It’s been nearly a year since we last talked about free-to-play games and how they blend play and market mechanics into fine works of capitalist art—think of them as digital theme parks, where admission costs nothing but the pretzels are five dollars and also don’t, technically, exist. They were big business then, but they’re ubiquitous now, and it’s becoming harder to think of these “free now, pay for extras later” exercises as strange.
So here’s a reminder. For $20 you could choose from any number of classic games, with structure and meaning and intent. Or you could spend nothing and jump into a game with an overt intention of twisting your desires, watching in horror as you spend 20 bucks on pretend colanders and proclaim yourself the champion of straining pasta. For second time, here is what that money gets you in the world of free-to-play.
Note: Due to obfuscation and fluctuation, all fake-currency-to-real-money exchange rates are estimated.
NRA: Practice Range (iPhone/iPad): A varied 20-gun arsenal
The NRA famously called video games a “corrupting shadow industry,” so here they are to show everyone a better way. For no money, they’ll give you a small number of guns and let you shoot at man-shaped targets all day long. They’ll also provide useful gun safety tips like “Make sure the gun is safe to operate.” That’s the Platonic ideal of a gun safety tip!
For every dollar you give them, they’ll add one gun to your arsenal. It’s a curated group of weapons perfect for the sporting huntsman or personal defense—you know, like the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle that cut its teeth in Vietnam. Clearly other game makers have a lot to learn about crafting family-friendly entertainment.
Odin Quest (Browser): PSY
Price: 390 Goldleaf
Most free-to-play games have the same basic strategy, which goes something like this:
- 1. Build an appealing fantasy world
- 2. Show them cool stuff within that world
- 3. Charge them to get to that stuff faster, or at all
Odin Quest, a swords-and-sorcery game from China, has steps one and three down pretty well. But it’s replaced step two with “sell anything anyone could possibly want, free of international copyright restriction.” Sexy costumes? Easy, that will be $20. You want to play as Mario, from Nintendo, but he shoots magic missiles from his hands? Great! $20. Do you want to be PSY, and have him dance Gangnam Style, but now it ends in a kick that is devastating to giant spiders? NO PROBLEM TWENTY DOLLARS. Art stolen inspired by World Of Warcraft is free.
Kingdoms Of Camelot: Battle For The North (iPhone/iPad): Hypnotize the overworked serfdom into thinking they’re happy, twice
Price: 200 gems
Kingdoms Of Camelot is probably the greatest simulation of raw capitalism ever devised. The game starts by giving you seven days to build and fortify your cities as fast as you can, with an in-game store ready and waiting to help in exchange for dollars. Enjoy those seven days, because when they end, every other, richer kingdom will start pillaging your lands to better its own economic standing, leaving you to rebuild. How to get out of this endless cycle of destruction? Well, that cash shop is right over there…
Or you could just order a little bit of mass hypnosis and buy your war-ravaged subjects some false happiness, so they’ll whistle while they work harder, for a moment or two anyway. At least that way, somebody will be happy. Amnesty International might have something to say about your method of governance, though.
The Hobbit: Kingdoms Of Middle Earth (iPhone/iPad): Force the elven populace into a joyous drunken stupor, twice
Price: 200 Mithril
Kingdoms Of Middle Earth cements Kingdoms Of Camelot’s status as an incredible feat of capitalism, because Kingdoms Of Middle Earth is Kingdoms Of Camelot. They share much of the same art, the tutorial is exactly the same, and the items in the cash shop are only superficially changed. They did rename the “Squire’s Hourglass” so now it’s “Bilbo’s Hourglass”. So, good effort.
Instead of hypnotizing your decimated Elven subjects, in this game you can buy them all a round and achieve the same effect. Whether this is a more or less responsible method of leadership is an argument you can leave to historians.
Smurfs’ Village (iPhone/iPad): 50 homeless man-Smurfs
Price: 250 Smurfberries
Man, have you seen your Smurf village? It looks like, well, a village. You’ll never make crazy Smurf gold at this rate, so consider investing in a pack of young, able-bodied male Smurfs. They don’t need houses, and they work for free. You can use them to farm the land, build, or perform other menial tasks you don’t have time to do. Pretty soon, you’ll have one of those high-level Smurf villages, which are definitely whimsical and fun forest wonderlands even though they all inexplicably look like labor camps.
Oh, you want lady Smurfs? Those cost six times more. But in the fine tradition of Smurf villages everywhere, you don’t need that many of them.
Mermaid World (iPhone/iPad): Between one and 12 mermaids of varying desirability
Mermaid World is a game where you collect mermaids and keep them in what is basically an aquarium. Then you force them to sing so they attract other mermaids you can toss into more aquariums. This is a pretty good, low-impact (for you) way to grow your mermaid collection—if you only want “common” mermaids, anyway. For a real chance at the rare “gilded” or “limited edition” mermaids, you have to head to the mermaid market, where each lovely princess of the deep is priced based on demand. So if you want to spend hours staring longingly at a diamond swan mermaid—because in the world of mermaid buying and selling, only the mermaids are beautiful—you will pay dearly for the privilege.
Power Of Coin (iPhone/iPad): Coins
Let’s not think about how the man who made Sonic the Hedgehog now leads a company that makes games like Power of Coin, where you buy coins to throw coins at coins so you can GET MORE COINS, but instead you run out of coins and have to buy more. Let’s not linger on the fact that this is a game where you figuratively throw money away so that you can literally throw money away. Hey, remember when you bought your Sega Genesis and it came with Sonic The Hedgehog, for free? Yeah, that’s a nice memory. Let’s think about that.
Final Fantasy: All The Bravest (iPhone/iPad): 20 beloved characters from your childhood that were previously withheld from you
I see you there, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest. You thought you could fool us all into thinking you’re not a free-to-play game, just because you cost some money. But once someone buys in, it’s all the same tricks. In the game, you swipe haphazardly at the screen to view explosive pastiches of legendary battles from classic Final Fantasy games—it’s a game a cat can play. But to add your favorite Final Fantasy characters to these battles, you have to pay, and then you get one randomly, so it could be one you hate or don’t even know. And the characters don’t change anything about the game, because nothing can be changed about the game, or the cats will get confused. So here we are, spending money to paw uselessly at our childhood memories—trying to get them back, but doing this instead.
CSR Racing (iPhone/iPad): A down payment on an Audi
Full car price: $80
CSR Racing is a drag racing game where you press your thumb against the screen to drive fast. If you’ve upgraded your car enough, you win. Since that’s all there is to work with here, the only thing left to do is press the win button with style. So why not bling out your garage with one of the most coveted sports cars in the world, the Nürburgring-winning Audi R8 LMS Ultra? Do you have that $20? Man, you can’t even afford a pretend version of this car. Come back when you have $80, and don’t let anyone tell you that you could use that money to get a real racing game that has Audi A8s included.
Pockie Pirates (Browser): Two broken seashells
Pockie Pirates, an eye-searing browser game that plays itself, has to do something to get the money for the popular anime licenses it is already using. Unfortunately, it has nothing of value to sell you, so it has undertaken the four-year-old-on-the-beach business plan of selling broken shells it found in the muck. But wait, you think, maybe the shells provide some kind of additional in-game perk that justify their price? Well, let’s see: These shells over here increase your defense against magic by 0.90 percent. So if a wizard sets you on fire, this will make sure you are only 99.1 percent on fire. Maybe you can get that one and the one that makes you only 99.1 percent stabbed with a sword.
Eden Eternal (PC): A lime green alpaca
Price: 1,999 Aeria Points
So you have some money. That’s great. Eden Eternal has a fluffy, lime green alpaca that they will give you in exchange for money. Does this even seem like an even trade, no matter what the amount of money is? It’s an alpaca, and it’s green. You can ride it, or (I’m hypothesizing) shave it and make a coat for a clown. Did you know alpacas are hypoallergenic? They also have lots of stomachs. Here’s a video about potty training alpacas, so that’s not an issue anymore. What I’m trying to say is, this is a pretty good deal.
Crystal Saga (Browser): One divorce
Price: 1,945 gems
In Crystal Saga, love is free, and anyone who plays this anime-inspired multiplayer role-playing game for long enough can get married to any other player, no real dollars required. And that’s a beautiful thing. But let’s say that you come home early, and you find your beautiful wife running her hands through another man’s fluffy, pointed cat ears. Your Crystal Saga is shattered, and you know you have to get on with your life. Well, it turns out that divorce papers do cost real money, and more of it than nearly anything else in the game—it’s cheaper to bring a pet back from the dead. So now you have a trial separation, you live alone with a zombified Pomeranian, and your new girlfriend has wondered for years why you change the subject when she talks about rings.