The growing popularity of free-to-play games explained

By William Davis


Aug 1, 2023

Reading time: 3 min

Free-to-play games used to be considered cheap knockoffs or scams, but they’re now the default format for video games of all shapes and sizes.

In recent years, the gaming world has witnessed a massive rise in the popularity of free-to-play games. From simple but resonant indie darlings to AAA multiplayer monsters, increased accessibility to computers and gaming consoles has fueled the shift in monetization. However, the true reasons for the change go much more in-depth. Here’s why free-to-play has taken over the gaming world and why it’s probably here to stay.

Free-to-play means accessible and affordable variety

Since free-to-play games often rely on in-game monetization to make money, the developers have an incentive to get as many players as possible in on the fun. This often means that free-to-play games are much more optimized than their AAA counterparts. Realistic graphics are traded for stylized art styles that are much less taxing on the hardware. Their accessibility extends the possible player base of free-to-play titles, which naturally results in them becoming more popular.

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The price of free-to-play games is the most obvious draw, but non-gamers may not realize the impact it really has. Before the free-to-play era, gamers had to rely on professional reviewers like Gambla.com to find out which games were worth playing. But with free-to-play, the opportunity cost of a new game is often just the hard drive space needed to download it. Gamers can try out hundreds of titles without spending a dime outside of their internet bills. This is especially important for gamers in developing countries who may not have big budgets.

That second point serves to emphasize the sheer variety of free-to-play gaming options. From first-person shooters to MMORPGs to card games, nearly every genre has a free flagship offering. This extends beyond just gameplay, with casual multiplayer, competitive esports, and relaxing single-player games all on the menu. Combined with the low opportunity cost and easy access, it’s easy to jump into any free-to-play game and experience why players stick around.

Why gamers stick with free-to-play titles for years

Getting gamers interested is one thing, but free-to-play games also have unique ways of retaining their player bases.

Because of their massive player counts, free-to-play titles often foster a unique sense of community. Games like Team Fortress 2 and Warframe are famous for their active and interconnected communities that use the game as a social hub. This goes even further in MMORPGs like Final Fantasy 14. Due to their sheer quantity of players, it’s easier to find like-minded people in these games compared to major paid releases.

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Free-to-play games also try to last as long as they can, so developers are incentivized to create gameplay that rewards dedication. This can take many forms, but the most successful games usually have deep gameplay that rewards experience and experimentation. Games like League of Legends and Dota 2 are the pinnacle of this idea. Players of both games have played for over a decade without ever getting bored. Other games reward limited-time or valuable cosmetics so veterans can flex their dedication.

Thanks to the extreme accessibility and affordability, these games have attracted hundreds of millions of players with no end in sight. All in all, the rise of free-to-play games is due to all the aforementioned reasons, along with the very human need for fun and entertainment.