After less than a year, The Old Republic is going free to play

It's been less than a year since its launch in December 2011, but EA and BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic is already set to revamp its business model, as the game will go free to play this fall.
Over the past few years, we've seen plenty of subscription MMOs adopt free to play business models, but few have done so as quickly as EA and BioWare Austin's Star Wars: the Old Republic. The game launched less than a year ago, and is already set to go free to play this fall. In November, Electronic Arts plans to add a new free-to-play option on top of the existing subscription service, allowing users to play any character class up until level 50, albeit with a few restrictions on accessing new content and other game features. To facilitate this change, the game will also introduce Cartel Coins, a new virtual currency that players can purchase and redeem to unlock additional features and in-game items. Subscribing players, meanwhile, will have unrestricted access to the game's content for $14.99 per month, and will receive a monthly stipend of Cartel Coins for purchasing additional gear and convenience items. This free-to-play switch is certainly a major shakeup for EA's flagship MMO, but it's not exactly a complete surprise. In June, BioWare lead designer Emmanuel Lusinchi said that the studio was already looking at the free to play model as a means to boost player engagement. And perhaps it's a good idea, as The Old Republic has seen subscriber numbers dwindle since its launch in December 2011. During a recent investor conference call, EA executive Frank Gibeau revealed that "subscriptions have been on a declining trajectory and have now slipped below 1 million," down from 1.3 million subscriptions in May. Things haven't gone too well for BioWare Austin itself, either, as the studio has been forced to lay off a number of employees since the game's debut. Even key staff like executive producer Rich Vogel are no longer with the company. It seems BioWare sees the free to play model as the real trick to giving The Old Republic the boost it needs. The company claims that by switching to this model, it will be able to put out more frequent content updates to keep players engaged over the course of the game's lifespan. In July, the company experimented with this model by making the game free up until level 15, not unlike the strategy Blizzard uses for World of Warcraft. This new approach, however, makes The Old Republic's free to play option less of a trial, and more of an essential element of the game's design. Keep an eye on Gamasutra as the news develops, as EA will surely have more to say about The Old Reoublic in its investor conference call later this afternoon.

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