Star Wars: The Old Republic video game players slump

Star Wars: The Old Republic screenshot
Image caption EA said it hoped to "claw back" some of the players who had stopped paying for access

Electronic Arts has revealed that the number of people paying to play its online video game Star Wars: The Old Republic has dropped below one million.

The title is the US firm's biggest investment to date.

Launched in December, it initially attracted more than 1.7m subscribers.

The firm said the news was "disappointing" adding that it was switching to a new pricing plan which would allow users to access much of the content for free.

The news coincided with the firm's first quarter results which showed net income of $201m (£128m), a 5% drop on the same period the previous year.

Payment turn-off

The President of EA Labels Frank Gibeau said the Star Wars game would still break even so long as it maintained 500,000 subscribers, but admitted that its current performance was "not good enough".

"The message from players exiting the game is clear, 40% say they were turned off by the monthly subscription and many indicate they would come back if we offered a free-to-play model," he told analysts, according to a transcript of the conference call provided by the Seeking Alpha financial news site.

"Our plan now is to pivot and provide a two-tiered pricing plan, which will make the game more accessible and grow the audience."

The new scheme will allow users to explore the online title's first 50 levels at no cost, although they will not have access to all its features.

Users must pay $15 (£9.50) a month for full access and a monthly allowance of in-game cash to purchase items or advance their progress.

Image caption Non-paying members cannot complete operations and have limited access to in-game auctions

In addition the firm is cutting the price that it charges for the game pack that users must buy before being able to access the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).

Online rivals

EA's move comes just under two months before its rival Activision Blizzard releases an update to World of Warcraft.

Mists of Pandaria is expected to help boost the title's subscribers above the current level of 10.2 million, securing its place as the most popular MMORPG.

Other upcoming big name releases include Arenanet's Guild Wars 2 and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls Online.

Existing titles that offer free-to-play options include Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online and Entropia Universe.

"Given the MMORPG landscape in recent years, where pure subscription is becoming a rarity, EA will have been planning to introduce this since before launch, but the drop in subscribers makes it a timely announcement," said Steve Bailey, senior analyst at IHS Screen Digest.

"It's not necessarily a portent of doom. The title's ongoing performance is now down to EA's ability to engage users with content refreshes, and other aspects of the service."

Michael French, editor-in-chief of the games industry trade news site MCV agreed that the problem was not the title's gameplay, but rather convincing the public to keep paying for it.

"There are distractions elsewhere and people have become used to playing online titles for free," he said.

"What EA needs to do is to attract players back guilt-free by offering the title without charge, and then hope it is compelling enough to encourage them it is worth paying to unlock the additional content."

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