Worth the price of admission
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 May 2019: Added several games and updated text on the others.
Last time we updated this list, we had to specifically refer to "Fortnite: Battle Royale" to distinguish it from its horde-mode predecessor. I hardly think that's necessary now.
In the ensuing year, Fortnite's become the largest game in the world, boasting 250 million registered accounts and a peak of 10.8 million concurrent players. It's so big, it forced Sony to consider crossplay between the PlayStation and other platforms. It hosted a virtual concert attended by millions. It even earned enough to allow Epic to open its own Steam competitor, and dole out plenty of money for exclusive games on top. It's a force of nature.
And it's still going. Epic continues to update the game at a prodigious rate, changing the map, the guns, the skins, the emotes, the core mechanics, basically everything on a regular basis. At its core Fortnite is still a battle royale with a building component, but Epic's live-service treatment is the real story here.
For a while it seemed like the battle royale genre had cemented around Fortnite and Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, and that no newcomer could break through. Then Respawn surprise-released Apex Legends in February and it became an overnight success.
At its core this is easily Fortnite's stiffest competition, introducing a respawn mechanic (heh) to the battle royale genre, as well as a "ping" system that let players call out weapons and enemies without actually using a microphone—both quickly "borrowed" by Fortnite. Apex also integrated elements of the hero-shooter genre, with healers, tanks, ultra-mobile robots, and so on, which gave it more personality than the bevy of PUBG clones.
The narrative's cooled a bit in the short time since the game’s launch, with Respawn suffering from uh...not pulling Epic-like crunch hours. Apex hasn't been as quick to add guns or rework the map, and the first battle pass was largely underwhelming. Hopefully Respawn can make it through Apex's growing pains and keep the game healthy for years to come. They're a talented team, and could use a smash hit—even if only to fund Titanfall 3.
Warframe should be one of the bad free-to-play games. It gets repetitive. It’s a grind at times. There are major balance issues. There’s a lot of waiting around, which can be “solved” by dumping money into the game. It is, in other words, a predatory free-to-play game.
But for some reason none of that matters. In many ways, Warframe fulfills the promise of Destiny—excellent mechanics supporting an excellent feedback loop. You grind, sure. It’s a Skinner box. But it’s a Skinner box where you play as a space ninja, and the minute-to-minute game is so fun it’s easy to find yourself hundreds of hours down the hole even after acknowledging the game’s faults.
Credit to Digital Extremes for supporting the game, too. 2017's Plains of Eidolon expansion added a whole open-world area to Warframe, completely changing the way you interacted with the game, while 2018's Fortuna expansion refined those ideas even further. Pretty impressive for a game that helped kick off this entire console generation.
Path of Exile
Path of Exile's another one that's been kicking around for the entire console generation, and looks to continue long into the future. And why not? 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. Every year there's at least one major expansion, sometimes two, and it's all free. In 2017 that meant The Fall of Oriath, which added six new acts to the game and essentially doubled its size, as well as the Atlas of Worlds expansion at the end of the year. Then in 2018 there was Betrayal, which added an entire hierarchy of characters to interact with—and, of course, to score loot off.
It's a pretty incredible action-RPG. Highly recommended for fans of click-click-click combat.
It's been five years or so since I first wrote this list, and MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) have waned a bit in popularity—but not that much. You don't hear about them as often, and the cash-grab clones have mostly moved to battle royales. That said, MOBAs still have a staggering number of users, and Dota 2 maintains the record for the largest esports prize pool ever, with The International 8 featuring a prize pool of $25.5 million in 2018. It’s huge.
If you've still never dipped your toe in the MOBA waters...well, it's a bit hard to recommend now. The people who've stuck with the genre all this time are pretty hardcore. For the curious, though: 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, more likely, 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.
Here's a Wiki. Good luck.
League of Legends
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. And like Dota 2, the people who are still playing it tend to be very invested at this point.
Say that doesn't bother you, though. You want to play a MOBA. Hell, you need to play a MOBA. In that case, 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 art style appeals more, 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.
Heroes of the Storm
There are a few other MOBAs of note, though none have reached the same heights as Dota 2 and League. Heroes of the Storm probably takes third place, benefiting from Blizzard’s usual attention to detail and a certain willingness to experiment—a hero controlled by two players for example, or a hero that’s actually three heroes in one. That said, Heroes of the Storm ceased its esports efforts last year and people generally fear that it's a so-called "dead game." For now Blizzard's still updating it, but there's no telling how long that last.
Smite also has its share of fans, taking the usual MOBA routine and pairing it with a more action-oriented camera, like a third-person shooter. And Battlerite is worth checking out if you want something more streamlined. It’s just hero-versus-hero action, without mob enemies and all the other stuff that’s come to define the Dota-style games.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Team Fortress 2 is the first non-MMO I remember pivoting from paid to free-to-play—and it's still one of the most popular games on Steam, a decade later. But Valve made the same transition with another of its games, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, last year, finally dropping the $10 price tag that was (ostensibly) supposed to inhibit cheaters.
Counter-Strike was already one of Valve's biggest games, but even more so after going free-to-play. As I write this, it's the second-most active on Steam (behind Dota 2) and has six times as many players as Team Fortress 2. Suffice it to say, it's popular.
It's also hard as hell, which might dampen your own enjoyment—or might not. That's pretty much what Counter-Strike is known for, an ultra-competitive and reflex-driven shooter that rewards deep knowledge of the maps and weapons. A significant number of its fans have played some iteration of Counter-Strike for nearly two decades now. But on the other hand if you can master Counter-Strike, you've mastered basically every shooter. So you've got that to look forward to, some day.
Fighting games are typically underrepresented in the free-to-play category, so it’s refreshing to see Brawlhalla, a free-to-play fighter that’s kinda, sorta reminiscent of Super Smash Bros if you squint at it real hard. The art style’s underwhelming to me, but it has that same frenzied feel to it, and thus makes for a great party game. Download, grab a few friends, enjoy. Matches support up to eight players, which is suitably chaotic.
Those who want to go deeper? Good luck. Like any fighting game (and most multiplayer games, really), the community can be unwelcoming at times. “Toxic” is thrown around in more than a few Steam reviews, probably for good reason. I’ll stick to treating it like a fun party game, I think.
I'm a bit torn about throwing EVE: Online on this list. CCP’s loosened up the restrictions on free-to-play users a bit since the initial pivot, but it’s still very much a try-before-you-buy situation. Free-to-play users, or “Alpha Clones,” are restricted to battleships and battlecruisers, can only train a subset of skills, and so on. If you want the full EVE experience, you’ll probably end up paying eventually.
But for a game that's traditionally been near-impossible for newcomers to get into, free-to-play might be a good thing. Once you get through its impenetrable spreadsheet-style interface you'll find EVE can be excellent, full of backroom politics and betrayals and friendships so strong they translate over to the real world. But that's only after you get past its spreadsheet-style interface.
It's as fascinating as it is intimidating. If you've read any stories about EVE's amazing battles and wanted to check out the rest of the game for yourself without committing to a monthly subscription, now's your chance.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty turns nine this year, a fact that’s both horrifying and...well, just horrifying. (For reference: Brood War was twelve when Wings of Liberty released.)
Those of you who’ve been very patient are in luck though, as Blizzard celebrated StarCraft II’s longevity by making Wings of Liberty free in late 2017. Both the campaign as well as pieces of the multiplayer experience are now freely accessible through Battle.net, making StarCraft II probably the best free-to-play RTS available. The custom game mode (Arcade) is still free too, for those who prefer a less serious version of StarCraft II.
And if you already own Wings of Liberty but not the expansions? Blizzard will give you a copy of follow-up Heart of the Swarm instead. You’ll still need to purchase the grand finale Legacy of the Void, though.
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 option.
Skip the spin-off Realm Royale though. That was Paladins's attempt at a battle royale mode, and while it seems the overall quality's improved a bit lately, the player counts haven't. Dead game? Maybe not, but certainly one that's in danger.
Whether or not VRChat qualifies as “free-to-play” for you probably rests on whether you already own a virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift/Rift S or the HTC Vive/Vive Pro. If not...well, this might be the most expensive game you ever play.
But for those who do own a VR headset, VRChat is one of the best things to hit the platform so far. It’s the promise of Neuromancer and Snow Crash’s virtual hangout spaces, except it turns out the reality is more like the world’s stupidest message board than the slick cyberpunk future people expected. Think Second Life except somehow...weirder.
Virtual reality is full of interesting free experiences, actually, which helps offset the cost of the hardware. They're short, for the most part, but experiment with VR in some interesting ways. If you're looking for more, might I recommend Google Earth VR, Taphouse VR, VR Flush, Desert Bus VR, Nefertari, or some of the Google Spotlight Stories?
Doki Doki Literature Club
Traditionally this list has focused more on "free-to-play" experiences than "free" experiences, but with Flash dead it seems like Steam's the platform of choice for a lot of experimental or lo-fi games, sans-price tag. Doki Doki Literature Club is the first on our list, a somewhat short and story-heavy singleplayer experience. On the surface, it’s a visual novel about teenagers in the titular literature club. One of those types of visual novels, where all the ladies want to date you.
But uh...suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to Doki Doki Literature Club. Saying more would spoil it, so I’ll leave it at that, but if you have even a passing interest in visual novels you should probably check this one out. I mean, it’s free so there’s not a huge investment on your part.
Cube Escape: Paradox
I’d be remiss not to add Cube Escape: Paradox as well, given how much I enjoyed it—and the series. Paradox isn’t fully free, with a paid second half that’s arguably the better of the two sections. Still, it’s a great entry-point to the Cube Escape/Rusty Lake mythos, a Victorian Gothic-inspired room escape that’s heavy on the macabre. Paradox also includes an ambitious short film, done up in the same style and which ties into the overall plot, which is a treat.
If that’s not enough, there are nine other Cube Escape games of varying lengths available for free in your browser. And hey, maybe you’ll like the style enough to pony up a dollar or two for Rusty Lake Hotel, Rusty Lake: Roots, and Rusty Lake Paradise. In my opinion they’re some of the best adventure games of the modern era—not so much for the puzzles, but for the atmosphere and the lore.
Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle
Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle is interesting because the developers basically took their old game Slayaway Camp, dressed it up in Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask, and made it free-to-play. Or somewhat free-to-play.
And while Slayaway Camp is probably the better game, because it’s a premium experience without any annoying free-to-play tendencies or pricey add-ons, Killer Puzzle is still a great way to get a taste of the same isometric puzzle-solving for free. You play as Jason himself, attempting to kill a bunch of campers in delicious low-poly style. The catch is you’re essentially on-ice, moving as far as the grid allows on each turn.
There are nearly a hundred levels to work through even if you don’t pay for the later episodes, which seems like more than enough to qualify for this list—though there’s always Slayaway Camp if you don’t want to deal with nagware.
Like many of the free story-driven games on Steam, Burning Daylight is short. You can easily finish it in less than an hour.
What an experience, though. The Steam page sums it up best: “Waking up naked in a grotesque slaughterhouse, you have no recollection of who you are or where you come from. Your only clue is a mysterious tattoo on your chest. You must now escape and travel through a dystopian society in order to uncover the mysteries of your origin.”
Your escape is rendered so artfully, harrowing factories giving way to grimy apartment blocks and neon-drenched advertisements, while an oppressive synth soundtrack bears down on your eardrums. The game itself is a lot of “Holding the analog stick to the right,” and Burning Daylight certainly doesn’t seem shy about its Inside influences, but the scope is pretty awe-inspiring nevertheless—especially the amount of ground covered in such a short time. I hope the team of students that created the game has the opportunity to work on something more elaborate next.
Coloring Game/Coloring Pixels
Lastly, a pair of more meditative experiences for when you’re frustrated by Dota 2 or need to come down from whatever-the-hell Burning Daylight is trying to tell you.
Coloring Game and Coloring Pixels are very similar, essentially digital paint-by-numbers games that let you fill in gridded artwork with the correct colors, one pixel at a time. Of the two, Coloring Pixels (pictured) is more relaxing—quiet piano music, and artwork that spans from simple three-color symbols up to 400 by 400 works of art. Coloring Game is lighter on content at the moment, but the gimmick is that finished artworks are animated, which is cute.
Regardless of which you choose, both are great when you just want to throw on a podcast and zone out. We all could use that sometimes.
Level up your graphics firepower
Most of these free PC games should run just fine on a wide spectrum of hardware, but if you find frame rates lagging, an upgrade might be in order. PCWorld’s guide to the best graphics cards for PC gaming can help you find the best option no matter what resolution you’re running or how much cash you have in your pocket.
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