Okay, the headline is rather incendiary -- I know exactly why I'm playing these games, but that old pretense that free-to-play games aren't "real" is still fun to play with. The fact is, I'm still playing these games because they're designed to retain players -- they keep offering you new carrots at the ends of new sticks -- compelling reasons to log in, support your guild, or grind for a few hours on this or that particular day or hour.
Free-to-play games aren't for everyone, and not every free-to-play game is for me -- but games with a live, active team can deliver a trickle of entertaining content over a much longer period of time than games that "fire and forget." And it's this engagement that brings me back, from points of both personal and professional curiosity. I won't deny that part of the play loops for many of these games feels like work, or a compulsion -- but as games that support these models evolve, I find them more and more compelling.
Epic Heroes / I Am MT by Locojoy
What a curiosity this game is. Epic Heroes, formerly called I Am MT (it's still known by that name in China), is a dungeon grinding game based on a Chinese animated web series (called I Am MT), in turn based on characters from World of Warcraft.
I first saw this game while riding the metro in Shanghai. A young man was playing it while on the train, and my curiosity was piqued -- it clearly "borrowed" UI and progression elements from Puzzle & Dragons, but used character cards in certain configurations to defeat enemies in long dungeon crawls. What compelled me most about it was it seemed you didn't have to do much "work" yourself.
I asked my friend who worked for Com2Us at the time, and he immediately knew -- this was (then) the number one game in China. I gave it a shot in October of 2013, and now I'm almost level 120. I'm vice-chair of my guild. I am almost at the end of my journey with this game, but it managed to hold me for over a year.
Several things compel me about this game. For one, it truly does require very little input. Aside from building up and equipping your characters, arranging your team, and choosing dungeons, everything else is automatic. This means, for the modern multitasker, it's a good game to put on while you're eating dinner and watching TV, or to simply run in the background and pay occasional attention to. Over the course of my playing, they even included more efficient methods of running dungeons in even less time. They clearly know their audience values efficiency.
The second big point is the UI. It is stolen in large part from Puzzle & Dragons, but is very good at showing you a huge amount of information in an intuitive and easily navigable way. It's still a relatively big mess of buttons, but the fact that I can get to almost any major screen I need to use within two touches is impressive.
Third, there's the guild system. It's multiplayer, massive PvE combat. Everyone's reaching for a common goal (defeat this big boss), but is also competing with each other for the top slots in terms of damage. Stronger players get greater rewards, but weaker players in the guild also get guild benefits, conferred upon the group by the efforts of the strongest.
Fourth, there's the friendliness of the model. It uses energy, but if you fail a dungeon, the energy is not taken from you. You also have several ways to get free energy refills daily without buying anything. The main spending currency is in much greater supply than in many other games. And it's for this reason that I respected them enough to actually buy a monthly pass for $4.99. Epic Heroes, Letterpress, and the excellent but sadly not-so-popular Princess Pajama are the only free-to-play games I've paid for.
Letterpress by Atebits
Alright, here is the "purest" of all the games in the list. It really is free-to-play -- you can pay 99 cents one time in order to unlock the ability to: Change your theme, see past played words, and play more than two games simultaneously. As I wrote last year, none of this gives the purchasing player any advantage -- it's simply a clean way to let you enjoy the game you're already enjoying a little bit more.
I've been playing it with friends quite consistently since its original release in late 2012. It's a great competitive game for people who like words, and as an occasional writer, this has a great allure. It also stretches my vocabulary just a bit. Check out that prior story to see more of why I like it, but Letterpress is one game that I think I'll be playing for months if not years to come.
Metal Slug Defense by SNK Playmore
This game follows the common "tower attack" model of games like the aforementioned Princess Pajama. Essentially, you spawn units, which have a cooldown, to go out and attack other units, and eventually get to the enemy spawn point, which you must destroy. Click your units once they've powered up to do a special attack. Gain money, unlock new units, and repeat.
Metal Slug is a great universe for a game like this, because it's already got tons of fantastic art and backgrounds to mine. This means updates are frequent, and can be made with relative ease.
Unfortunately, to SNK's detriment, the game is very easy. I can't see any possible reason to spend money in this game, unless you wanted to dominate the game's rather lopsided PvP system. SNK has clearly seen that nobody wants to spend money in this game as well, and have filled it with invasive, screen-filling ads between rounds.
That said, every time the game updates with new missions, new worlds, new challenges, I come back for more. Protip: Get Leona ASAP.
Little Alchemist by Chinzilla
An American game! I think! I'm not 100 percent certain exactly where developer Chinzilla is from, but they've partnered with Kongregate to release a cute card game that has compelled me to play for a few months so far.
The main mechanic is combining cards to make stronger ones, which activate alchemist abilities from your player character. Fight enemy characters, and defeat the opposing alchemist.
The main mechanic is mostly what keeps me coming back. The monetization scheme is a bit out of my reach (mostly high-ticket items), it can be a bit aggressive with energy, and every once in a while I hit a wall, but by and large the enjoyable card battling mechanic keeps me coming back. With a few tweaks, this could be a long engagement. (Plus it has a lot of chinchillas in it.)
Monster Strike by Mixi
Monster Strike is the most recent F2P title to hold my interest, and it's no surprise given it's helmed by Street Fighter II's dad, Yoshiki Okamoto. Load up the game, and you'll immediately see the design meeting. A couple guys sat around in a boardroom saying, "Alright, we need to combine the best elements of the most popular titles in Japan. What have you got?"
So they took the flinging and physical mechanics of Angry Birds, the UI and evolution, progression, and gacha systems of Puzzle & Dragons, and the four player boss-rush combat of Monster Hunter. It also adds a nice flourish in its "bump combos," where if you hit your teammates, they release a special attack.
Of course, anyone could make the decision to try to combine elements of successful games, but it takes skill and precision to make it work -- and it does work. It's an immediately compelling gameplay loop, with those treasured coins or experience points always just out of reach, but the path to victory always relatively clear (just one more time, with a better lineup).
While I've only reached rank 15 so far, I can tell that this one's got some teeth. I can see that it will soon get a bit tougher with its energy system, but it doles out its main currency with relative ease -- you take the good with the bad, I suppose.
Bonus: Several free-to-play games I stopped playing this year:
Puzzle & Dragons. I played this for quite a while. I reached level 134 or so. But at a certain point it became clear that I could not progress on my own -- after months of play, my characters were too weak to defeat pretty much any of the new available quests. I could have spent money and reached the summit, but I instead used that as an excuse to break away. This is the only game on the list that I quit in spite of liking it, rather than because I didn't like it.
Hearthstone. I like deck-building games quite a lot. I played Ascension every day for a year straight, until they wanted me to give them my email address. I stopped forever, immediately! Sorry guys! Anyway, I like deck builders where everyone draws from the same pool. The asymmetry of Hearthstone means I'll constantly run into players who I simply can't beat because their cards are better. And their matchmaking system doesn't really help in that regard. I liked it for a while, but I got tired of losing to people with better decks, or soundly defeating people with way worse decks than mine.
Clash of Clans. I had to see what all the fuss was about. I cannot say I have any love for this game. I gave it a solid shot for about three weeks, but it felt too much like work. "Come harvest this thing now!" "Come look how someone ruined the stuff you set up!" Nothing about it brought me any joy. I felt like I was punching a clock, so I deleted the heck out of it.
Candy Crush Saga. Well, they had a really compelling match-3 game here. But King's shady business practices upset me enough that I deleted it. I was already frustrated at the extremely unfair and luck-based setups of some of the levels, so this was a fantastic excuse to get rid of the thing.