With the European Union currently investigating misleading free-to-play games, the future of the microtransaction model could be in contention around the world.
And it’s no wonder – from Candy Crush to Dungeon Keeper, many free-to-play games have been getting players hot under the collar with their "pay to win" design.
But while some games shamelessly penalise players who refuse to delve into their wallets, other titles have taken a much better approach. We’ve rounded up our five best and five worst games to show you who’s getting it right, and who’s giving free-to-play a bad name.
Not only one of the best examples of free-to-play done right, but an elegant use of mobile multiplayer. What could be better than flailing at goo-slathered control panels, sparking and falling apart as your spaceship twirls into a solar flare as you bark phrases like "expunge shockcrane" and "set hearing aid to 7"?
Often missing from other lists of notable F2P games, you’d be forgiven for missing its microtransactions completely. Stocking challenges, ship liveries, outfits and ridiculous alien hieroglyphics, Spaceteam’s exhilaration alone is encouragement enough to consider these frivolities. With cross-play between Android and iOS devices, you won’t have more fun with friends on phones than this.
Few games capture the grand, terrifying scale of three-way warfare quite like Planetside 2. The staple shooter is one of the more complex genres to refine and preserve during the F2P process, but Sony maintains the ever-so-delicate balance of PVP difficulty and progression with largely superficial upgrades, most of which can eventually be earned without spending a penny.
Planetside 2 two’s double-pronged approach means it also contains Premium Memberships, $15.99/month for early build access, XP bonuses and additional character slots. There are terrifying one-man armies here, deriving sweet joy from a permanent feeling of total insignificance. You’ll feel like Lassie caught in the crossfire at the Somme.
Free-to-play conjures images of the quaint mobile puzzler, PC MMO or Facebook monstrosity, but there is another way. Hattrick is a browser-based football management-come role playing game, and 2009 saw it top 1 million active users.
Matches play out in real time, largely against other players, starting at the very bottom of each nation’s league system. FIFA’s seasons, but with real tangible progression.
Optional tiered Supporter’s fees merely add a sprinkle cosmetic and advanced analytical features and cost below $15. For a slow-burning football management game, look no further.
Dota 2/League of Legends
No F2P list can exist without lending a cursory glance at the heavy hitters of Dota 2 and League of Legends, the razor-sharp claws on the big MOBA crab. It’s probably not entirely fair to lump the pair together when they’re tackling micro-transactions quite differently, but they both do it well.
Each week LoL sees a new crop of free character rotations, eight at a time, holding the rest ransom for Riot Point bribes, ranging from around $12 down to $3. RP can also buy a set menu of the additional skins, boosts and modifiers. Dota 2’s purchasables are all non-essentials, with every hero available for hire all day, every day, and the more palatable of the two systems.
A non-physical card game might not sound the most riveting, especially one still in beta, but even in the depths of beta testing Hearthstone’s winning hearts and minds all over the shop.
Basic card decks are unlocked through progression, with individual boosters available with gold. Precisely like bonafide TGCs, boosters can be purchased with real money at will, allowing for variation and specialisation, without gaining an outright advantage.
Powered by Blizzard, Battle.net and the force of a thousand Warcraft stories, making the essentialist’s version of Magic: The Gathering. Matches and characters all drip with personality, so encounters feel unique, yet predictable enough for the right degree of tactical awareness.
Candy Crush Saga
It’s a shame that a game spearheading the mumification of games is so egregious in its monetisation, but a more softly-softly approach wouldn’t bring in hundreds of thousands a day.
King’s Candy Crush Saga uses what many would call "coercive monetisation" with a system that requires a fictional currency to obscure its true monetary value. With a function similar to one-armed bandits, power spenders have been known to drop thousands on Candy Crush.
"You come at the king, you best not miss," the immortal words of The Wire’s Omar Little, a phrase befitting Candy Crush Saga and its creator’s aggressive and unfounded attempts to thwart not just the competition, but the use of any word featured it its already spectacularly generic title.
Angry Birds Go!
Nobody predicted the dawn of the Angry Birds generation, but that once Mars bar-priced physics puzzler now has its greasy wings in every nook and cranny of popular culture. Walk into any supermarket – the snack and drink aisles are covered with a myriad of tangentially relevant products, all aimed at children.
Beyond the system’s expected shortcomings, you’d think a F2P mobile kart racer might take certain precautions so as to avoid exploiting its tiny, mushy-headed users, but you’d be wrong.
The most expensive cost a distressing $50 – half the price they were on release – and are by far the most powerful carts available. Does that sound okay to you?
FIFA’s Ultimate Team
A slightly sneaky entry, perhaps, but then so is Ultimate Team. There’s something additionally sinister about embedding a free-to-play game within a retail video gaming behemoth.
Unlike Hearthstone, Ultimate Team is all about volume, an economy skewed so any player rated over 85 is near-unattainable for those who refuse to pay, except through phenomenal chance. Enticing card packs are overpriced and only an option for the serial grinder.
When your average match pays out 400-500 coins, and winning a league around 5000, you can forget about Messi. Sustainability is more than possible, but settling for that within a paid game feels nothing short of egregious.
Clash of Clans
Mention F2P to a given group of people and about two-thirds will instinctively recoil with revulsion. Clash of Clans is one reason why. It’s precisely what most people think the majority of F2P games are like, and the reason the model is so maligned.
It’s the classic case of quite deliberately shrouding game design with frustration, prodding and riling the player into parting with their money. Largely in order to bypass its artificial time barriers; finishing a town hall early to train better troops, to allow for more progression in battles. ‘Classic’ F2P in a sense, its placement of money before entertainment leaves Clash of Clans so open to criticism.
Chipping out even the most modest-sized room can take real-life days, and at its core a shameless replication of the aforementioned Clash of Clans. Not only do microtransactions sully a good memory, but in this instance counter-intuitive to strategy.
When failure has little to no consequence, what on earth is the point? Attacks are automatically repaired without your say so, with maybe a handful of resources pinched – strategy means nothing if every approach works the same.
Reboot? Check. Nineties nostalgia trip? Check. Misguided attempt at shoehorning classic, timeless game design into time gates and several forms of deliberately obfuscating currency? Check. 2014’s Dungeon Keeper has it all and less.
Getting the balance right: a Plants vs Zombies 2 investigation