The idea of a video game being free used to mean it was either extremely low budget, low quality, or the free features were just a demo to get someone into the portion of the game that actually costs money. Over the last decade, however, that has changed significantly. With smash hits like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and League of Legends being full games that cost nothing and most of the profits coming from cosmetics, the video game industry completely changed.
Of course, this has come with some negative consequences. Some free games feel predatory, cash grabby, or half-baked. We are in a weird age where a game doesn’t necessarily need to be complete at launch — it can receive updates and be improved while people are playing it. We’ve seen this with games like Sea of Thieves, but we’ve also seen it with games that never actually got better or were given the chance to. This is why we wanted to reward the free games that are providing the kind of content we enjoy, don’t feel particularly predatory, and in some ways are introducing us to a deeper experience with our money at a later point.
Pokémon is a franchise that really can be reused for anything Game Freak or Nintendo wants. While the franchise is primarily known as an RPG, there have been plenty of spin-offs over the years so few ideas really surprise us anymore. That said, when Pokémon Unite was announced, it would have been fair to approach it with skepticism. A Pokémon MOBA? How is that going to work in a space that is completely dominated by League of Legends and DOTA? It turns out, the game is better than anyone could have seen coming. By simplifying the formula and adding Pokémon-specific features like evolution, it became extremely accessible to the crowd that didn’t want to dive into more hardcore MOBA’s. Add in its portability on the Switch and Pokémon Unite was a free to play game that everyone couldn’t stop talking about for months. Also, where else can we find dapper Blastoise?
Final Fantasy XIV
Have you tried the expanded Free Trial of our critically acclaimed MMORPG #FFXIV?
You can play through the entirety of A Realm Reborn and the award-winning Heavensward expansion up to level 60 for FREE with no restrictions on playtime! https://t.co/TyO1aUnpxT pic.twitter.com/Dncfg7ldFM
— FINAL FANTASY XIV (@FF_XIV_EN) April 17, 2021
One meme that popped up throughout 2021 was built off of simply explaining all the features that exist within Final Fantasy XIV. Square Enix’s hit MMORPG may have had to once be brought back from the dead after the failure of its first installment, but these days, it has swiftly moved past World of Warcraft as the MMO that everyone is playing, in part because players character can reach level 60 and play the Heavensward expansion completely free with no limit on playtime. That is basically two full games worth of content with no charge. Of course, by the time the majority of players get through all of that, they’re likely to shell out the money to play the further expansions, but this isn’t a developer hiding content behind a paywall, or a demo disguised as content. A player can stop after completing Heavensward and reaching level 60 if they choose and be completely satisfied. That’s just a great incentive to try the game out and it’s an incentive that is paying huge dividends for Square Enix.
As the amount of Battle Royale’s continues to grow, it can be difficult for a developer to differentiate itself. How can their game feel and look different than Fortnite or Apex Legends? Leave it to Nintendo to figure out one way. First there was Tetris 99, then the short-lived Mario 35, and now, there is Pac-Man 99. Nintendo’s idea of taking retro games, throwing everyone in their own matches, and then letting these players try to play well enough to knock one another out is pretty brilliant. Pac-Man 99 is fun, fairly competitive among those who play the game at a high level, and can make for a really good weekend or a long-time love. It’s one of those games that’s fun to boot up every once in a while and play a few rounds before signing out for another few months. Sure, the people who log in every day to complete the weekly challenges are going to destroy you in the endgame, but that’s the beauty of free to play. We only have to commit as much time as we want to the game.
Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis
For a long time, Phantasy Star Online 2 was a relatively successful MMORPG that was available only in Japan and a handful of other countries. While a vocal group of fans really wanted the game to get an official release in the U.S. and Europe, it felt like that was never going to happen. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the game was announced for a worldwide release in 2019 and hit consoles a year later to moderate success. Then in 2021, catching many of us off guard, a huge expansion that completely reworked the game was released. Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis refreshed the nine-year-old MMO and modernized it, all for free. Anyone can access what really feels like a brand new game and have a good time with it. There are microtransactions and whatnot, as expected out of every MMO, but it’s so rare to see a game that had been successful get reworked like this almost out of nowhere. There was a point where we didn’t think the game was ever going to come out in America. Now, it’s here with a completely fresh coat of paint.
Deltarune Chapter 2
Deltarune Chapter 2 came out this year when Toby Fox suddenly announced the game’s release date on the sixth anniversary of Undertale. Not only that, but the game was free and anyone who wanted to play the first game, Deltarune, could play that for free as well. This was unprecedented for someone who created a story-based game. Deltarune Chapter 2 doesn’t have microtransactions, or a multiplayer mode, or any of the traditional ways games make money. At most, you can purchase the soundtrack. Fox made a game that has been as beloved, and well-liked, as Deltarune Chapter 2 and released it completely for free. Go play it, it’s a good time and worth the investment.