The top ten must-have free-to-play games

The top ten must-have free-to-play games

By Jon Jordan

February 29th 2012 at 10:30AM

Inspired by the F2P summit, Jon Jordan offers a motivational list of the worlds finest freemium titles

Although we consider free-to-play games a fashion that’s exploded in recent years, it’s actually been around for over a decade, especially in Asian countries hamstrung by piracy and access to PCs.

It was the likes of MySpace and Facebook that kickstarted the market in the US and Europe, however. And now with mobile platforms dominated by the model, it’s truly cross-platform and global.

So, with the first F2P Summit kicking off in London on March 28th, let’s take a look at ten of the most interesting games that let you play for free, if only because they are happy to lighten your wallet in return for your enjoyment.

RuneScape (Jagex)

Arguably the most successful UK game of that decade, RuneScape’s release back in 2001 meant it’s not what we’d now consider a pure free-to-play title. Instead of micro-transactions, it is monetised via a monthly subscription payment; much more friendly in terms of its young audience. It claims ten million active accounts per month, and 156 million total registrations.

Crazy Racing Kart Rider (Nexon)

Released in 2004 in Korea, Crazy Racing Kart Rider is one of the best early examples of casual free-to-play based on micro-transactions. Inspired by Mario Kart, the multiplayer PC racer was a massive domestic success, also going on to international glory with over 230 million players to date.

Mobsters (Playdom)

Hey, do you remember when MySpace was the hottest social network on the planet? Yeah, way, way back in 2009, Playdom’s mafia game was the don on the platform that News Corp dropped $580 million on to acquire.

FarmVille (Zynga)

Not the first in the genre or on the platform, but Zynga’s social time management game remains the title that’s come to define free-to-play Facebook gaming. Love it or loathe it, this is where the Ville-style grew from, and even if the mechanics and graphics now seem dated, it remains massively popular.

GodFinger All-Stars (ngmoco)

Not as well as known as the ngmoco-published We Rule, nevertheless GodFinger was an interesting approach to free-to-play gaming on iOS. Taking more of a core gamer attitude, it combined god game mechanics with a neat 2D sidescrolling playfield that incorporated terraforming elements.

Words With Friends (Zynga)

An interesting release, considering the developer’s past experience at RTS-heavy Ensemble Studios, Words With Friends is the prime example of taking a well-loved boardgame mechanic and sprinkling it with the gold dust of asynchronous multiplayer.

Smurfs’ Village (Capcom)

One of the big surprise stories of 2010, Capcom’s skill with Smurfs’ Village was realising the value the previously ignored licence possessed, at least for a certain age of players.

Yet for those very reasons, it also became a lighting rod for wider concerns about the virtual goods business model, resulting in Apple tweaking its iTunes log-in process. It has since become successful on Facebook.

Tiny Tower (NimbleBit)

Proving that even two-man indies can get in on the free-to-play action, US outfit NimbleBit actually prototyped Tiny Tower without any in-app purchases to ensure it was fun to play.

Combined with excellent sprite graphics and obvious attention to detail, its reward was being Apple US’s Game of the Year, boasting over one million daily active players.

The Sims Social (EA/Playfish)

Following its $400 million acquisition in 2009, Playfish has led EA’s casual business, with an increasing focus on bringing the publisher’s brands to Facebook. Its biggest success has been The Sims Social, which quickly became one of the platform’s most popular games, with over 20 million monthly active users.

My Horse (NaturalMotion Games)

From middleware based on AI-controlled animation to a free-to-play iOS game about horses, UK outfit NaturalMotion’s business has clearly taken a new direction in recent years.

Now focused on the smartphone freemium sector, the high-end graphically realistic 3D game My Horse has been a big hit, with over seven million downloads and over 500,000 daily active users grooming, feeding and treating their equine pets.