EA Making Star Wars Game Free After Subscriptions Dip Below One Million

Eight months after releasing its most ambitious multiplayer project ever, Electronic Arts is opening up its big Star Wars game to anyone who wants to play for free.

The massively multiplayer online game, which took years to develop and 1,000 actors to perform 250,000 lines of dialogue, once cost $60 to buy and $15 a month to subscribe. Now, it will cost absolutely nothing for players to access the first 50 levels.

When it launched late last year, the game generated 1.7 million active subscribers and sold more than two million units in a little over one month. But in May, it was already falling short of analysts’ expectations after EA reported that there were only 1.3 million subscribers remaining.

This afternoon, EA will likely update the number during its earnings call, but with this move announced just ahead of the report, it’s likely that subscription numbers aren’t headed in the right direction.

UPDATE: During the company’s call, EA President Frank Gibeau said there was less than one million subscribers. He added that while it only takes 500,000 subscribers to break even, 40 percent of players said they were turned off by the subscription model and would come back if it was free-to-play.

Once the free-to-play option rolls out this fall, EA said players will be able to have unlimited access to the game through individual purchases or through subscription plans that will cost $15 a month. As the first step toward adding the new option, The Old Republic will go on sale in August for $15, including one month of free subscription, down from $60.

In a statement, Matthew Bromberg, GM of EA’s BioWare studios in Austin, 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.”

As part of the move to free-to-play, the game will now have Cartel Coins, an all-new virtual currency that will be used to purchase in-game items, including customizable gear and convenience features that will enhance the game play experience. Current subscribers, who paid the higher prices only months ago, will receive grants of Cartel Coins when the currency goes live this fall, undoubtedly to soften the blow of watching the price drop all the way to zero.

The free-to-play model is one that EA is very comfortable with as it is what the company uses for social games on Facebook and increasingly on mobile, where consumers get access to the game for free and pay for individual items inside the game. But the scope of the Star Wars project will require many consumers participating in order to be able to recoup the investment and ongoing costs of running the service.

Today, Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft represents one of the most successful MMOs to date. It continues to have tens of millions of subscribers, who also purchase expansion packs to access more content. Activision is trying something similar in China, where it is making a free version of Call of Duty available to Chinese videogame players. It will try to make money by selling items to help users play the game, such as weapons or extra gear.

Stay tuned for more information from the company’s financial call later this afternoon.

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