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E3: EA to open Star Wars: The Old Republic to free levels

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Electronic Arts on Monday said it will open significant portions of its massively ambitious game “Star Wars: The Old Republic” to free players starting in July, in an attempt to find more subscribers willing to spend a monthly fee to play the online title.

The game, which cost more than $150 million to create, was the most expensive video game that EA had ever produced and certainly among the costliest games of all time.

In an interview last fall prior to the game’s release in December, EA Vice President Greg Zeschuk said the game’s huge cost could only be recouped through a premium subscription model. Monday’s news is an admission that in order to attract new players against stiff online competition, much of it in the forms of games that cost nothing to play, “The Old Republic” had no choice but to offer an introductory experience at no cost.

The announcement follows similar decisions made by other developers of the so-called massively multiplayer online game genre, or MMO, which lets millions of gamers play the game together.

In October, Sony Online Entertainment created a free tier for “DC Universe Online” in an attempt to entice those players to shell out more for premium, paid tiers that offer more features and content. In March, Sony also opened the doors of its "Everquest" virtual fantasy kingdom as a completely free game.

Even "World of Warcraft," the reigning king of paid MMO games with more than 10 million players, was forced to crack open its first 20 levels to free players last June to help reverse a precipitous decline in paying customers.

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