This week we're asking about the much-maligned free-to-play game. Often loaded with microtransactions and pay gates, this type of game can sometimes be frustrating and annoying to play - because they're designed to relieve you of your cash. However, there are plenty of good ones out there, and that's what we're asking about. Out of all the free-to-play games you've played, which one is your favorite?
While you ponder on that question, here are the games the USgamer team have picked as their favorites.
Slightly awkward question for me, since I don't really play free-to-play games in the contemporary sense. I'm very goal-oriented in my gaming, and prefer to go my own way… two concepts that sit at odds with the spirit of modern F2P. Generally, my experience with F2P has been that they're either time-wasters monetized by ads, or else they're specifically structured to eat the player's time and lock them into a perpetual grind. I've yet to find a single one of these things that can keep me hooked for more than a few sessions.
But I will admit to having been hooked on one particular free-to-play game back when I was in college, when mobile phones weren't ubiquitous gaming devices but rather weird future-tech creations you only saw in movies. We called F2P games "shareware" and "freeware" back then. And the one that keep me busy during long nights working at the university newspaper waiting for content to slooooowly print for paste-up was… well, actually I can't remember if it was shareware or freeware. I think it was the latter with a request for cash at the player's discretion. In any case, I didn't pay a cent for it, because I was a college student and money was something other people had.
The game in question was Snood, a dopey-looking puzzle game where a cascade of differently colored faces would slowly descend toward the bottom of the screen as the player took turns. Your task was to launch a random assortment of those same faces into the mix, creating matches of three or more like-colored faces to knock those blocks (and any others being suspended by them from the cluster at the top of the screen) out of play. You could launch your pieces at any angle, rebounding them off the side walls of the stage, with the ultimate goal of preventing the advancing faces from reaching the bottom of the screen for as long as possible. It was simple but addictive.
It was also, I learned later, a giant ripoff: Snood was just Taito's Bust-A-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble), but uglier and with less interesting play fields. Alas, the damage was done. By the time I learned of Puzzle Bobble, I'd already burned out on Snood after years of it being my time-wasting go-to. Despite the original creation and its sequels being far superior to the clone I'd dallied with in college, it never pulled me in the way Snood did. I'm not proud of it, but honestly I think if you're proud of the time you've spent with a free-to-play game (regardless of its vintage), you're doing it wrong.
My favorite free-to-play game is one that started out as an independent game that I believe cost me 99 cents originally, but it has since been bought up by Zynga for reasons best known to themselves and then released for free with advertisements at the bottom of the screen.
I'm talking about the absolutely brilliant Drop7 - a seminal puzzle game - which despite critical acclaim, never quite took off. Zynga then bought it from the author and re-released it to a slightly larger audience thanks to its big marketing engine, and the game had a second lease of life. The company decided to recently modernize it, and produced something that was so unpopular with the player base that they quickly released a "classic" patch that let users go back and play the older version of the game. And quite right too. The original is perfect as it is, thankyouverymuch.
So what is this game exactly? It's a rather weird-sounding mathematical puzzler in which you place numbered (1-7) chips on a 7 x 7 grid, almost like a Connect 4 game. If you place a chip with a one on it on its own, the chip will disappear. Likewise, placing a chip with the number six on it in a row with six other chips will result in the chip disappearing - along with any other chip with the number 6 on it. It sounds a little esoteric, but it's one of those games that you look at slightly dumbfounded for a few seconds before you "get" it, and once you do it becomes a fiendishly addictive puzzle game that to me ranks alongside Tetris as one of the greats. I kid you not - this game is absolutely brilliant.
It's been my go-to timewaster for the five years that I've owned it. Sometimes I might go a few weeks without playing it, but inevitably I'll find myself with a few moments to kill, and when I do, out comes Drop7.
I've already written about this a little bit elsewhere, but my favorite free-to-play game is hands-down Star Trek Online. It's not what you would call perfect by any means, but it's still a long way from the days of launch, when it was barebones starship sim with an ugly UI and incredibly simple missions.
The Star Trek Online of 2015 has a good 60-70 hours of single-player content that plumbs every corner of the canon (even Star Trek V makes an apeparance), as well as much nicer graphics, and a lot of interesting gameplay systems. Captains can now send duty officers on missions for resources, fleets can build starbases, and missions are longer and much more ambitious. At this point, it's one of the best Star Trek game ever made (admittedly not a high bar to clear), and it's available for free.
As is typical for subscription MMORPGs that go free-to-play, Star Trek Online's business model is mostly based on cosmetic improvements. There are a raft of ships and uniforms to buy, with rare ships being available via dropboxes that drop after defeating enemies. Crucially, the free ships are quite capable in their own right, with fan favorites like the Enterprise-D, Enterprise-E, and Defiant variants available out of the box.
At this point, Star Trek Online's biggest weakness is its nearly non-existent PvP, which caters to only a very specific niche in the playerbase. Raids were another problem for a while, but the most recent expansion brought with it a host of challenging endgame content, so hardcore players have a bit more to do.
Speaking as someone who has dropped something like 200 hours on Star Trek Online, it's best enjoyed as a fun single-player romp through the Star Trek universe. There's a startling amount of content in this game, most of it very well produced, and it's really a blast working your way up to the level cap. In terms of free-to-play games, you could do far worse than Star Trek Online.
Finally, a topic that will reveal me for the fraud I am! The truth of the matter is, I really don't do free-to-play games—yes, a guy who co-hosts a gaming history podcast might be a little behind the times. Shocking, right? Really, though, I don't avoid free-to-play out of any sense of moral righteousness; since I usually have my 3DS or Vita on me (and way too many unfinished games on both platforms), I'm typically set for gaming on the go. And if I don't bring along a portable on my mass transit adventures, it's because I'd like to do something other than play video games—some days, I try to cut down my daily intake of screen-staring to a healthy 15 hours.
Still, back in 2011 I tried to give free-to-play a fair shake with one of the least offensive games zero dollars can buy: NimbleBit's Tiny Tower, which I'm guessing a lot of you out there have played. I'd tinkered with iOS stuff before, but this one really got its hooks into me—especially as a SimCity vet who had gone years without a fix. To be fair, it's a lot simpler than Will Wright's civic planning sim, but the basic gameplay loop had me addicted, regardless: As the game unfolds, little pixel people gradually move into your Tiny Tower, and you're tasked with finding the best fit for them within the stores and residences stacked on top of one another. Outside of this, you're not asked to do much more than check in every once in a while, collect profits from floors, and restock shops with merchandise—perfect for minute-long distractions.
Tiny Tower captured my attention for weeks, but it didn't take much longer for me to see the wizard behind the curtain. While I enjoyed watching my little building grow steadily over the passing days, it gradually dawned on me that there wasn't much game to this so-called game. You could make decisions that weren't ideal, but none of them would ever cause any sort of fail state. Essentially, it was nothing more than a digital fish tank: I'd check in, watch my little Sea Monkeys frolic, then wait for the Tower to build up enough resources so I could do it all over again the next day. This may make me sound a little naive in retrospect, but I was actually kind of offended once I realized this "new" kind of game would decide for itself when you were allowed to have fun. And that's what really soured me on the whole free-to-play experience.
I realize Tiny Tower's approach isn't the only one for free-to-play games, but whenever I approach a game of this format, I can't help but imagine how much better the experience would be if they just let me give them five or ten dollars for a complete experience without monetized hooks or a prolonged nagging campaign. I even gave Plants vs. Zombies 2 a try, and had fun with it, but the sheer amount of self-promotion it shoved in my face bordered on embarrassing. Besides, I have way too many games I paid good money for that are just sitting around unplayed—possibly enough for several lifetimes—so I don't see myself ever needing free-to-play as an option. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to party with my fellow dinosaurs.
My current answer is actually Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm, but there's more I want to write about that subject beyond my meager thoughts here. In fact, there's a number of free-to-play games on the horizon that are looking pretty great: Dreadnought, Project Bluestreak, and Landmark come to mind. There's also solid titles that started out as paid games that are still quite solid in their free-to-play incarnations, like Star Wars: The Old Republic.
My favorite free-to-play game remains Killer Instinct for Xbox One though. A lot of people forget that KI is free-to-play; the game is completely free to download and has a rolling roster of free characters for people to play, not like League of Legends or Heroes.
Killer Instinct is an incredibly solid fighter and a great update of Rare's classic, which was actually surprising given its development pedigree. Double Helix Games had previously worked on Silent Hill: Homecoming, Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, and Battleship, which didn't bode well for the Xbox One reboot. So when it came out and it was a solid, entertaining, and technical fighter, people were flippin' amazed.
One big change to 2013 iteration was the season philosophy. Killer Instinct launched with six available characters - Jago, Saberwulf, Glacius, Thunder, Orchid, and new character Sadira - and added another three characters before finishing Season One. We're currently in Season Two, which kicked off with classic series mainstay T.J. Combo, but has since been focused mostly on all-new characters like Kan-Ra and Omen. This allows the game to continuously grow, like the MOBAs whose business model it's patterned after. And all the new characters are pretty awesome additions to the roster and overall mythology of the game.
Divekick dev Iron Galaxy has been handling the game since Season Two started and their work with the new characters and the community has paid off handsomely. Killer Instinct is one of the best fighters out there today; as evidence by its spot in EVO 2015's lineup, and it just keeps getting better. If you're interested in the original, I recommend taking a shot at the new game.
Wait, there are other free-to-play games besides League of Legends???
I’m joking of course, but if you’re like me and you are completely hooked on this MOBA, you’ll know that your time for other games is limited. It’s that addicting. The games are just the right length so you can easily fit in a couple at the end of the day and the champions are so diverse you’ll never get bored of the actual gameplay. The ironic thing about Summoners is as much as we love the game, we also love to hate it. Everyone has a quitting story, so here’s mine.
It was Summer 2011. I used to bring my laptop to a friend’s house and about five or six of us would sit in a circle on the floor and play games. Terraria, World of Warcraft, and then…. League of Legends. I managed to get to level 13 with Ashe, notoriously a beginner’s champ, and then rage quit after five or so consecutive losses. I told myself I was going to cast that game to the wayside. “In another year no one will be playing it,” I told myself. Boy, was I wrong.
Fast forward to Summer 2013. Everyone I knew, and their mother, was playing that game. Then it happened-- one of my friends asked me to play. I was reluctant at first, but once I saw all the new champions I missed out on, my mind was quickly turned. Countless nights of rage later, I hit level 30 and the rest is history.
Moral of the story, you can’t quit League ...and I wouldn’t have it any other way.