Star Wars: The Old Republic goes free-to-play up to level 50 this fall

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Not even one full year after the MMO’s release, EA and BioWare will make Star Wars: The Old Republic a free-to-play game. The companies announced on Tuesday that, with some restrictions, they’ll be able to play through eight character class progressions up to level 50 come this fall.

“Players want flexibility and choice,” says Matthew Bromberg of BioWare Austin in a press release, “The subscription-only model presented a major barrier for a lot of people who wanted to become part of The Old Republic universe.”

“Since launch, we’ve been listening to feedback from our fans and adding new content and refining The Old Republic at a breakneck pace. 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,” says executive producer Jeff Hickman.

What’s unspoken in these sunny, benevolent press release statements is that Star Wars: The Old Republic is shifting to a free-to-play model out of desperation, not altruism. In February of this year, 1.7 million people were playing The Old Republic, and many of them were not monthly subscribers yet. That number fell to 1.3 million by May. Even after losing 400,000 players just months after the game’s December 2011 release, it looked like EA and BioWare’s troubles were just beginning.

Hence why both companies have rushed to bolster the game’s population with free-to-play content. In July, The Old Republic became free up to level 15. Designer Emmanuel Lusinchi said in June, “The MMO market is very dynamic and we need to be dynamic as well. Unless people are happy with what they have, they are constantly demanding updates, new modes, and situations. So we are looking at free-to-play but I can’t tell you in much detail. We have to be felxible and adapt to what it going on.”

Designer Daniel Erickson meanwhile refused to tell Digital Trends in July if the game would go fully free-to-play in the near future.

The plan now is to make the game available for just $15 in August in time for the free to level 50 option to hit in the fall. A new virtual currency called Cartel Coins will accompany the free-to-play transition, with many game features requiring additional purchases using the coins.

The monthly subscription MMO is officially on life support. Only World of Warcraft remains.