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Lots of  massively multiplayer online games were started with the dream of becoming as big as World of Warcraft, which has 12 million paying subscribers.

For those that have fallen short of their expectations, going free-to-play may be the fallback plan. Atari announced today that Cryptic Studios’ Champions Online MMO will be offered as a free-to-play game beginning in the first quarter of 2011.

With free-to-play games, users play for free and pay only small amounts of real money for virtual goods such as better weapons or decorations. Following the lead of Asian MMO makers, a number of Western MMOs have shifted from subscriptions to MMOs. The ranks include Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online. For these older and moderately successful titles, the free-to-play model is a way to breathe new life into the games, make them more profitable, and generate user growth.

Champions Online debuted in September, 2009. But it never garnered a huge audience. It uses Cryptic’s battle-tested but aging City of Heroes game engine. The 3D graphics are cool, but they won’t necessarily knock your socks off in an age of ultrarealistic games.

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Champions Online will still offer fans “gold status” at $14.99 a month, allowing them to unlock most of the game’s content.

“Transitioning Champions Online to the free-to-play model is a great opportunity to reach a whole new audience of PC gamers that view subscription fees as a barrier to entry,” said John Needham, chief executive of Cryptic Studios, a division of Atari. “By taking care of our current subscription-based community and welcoming the addition of new players through free-to-play, Champions Online is poised to build upon its success and establish a new leadership position as the first free-to-play superhero MMO.”

A closed beta test begins Nov. 9. In an interview, Cryptic executive Jack Emmert was critical of free-to-play online games. But that was before Cryptic launched Star Trek Online, which failed to get a huge audience using the subscription fee business model. Both Champions Online and Star Trek Online have been trending downward on traffic, according to Compete.com.

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