Star Wars MMOG The Old Republic will adopt the free-to-play model this autumn, Electronic Arts has confirmed.
The move, announced following the release of EA's financial results last night, is not a full switch to free-to-play; the existing subscription model will continue to run alongside it. The game will only be free until players reach the current level cap of 50 - EA said in June it would be raising it, but has yet to specify what the new limit will be.
Those playing for free will have restricted access to the majority of in-game elements, including selected species in character creation, travel features and the galactic trade network. There will also be limits on how many warzones, flashpoints and space missions can be played in a single week.
Ahead of the move, retail copies of The Old Republic will be reduced to $14.99 during August, with a purchase including a one-month subscription. EA has also pledged to increase the frequency of content updates - an essential move if it is to hold on to the players it gains by adopting the free-to-play model.
Matthew Bromberg, BioWare Austin's general manager, said: "Players want flexibility and choice. The subscription-only model presented a major barrier for a lot of people who wanted to become part of The Old Republic universe."
It's tempting to see this as EA admitting that BioWare's MMOG has failed. During last night's earnings call CEO John Riccitiello admitted sales of the game had been "disappointing". Subscriber numbers have dipped below a million, and an EA survey found that 40 per cent of players said they didn't like paying a monthly fee. Many said they would return if the game was free-to-play, VG247 reports.
Yet it's entirely likely that this was the plan all along - recouping some of EA's hefty investment in a game that was in development for years by charging a monthly fee to hardcore MMOG players before gradually shifting towards the increasingly lucrative free-to-play model.
In March, The Old Republic was free for a weekend; in April, EA moved to tempt back lapsed players with a free week. Last month the game was made free-to-play until level 15; a timed demo, essentially, similar to what Blizzard offers to new World Of Warcraft players.
It leaves WOW as the last high-profile MMOG to stick resolutely with the subscription model, despite falling subscriber levels of its own. All eyes will now turn to The Secret World, the EA MMOG which launched last month and will, one assumes, follow The Old Republic in due course.
All of which begs the question: is there really any point to launching an MMOG with subscriptions anymore? The more often this happens, the more sceptical players will become. Why shell out a fixed monthly fee for a game that will most likely be free within a year?