There was a time when “free-to-play” was a dirty term in the games industry. There are still terrible, exploitative free-to-play games on the market—more every day, in fact.
But occasionally—occasionally—we get something…miraculous. We get a free-to-play game that doesn’t try to con players out of money or make the design intentionally boring in order to make those purchasable unlocks more exciting.
Here, you’ll find a list of games so good the developers could’ve charged money (or, in some cases, did charge money) before going free-to-play. These aren’t just good free-to-play games, they’re good games, full stop.
UPDATED: April 2017: Some games added (EVE Online, etc.), some updated (Path of Exile), some removed (shakes fist at Tribes: Ascend).
It’s been three or four years since I first wrote this list, and MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) are still king of the free-to-play pile. Not only do they have a staggering number of users, but Dota 2 maintains the record for biggest e-sports prize on the planet: The International 5 featured a prize pool of $20.7 million this year. It’s huge.
If you’ve still never dipped your toe in the MOBA waters, just know that Dota 2 is the successor to the WarCraft III mod DOTA, or Defense of the Ancients, the grandpappy of the whole genre. Players pick a hero and battle it out against the other team, competing to bring down the enemy base by out-maneuvering foes with skillful tactics. Or, if you’re like me, you pick a hero and mess something up five minutes in, and your entire team gets angry because they know you just lost them the game.
And we can’t mention Dota 2 without mentioning its counterpart, League of Legends. League is yet another MOBA, again inspired by the original DOTA mod.
So why choose League of Legends over Dota 2? Now we’re getting into dangerous “Mac versus PC” or “Schwarzenegger versus Stallone” arguments—the type where nobody wins. The truth is you should just pick whichever one your friends are playing or whichever looks best to you, and jump in. The differences when you’re starting are minimal—you probably won’t even notice most until you’ve reached an advanced skill level in one or the other.
Rounding out the MOBA trifecta is Blizzard’s take on the genre, Heroes of the Storm. It’s a bit more approachable than either Dota 2 or League, though that friendliness comes at the cost of a lower skill ceiling.
On the other hand, Blizzard seems more willing to experiment too—like adding a two-headed ogre controlled by two different players at the same time. Call it gimmicky, call it innovative, it’s at least different.
Team Fortress 2 is the first non-MMO, big-budget game I remember transitioning from “You pay for this” to “This is free.” Whatever deal with the devil Valve made to turn Team Fortress 2 into a free-to-play shooter/hat simulator, it clearly worked: Coming up on a decade after its initial release it’s still one of the top five most-played games on Steam on any given day, still receiving updates, and still kicking my ass.
If you want a free-to-play game done right, it’s Path of Exile. To start with, it’s one of the best action-RPGs in recent memory. Its convoluted class/leveling system gets talked about most, but the whole point-and-click-on-things-until-they-die aspect has a great feel to it, the loot drops are satisfying, and the world itself fascinating.
But even more impressive is that developer Grinding Gear continues to add a staggering amount of content to the game each year. Seems like the studio gets in touch with me about another expansion once or twice a year. The game’s sixth expansion, The Fall of Oriath, is due to release sometime in 2017, adding another entire act to the game’s story.
As I said: It’s a pretty incredible action-RPG. Highly recommended for fans of click-click-click combat.
Fallout Shelter is proof that an excellent brand and/or aesthetic can make a game a hit, even if the game itself is lackluster. Your goal is to build and populate a Fallout Vault-Tec Vault and keep the survivors alive in the post-apocalypse. Rome wasn’t built in a day, though, and your Vault’s no different—this is one of those “waiting”-style free-to-play games where you queue up some actions and then just let it sit for (real-world) hours as you wait for things to unfold.
As I said: It’s not an incredible game, but the Fallout hook is a lot of fun. The newly-released PC version is a hell of a lot prettier (and easier to navigate) than the mobile version.
You’ll hear some people refer to Paladins as an “Overwatch clone,” and that’s understandable—it’s a hero-based shooter, with the same somewhat-cartoony aesthetic and even some ability overlaps, like the guy who wields a transparent blue shield.
But Paladins is also its own thing. It was made by Hi-Rez (of Tribes: Ascend fame/infamy) and has a unique card-based loadout system, mix-and-match skins, and more. It’s Overwatch-esque, sure, but also an excellent game in its own right—maybe a bit less balanced, and with fewer interesting champions. But for anyone who lacks the scratch to try out Overwatch or wants to give Blizzard’s shooter a break, Paladins is a solid alternative.
Like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and other physical collectible card games (CCGs) of old, your task in Hearthstone is to create the most advantageous deck and battle it against your opponent’s. The key difference? Hearthstone is made by Blizzard, and based off the Warcraft license.
And it’s pretty good, though it’s suffered from growing pains lately. People seem more and more dissatisfied with the rate of card drops and other free-to-play aspects, as each new expansion makes the game a bit more expensive to play. It’s also much harder to get into nowadays, given the number of cards in use, though Blizzard’s at least taken some steps to address that issue.
From what I can tell it’s still the most popular digital collectible card game though, regardless of how much its fans complain. If you’re looking for a CCG to get into, Hearthstone‘s a good place to start.
It’s somewhat easy to write off Elder Scrolls Legends as a Hearthstone knock-off—I mean, that seems to be the case, insofar as it’s a CCG timed suspiciously to ride Hearthstone‘s coattails. But as far as knock-offs go, Elder Scrolls Legends actually seems pretty damned good. It has a bit more randomness built into it than Hearthstone, but also some excellent mechanics (lanes!) and a solid single-player offering.
The game finally left beta in early 2017, and the expansion train is already rolling. If you’re looking for a CCG that’s still fresh and full of potential instead of weighted down by years of baggage, Legends is worth a try. I’m not sure how large the player base is, nor whether it’ll stay active long-term, but again: As far as knock-offs go, it’s a good effort.
Wargaming has built up quite a catalog of games in the past few years, but it’s still World of Tanks that gets most of the attention. It’s simple: All tanks, all the time. A veritable planet full of tanks.
But it’s just one slice of Wargaming’s ever-expanding combat empire. If you get tired of the ground you can always check out World of Warplanes, and old salts can sail to their heart’s content in World of Warships. Maybe you’ll see my colleague Gordon Mah Ung out there on the seven seas—it’s basically the only game he plays.
Lord of the Rings Online was once a premium, subscription-based game, but it’s now almost entirely free outside of a few item restrictions and the like—although you’ll still end up paying for the expansions. Only the base game is free here.
This is the Lord of the Rings game. Nothing else comes close to capturing the true scope of Tolkien’s world and lore. I definitely recommend it to fans of the books and films, and even to fans of solid fantasy MMOs—though there’s a lot more competition in the latter category.