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When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, its unprecedented success with a subscription-based revenue model whipped dozens of other game publishers into a frenzy. Many massive online games launched into production based on the assumption that demand was healthy enough to sustain a legion of titles, each charging $15 per month for access to its carefully crafted fantastic world.
Nearly ten years later, the market has proven that Blizzard Entertainment’s flagship game was an outlier. Now, more and more players expect full access to online games at no cost just to pique their interest, and a number of former subscription based games have converted to a free model just to survive. It’s a trend that has forced publishers to fund continuing development by only monetizing the most dedicated players; players who will spend real money for premium cosmetic items and efficiency boosts.
Some games, though, are more generous with their cash shops than others. Check out three games that will let you in the door for free, and see what you can get if you decide to open your wallet.
Not to be confused with the more recently released Dungeons & Dragons Neverwinter, DDO is a mature game that offers a different experience from most other online fantasy worlds. Its developers built the game to closely emulate the D&D tabletop game’s rules, and the result gives you lots of room to experiment with unusual character builds.
The game’s cash shop carries a huge variety of items from practical to indulgent. Mission packs can grant you access to whole new regions of the world, and premium character races and classes can add variety to your play if you’ve tired of the free options. $20 will get you 1600 Turbine Points for your shopping pleasure. Here are just a few of your options for spending that stipend.
- Permanent Unlocks – Unlock one of three premium classes (Monk, Artificer, or Favored Soul), and give that character 20 more inventory slots for carrying loot.
- Temporary Boosters – Enjoy three hours of boosted experience gain (+50%), ten 6-hour boosts of higher level treasure from chests, and a package of five magic cakes to revive you or an ally on the spot.
- Visual Flair – Strike that iconic dark wizard look with glowing eyes, an elemental companion, and the creepy Shadowfell Regalia to change your appearance no matter what armor you wear.
In addition to purchasing points for the cash shop, you can earn some number of them by gaining renown points through play.
If the recent Star Trek franchise reboot at the movies has rekindled your interest in seeking out strange new worlds, Star Trek Online invites you to ally with the Federation, Klingons, or Romulans in a three-way galactic power struggle. The game makes great use of the franchise’s extensive canon, featuring a wide variety of species and locales to visit with your Captain in the 25th century. Away team missions on alien worlds share the spotlight with starship battles in space to offer you a variety of fresh content you haven’t seen elsewhere.
In addition to all of the normal items you’d expect to find in a cash shop, you can also purchase special lock box keys in STO. As you play, you’ll start to find boxes that can only be opened with these keys from the store. With the keys running $1.25 each, and only slightly cheaper in bulk, the system is a bit of a gamble, but that’s likely the point. Some boxes contain fairly unremarkable rare items, and others give you access to entire new premium starships.
Spending $20 will get you 2000 Zen to shop for premium items here. Is one of these bundles to your liking?
- Permanent Unlocks – Unlock the felinoid Caitian species for play, and start playing with twelve extra inventory slots, two more bridge officer slots, and room for 100 extra duty officers to take care of your busy work.
- Temporary Boosters – Rise through the ranks with a 20% bonus on your next 6000 skill points, and spend them confidently, knowing you can undo a bad call with a retraining token. A set of 21 new duty officers (including 3 rares) await your orders.
- Visual Flair – Snag three uniforms from Star Trek lore to dress like the crew of your favorite series. Then walk the decks with your Borg-assimilated Tribble in tow.
If you’re feeling thrifty, don’t worry! There’s a market to exchange an in-game currency for the cash shop currency if you’re willing to pay what other players are asking.
Marvel Heroes has granted the wishes of dungeon crawler and superhero fan alike. Over two dozen popular personalities from Marvel lore are playable characters in this thug bashing, loot collecting adventure. There’s plenty of Diablo-style level grinding to be had with your friends if you take up the call to action.
Only nine of those heroes, however, are available to you from the outset. The rest, including wildly popular ones like Spider-Man and Iron Man, are purchasable at the game’s store. Since you’re restricted to using official Marvel characters as opposed to building your own hero from scratch, this cash shop is a little less diverse than you might be used to. Appearance changes, for example, are limited to official costumes from throughout each character’s history.
If you have $19.99 to burn, you can shop with 2100 points at the Marvel Heroes store.
- Permanent Unlocks – Can’t get enough of Loki? Unlock the god of mischief with two costumes and bonus inventory space. This bundle comes with a retcon device for redistributing points across your powers, and three Fortune Cards for a chance at random rare items.
- Temporary Boosters – Flat out double your experience, special item finding, and rare item finding rates for up to nine hours with boosters spendable in one hour increments.
- Visual Flair – The spider fan can grab two of Spider-Man’s mid-range priced costumes, like the armored Ends Of The Earth costume, or the Sensational Spider-Man costume with its silver, wrist-mounted web shooters.
Of the items in the cash shop, heroes and retcon devices can be purchased with a rare currency that drops in the game. For now anything else you might want (such as alternate costumes) will require you to spend real money.
It’s true that you don’t have to spend a dime of your own money to play and enjoy any of these games, but the occasional splurge can really add to the fun. Try using a free-to-play game to keep in touch with friends who no longer live nearby. If you might otherwise spend $20 on a night out with those far away, consider a Saturday of premium boosts and lively voice chat over the hobby you share instead. It’s a way to turn regular gaming into a special occasion, and if you watch for discounts and bundles, you can enjoy more perks for your money.
Which free games are you willing to spend your money on? Or do you reject the whole model and never spend a cent? Let us know in the comments.
Need more on great free-to-play games? See Joel’s favorite picks!