For a while it looked like the "free-to-play" name would be forever tainted by games that took advantage of every opportunity to suck precious pennies from our wallets. Under the more greedy models, you'd end up playing far more than you'd ever pay for a standard release if you wished to get the full experience.
Those kinds of games aren't entirely extinct, but they're currently facing stiff competition from games that allow even casual players to enjoy the full spectrum of the game's features for absolutely nothing. The most agreeable of these keep paid transactions limited to cosmetic items and simple XP buffs; for many others, payment simply allows more perks or accelerates core activities such as leveling.
Below are 8 free-to-play games that are easy to enjoy without ever spending a penny. Keep in mind that you might feel pressured to plunk down some dough if you become heavily invested in any of these games - that's only fair, after all. But what separates these titles from the free-to-play pack is how much fun you can have before feeling compelled to open up your wallet.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress is an old hand at the free-to-play game space, but after seven years, it's just as relevant as it was at launch. Perhaps more so. Constant updates from both the developers and the community have kept the class-based team shooter exciting and challenging, and it maintains the focus on skill by largely limiting paid items to cosmetic fluff. Chances are you'll love it for its cheeky aesthetic alone.
Lord of the Rings Online
Lord of the Rings Online is only a little older than Team Fortress 2, but unfortunately it hasn't aged as well visually. On the bright side, Turbine lets you experience the entirety of the game if you have the Hobbit-like courage to grind out its premium currency. It's generally worth it, if you're of a roleplaying bent. LOTRO boasts one of the most faithful and enthusiastic communities of any MMORPG (provided you're on the right servers), and there are few experiences in gaming quite like setting out from the Shire and riding all the way to Isengard. For the most part, LOTRO gets Tolkien right.
League of Legends
If there's a price to pay for playing League of Legends, it's the time you spend trying to catch up with the skills and tactics of a community that's lived and breathed this insanely popular multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA) for almost all of the five years it's been around. On the bright side, it costs you nothing to learn if you're ready to make such a commitment. If you are, you'll find a gameplay experience that's incredibly polished and a roster of characters large enough to satisfy almost any preference.
TERA isn't the most innovative MMORPG; most of the time you'll run around slaughtering monsters with only the slightest idea of why you're doing it. But, man, it looks good (at least if you're comfortable with the softcore outfits on some of the ladies). TERA was also one of the first MMORPGs to draw attention to "action" style combat, which is quickly becoming the norm, and its version of it still holds up today. And if you don't mind some instance cooldowns and some loot restrictions, you can enjoy the whole thing for free.
DOTA 2 is a MOBA like League of Legends, and it, too, features a stunning assortment of heroes with distinct abilities. The map is huge and crammed with an impressive variety of resources, which means that almost every match presents its own unique strategies. DOTA 2 is normally considered more geared toward hardcore players than League, but developer Valve does nothing here to bar entry for curious newcomers. Jump in for free, and you'll likely find why so many millions of players find it hopelessly addicting.
Few developers are so adept at making niche genres accessible as Blizzard Entertainment, and Hearthstone sees the studio working the same magic they applied to massively multiplayer online roleplaying games on collectible card games. There's a surprising amount of depth hiding beneath its colorful boards and cheery dwarven taunts, and themed expansions and multiple classes keep it fresh hours into the experience. Provided you don't get addicted to the Arena mode, there's no reason you'll ever need to put down cash at all.
Path of Exile
The last couple of years have seen a renaissance of sorts in the action roleplaying game genre, but few have felt quite so inviting as this gloomy indie adventure. You could spend hours studying its skill tree alone, which allows you to mold one of the starting classes into almost any playstyle imaginable. Loot falls like rain, the grim settings contrast strongly with the bulk of its contemporary competitors, and you can play through the whole thing without ever once thinking of paying.
It's hard not to find something to love about Planetside 2 if you're at all interested in shooters. The servers are always busy, and the action takes place on sprawling maps where three factions battle for control. Sony Online Entertainment allows weapon purchases for cash from the store, but they're almost all sidegrades instead of god-killing doomcannons. If you're jumping into Planetside 2 for the first time, that means you'll have a fighting chance right out of the gate.