About a year ago, I listed off the best free-to-play titles on the market. To the surprise of no one, including me, that turned out to be a contentious topic. And I can understand why because there are games on that list that are great games, even spectacular games, that might fail your personal criteria. There’s more to a game’s value than just “how good is the game” when it comes to MMOs; you also have to ask what games are giving you the best value for your money.
Value is, of course, a nebulous concept as well. But in loose terms, value is all about the bang for your buck. How much do you get for dropping money on the game? How much is there to spend money on? If the game is free-to-play, how long will it be before it asks you for money? If it’s buy-to-play or subscription-based, how much are you getting for that purchase?
But it’s still a more diverse and solid metric than just the vagueness of “best free-to-play.” So here are the games with the best value at the end of 2016.
1. Final Fantasy XIV
Subscription MMOs have really gone the way of the dodo, which kind of makes sense; as there are more free-to-play options, the pressure on your game to also be free increases, especially as your competition approaches the limit of “everything else in the entire world.” In order to justify a subscription cost at this point, you need to have regular, meaty updates on a reliable schedule, solid development communication, and high production values.
Final Fantasy XIV hits all of these points consistently, and that means that if you want to subscribe, there’s no finer option on the market. It’s a game that still persists with an outdated model as if no one told it that the market had moved on, and it keeps making money (and lots of it) by doing everything that model should provide for a game. So it’s good value for your monthly money.
2. Guild Wars 2
Several elements of Guild Wars 2 turn me off from the game, but let’s be real here – you get a whole lot of game from this title for free. That always ups the value of a game in my eyes, especially when the game is supported by cash shop cosmetics that do not diminish the amount of other cosmetics in the game and buying expansion packs. It’s possibly slightly less value than its predecessor was when it was being actively updated, but that’s splitting hairs, isn’t it?
You could even argue, as the wise and similarly frugal Ms. Royce does, that you really don’t need Heart of Thorns all that much unless you just have to have gliding and the latest living world. It also assumes you don’t want to play a Revenant, which is my favorite class in the game. Life is a cavalcade of contradictions.
3. DC Universe Online
I like hybrid business models, on a whole. DC Universe Online also does the hybrid thing that I quite like, where you can buy things piecemeal or just subscribe to get the whole shebang right out of the gate. Even if you choose to just go in for free, though, there is a whole lot of meat to this game, and the game will rarely stop to tell you that “there’s no way you can play this game without dropping money.” It might make you want to buy things, but it will rarely if ever force you to buy things.
4. The Elder Scrolls Online
Most of what I said about DCUO also goes for The Elder Scrolls Online, although I will note that those lockboxes are not endearing. You get a one-notch demerit for that, ESO. Still great value, but you are being outranked by DCUO just for those new lockboxes. Let that be a lesson to… well, whoever’s counting.
5. Marvel Heroes
It’s hard for me not to give a nod to Marvel Heroes when lists like this come up because even though I don’t particularly adore it, there’s a transparency and a clarity to what it offers that you just don’t get in a lot of other places. You have a plethora of heroes; some of them cost money if you want to be sure to get just the one you want. There are lots of other things you can just straight-up buy, but that’s almost always optional. You’re never made to feel as if you’re on the back foot if you’re being cheap.
Plus, if you like the Diablo-style smash-and-loot gameplay, it’s pretty good at providing exactly that.
6. Path of Exile
Look, I don’t understand Path of Exile’s business model. At all. Specifically, I don’t understand it because it seems to be “give away huge amounts of content totally for free, occasionally politely ask for money without holding anything hostage.” Perhaps I’m completely wrong, but that’s how it looks from the outside, and I’m happy to say that it seems to be working.
Honestly, I feel bad for pretty much any other company attempting to market a similar game, since between this entry and the one above it, you can get all of the smash-and-loot click action you could ever want for basically no cost at all. It seems like it would be worlds more valuable than an intentionally low-fidelity anniversary event and, say, one new class added to an existing game. Hypothetically.
At first glance, Trove seemed like Minecraft. Then it came out, and it became clear that Trove was Minecraft’s neon-tinted fever dream that just keeps going as high as the dial will go, then keeps turning until that dial snaps off. It offers you crazy adventures for nothing and then allows you to expand your options within those crazy adventures for a mere pittance.
I especially like Trove because the game is very clearly meant to be kid-friendly, and it is not hard to make similarly kid-friendly games turn into money sinks for the parents. (Look at Skylanders, dude.) Trove gives away an awful lot for absolute free, and it’s not terribly pricey even when you do buy in.
I got tired of buying packs of cards when I stopped playing Magic: the Gathering, and my affection for fake cards is nonexistent. So trust me that when I say that Hearthstone, while not a traditional MMO, is a good value for the money, it is — due in no small part to the fact that basically everything in the game can be earned just by playing and winning. It’ll be a slow and somewhat grinding process, but you can keep up with everyone without having to drop money if you don’t want to.
That alone, I feel, makes it more than worth the money. You’re not buying something that you can’t get otherwise; you’re buying something just to reduce the overhead time. It helps that the game is also available on about five million different platforms and can easily provide you with a spot of entertainment while you’re just waiting in line at Starbucks. When the entry price is “free” and you can keep the price at “free” pretty much forever, that’s good value.
I have a lot of nasty things to say about Cryptic’s lockboxes and some of the purchased options in games, and I will stand by them. The tricky part is that for every bit of obnoxiously intrusive stuff for sale, there’s a whole lot of free stuff in the game that’s well worth enjoying. I’m giving Neverwinter the nod because unlike its contemporaries within the Cryptic sub-district of Perfect World Entertainment, it was not launched as a subscription game and thus doesn’t have lingering weirdness like lifetime subscription options or the whole “you don’t need to subscribe but you get such cool stuff if you do” atmosphere.
10. The Secret World
For all of The Secret World’s faults, boy, this is a heady, unusual game. And it’s buy-to-play. And you can usually get it for dirt-cheap prices, including right now. I picked it up ages ago for $10 and got a good three-ish months of enjoyment out of it right out of the gate, which is really good for that price. It would be worth it even without the constant price drops and sales, but those just make it even more worthwhile.
It also has plenty of bees. I really like bees.
What didn’t make the cut
There are a lot of games in the “almost” category here, I’m not going to lie. WildStar, for example, was a close competitor; it ultimately lost out both because it really has not been updating on any sort of regular schedule, and its endgame model is so aggressively restrictive that most people who do get good value out of it still aren’t seeing much of its content. Blade & Soul also offers darn good value for the price… except it has a lot of stuff in its cash shop that’s very pay-to-reduce-unreasonable-time, the same sort of thing that turned me off of Allods Online.
And then there are lots of games that are good, fun, healthy games that just plain don’t justify their price tags. Sorry, World of Warcraft, but if you’re going to request a subscription while you abandon updates for a year, you’ve officially moved off of the “good value” list.
But then, part of the fun of “value” is that it’s highly subjective, and one person’s value can be totally different from someone else’s. So share your own feelings in the comments, as I’m sure you were going to do anyway; there they will remain, a guidepost for others through the ages, or until we do another version of this list.