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Star Wars: The Old Republic losing players, going free in November

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Star Wars: The Old Republic (EA/Bioware)

Forget toppling Warcraft -- EA's massively-multiplayer hopeful Star Wars: The Old Republic is just trying to keep its galaxy from turning into a black hole.

In an earnings call Tuesday, EA noted that the game some believed had the firepower to take down perennial online role-playing game champ World of Warcraft currently sports fewer than one million paying subscribers. That's down from the 1.3 million it reported back in May and a serious drop from the 1.7 million it enjoyed in March.

To combat the player exodus, EA also announced that it will turn Star Wars: The Old Republic into a free-to-play title beginning in November. The option will give players access to all eight character class storylines up to level 50, though some features and content will be restricted. Players can unlock some of that content by purchasing 'Cartel Coins', the game's new virtual currency.

Those currently paying a monthly fee for the game can continue to do so (the differences between the paid and free options are listed on the game's website).

"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," said Matthew Bromberg, GM of Bioware Austin.

That's one way to look at it. Another way would be to say that EA wants to stop hemorrhaging players and is waking up to the fact that the old subscription-based model for online role-playing games isn't really cutting the mustard anymore. Gamers have a wealth of free gaming options at their fingertips and are clearly getting tired of forking over monthly fees. Even Warcraft added a free component by greatly extending the game's initial free trial period, though players remain capped at level 20 until they pay up.

While the upcoming freemium status of The Old Republic is good news for gamers, it's clearly not what EA and developer Bioware were hoping for when the game launched in December of last year. With a well-known brand, a massive budget, an epic script (it's a Guinness record holder, no less), and an ace developer at the helm, it was supposed to be a viable threat to Warcraft's throne.

Initially, it seemed like it might make a dent. Over a million players signed up within the first three days -- impressive for any game -- but that number quickly tapered off as trial periods ended and the monthly fees started up. Now it's following the footsteps of countless other MMO hopefuls (See: DC Universe Online, Rift, Lord of the Rings Online) by adding a free-to-play component in an effort to keep people interested.

The timing works, at least, as the massively-multiplayer scene is about to get even more competitive. Top-tier freemium games like Guild Wars 2, End of Nations, Firefall and Hawken (which won a slew of awards at the recent E3 convention) are all slated to arrive this year.

To goose sales, EA will be dropping the retail price of The Old Republic to $15 in August and will include a one-month free subscription.

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