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The9, one of China’s top online games operators, has decided not to charge players for access to its latest title, instead adopting the “free-to-play” business model pioneered locally by fellow Nasdaq-listed rival Shanda Interactive Entertainment.

The surprise move by The9 will add to pressure on Netease.com, which last year became China’s biggest operator of “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” or MMORPGs, but which has seen its market lead decline in recent months.

The trend toward free-to-play in China, which is the world’s most populous MMORPG market with millions of players online, is likely to encourage its use in other countries. Under the model, operators make money by selling players optional virtual goods or services.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Shanda chairman Chen Tianqiao said the free-to-play model was generating record revenues for his company and that it had already surpassed Netease to reclaim its status as China’s number one MMORPG operator.

Netease has so far stuck with the more traditional approach of charging players for the time they spend playing MMORPGs.

The9 was previously seen as a champion of such a subscription model, since the success of World of Warcraft – a title it licensed from Vivendi Universal Games unit Blizzard Entertainment – showed Chinese players were happy to pay for access to top games.

However, The9 spokesman James Zhao said it had decided free-to-play was better for its new title, Soul of The Ultimate Nation (SUN).

“We found through four or five months of surveys that most players support free operation,” Mr Zhao said.

By offering SUN without charge, The9 should be able to retain a large number of the players who signed up during its free test period, while continuing to attract new players.

The9 says 400,000 players registered to play SUN in its first week of open testing.

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