BioWare announced in late July that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be making the switch from paid subscriptions to being a microtransactionsupported free-to-play game, a move long anticipated by cynical voices in internet comments threads.

Only a few days later, Activision Blizzard posted earnings that revealed a drop of 1.1 million World of Warcraft subscribers in the previous three months. Taken individually, neither of these spell certain doom for the old ways: SW:TOR’s thin endgame contributed to the rapid drop-off in subs numbers reported in May, and Blizzard attribute their dip to the traditional pre-expansion slump and the success of Diablo III. There’s also the case of The Secret World.

Funcom’s MMO hosted its first free-toplay weekend within a month of release: not necessarily the sign of an upcoming F2P option, but a further indication that free options are being considered closer and closer to launch. The Secret World is also among the small number of MMOs to combine a fee for the game with a subscription and in-game cash store. Taken as a whole, the implication is that subscriptions simply aren’t the safe bet they once were. In our interview with ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien back in PCG 241, he described Guild Wars 1’s subfree model as “a huge risk”.

Nonetheless, it was one that paid off, and it earned them the goodwill and commercial capital they needed to make Guild Wars 2. In comparison, subscriptions are starting to look like the bigger gamble: it’s reliable income, sure – but how do you convince a player that a game is worth shelling out for every month, when the number of games they can play for free is huge, and continues to grow? Transitioning to free-to-play is by no means a death knell for an online game. Games such as Star Trek Online, DC Universe Online and EverQuest II have all successfully made the transition.

But when high-profile MMOs like SW:TOR are flinging open their doors to all and sundry within a year of release, it’s hard not to wonder whether they should have been that way in the first place. The Old Republic was predicted to be the last great subscription-based MMO when it launched. Right now, that’s looking to be more true than anyone anticipated.