When will Wii play online?

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Nintendo Co. Ltd.'s 7974.OS Wii video game console was the surprise hit of the holiday season, but fans are wondering when it will match rivals Microsoft and Sony by offering a way to compete in cyberspace.

A file photo of Nintendo's "Wii" game console and control unit in Tokyo June 7, 2006. REUTERS/Issei Kato

The Wii is online-ready right out of the box, thanks to its built-in WiFi. Its Virtual Console, which allows users to download classic Nintendo games from the Web, has been a stunning success with more than 1.5 million games downloaded by the end of the holidays, according to the company.

But competitive online play is not among the many features available to Wii gamers, even though more than 50 percent of Wii consoles in the United States are connected online.

In early March, rumors began circulating on popular video game Web sites that Nintendo was not allowing any third-party video games to include online multiplayer features in 2007, drawing the ire of some fans who want to break out of their living rooms and take their Wii gaming prowess global.

“With every month, online multiplayer becomes more and more important,” said Bryan Intihar, an editor at Electronic Gaming Monthly.

“As a Wii owner, I don’t know what they’re waiting for.”

Intihar said game developers don't even have the tools to create online multiplayer games right now. Considering the proven success of online play, particularly for rival Microsoft Corp.'s MSFT.O Xbox 360, Intihar thinks Nintendo isn't taking advantage of its momentum.

“Developers are still waiting for Nintendo to tell them what to do,” said Intihar.

While Nintendo leaves fans of online play in the dark, Microsoft continues to add services to its Xbox Live online gaming service that has been the key differentiating feature for its Xbox 360, attracting more than 6 million subscribers.

Sony Corp. 6758.TSNE.N has said it will soon jump into the ring with a new online service called Home for the PlayStation Network on its new PlayStation 3.

Despite its lack of online multiplayer features, the Wii remains the top-selling console on the market. Consumers bought 335,000 Wii units in February, according to market research firm NPD, compared with 228,000 Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3 unit sales of 127,000.

Nintendo countered critics by saying the desire for online multiplayer is much higher in Western markets than in Japan, where the company is based. However, the company is committed to bringing the online play experience to the Wii...eventually.

“I’m confident there will be third-party titles with online game play by the end of the year,” said George Harrison, Nintendo’s vice president of marketing.

“Our first online multiplayer title, ‘Pokemon Battle Revolution,’ will be out this summer.”

Jamil Moledina, director of the Game Developers Conference, said Nintendo is successfully marching to the beat of its own drummer, particularly with the Wii and its motion-sensitive controller that has lured in new gamers both young and old.

“Nintendo’s strategy has worked extremely well for them, despite what we on the side might say,” Moledina said.

He predicted that despite the importance of online play to consoles like the Xbox 360, Nintendo can succeed without following its competitors.

“Nintendo’s concern is the individual player,” he said. “There’s a danger when you try to match a trend. I think Nintendo’s strategy is a good one.”