| NEW YORK
NEW YORK (Reuters) For an extra $25 per year, fans of Electronic Arts sports titles will be able to download video games three days before they hit stores, a move that should boost EA's digital sales.
EA, like its rival Activision Blizzard, aims to sell more digital content to consumers, which have higher margins than games on discs. As publishers invest more in each game, they also want to squeeze as much money as possible out of their top franchises.
EA's new program called "Season Ticket" will let consumers get access to five sports games--its soccer, golf, hockey, pro-football and college football titles. Users will be able to download the games over the Internet on Microsoft's Xbox and Sony Corp PlayStation systems three days before they are out in stores.
The catch is that after the three days are up, the games expire online and consumers have to buy the physical disc to continue playing. This ensures retailers such as GameStop and Best Buy get a cut of games sales.
"This gives you access to an early version but you still have to go to retail or order it online," said EA Sports' President Peter Moore in an interview.
Making fans pay more for games that already cost $60 can be a tricky business. Game blogs lit up with criticism when Activision said in late May it would charge players of its top seller "Call of Duty" for exclusive services online.
Moore said that fans should not be turned off by paying a one-time fee of $24.99, which gives early access to all five games, since the program will appeal to ardent fans. He stressed that consumers who wait for the games to come out in stores will not miss out any content.
"This is not for everybody. This is for a hardcore EA Sports consumer that buys multiple games a year and enjoys getting their hands on games before anyone," he said.
The package also offers buyers a 20 percent discount on all extra content that can be downloaded online, such as a new course for "Tiger Wood PGA Tour." The program will launch at the end of August to go along with the release of "Madden NFL."
GameStop, the world's largest video game chain has partnered with EA Sports to market the program.
Tony Bartel, GameStop's president, said in an interview that gamers getting early access to digital versions of games will drum up interest in the new titles and help his company sell more copies once they launch.
"It's encouraging that fans get to go in and test all the games three days early so they get a good feel for what the game entails and then clearly they will go to retail and purchase that game," Bartel said.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker, editing by Dave Zimmerman)