Sep. 19, 2011 at 7:59 PM ET
After only nine months of caped crusading, "DC Universe Online" is about to become the latest massively-multiplayer online game to adopt the free-to-play pricing model.
The role-playing game for the PlayStation 3 and PC gives players a chance to don tights, capes and masks and play as either a hero or a villain alongside famed characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and the Joker.
When "DC Universe Online" launched in January, players had to not only purchase the game but also pay a $15 monthly subscription to play it online. But on Monday, Sony Online Entertainment announced that, in October, it will be doing away with the monthly fee ... for the most part.
Sony said that it will begin offering three pricing levels for the game: A free version with limited features, a premium level for those who spend $5 or more on in-game items, and a legendary level for those who want to pony up $15 a month.
The premium and legendary levels will offer access to additional character slots, additional inventory slots, and additional features. And the legendary level includes all downloadable content packs at no extra cost.
"When we launched 'DC Universe Online,' we introduced a very different brand of massive online game driven by fast action combat to PC and PS3 gamers and with that, we discovered a new type of online gamer," said John Smedley, President of Sony Online Entertainment. "We've listened to our community, and we've determined that the free-to-play model is the best fit for 'DC Universe Online'."
It's not particularly surprising that Sony has made this move. Companies behind the bigger, traditionally subscription-based online games are in the midst of trying to figure out the best way to make money on their games as the economy continues to flounder.
"World of Warcraft" — that long-lived and enormously popular online role-playing game — has lost players over the last two financial quarters. And the game's publisher — Activision Blizzard — recently made the first 20 levels of the fantasy game free-to-play in an attempt to woo new gamers.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Cryptic Studios announced it would be making "Star Trek Online" free-to-play later this year. And this summer, "Age of Conan" got a free-to-play overhaul as well.
As the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, online game subscription revenues have been on the decline as sales of virtual goods have been on the rise. Companies like Zynga — which offer games for free on Facebook — are making bank simply by charging smaller micro-transaction fees for in-game items. And it seems players are growing more comfortable doling out payments in tiny chunks rather than committing to bigger monthly expenditures.
And Sony does have experience in the freemium department. As Smedley pointed out, they've used the model in games such as "Free Realms" and "Clone Wars Adventures."
"We believe this new model will expand the DCUO experience and offer more options that cater to every type of player so they can play the game in a way that fits them," he said.
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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+. And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.