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Sony Has Stealth Online Offering to Rival Xbox Live

Sony Corp. (SNE) has revealed little about its upcoming PlayStation 3 online service to rival Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Xbox Live, but an upcoming offering from the Japanese giant's online game division may hint at its direction.

Sony Online Entertainment in July will debut a service, known by its working title "Station Launcher," which provides users access to several of its online PC games.

Station Launcher, which ties together several programs already offered by Sony, will also consolidate lists of players' friends from a variety of the company's games, support chat and provide downloads of new game content and trinkets.

It will also offer a single point where players can manage payments and link to other Sony-run sites carrying player rankings and information.

"It's not going to stop at the PC," said Nathan Pearce, a creative director at Sony Online Entertainment, which is a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Digital.

At the debut, Station Launcher will connect users to Sony's "EverQuest," "The Matrix Online," "Star Wars Galaxies," "PlanetSide" and "EverQuest II."

Unlimited play of all five games through a Sony Station Access subscription plan costs $24.99 a month.

Sony also will add "Vanguard: Saga of Heroes" to the Station Launcher lineup this winter, Pearce said.

Games on Station Launcher will constantly update to computers with live online connections so subscribers can go straight into play rather than waiting for new information to download every time they boot up.

The service uses technology from Microsoft that transfers files using leftover bandwidth, ensuring uninterrupted computer use.

Microsoft has had unexpected success with Xbox Live, which connects through its Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles and allows players to compete, download content, chat and build an online profile.

The community-oriented features behind Xbox Live's popularity are nothing new to many PC gamers who have been chatting, competing, trading and building virtual characters inside individual games for years.

They have also helped to drive the success of upstarts like MySpace.com as well as major online companies like eBay Inc. (EBAY).

Sony, which aims to retain its dominance in the $30 billion global video game market with the PS3, has vaguely outlined its plan to offer features that will match Xbox Live.

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