There was a time – let’s call it 1996 – when if you wanted a piece of software, you went to the store and picked a box up off a shelf and paid money at the cash register for it. Then you took the box home and read the 800-page manual while you waited for your incredibly slow CD-ROM drive to install the software and you were told to stay off the “world wide web” because someone needed to use the telephone and Lassie was there and the men drank cold buttermilk when they came in from the fields.
Now we don’t have “software” or “programs,” we have “apps.” People don’t like paying for apps up front (I suspect this probably has something to do with “millenials”), and when it comes to games, this has given rise to the strange and misleadingly-labeled world of “free-to-play.” It’s a confusing, lawless landscape — most of these games want to convince you to part with your money, usually asking for a steady trickle of cash instead of an up-front investment.
The worst of free-to-play games usually live on phones and tablets, or on social media — you’ve almost certainly gotten invites for some of these on Facebook, such as the mindless chore-grind Farmville. Mobile versions include licensed drudgery like The Simpsons: Tapped Out, or the unscrupulous travesty of Dungeon Keeper Mobile (both from EA), which make players wait days to build structures unless they open their wallets.
But there are good free-to-play games out there, too — ones that actually have some modicum of respect for players and keep the “give me money” nagging to a minimum. Here are a few I’ve had fun with.
You don’t need to be familiar with Blizzard’s genre-defining MMO World of Warcraft to enjoy Hearthstone, and you don’t have to pay a red cent to play it. All the basic cards are available just by playing and unlocking them, or by breaking down cards and “crafting” ones you want. This process can be expedited by purchasing card packs, which give you a better shot at landing some of the rarer cards. The nice thing here is that you can either plunk down a couple dollars, or use the in-game gold coins you earn by completing daily challenges or winning games in “arena” mode. Hearthstone’s expansions require a modest investment in order to play, but the game has never made spending money a requirement for winning.
The MOBAs – Dota 2, League of Legends, Smite
Nobody can agree on what to call these games — “Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas,” “Action-RTS,” “Hero Brawlers” — but they generally share several core characteristics: You play as a character on a team of five and attempt to push down lanes dotted with automated turrets in order to capture the enemy base. You and your teammates try to level your characters up by gaining experience and items. MOBAs typically have very high skill ceilings and the player communities can be incredibly competitive, which scares off many typical players (i.e., me). Still, it’s hard to fault the business model, particularly in Valve’s Dota 2. From the outset you have access to all the heroes and items the game has to offer. You can choose to buy cosmetic items to change your characters’ appearances, but absolutely none of the game’s mechanics are gated behind a paywall. Just be prepared to deal with some of gaming’s saltiest players.
Shooty-bang games – Team Fortress 2, Planetside 2, Warframe
Also from Valve, Team Fortress 2 is a hugely-popular, lighthearted, cartoony shooter with several entertaining modes and character classes. Teamwork usually carries the day, with successful teams leveraging good positioning and smart use of class abilities, such as the medic’s healing and the spy’s invisibility. As with Dota 2, the only money you spend in Team Fortress 2 is for cosmetic items — mostly funny hats. Planetside 2 is much more a massively multiplayer game, dropping you into a gigantic three-faction war and a landscape littered with bases to conquer and large tanks and aircraft to pilot. Planetside 2 lets you spend money to speed up your experience gain rate and buy fancier guns, but it’s still very possible to have a lovely old time without paying. Warframe (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4) is a cooperative space shooter in the vein of last year’s Destiny, and while you’ll have to pay for much of the high-tier gear, it’s still possible to get a very good feel for the game before you pay in.
Role-Playing Games – Path of Exile, Lord of the Rings Online
The free-to-play role-playing scene is pretty packed, mostly with MMOs that bore you into throwing money at them. Fortunately, Path of Exile and Lord of the Rings Online give you plenty to do before you need to buy anything. Path of Exile is a very solid Diablo clone that appeals to players like me: Give me a Skyrim or a Mass Effect, please don’t pollute my fantasy worlds with other people. Three lengthy, challenging acts provide tons of solo content and there’s always the opportunity to team up with other players to take on a difficult boss if you like.
I’m told Lord of the Rings Online is a very good MMORPG, but like most games of the type, I found myself bored to tears by it. Still, it’s a gigantic world and by all accounts a very solid experience, and you don’t have to pay a dime to get set up. It also has a completely different look and feel from the Peter Jackson films, which after all these years is a bit refreshing.
This list is far from exhaustive. When you’re navigating the free-to-play spaces, just keep an eye out for red flags: Games that prevent you from moving forward until you invite your friends, for instance, should be avoided. Also check to see how many different kinds of in-game currency there are — three or more of these usually is bad news. And if the game is from EA or Ubisoft, run away.