Electronics Arts and BioWare have jointly announced a free-to-play model for Star Wars: The Old Republic, as the Jedi-filled massively multi-player online (MMO) game sees subscriptions falling below the million mark.

A move to a free-to-play model seems to be the standard tactic for MMOs that aren't quite performing as well as hoped: even World of Warcraft, the three-hundred-pound gorilla in the MMO market, has a model where gamers can get their fix free initially before being asked for cash to progress.

The model for Star Wars: The Old Republic follows the same pattern: gamers will have access to characters up to level 50 for free, after which they will have to take out a subscription to advance. New content will also be made available to subscribers first, with free players left out of the fun - while unspecified advanced features will also be restricted to paying gamers.

'Since launch, our team has spent a lot of time trying to find new ways to be able to bring the Star Wars: The Old Republic experience to as many potential players as possible,' claimed the title's executive producer Jeff Hickman in a statement regarding the move to free-to-play. 'We quickly became aware that our subscription only model was a major barrier for a lot people who wanted to become part of The Old Republic universe. In fact, many players who have left the game said they would happily come back if they could play without the commitment of a monthly fee.'

To convince players to keep their subscriptions and not simply drop to the free level, the companies have also launched a rewards programme under which subscribers - including those whose subscriptions have lapsed - will receive 150 Cartel Coins for every month paid prior to today, with an additional 200 Cartel Coins per month if they continue to subscribe through to the launch of the free-to-play option later this year. A one-time bonus of 1,000 Cartel Coins, redeemable for 'convenience items,' boosts, visually unique equipment, collectibles, and other virtual purchases, will also be given to Collector's Edition owners.

'Our team is extremely excited about this new plan,' added Hickman. 'We are working hard and having a lot of fun preparing new content and items for the game. We believe that this is the right direction for our game – more choices, more options and more ways to customise your play experience to suit your play-style. We want to be able to keep our fans excited, engaged and having fun every time you login. We look forward to hearing your thoughts, suggestions and feedback.'

The news comes on the back of a raft of planned content expansions, including a new operation dubbed Terror From Beyond, a new heroic mission set on the planet of Belsavis, additional space combat missions for level 50 characters, a new companion character and the Ancient Hypergate player-versus-player warzone.

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