Over the past five years many video game developers and publishers have adopted a free-to-play business model, mainly thanks to the explosion of the mobile gaming market. Both Apple and Google have made it quite simple for game developers to get their games in front of millions of potential buyers thanks to the popularity of iOS and Android mobile devices. These more-than-capable devices can play highly advanced games, and they now offer the same level of polish and detail found on triple-A PC or console gaming experiences.
This new, vast marketplace has led to a renaissance of sorts in regards to how games are sold, and now even small upstart studios can make it big if their games do well in iTunes or Google Play. What’s even crazier to think about is the fact that many of the new successful mobile games don’t cost a dime to play, and can be fully enjoyed without ever opening your digital wallet. This free-to-play movement doesn’t always translate to a great game, often due to barriers put in place by a developer to make buying in-game items necessary for enjoyment, but a few studios have perfected this new business model.
Four mobile games from four different developers were released in 2013 that nailed the free-to-play model. Some are better than others, but each still manage to remain enjoyable and completely playable without ever having to pay for a single in-game item. If you’ve been searching for a free-to-play game that is actually worth investing your time in, then you will surely find the answer to your quest down below.
4. Star Wars: Tiny Death Star
Lucasarts took the Tiny Tower gameplay formula and slapped a Star Wars skin on it, and the result is one of the best mobile Star Wars games to ever hit smartphones. The fact that this charming little title is free just makes the experience even better. Tiny Death Star still offers in-game currency that can be purchased with cold hard cash in the form of Imperial Bux, but with some patience they’re not needed.
Patience is key with most free-to-play games since many of them require currency to speed gameplay up, but games like Tiny Death Star actually play better in small doses, so having to wait before your next major move isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve had a game running on my Galaxy Note 3 since the beginning of November and have yet to spend a single cent, yet I continue to love playing it for short spurts each and every day.
The bulk of the gameplay revolves around building an economy through the use of stores and bitizen apartments (8-bit Star Wars sprites), with the bitizens working in the stores you build to generate coins. With coins you can build new levels to increase your coin production, which lets you move in more bitizens to make more money.
Once you establish your Death Star your main interaction with the game will be clicking on each level to order new inventories so you can make more money. Quite frankly, this gameplay tactic isn’t that thrilling in long doses, so having to wait in-between sessions to avoid paying real money isn’t really a big deal. Tiny Death Star is the ideal time waster for those 5-10 minute lulls in life where you need to escape reality, and the fact that it’s free makes those brief gameplay moments even more satisfying.
3. Football Heroes
Football Heroes by Run Games is the nostalgic football simulator that old school gamers have been waiting for, and it doesn’t cost a thing to enjoy. This touch-controlled football game is what you get if Tecmo Bowl and Double Dragon had an NES baby: the visual design oozes with throwbacks to the 2D football side-scrolling action first made famous by 1989′s Tecmo Bowl. The gameplay takes things a bit further though, letting you physically assault the other team with kicks, punches, and super moves.
If you break a long run and a lone defender is hot on your heels you can turn around and punch him in the face, effectively stopping him in his tracks. If you need a couple yards for a first down you can enable your running back’s super spinning kick move to clear a path. Defenders have similar special abilities such as a spinning top tackle that turns your defender into a tornado of pain.
All of this unique gridiron gameplay is free of charge unless you want to speed up the RPG-like progression of your team by purchasing player card packs with more advanced moves and abilities. None of these are needed since you can earn enough in-game money to unlock new characters, so like most free-to-play titles the only way you’ll need to spend money in Football Heroes is if you can’t wait on player upgrades. There’s plenty of free content to keep you busy though, and you’re able to fully customize everything about your team, so there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself spending enough time in Football Heroes to never have the need to ever spend real money on it.
Platforms: iTunes, Google Play TBA
2. Injustice: Gods Among Us
Warner Bros. has perfected the free-to-play business model this year thanks to games like Injustice: Gods Among Us, which came out around the same time as the console version of the game. Players could download the game for free and actually unlock items in the console version just for playing the mobile title, and vice versa. The best part about this deal though is the fact that the mobile version is actually a blast to play, and doesn’t warrant in-game purchases.
Fighting games on touchscreen devices aren’t always the best because many of them rely on timed swipes for inputs like the Infinity Blade games, which just don’t feel engaging. This is not the case with Injustice: Gods Among Us, which still uses touch inputs, but they’re utilized in a way that feels like executing moves on a controller. It helps make the game feel like a full-fledged fighter, so the overall presentation is beyond impressive for a free-to-play title.
Like the other games on this list you can spend real money to unlock more advanced DC Comics fighters, but they’re not needed to enjoy the game and progress through it. You can still unlock new player cards just for playing through the ladder-style matches and coming out victorious, and sometimes you’ll even be rewarded with new cards for beating certain levels. If it weren’t for the repetitive gameplay model, Injustice: Gods Among Us would easily be the best free-to-play title of 2013.
1. Plants vs. Zombies 2
PopCap’s fan base was shocked when it found out that PvZ 2 would be free-to-play, because many in that group felt that the fantastic franchise would be ruined by in-game purchases. Once the game released though, many of these naysayers found out that a free-to-play Plants vs. Zombies game is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
What’s even more awesome is that PopCap recently removed all barriers that used to try to trick gamers into spending some moola. Before the latest update you could still very easily play PvZ 2 without ever spending money, but progressing through the game took quite a long time because you had to earn door keys and stars to unlock new areas for free. There was still plenty of content and challenges to keep you busy while you built up enough in-game cash to proceed, but the new update has made playing PvZ 2 for free even better. Door keys and stars are now gone, and have been replaced by a more linear progression system. You can now play through the levels without having to earn keys and stars to unlock new ones, and you even get new plants and upgrades without the need to spend in-game currency, or real cash.
Plants vs. Zombies 2 as it stands now is one of the most comprehensive and entertaining free-to-play video games ever released. It’s more of a gift from PopCap than a game meant to make the studio rich thanks to its latest update. This game can provide hours upon hours of fun and challenging gameplay that will never cost you anything more than your free time. If you’ve been searching for a free-to-play video game that has perfected this new video game business model you need to look no further than PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2.