F2P You and Me: Your Guide to Free PC Gaming
Gaming isn't cheap. Especially on consoles where fragile discs or licensed downloads can cost a pretty penny. It can be if you wait around for the right sales, at the right time, on the right platform. But who likes waiting? Not you, that's who! That's why we've made this guide, so that no matter what quality of PC hardware you're working with, you'll have endless hours of entertainment right at your fingertips at all times!
On Steam (and Origin, too!)
Steam's Free to Play section comes to mind first and foremost. Though not the world's biggest free-to-play (F2P) game, Team Fortress 2 is surely one of the most popular PC shooters for casual and hardcore alike. And that includes costly rivals like Battlefield and Call of Duty. But, like with many F2P games, while you don't have to pay a dime, you'll probably end up spending quite a bit on hats that don't do a thing besides make you look really, really awesome.
Outside of TF2, there's a plethora of games on Steam (many of which don't require Steam) all available for free. Dota 2 is one of the biggest MOBA games around right now, and one of the best (though be wary of the learning curve). Marvel Heroes is a brilliant Diablo clone set in the Marvel Universe. Warframe is a space ninja-esque (wat) FPS that very much feels like the glory days of Diablo 2. Planetside 2 is a huge and popular MMOFPS. Elsword is a very fun action RPG with a side-scrolling anime flavor. There are MMOs and strategy games, racing and sports and adventure and RPGs. Multiplayer, co-op, PvP, single player. Anything your heart could desire.
EA's Origin has a great number of F2P games as well, including Command & Conquer, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Ultima, Need for Speed, and a great many more.
Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. 5v5. Several lanes defended by towers and a constant stream of mindless allies (and minions, too, har har). League of Legends and Dota 2 are the prime examples, the latter we already mentioned under Steam. There are no guarantees that once you get into either of these titles that you won't wind up spending hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars on simple cosmetic upgrades.
The basic MOBA map.
This is usually the case with any F2P game. TF2 is a notable example, with many simple items like hats, shirts, badges and more on sale for anywhere from $5-15. Dota 2's microtransaction system is the exact same, in addition to the many announcer packs, couriers, and HUD skins you can buy. LoL only really has skins for the champions, but they certainly do accomplish the same goal: personalized aesthetics, variations in design and fun new looks for the player to enjoy.
In fact, when browsing the F2P market, microtransactions are a big factor to watch out for. Many games follow a model that offers the gameplay for free, with all the cool items you could want for sale. Always keep in mind, however, that many games alternatively follow a "pay-to-win" approach, which allows players to buy their way to better gear, higher levels and greater advantages over those who haven't spent a dime on the game. Additionally, never forget the number one rule of the internet: if you are getting something absolutely free (and devoid of microtransactions to support it), you are the product being sold (or rather, your eyeballs for ads, etc.). This isn't always the case, there are many developers who release their content solely for the love of the game. But it's something to keep in mind.
Although some other offerings in the genre aren't F2P (e.g., Guardians of Middle-earth, Awesomenauts), most of them are. In fact, as the genre has grown exponentially in popularity across the world stage, many variations have sprung up around the basic core gameplay. Super Monday Night Combat is a third-person shooter with towers, minions and lanes. Smite follows the traditional MOBA formula, except that the view is not isometric but third-person. Both Blizzard, EA and DC Comics will be introducing their own MOBAs in the future, so the genre has many exciting additions to come.
Some of the very first games to popularize the F2P model were MMOs. Runescape has to be one of the biggest and longest-lasting MMOs on that market. MapleStory and Ragnorak are certainly up there too. But, the success they had was largely chalked up to the fact that they weren't on par with the triple-A MMO models we see today and could therefore be offered at no cost as a sign of their lack of expensive graphics. Most big MMOs like World of Warcraft, Everquest, Lord of the Rings, etc. all started out with the traditional sales model, charging first for the game and then a monthly subscription fee for account and server upkeep.
This is where addition begins.
Then, publishers realized the power that the F2P model brings to the table. Now, a great swath of MMOs are F2P, if only for the first several levels. This can still allow players to derive a great amount of playtime from a simple free account, focusing on introductory content instead of end game raids and the like. In fact, a list would be a bit redundant as just about any MMO out there that wasn't released this year will have a F2P version.
Any young internet user, especially from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, is surely familiar with the vast amount of quick and simple, browser-based Flash games that have always been available for free. They were rarely very long, and more often than not featured stick figures or, at best, cartoony graphics. But, those are some fond memories to be had, and that market has only grown in size since then.
Most people will be familiar with the king of free Flash games sites: NewGrounds. Since the mid 1990s, trademark-infringing, overtly sexualized, highly addictive games have found their home in this community. In fact, the site has grown tremendously since then, now coming to include various communities for movies, shorts, art and music.
A great number of similar sites abound, such as Kongregate, offering the same thing, though many are riddled with ads, awful ripoffs, and overly casual card and board game ports meant for the non-gamer. For the old schoolers among us, sites like NESCafe offer a brilliant selection of much older games that are available in browser. Super Mario Bros., Shadowgate, Duck Tales; they've got the lot.
Lumosity is a very notable example that stands out for its "brain training" approach to games. Instead of the traditional categories, Lumosity games are listed by Speed, Memory, Attention, Flexibility, and Problem Solving. These are a great way to help keep those neurons nice and elastic. For those looking to improve their reflexes and reaction timing, Reddit user Vynile provided a great list of free games available here. Some are in-browser, some are small downloads, but all are great examples of good, quick, fun gameplay.
I should be reprimanded for not mentioning NetHack until now. Originally presented in 1987 as an expansive roguelike with simple ASCII graphics, NetHack is the Dark Souls of the 8-bit generation. If a friend tells you they ascended with the Amulet of Yendor, they are lying. Free, never graphically intense, and available on just about any platform, NetHack is just about the best example of lo-fi RPG gaming you could hope for.
Well-loved games like Super Meat Boy, Cave Story+, and n+ are all available online a set price. Fortunately, the good developers found it in their heart to provide older versions of the game with fewer features for free on their websites. Make sure to look into a great many of your favorite indie games, as their developers will often do the same for their loving and dedicated communities. Spelunky not only gives you a free version, but the source code as well for those so inclined!
Free for All!
One of the best parts of enjoying F2P games is sharing them with your friends, knowing full well that there's no reason they can't play too. They are rarely graphically intensive, or at least can be turned down to match your specs. So spread the good word! Post some of your favorite F2P games, as there are so many good ones out there, it's tough to make a list that doesn't leave a number of brilliant offerings out of the picture. Game on, freely!