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Star Wars: The Old Republic adds free-to-play

With a dwindling player base, EA swings the "freemium" pendulum toward the Star Wars: The Old Republic massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is going free to play. Will you join in? (Click to enlarge.)

Well, that didn't take long. EA announced today that gamers can play the beleaguered Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG this fall for free, avoiding the usual $14.99 monthly fee. The company also announced a $14.99 price cut for the game coming in August; the cut comes packaged with a one-month subscription.

A chart highlighting the differences between SW:TOR's free-to-play and existing subscription services. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Christopher MacManus/CNET

The announcements come on the same day as EA's quarterly earnings call, in which EA Labels President Frank Gibeau told analysts and press that the Star Wars: The Old Republic player population recently fell below 1 million players, with 500,000 as the figure known within the company as the break-even point.

Gibeau said the game's performance "disappointed" him, according to

Overall, the incoming Star Wars: The Old Republic free-to-play experience seems similar to the current systems in use by EverQuest II and DC Universe Online, where one encounters a playable version of the game with a few noticeable limitations.

An example of SW:TOR free-to-play limitations: you can ascend to level 50 for free using any of the 8 classes, but can only enter warzones, flashpoints, and other special encounters in the game a certain number of times per week.

The disparity between the free-to-play and subscription accounts should keep most existing subscribers happy. In addition to the full game experience, subscribers also get monthly allowances of cartel coins -- a new currency coming to the game that can be used to purchase customizable gear and additional features. Free-to-play users may also purchase these coins to unlock restricted functionality. Is it just me, or does it seem entirely possible that a massive influx of free users buying their way to the top through micro-transactions could burn accomplished players?

"Since launch, we've been listening to feedback from our fans and adding new content and refining The Old Republic at a breakneck pace," said Jeff Hickman, executive producer of SW:TOR. "We believe we are in a position to help improve the service even more, not only by continuing to add new content, but also by expanding the game to many more Star Wars fans, increasing the populations on worlds and the vibrancy of the community."

The Force-adept marketers at BioWare previously unleashed a Star Wars: The Old Republic trial allowing anyone to reach level 15 for free. The act came a month after BioWare representatives announced a series of related layoffs and said the game shed 400,000 players.