June 4 (Reuters) - Video games maker Electronic Arts is introducing a new $50-a-year games service for players of "Battlefield 3" as it aims to boost its online sales and gain ground against bigger rival, Activision Blizzard, which sells the top-selling title "Call of Duty."
Activision unveiled its own games service last year, "Call of Duty Elite Premium", which offers players extra online features for $60 a year. Unlike Activision which charges per month for its service, EA's "Battlefield Premium" is asking players to pay upfront.
Charging for online play is becoming more popular as video game companies want to generate a steady revenue stream separate from sales of $60 discs after launching a big game a few times a year and squeeze as much money as possible out of their hits.
"Battlefield 3" has sold more than 15 million units since it came out last autumn, making it one of the company's fastest selling games. EA, which recently made a big bet on one most expensive games in its history, "Star Wars: The Old Republic", has seen its shares tumble 36 percent since Jan 1. It said it lost 400,000 "Star Wars" players last quarter.
Members who pay the $50 fee will receive special privileges online including the ability to erase their game statistics, as well as special items in games such as dogtags and knives. Gamers who buy the service on their Sony PlayStation 3 console will get to play new parts of the game two weeks earlier than non-members.
EA, which was due to announce the service ahead of the E3 Game Expo in Los Angeles on Monday, has been aggressive about selling more Internet content for its games. It generated $1.2 billion in digital revenue last year and has said its Internet business will help expand its margins this year.
But making fans pay more for games can be a tricky business. Game blogs lit up with criticism when Activision first announced its online program last year.
"When there's a new way to get money out of you to play games there's always a backlash no matter what. They'll say 'why am I paying 50 dollars for this game I already paid 60 dollars for?'," said Ben Gilbert, senior reporter at the games blog Joystiq.
EA Games executive vice president Patrick Soderlund said that despite the ostensibly steep price tag the online service still offered gamers savings since access to content included in the membership package would cost $25 more if it was purchased separately.
Soderlund said the offer would also keep up momentum for the Battlefield franchise which won't have another full game out until at least 2013.