When it comes to the world of mobile gaming, I am becoming ever more jaded about the “free to play” model. Far too many free downloads either hit you up for real cash almost immediately, or make important in-game items almost impossible to get without spending real dollars.
I understand that entertainment is a business. I really do. Game designers can’t stay in business if they aren’t making some real money. But that doesn’t mean they have to strong-arm people into spending it–just build a good game and then charge up front for it, or make it genuinely free to play and let the customers vote with their wallets by buying things they don’t have to buy.
Here is the first installment, in simple alphabetical order, of seven iPhone games that have done exactly that. Each of these games is free to download, and is then genuinely free to play. Of course, in each case there is a way you can spend money, if you choose to, but with all of these titles I got hours of excellent play without feeling any pressure to spend, which is the hallmark of a truly excellent free to play game. If you like this article, let me know, and I’ll round up some more.
1. Aqueduct Flow
Aqueduct Flow is a brand new, free-download configuration of Aqueduct, one of my all-time favorite iOS puzzle games. The download comes with 96 completely free levels, interspersed with the occasional 15-second full-screen ad. You can’t skip the ad, but 15 seconds isn’t long to wait to get back to your game, and the ads are not intrusive. They appear between levels here and there but will not interrupt a level’s gameplay.
Be advised that the advertisements do not run through the in-game sound system. Even if you mute the game music and sound, the ads will still play at normal volume. So if you’re trying to sneak in a game, put the phone on silent with the actual mute switch. The good news is the ads are appropriate–usually for other iOS games or for shows that you might be interested in–so they shouldn’t feel like a nuisance.
If you want more levels than the first 96, you need to pay to open them up, but I’ve never had any problem with paying for extra content.
2. Fun Run
One of my favorite teens added this one to the list: a multiplayer racing game with cute animal avatars and power-ups that let you, for example, electrocute or decapitate your friends. What’s not to like? There are plenty of in-game upgrades available for sale–you can change and dress up your avatar with a wide range of customizable options–but the game is fun enough that the process of earning them is actually enjoyable.
Just for the record, I don’t object to in-game purchases. I object to in-game purchases that help you avoid play time because you’re too hideously bored to actually play the game that you’re trying to buy things in.
3. Hill Climb Racing
Another one of my favorite teens added this one: a hilarious solo racing game involving epic hang time and killer moves… literally. Zip through hilly landscapes–even on the moon–and try not to flip your vehicle over onto your head while you collect coins and gas cans to keep the race going just as long as you can. In-game purchases might look like they cost a lot of in-game coins until you see how quickly you can rack up the cash. And again, the play itself is enjoyable enough that earning the cash in-game doesn’t feel like a chore.
4. Major Mayhem
Kill ninjas, kill mobsters, save your girlfriend. With multiple play-style options, this game can just keep going… and going… and going… but the story-mode levels can easily be completed without spending any real cash whatsoever. If you want to get all three stars on each level, you’re going to need a weapon upgrade and maybe some power ups for good measure, but these are easy to purchase with the in-game currency you’ll get from playing the game through the first time.
I have a nice selection of weapons and a heart-emblazoned combat helmet that I bought entirely from currency earned in-game. It’s a fun title, and I give it an A+ for adding a bit of a story line, an element that is often sorely lacking in mobile gaming.
5. Mino Monsters
It will take you a while to finish this combat pet fighting game, but it is entirely doable without spending any real money. The pets are highly collectible and range in “feel” from adorable to imposing, and you can get enough time out of a single play session before running out of health that you’ll probably be OK with putting it down for a while to let your pets regenerate their heal timer.
As in any of these titles, part of the key to playing it without spending money is being willing to put it down in between sessions, but I’ve tried several pet combat games, and this is my favorite so far.
6. Star Wars: Tiny Death Star
This is the newest addition to my personal play list, and I’ve been enjoying it more than I expected. The Emperor and Vader have run out of funds in the middle of building the Death Star. What are a couple of evil Sith Lords to do? Why, build a space-faring residential shopping complex, of course!
Yes, yes, I know. You’re working for the Dark Side. It’s a problem, I admit, but one I was willing to ignore pretty quickly as my cute little “bitizens” started to move into my brand new Death Star apartments. Build residential, food, retail, service, and entertainment establishments while funding the construction of “underground” imperial levels for various nefarious purposes.
While you might choose to spend money on any of these games, they are all thoroughly playable without spending a single real-life dime. Is your favorite free title missing from this list? Let me know in the comments!