “dominant” player in IM — which the company did successfully — or if it AOL opened its service to interoperability with other players.

AIM will likely receive video first, due to the larger amount of technical work that needs to be done in the AOL service’s IM client.

Fun and Games in AIM

The first batch of AIM Games’ titles use a graphics engine developed by Redmond, Wash.-based WildTangent, which also has done promotional work in the past for other AOL Time Warner siblings. Through the agreement, WildTangent will provide the games, as well as backend systems, leader boards and billing.

More titles are expected in the near future — and potentially, from other game publishers besides WildTangent, because AOL’s agreement with the firm is not exclusive. For instance, Electronic Arts would seem a likely candidate, since it already has a game distribution agreement with America Online. But spokespeople would say little about such plans.

“We have the open option to initiate other options and solutions into AIM, as far as games are concerned,” said AOL spokesman Derick Mains.

It’s also possible that the service could be more fully extended to users of the company’s flagship AOL service, with its own IM client. At present, however, the IM-based gaming offering is primarily targeted toward AIM users: subscribers to the company’s AOL service can join multiplayer games with others, but can’t initiate the games.

Mains said the feature is something the company is considering deploying to AOL members, but the complexity of integrating games in to the IM client that’s built into the AOL service mean that such an effort would require a longer development time.

The move comes as AOL is looking to paid services like these as a way to monetize its huge — and free — public IM network.

“It’s an opportunity for us to add these premium services that we feel will resonate with our users,” Mains said. ” We’re designing a new service that uses online gaming, and makes ongoing gaming better through presence. Two of the most popular things that people do online is IM and play games, and here we’re merging the two, so we think that the combination will resonate with users and that it’ll drive revenue for the company.”

When AIM Games launches officially, it will be the second fee-based consumer product introduced in connection with its IM network. AOL began charging users to download customizable skins — called AIM Expressions — in spring.

In addition to games, the upcoming AIM 5.5 client, currently in build #3415, also features an enhancement to AIM Expressions, enabling users to send customized sounds to each other as part of their selected Expression package.

The new version of AIM also includes minor user interface tweaks. For one thing, the AIM Buddy List now indicates whether IM forwarding is enabled or disabled — a feature that redirects IMs to mobile phones if a user is offline. Previously, users could only check by viewing an AOL Web site.

Again taking a cue from other IM clients, such as MSN Messenger and Trillian, the new AIM 5.5 beta also now offers pop-up notifications of Buddies’ logging in or out, going “Away” or idle, in the bottom-right corner of the screen.

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of

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