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"The joy of online strategy gaming, and online gaming in general, is defeating an opponent who was just as likely to defeat you--so how much fun is a game if, no matter how good you are, you may get owned by some kid who blew his allowance on WMDs? If you don't stand a chance in a 'free' game without shelling out, then the game ain't really free."
Dan Stapleton, "Strategy you can't buy", GamesRadar

A game that you can play for free, for varying definitions of "game" and the terms "play", "for free", and "can".

This is primarily an advertising trope about a mismatch between PR and reality. If the commercials bandy about terms like “FREE,” “UNLIMITED” and “WITHOUT PAYING” while the ability to complete or be competitive within the game is walled off for those who don't dish dough (or even those who do!), you've got yourself an Allegedly Free Game. (If the game is promoted as unambiguously commercial in nature, all monetary elements are purely cosmetic, or they're minor enough that you could genuinely play the game for free and never miss them, then it doesn't belong here.)

Sometimes you're restricted to a "free" zone and have to repeatedly buy access to the rest of the game piece by piece, sometimes you're incapable of gaining certain abilities or items without buying them with real world money, sometimes you can buy a copy or pay a subscription fee (and even then, additional purchases may be needed.) Some games just have so much that is exclusively bought that those who pay have such a gigantic advantage over those who don't. Any way that you cut this, you aren't going to get very far without reaching for your wallet. Some combination of Freemium, and Microtransactions will likely be involved in this.

Allegedly Free Game is a Sister Trope to Bribing Your Way to Victory. Not to be confused with actual Freeware Games, nor with Shareware, which is straightforward about its commercial nature and final about its sale. Contrast Real Money Trade, which is when people buy and sell in-game resources against the developers' wishes. See also Revenue Enhancing Devices, which is when there are lots of extra goodies and bonuses to buy along with the game.

For a small fraction of the player base, these games are very susceptible to becoming Serious Business, with some players spending astronomical sums just to get the best equipment and Character Class.

See also: Freemium
Examples of Allegedly Free Game include:

  • Ace Online, also known as Air Rivals and Phi Doi. You can sign up and fly from L1 to L100 for free, but you need cash credits to buy Enchant protect cards, item seeker units, and fancy holographic banner-like things you can attach to your airframe. At least they give you generous samples of these credit shop exclusives as you gain levels.
  • Adventure Quest boasts itself as a free game - it is... unless you really want to go on the exciting quests, and have advanced classes, pets, and other things that make this online single-player game exciting. Non "guardians" (you guessed it, they're members) have the large nuisance of only getting a 'small server' (which gets full often) whereas "Guardians" always get space. Also, they can equip some restricted items. Every other spin-off has its own Guardian counterpart with a very similar theme of 'pay now and get better stuff, etc'.
    • Artix Entertainment's other games have varying amounts of this.
      • InDragon Fable, you can only use one half of each 'class' skills, cannot use epic weapons (which in a particularly cruel twist are actually given to you anyway—often more frequently than normal weapons—but you simply can't equip them!), and you are unable to access 'Titan Dragon' missions (which are the best for level grinding, natch);
        • In Mechquest is less of an example of this, and more of an example of Bribing Your Way to Victory, since there are almost no 'upgrade-only' quests arond, but a lot more upgrade only weapons and mecha.
          • In Adventure Quest Worlds, 'most' of the items are 'Upgrade only', ALL pets (except 1) are upgrade only, also some Character Classes and some Maps and quests are. Some
    • AE games (aside from AQWorlds) are a comparatively minor example of this trope, since all "Guardian" upgrades are one-time, full-life, and not subscription-based. Of course, if you want the very best equipment, you're still gonna have to shell out for those Z-tokens, Dragon Coins or whatever, and just Bribe Your Way To Victory. Though for Adventure Quest free players have all access to get the Uber and Epic tier item sets, which rival and even surpass Z-Token items and come with a nice bonus for equipping the whole set. You'll be farming a lot of Gold for them though. And some of the best pets and trinkets are Guardian Only.
    • It should be noted that you can earn (in small amounts) Z-tokens/Dragon Coins/Nova Gems/Adventure Coins without buying them. Originally, this was only in Adventure Quest, but has now been implemented in all of the games.
    • Artix Entertainment's 6th game, Epic Duel had also implemented a little of both. Before being purchased by Artix, the game featured a one-time upgrade, where players had access to premium weapons, armours, and hairstyles. After the merger, the game added a secondary in-game currency "Varium" that works similar to Z-tokens/Dragon Coins/Adventure Coins/etc. and the elite upgrade has since been transferred to a considerable amount of the in-game currency and a badge that players can show off. Since it's a PvP game, the increased stat bonuses of premium items offer an edge to paying players.
    • Warp Force continues the tradition, using the same engine as Adventure Quest.
  • Age of Conan converted from a subscription-only model to a hybrid model in July 2011. While much of the content was made available to free players; a substantial amount, especially at higher levels, remains available only to paid subscribers, or cafeteria-type purchase. This includes over half the character races/classes, and nearly the entire Khitai region; as well as several of the advancement and ability mechanics.
    • Qualifies for this trope, as the game is advertised as "Free To Play!"; and it takes a little poking around the website to find out that a substantial portion of the game is pay-to-play only. Even then, it takes going into the official forums to find out just how much is content unavailable to free players.
  • Allods Online is an interesting example, as it is a game that started as merely Bribing Your Way to Victory that turned into an Allegedly Free Game. There were many "features" at release, such as the death penalty, that were annoying, but you could still pass through the game without paying a cent. With the latest content patch, now mobs have been scaled to be so strong that you practically need cash shop items to progress past level 20, and the death penalty was changed for something that can permanently ruin pieces of gear unless they're protected by cash shop items. Without those items, you're pretty much never going to get past the first third of the game.
    • As of March 2, 2011, Holy Amulets, which prevent equipment from becoming cursed, are now absolutely free.
  • Ikariam's "Ambrosia" system rings of this trope, but is subverted; all it really does is make the game a little more convenient to play, by offering overall views of Resource Gathering, research, military operations, and the like (things anyone can already do by checking their colonies individually). It's possible to buy temporary upgrades to Resource Gathering or a few more trade ships with real money, but nothing the least bit gamebreaking.
  • In Astro Empires nonmembers can only build one thing and have two things in the queue to automatically build, but members get 5 queue slots. Also, members can construct unlimited bases, but nonmembers only get to build up to 9 before having to conquer other planets to expand.
    • Similarly, Muelsfell has a building-construction queue, a golem-construction queue, and an item-construction queue, each capped at 1 for non-premium members. Non-premium members also can only accept smaller market offers, have double the return time, can't name their golems, and until recently couldn't set their golem to hang back or persue targets aggressively - in essence, they have to spend twice as long to do half as much.
  • Aywas subverts this. Whilst GP is a currency that can be bought, it is also possible to buy it from other users using the standard BP or win it in contests.
  • Battlefield Heroes recently underwent this. It used to be you could buy clothing and other extras for real money, and buy the guns and essential using in-game currency. Then, EA (of course) jacked up the prices in in-game currency by 20 times, no exaggeration, and made it a lot easier to buy stuff using real money, making it effectively useless to use in-game currency. Then added new, better guns, available only with real money. Interestingly enough, this is the exact thing they promised wouldn't happen when they introduced the game.
    • They took out the cheaper bandages and wrenches. Not cool.
  • Battlefield Play4Free, also from Dice. Bonus points for being this trope while still in closed beta. It's most egregious with sniper rifles, where there are paid sniper rifles that are longer range than the free ones and do significantly more damage. Headshots that don't kill? Never mind that bodyshots from those guns should put thumb-sized holes in people ...
    • And made some weapons unrealistic and underpowered (PP 2000 for one) so that they didn't compete with paid weapons.
    • You can buy armor, heals, weapon attachments, guns where every single stat is better than the free or earnable guns ...
  • Bloodline Champions makes most of the game obtainable free, with all in-game characters and aesthetic changes for them being obtainable free, as well as being able to participate in all competitive multiplayer modes. Certain services require payment, though - the ability to play against medium and hard bots instead of just easy, changing your account name and more slots to make teams cost real money.
  • The later versions of Bloons Tower Defense are technically winnable without shelling out for all the various upgrades a player can buy, (more lives or in-game money, faster shooters, etc) but you have to get everything exactly right.
  • The japanese-language MMO C21 is particularly excessive with this; the game's world spans several planets; beyond the first, 99% of what's for sale in robot shops(where you'd get your newer/better hardware outside rare drops) costs cash-shop currency. And while there's occasional events to swap normal ingame money for cash points, they're capped so you won't be able to buy anything worthwhile anyway. And the ratio of cash to points is insane. A few units from the cash side of things have free versions... But their configurations are locked. Which is lethal to their usefulness in a game where customizing a unit is essential; you can't even re-arm them.
    • Its "sequel", Cosmic Break, isn't much better, as while most of the regular shop is priced in in-game money, 99% of what's new and/or desirable is cash shop only. And both games are overly fond of the "gashapon" method of sale; CB has not released new weaponry in any other manner in at least a year, and it has less than half the content of C21... And at least half CB's content is recycled from C21.
      • Cosmic Break is a mild example. Currency for cash shop(Rt) can be bought with in-game currency(UC), but the price drastically increases every 10 units and capped to 50, a decent amount of Rt. The UC>Rt event resets each month allowing to gather enough Rt to buy what you want without paying after 2–3 months. A third of robots\weapons are in cash shop, the rest are from Player Versus Environment\PvP and UC shop. And the game continues to receive updates.
        • Lately, the updates have only seemed to be of the gashapon (called garapon in-game) variety. Some of the garapons require real money, and have a small chance of getting a bot that is usually considered overpowered. As one forum user puts it:

 "On the other hand, Cyber Step continues to churn out Garapon updates non-stop, not even bothering with the Shop in terms of UC and Rt(it took months until an actual bot appeared in the Shop, and it was only 1 bot). Because 95% of the stuff people want are in the Garapon, people are unable to actually improve on their bots unless they were willing to sell their houses. Didn't help that the Gashapon was more or less a part of Japanese culture and that most Otaku are very willing to throw their money away on mostly useless stuff, so [Japanese] players were OK with that sort of thing and Cyber Step hoped that it would be the same case with the [English] players..."

  • Champions Online has a "Free For All" setup, where anyone can play nearly all of the game's content for free. However, the free Silver accounts have severe restrictions placed on character customization (fewer costume choices, a handful of Archetypes, limited bag slots, and a limited selection of travel powers) and have to purchase access to the Adventure Packs (optional repayable mission content). Still, this is mostly an aversion of this trope as it is entirely feasible to level a character all the way up to end-game content without spending a penny on the game: nothing that is essential requires a purchase.
    • All of the above restrictions can be bypassed by spending real money to unlock the restricted content; but there are two aspects of The game which are only available to the subscription-based Gold accounts: power customization (what color is my energy blast? does it come from my palm, fist, chest, or head? etc.) and Freeform characters (which are superior in every way to the Archetypes, both in terms of how much freedom you have in choosing powers and how many powers you can choose). Silver accounts are definitely second-class citizens in the game; though they are not outcasts.
  • Club Penguin is getting almost unplayable for free members; they can't continue to the next level on games such as Catching Waves or even Astroblaster without a membership, making the new stamp collecting feature very pointless.
    • There are other games around like Kung Fu Panda World which are pretty much just reskins of Club Penguin with, as expected, hot IP names attached.
  • The online Flash game Dinowaurs has stat-boosting equipment which can be purchased with DNA (the in-game currency) or with real money. As any Genre Savvy online game player can probably guess, DNA gains are next to nothing, to the point where it would be faster and much less work to mow your neighbors' lawn and use the money to buy equipment.
  • DJMAX Online had free songs, but also premium songs that cost 1 credit per play, and credits must be bought with real money.
  • Dungeon Fighter Online, another Nexon game, started similarly. At this point, pretty much all the major content—including all story quests, spirit weapons, and rebirth—is available free now. The cash-only features are pets, larger storage space, ability to set up personal shops, and a selection of performance-enhancing items; none of which are essential, though still useful, to the game.
  • Echo Bazaar is edging toward this — players have always been able to use real money to purchase Fate, which allows you to refill your actions, get new opportunity cards, start a Soul Trade storyline, reset your Ambition, etc., but they were also able to collect Fate through dreams and a few other events. Then the dreams stopped granting Fate. Then the devs added a few more storylines that could only be opened up with Fate...and even more recently started adding options to existing cards that provided new storyline paths only available with Fate, so it's getting to the point where you can't play any of the new content (which is the only thing you're there for, if you've hit all the content caps) without spending some Fate. In fairness, the game has no ads and needs to make money somehow, but it's a little disappointing when the majority of the new content is available only for those who can pay for Fate.
    • It Got Worse recently. The February 23rd update will increase the number of Actions that a paying player can make per (real-time) day (by 10), and decrease the number of actions that a non-paying player can make (by 30).
    • Before getting better again when the January 2012 update gave everyone unlimited actions a day
  • E Republik, (here), an online social strategy, suffers from this. While free play is possible, the international currency is virtual gold. This can be earned in small amounts for various infrequent achievements, or bought on the currency markets (prohibitive due to its high value), but is required in moderate and large amounts to create organizations, newspapers, companies, and political parties; to upgrade buildings; and to buy wellness packs that allow players to fight more times each day. In short, any major in-game enterprise tends to become expensive.
  • Equine-Ranch. Sure, it's free to play indefinitely...unless you want to actually do something, like breed or train your horses to a winning level of even the basic level competition...or even own horses that aren't just "Grade" horses.
  • Evony advertises itself as "Free Forever", but the only reliable way to get special items is to buy them for real money. This includes the Michelangelo's Script, a requirement to upgrade a building to its highest level, for $5 per upgrade. It also includes medals, which you'll have to buy if you want to have more than two cities at once. They also have three separate "free gifts", the best of which requires the player to spend $100. The worst part is that the game coins are called "cents" even though each cent costs $0.10, to make things seem cheaper. (All figures in US dollars.)

 "Pay now, my Lord!"

  • Facebook hosts a wide variety of these types of games. However, many fall under Bribing Your Way to Victory rather than this trope.
    • Some Facebook games come pretty close to Allegedly Free; you can get stuff you want or need in the game by paying money directly to the game or by completing real-world offers that sometimes require money. The upside is that some of the offers are things like product samples, so you're not just paying for that game upgrade you want, you're paying for a bag of coffee or a makeup kit and getting the game upgrade.
    • Even big companies have begun using the masive userbase of Facebook to try to scrape a little cash. Dragon Age: Legends, which touts itself as "the first real game on Facebook," is entirely free to play... only, if you don't buy "crowns" to purchase gear, then you get about six characters who level slowly and can only be used once every 1–2 hours, need half a day to grind out a small amount of potions, and have your team limited to three (including you) characters per battle. Want to revive a character? Spend crowns. Want to use the same character two battles in a row? Spend some crowns. Gear that doesn't suck? Spend crowns in the store. Want to be able to realistically play the game for more than ten minutes a day? get the picture.
      • This has pretty much become the standard. Most games have two basic units of currency: One you can earn by playing, and another you can only get through Facebook Credits (or, if you're playing it on another site, paying into the game). The value of "free" in this case is determined by how many in-game items can only be bought with the Credit-only currency.
  • According to some recent news, upcoming MMORPG Firefall is going to be a surprising subversion.
  • Forum Warz has "Brownie Points," purchased using actual money. They can in turn be used to buy a number of things, including later episodes, the removal of ads, and Bribing Your Way to Victory, although the latter keeps you from participating in competitive game elements and disqualifies you from getting "E-Peen Length" for collecting archievments.
  • Free Realms limits about 40% of the game's quests and jobs to subscribers. Also, the Card game decks and boosters, and pets for the Pet Trainer job require RL cash.
  • In Fusion Fall, before April 19, 2010, the only way you could get past level 5, leave the future, and see the rest of the story... was to register for a monthly fee. Now, it's completely free.
  • Geocaching. The site charges to download lists of caches to a GPS, receive notifications of new caches and access certain premium caches.
  • Gunbound is a relateively mild example. Most equiptment can be bought with real life money or in game money. While there are plenty of powerful equiptment that can only be bought with live money, there's equally powerful in game purchases that you can make if you work hard enough at it. Interestingly there's also equiptment that you cannot buy with real life money and must grind in game currency to get.
    • Or at least, it used to be. But Gunbound seems to get traded around by a bunch of different sites, and in the most recent version players who pay real money not only reach ridiculously powerful avatars, but get special cash-only items that can heavily unbalance the game. It's gotten bad enough that the "avatars off" server has a decent following once again, and frequently using cash-only items is widely considered to be a dick move even by people WITH cash avatars. When even your most devoted users stop falling for it, it's time to give up.
  • Hellgate London: Speaking of Penny Arcade.
  • Imperion. Oh, sure, you can play your game for free, if you want to be raided ceaselessly and smashed into the ground by the three guys in adjoining systems who paid so that they could have increased resource production, instant building, additional building slots, and cheaper auto-trades. Basically, free players exist only for the pay-players to prey upon.
  • The iPhone and iPod App Store used to specifically forbid the use of in-app purchases in no-price applications in an attempt to prevent developers from getting around Apple's 30% sales fee. Unfortunately, Apple have changed their regulations to also get 30% from all in-app purchases, which are now allowed in apps of any expensiveness. So "free" iPhone games often have this, or at least encourage you to buy some upgrades.
    • Originally, the App Store didn't allow free items at all, which meant that it was necessary to SELL demo versions for the minimum $1 price.
  • A lot of games by UK-based Jolt (Utopia Kingdoms, Legend of Zork, and the now defunct Nationstates 2, among others) didn't charge for the initial account...and that's about it. Nationstates 2 in particular was pretty bad, requiring real money for a lot of things that were free in the original, and basically making wars unwinnable without real money extras.
  • Kingdom of Loathing is a true aversion; though Bribing Your Way to Victory isn't uncommon or discouraged, anything that can be obtained through donations can also be bought with in-game currency. A player doesn't need to donate to stay competitive.
    • This is only true because the cash shop currency and cash shop items are purchasable from other players in the game's store ... for millions of in-game currency. Practically speaking, if you don't pay for the Mr. Store content you're not going to be competitive without truly epic cash-grinding.
    • On the other hand, Kingdom of Loathing isn't exactly a competitive game in the traditional sense. A major selling point of the game is the content and writing, all of which is available to completely free players. Even content from purchasable items is accessible to free players for relatively cheap amounts of in-game currency. Purchasable familiars drop items that allow access to special content, these items are often put up for sale for a pretty reasonable price, buying a 'content familiar' is actually the least efficient way to gain access to the new content. In this way, a player who is just enjoying the humorous dialogue and quests is not in any way limited.
      • What does constitute this, however, is leaderboarding. As a solo activity, competition in Ko L is more akin to golf, where players who do not interact attempt to get the lowest turncount. In this sense, buying cash-shop items is basically required if you want to get on the leaderboard. However, the leaderboard is entirely optional, with it's rewards being very minimal or a simple Bragging Rights Reward. And as the community is fond of saying, "Leaderboarding is not the game." Of course, the community will also replace 'leaderboarding' with any other aspect of the game. Basically, there's a lot of ways to enjoy the game. Most of them are free, with only a few things like leaderboarding 'requiring' the player to spend money.
  • Kwari, an former online FPS. The equipment that you couldn't get unless you paid real money? Bullets.
  • Mabinogi Fantasy Life by Nexon started out this way; with the main storyline quests, powerful Empathic Weapons, and character rebirths only available to paid members. With the "Pioneers of Iria" expansion, all game content was made available to free players; but there are still a lot of non-essential but highly useful game enhancing items available for a paid premium.
  • Magic: The Gathering Tactics advertises that it's free to download and play. However, befitting the card game the game is based on, you must buy booster packs to add to your collection to customize your original setup. Of course, most of the demographic that the game is aimed at expected they play the card game the game is based on.
    • Oh, and you need to spend real money to buy more chapters of the story mode. Much like Star Chamber.
    • Similarly, Magic Online also charges real money for in-game cards and for tournaments that give out prizes. Once you have the cards, though, "casual" play is free.
  • Maple Story is a common example of this trope. Without the real-life-cash bought money, characters stick to the regular equipment, are forced to stick to the basic 3 hairstyles, and thanks to special items that allow better boosts like extra slots for more upgrades, 2x exp (almost needed in a game famous for its grind) and other boosts, are stuck with weaker things. Also, the real-life-cash makes it a lot easier to make in game money.
    • This becomes truer with the Evan and Dual Blade classes, which can only reach full power with skill books available in the cash shop.
    • The sad thing is, the "cash shop," as they put, it was at first primarily cosmetic with a few extra things that could enhance your character, but could be skipped with either careful planning or a lot of free time. Then 2x exp cards appeared there.
    • In today's standards, Maple (with all the revamps) basically got to the point where getting to 200 takes 3 days for a funded guy, 15 days for a hacker, 30 days for a casual, and 4 months for the bads (assuming they don't quit at 150). The real goal to Maple is to hit really high damage. However, the only way for this to be possible is to waste upwards of $3000 on nx to buy all the gear needed, which costs upwards of 200 billion mesos (thankfully the nx:meso conversion rate is pretty high) for Global Maplestory. In Korean Maplestory, things are significantly cheaper, so it's easier to reach higher damage and get better equipment, which results in the video above. You'll never see Global Maple reach such lengths since Nexon of America is too greedy.
    • As if it weren't possible to be any more vile, there is an NPC quest in Amoria that provides a Cash Shop item as its reward. What is it? It's a "random haircut" coupon. Anyone who's fallen into this trap knows that a "random haircut" from Claudia really means the most butt-ass ugly haircut in the game. Guess what the only way to change it back is? That's right....despite it not impacting gameplay, this game actually has the balls to make your character's head look like the spawn of Satan without telling you, then hold you hostage until you pay to change it back.
  • Memoir 44 Online recently appeared on Steam as a Free-To-Play title. While this is technically true, you'll be able to play 25 games maximum outside the tutorial before you have to buy more tokens using real money. Since most of the scenarios eat three tokens rather than the minimum 2, it's probably going to be fewer.
  • Moon Breakers has also recently appeared on Steam. While it's possible to get new ships with the in-game currency, the cheapest one costs 216,000 credits. Your average reward per match is around 2000. Do the math.
  • Need for Speed World Online is a curious case. It's free to play, with the whole game world available without restrictions, but cars are unlocked through an RPG-like progress system. The system maxes out at level 10 for free users. Thing is, the supercars are unlocked after level 10, so if you want that virtual Lamborghini, you're going to have to pay $20 for the VIP pack, which removes the level 10 Cap and adds access to the supercars. There's also something called "Speed Boost" for the Bribing Your Way to Victory file as well.
    • The Cap was lifted a couple of months after release, so free players can go up to level 50, with anyone who bought the VIP pack getting some free car rentals as a "thank you" from EA. The "Speed Boost" remains, though.
      • keep in mind that "speed boost" is not somthing that boost your speed, but a virtual currency thats bought with real cash... but you can use speed boost to buy powerups like nitro, which you can get more of in the game... but only by getting first place. which powerup you get is random if won in a race.
  • About half of O2Jam 's songs and avatar clothes must be purchased with real money.
  • Most PS3 bundles include a voucher for a "free" copy of PAIN. But there's only one way to unlock new characters and levels in PAIN: buy them on the PSN store for $1.99 each. Have "fun".
  • Pangya has any number of awesome equipment, clothing, golf balls/clubs, and items that you must use the premium currency (known as cookies or Ntreev Points depending on what server you play on) to buy. One of the playable characters has all of one outfit you can purchase without spending real money. To be fair, Ntreev USA offers a tedious method of getting Ntreev Points for free, by, among other things, doing online surveys, but...
  • Puzzle Pirates is a very interesting case, as there's three ways to play: using the in-game currency to buy the premium currency, buying the premium currency with real money, or buying a subscription (which can be done with real money or the premium currency). It's also possible to play it as a collection of pirate-themed puzzle games, ignore the larger MMO aspect of the game, and never WANT to spend money. It's probably as close to Freeware as an MMO (that still follows this trope, unlike, say, Kingdom of Loathing) will ever get.
    • In earlier versions of the game, Free players (or 'Greenies', as free players' names were always in green, as opposed to subscribing players' yellow) could play forever but were unable to purchase ships, shops or anything beyond the most basic clothing and weaponry, which is not as much of a handicap as it sounds - weapons in the game merely altered the drop patterns in the swordfighting puzzle, cheaper weapons are easier to defend against because their 'attacks' dropped blocks in patterns that were easier to clear. Free players could still get at least one upgrade to assuage this - though they were obviously barred from the more expensive weapons with their impenetrable drop patterns. Still, many high-end players would use the starting sword most Greenies were confined to in the name of Self-Imposed Challenge. Clothing is purely for decoration. They were also prevented from playing two of the puzzles - gunnery and navigation. This has obviously changed, but even back then, there was still a 'free' server that used a rudimentary version of the system detailed above.
    • Except Urban Dead, which only has limits on IP access.
  • Especially ridiculous for Ragnarok Online free servers. "Donate" items break the game without any regard to petty things like "fairness." A lot of servers will let you "donate" for a completely max leveled character. Or items that give +XX (XX being dozens and dozens) to stats and other advantages, while the standard official items rarely more than +1 to anything.
    • Other RO servers fall upon Bribing Your Way to Victory, though: all items are obtainable either from monsters or for RL cash.
    • RO recently released the 'Renewal' revamp, which introduced third-tier classes. In order to access them at all, you have to shell out for 'Reset Stones' (or save up for months), and good luck being at all competitive in PvP (or experiencing a lot of new content) without them.
  • Roblox. Like most entries on this page, it's biggest advertising point is that it's free to play. Although you can get most hats shirts gear, etc. with incredible patience, some items to are Builder's Club only, and BC is the easiest way to earn enough Tickets/ROBUX to get most items. Plus, there are many BC only features, such as having more than 1 map/place, more than one group, making badges etc.
    • Now BC members can make it so one of their places can only be visited by BC-members, for extra benefits. Fortunately, this practice isn't wide-spread, and some creators are kind enough to make free verisons of their BC places.
  • Rumble Fighter is another offender. While you could technically play for free, you better be really good at the game if you want anything other than the default fighting style. All of the scrolls you get for Carats, the in-game currency, are ludicrously expensive and vastly inferior to anything you can buy for Astros, The Paying currency. Not to mention most of the items are only available with Astros, and almost all of the Astro items provide stat boosts that Carat items don't. And even if you shell out enough money to completely deck out your character with cool weapons and clothes and a good style, expect something new to come out the next week that completely blows away whatever you just bought. You basically have to shell out money constantly to avoid being treated to a curb-stomping every time you fight someone.
  • Runes of Magic: You will never be as good as the guy sitting next to you who buys the in-game currency without paying the same amount or more, or a ridiculous amount of time.
    • Assuming you choose the time route, you need to farm 10 turn-ins of whatever Daily Quest you choose, turn those in, and get 100 tokens which are basically a free version of the diamonds, but with half the item selection at like 5-20 times the price they cost in diamonds. a Purified Fusion Stone, 6 of which are needed to make the best gear possible, costs a whopping 1100 tokens, vs. 55 diamonds when they're NOT on sale, as low as 25 dias (in a 5 pack) when they ARE. that's 11 days for one stone, 66 for one piece of gear. Furthermore, you have at least 16 items to stat, if you use a two handed weapon. 17 if you're a knight with a shield. 18 for scout/rogues, who stat both daggers and use their bow as their main weapon. 1056 days of farming for the minimal amount of puri stones for one set of gear. almost 2.9 YEARS. 1188 for the aforementioned scout/rogues. That's 3 and a quarter years of farming. Did i forget to mention you'll end up statting at least three or four full set's worth? All this is ignoring the equally sized set you'll need for your secondary class, if you choose to stat a set of gear for it, too. Let's not forget the Arcane Transmuter charges, which are 300 for ten of them on the tokens. 3 extra days per armor piece, 1-2 more months. Then there's tiering your weapons, required if you want to do any real damage ever. Also gear refinement on top of the statting and tiering. You're practically required to farm the local Money Spiders and slowly earn millions of gold to buy statted armor, the best of which runs AT LEAST 4 million per piece. /rant.
  • RuneScape was originally completely free to play, but constant growth made it too large to sustain without paying players. Paying members can access many times as much world, skills, minigames and quests as non-members (who can only play about 5% of the total content). However, it advertises its Free-to-Play content as an entire free game,[1] and the Pay to Play content as a super expansion pack (ergo the trope).
    • On the other hand, "worlds" (servers) are segregated between members' worlds, where all the pay-to-play features are active, and free-to-play servers, where pay-to-play features are inaccessible even to members, meaning that members don't have much of an advantage over nonmembers - if they're on the same world.
  • S4 League, while not as bad as other online games, still has its problems. Cash Shop allows you to immediately buy a certain type of equipment with the highest modifier to stats. Mind you, all equipment is temporary, and while weapon rental is easily affordable, aiming for permanents is going to cost a lot of Pentavision Credits (In-game currency).
    • A patch has actually made it so the only way to get a permanent item is the completely luck of the draw "Fumbi shop" which is far more likely to give you a random item you don't want for seven hours. Because of this, you have to constantly rerent your items. Weapons aren't so bad as their timers only go while you use them, but clothing items have timers that are always running.
  • In an odd subversion of this Trope, especially for a Japanese MMO, SD Gundam Online. The game makes no attempt to say, "You need to buy this to be BETTER than everyone!" The only things that cost RL money only are Paint, and you can find some of that with missions, if you're lucky. Buying Mobile Suits is interesting in that you select from about 10 different 'capsule machines' and put the in-game currency in to get a random MS. It's noted that the Capsule Machines and shop contain every MS available, buyable with in-game currency. And the best thing? You can purchase the Blueprints for some of the best MS... with In-Game currency only!
    • However, it's played oh-so-straight with the Taiwan version...You can buy Mobile Suits with real money, and some blueprints can -only- be bought with real money. You can't even increase the amount of Mobile Suits you can own without paying real money.
  • Second Life: only premium account owners can own land, and some areas are blocked to free account users.
    • To clarify: Certain land is blocked to people who don't have payment information. Primarily to function as an age verification system to keep kids from watching badly-rendered avatar porn. Although now they have an explicit age verification system that uses a dodgy third party who supposedly are able to determine who is over and underage by their driver's license info.
    • Premium accounts specifically refer to if you pay rent on the "Mainland" servers, which are owned directly by Linden Labs. There are plenty more "Private Islands" which are servers rented out completely to a single person, which confers more abilities then just buying all the land on a Mainland server. Part of this is that you can rent out your land to "Basic" members who aren't renting from Linden Labs directly. You can technically spend hundreds of dollars or more in-game and still be a "Basic" member simply because you don't deal with Linden Labs directly.
    • While most things ingame will cost Lindens dollars ("Lindens") and these can be purchased with real money, it's also possible to break even or even earn real money from the game by making and selling content.
  • Shattered Galaxy has this in various forms. First off, freeplayers have an attribute and level cap, and they also have a fairly steep experience gain cut past a certain levels. Furthermore, while they can collect uranium, only subscribers can actually use it. This means that only subscribers can use certain units, as well as the "gold" versions of weapons, which are somewhat (but not game-breakingly) better than their regular equivalents.
  • In Shin Megami Tensei Imagine every shop contains equipment that can only be purchased with real money. Every shop. In order to have more than one character, or to reset your attributes if you make a mistake, you have to pay real money. Need to store extra demons? You need more money. Want to cosplay a famous Mega Ten character? That cost money too. Weapons, COM Ps, Armor... Hell, there is a guitar that doesn't even do anything that costs 60 dollars. For that much, you can go out and buy an actual Mega Ten game.
    • Also, you can buy a REAL guitar, that does play music, (although a crappy one) for 60 dollars.
    • The GMs softened the game (with permission from the original japanese devs) by adding stat resets for in-game currency that work so long as you are under level 30 and holding large events where they give away tons of items for free.
    • The maps in the game are pretty huge, and that's all well and good, but walking anywhere takes forever. Aeria Games is clearly aware of this, because there are items that allow you to increase your move speed, teleport, ride one of your demons... and they all cost real money. The game would be a thousand times more playable if you didn't have to pay for the teleportation item.
      • But unlike other examples on this page, this game is entirely playable for players that don't spend real cash on Aeria Points, keeping the balance between payers and skilled players.
    • While the items in question have to be bought with real money initially, there's nothing to stop players buying them from other players for ingame cash.
  • Stick Arena: Ballisticks has a premium account thing. People without it are limited to 4 ITEMS IN THE SHOP. They also can't make levels. Premium members have more tile sets too.
  • The online game Sqwishland. First off, it's tied to a series of toys, so there's already a purchase point of entry—but the toys are available as capsule toys that cost 25-50 cents a pop, so that's not so terrible, right? But then you find out that the "free" version of the game is essentially the ability to run around the game map, and little more—you can't even interact with your pets (and it is a virtual pet site) without having a premium account. The premium page does not mention this, of course—it just mentions the new clothes and house options you get, as well as more mini-games.
  • You can play Tetris Online Japan for free, in the same way that you can play Dance Dance Revolution with two broken legs. And an elephant tied to your back. (See TOJ's entry on Bribing Your Way to Victory for more details.) Of course, to play without being handicapped, you have to pay for a "premium" subscription. To add insult to injury, they nerfed non-premium players and boosted premium players in an update was officially explained as for "balance" purposes. The only balancing going on there is in their checkbooks.
  • Tibia. The game is free to play, but the people who pay for "premium time" in real life money enjoy a large number of advantages over free players. Paying adds several new islands, the ability to travel by boats and flying carpets, new spells, new items, a new server, new monsters, new quests, new outfits and probably even more stuff.
  • Disney's Toontown Online limits you to gaining Toon Tasks (quests) and fishing in the starting Playground and 3 surrounding Streets (though you can wander anywhere you want), a Jellybean jar that maxes out at 50 beans, 25 Gags (weapons/attacks), only able to learn one extra gag track (toon-up/sound), and unable to buy anything from the Cattlelog, or play any of the games other than the one in the central Playground. Basically, a free user will get maybe two days of play out of what might actually be a pretty decent MMORPG.
    • Free players used to be able to make two characters and go past level one on the extra gag track, but that was changed.
    • Pirates of the Caribbean Online is just as bad. Lose half of the "notoriety" (XP) per kill, can only do a few quests, access to only three weapons (cutlass, pistol and voodoo doll) (out of six types advertised), no ship upgrades, and nothing to spend money on. Oh, yeah, and a level cap at 10 (it can be raised higher but by grinding alone can only be reached by free players at this level).
  • Averted with Track Mania. The free version, Nations, contains only one environment, while the paid version, United, contains seven, one of which (Stadium) is in Nations. However, Nations has everything accessible in the Stadium environ in United, including the series' robust Level Editor, several game types, plenty of tracks for each type, leaderboards, and access to the loads and loads of user-created levels. People with Nations can even race on the same servers as people in the Stadium in United. While the other environments have different handling for vehicles and different race styles, you get most of the features of you stick with the free version.
  • Travian is advertised as free, but it is nearly impossible to be competitive in any way without buying lots of gold.
    • Although, with T4 you can get gold for free in the auctions and in oases.
  • Ntreev's Trickster. The world itself is available for free, but equipment is heavily limited in the ingame shops. To get decent gear, you have to either shell out real currency in the premium shop or hope to get lucky while fighting a Boss. Additionally, some real money items will get you insane bonuses like a ridiculously fast ground speed and increased EXP gain, that said the game does gives players free "samples" of the speed and EXP increasing items once a player reaches certain levels.
  • Urban Rivals. Okay, admittedly, everything in the game is theoretically accessible for free, but the good characters cost between 5,000 and 50,000 Clintz each, and the ultra-rare Collectors characters get into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. You win, on average, 5-10 Clintz per battle. Yeah, MUCH easier just to shell out the real money for booster packs. Although winning the tournaments held every other hour speed it up (you get 50 clintz for merely participating).
  • Varsity Bars's current promotion is a £25 round of drinks for the boy and the girl at the top of the leaderboard of the Space Invaders game on the website each week. However, it's not a straight test of skill - you receive a multiplier for the number of V-Cards you own (costing £1 each, and requiring purchase in person and then online activation). If you don't have any at all, you receive no points - to seriously compete you'll need to shell out for four. While the V-Card gives you money off in certain places, only one is necessary to get this and others are redundant except for the online games.
  • Virtual Horse Ranch. Sure, you can play for free... with access to none of the money-making abilities, essentially no way to train your horses to compete, a permanent cap on the number of times you can breed your horses, and a ten-horse limit. If you want to play for free and actually have fun, you'd better hope you're a good artist so you can sell your wares for game money in the forums.
  • Webkinz slowly became Allegedly Free: nowadays you can't buy clothing anymore, members get exclusive recipes for the food appliances, and cooler virtual Webkinz like Griffins and Wooly Mammoths are virtual-only pets that require real cash to buy.
    • Well, you have to pay real money for the plush pets anyways, so it's not exactly "free"...
  • Online game The West is free, though premium features can be bought for things like more energy and doubled character bonuses; Unlike some examples of this trope, it's entirely possible to play without them.
  • Wizard 101 is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it has the typical unlimited duration free trial with "Crowns" to purchase bits and pieces of the rest of the game. On the other, one can simply pay a monthly subscription to bypass all that garbage just like a normal MMO.
    • I'd say that counts as two strikes of this trope. You can play free, buy areas piece by piece, or subscribe. But the "play free" section is one tiny corner of the world with about a dozen areas (only three of which have fightable opponents, if you don't count dungeons). And I've already managed to beat all the freebie quests before hitting level 10 (another player just informed me that no, getting to level 10 does not open up additional free quests). On the up side, the pay-as-you-go is in increments of $5, with each area being $1 to $3 (so each time you ante up, you can open two or three new areas).
      • Also, they give you a friend only to yank her away behind the payware wall. You do a couple quests for the NPC, start to get to like her, even see some hint of the mystery of her character and her family... and then she disappears, leaving a note to come look for her in Payville. Or, rather, the Dark Scary Cave that she has no business adventuring in when she can't even manage to walk fifteen feet to turn in her own registration paperwork.
  • The Game Room service for Xbox Live says it's free, and has a free addons every week. Too bad it costs about 3 bucks per arcade game in the game itself, and about 25 cents for a "token" that allows you to play a game once if you don't own it. The only thing you can do without paying is to move stuff around, or "demo" any of the games one time each.
  • ZT Online. This game is one of the biggest offender of this trope, and BY FAR the most popular MMORPG in Red China. Think about that.
  • Made worse that in many of the games above, with the hard-earned in-game points and the money converted into in-game special cash, you essentially didn't buy items like guns. You RENT them, as the items has limited by hours use. Only a few items has durability rate, and it's bought by in-game points, which is harder than usual means of money-converted into in-game special cash.
  • Just about every "Free Server" for any pay to play game. They have "donation" items given to the player after "donating" money to support the "free" server.
  • Many MMORPGs that started out as strictly pay-to-play have recently begun offering free trial accounts as a way to increase their playerbase, due to the difficulty of competing with established giants like World of Warcraft. Most of these offer access only to low-level content and newbie areas. In order to advance beyond the newbie levels and regions; you have to upgrade to a fully paid membership. Many of these also offer additional restrictions on game content for free trial players. A lot of them refer to their free play content somewhat misleadingly as "endless" or "perpetual" free play; to distinguish it from the previously common time-limited free trials.
    • Now World of Warcraft itself is free to play, but with a level cap of 20 among other restrictions. It's essentially the 14-day trial, only now it lasts forever.
      • World of Warcraft does, however, notably restrict the player rather severely in "free-to-play" accounts. The biggest restriction is that "free-to-play" accounts are not allowed to create or join a party, which means locations like the Deadmines (accessible at level 18ish) are off-limits, as they're elite instances that all but require parties.
      • You can't even speak in general chat or use the in-game mail system. The chances that you will figure out how certain elements of the game work without outside assistance are rather low.
    • Warhammer Online free play only includes advancement to level 10; and only permits access to Tier 1 zones and quests. There does not appear to be any additional restriction to content.
      • Free play is also limited to just the Empire v. Chaos Region, and it's not possible to equip the highest grade of armor/weaponry.
    • Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach recently dropped its subscription-only format for this. Advertisements claim "Unlimited Free Play", but more than half of the adventures will be unavailable to you. It's not nearly so bad as most of the examples on this page. Adventures can be bought in packs that bind to your account rather than one character or server, and everything else is cosmetic or merely convenient - but, still.
      • Add to that the fact that Both Warforged and Monks are now considered "Premium Content" for some odd reason, and apparently Drow can be bought instead of earned.
      • Also, the "Turbine points" used to buy premium content can be earned (in small amounts) by completing (large numbers of) quests, so it's possible to eventually get all the content without spending any real world money at all. Bribing Your Way to Victory is much faster, though. You can only get a set amount of Turbine Points per character, since they're directly tied to the difficulty you've completed missions at. In order to grind out enough points to get decent rewards, you'll have to grind the same content over and over on multiple characters, and it's unlikely you'll want to play the game anymore once you've earned any respectable amount of Points that way.
    • The Lord of the Rings Online is similar to Dungeons and Dragons Online, as it's also by Turbine. You can earn Turbine Points in game through various means (though the Turbine Points are separate from the ones in DDO), but almost everything worth buying is at least around 500 points. The game allows you to quest up until around level 30-something, when you start needing to buy "Quest Packs" to progress at any sane rate. Each one costs between 500-700-something points when not on sale, which is about what you might get during the entire life of a character by the time they need the first quest pack. And since you need the quest pack to be able to earn Turbine Points in those areas, your earnings are definitely capped relatively low. That's not counting any of the other quality of life stuff. You need to buy your last two bag slots separately, as well as more vault space, shared storage, and the wardrobe that was introduced to keep cosmetic stuff from cluttering your inventory. In a game infamous for being part inventory management, those extra spaces might as well be as mandatory as the quest packs.
    • Anarchy Online has a free option that includes the early (circa 2002) content; but the expansions—which add more areas and allow for much stronger characters—are subscriber only and also require paying a one-time activation fee. As with other examples here, the game was supposed to be subscriber only, but declining population forced Funcom to open the floodgates.
    • Eve Online subverts with their PLEX system. It's entirely possible for a player to play their way to a subscription by acquiring enough ISK to buy PLEX instead of paying the monthly subscription. You can also sell PLEX on the open market.
    • Averted with Star Trek Online since it went free-to-play, in fact the deal for free players is so good that people are complaining that premium players aren't getting enough benefits.
    • Ever Quest 2 has fallen into this as well, it's F 2 P, sure, but you only have the choice between two of six of each of the four profession-types, and you can only play as a few races out of the many they have, and considering how expensive some of these are (20 dollars for the Dhampyr race alone!) you'd probably be better buying the full game than spending bits to unlock certain things.
  • Some sex-simulation games are taking this position, going for a combination of this, Shareware and The Sims 3-style ongoing content proliferation. The game engine is released for free, essentially as a demo, but with only a few functions enabled; most of the partners, locales and interactions still need to be unlocked by later infusions of cash. Some companies (particularly Ripened Peach) are supplementing this with (again) ongoing content releases, not to mention user-built stuff.
  • It's not just a phenomenon seen in online gaming. Dating sites use this trope like it's going out of style. They'll tout in all their advertisements about how "it's free to join!" But if you want to talk to anyone...
  • Many, many years ago before the internet went public, "going online" meant signing onto a pay-by-the-hour online service such as CompuServe or Prodigy at rates that would be deemed highway robbery today. Quantum Link (which would eventually morph into America Online) was a service that attempted to distinguish itself with the then-revolutionary claim of unlimited time for ten bucks a month.[2] Except it turned out all you could do was basically stare at the opening menu. All of the actual content was labeled premium and charged by the hour (including the games, so it fits under this.)
  • Microvolts in somewhat interesting in that while it has a currency earned in game and another one bought with real money, most items can only be bought with the in-game currency, Micro Points. In contrast, the real-money currency, Rock Tokens, buys better items—virtually none of which can be kept for more than a week.
  • Spiral Knights is this with its use of energy, necessary to do things such as traverse dungeons and craft gear. Each player can hold up to one hundred units of mist energy (which replenishes at roughly 1 ME/11 minutes), or buy crystal energy with real money or trade for it with other players. Paying players have significant advantages, and making enough money to buy energy usually requires using almost as much energy as you can afford, so the game becomes a slow slog of converting mist energy into Crystal Energy, grinding the one or two profitable boss runs. A free player can spend weeks trying to grind their way to a particular sword, while another can simply buy the energy and trade it for the same weapon and have it instantly.
    • On the other hand, free players DO have access to everything that paying players have, so one can progress through the game without ever spending a dime. However, since the energy market is determined by players and prices can vary when buying with in-game currency, so if you don't like Bribing Your Way to Victory you can easily be screwed by the market, and stuck unable to play without bleeding money (or waiting 22 hours for your free energy allocation to regenerate).
  • The Daily Show had Aasif Mandvi expose iPad app "Tap Fish" as one. You pay to resurrect fish/get a better aquarium. One man's children spent $1500 dollars on the game, since it goes through iTunes, which saves credit info and doesn't usually need more than a basic password.
  • Team Fortress 2 is now this: it went free-to-play in June 2011, but the new unpaid players get stuck with a 50-slot backpack (as opposed to the standard of at least 300), being unable to gift or trade items, not getting cosmetic items from random drops, and only being able to craft a limited number of items. Thankfully, players still have access to all game balance-affecting weapons, so theoretically they can enjoy the same game (short of the cosmetics, which don't do anything anyways, and the storage space issue), and buying any item from the Mann-conomy will instantly upgrade you to Premium status (which gets all the perks of people who have bought the game). On top of that, the cheapest item is only 49 cents (though you need a minimum deposit of $5 into your Steam wallet if you don't have it already). Additionally, people who owned the game before it went F2P got a special untradeable Proof of Purchase hat.
    • Interestingly, the majority of TF2 players have the Proof of Purchase hat. So, most of active players have not only bought the game, but did so before it became "free." This is probably because the game's been out for years, is absurdly popular, and was priced at less than $20 for most of its life (it dropped to just a couple of dollars at one point). In addition, it was part of the very-popular Orange Box bundle which included Portal and the complete Half-Life 2 (to date). It seems Valve made the game free because they realized that nearly all the people who were ever going to buy the game already had. But as The Orange Box still technically has TF 2 in it, buying the pack gives you the Proof of Purchase.
  • The Caverns of Hammerfest became available entirely for free after the Parallel Dimensions update. You, however, can only play it once a day, so you have an option to buy more games for the day if you're impatient enough.
  • Nethack is a major aversion of this trope. It is one of the oldest video games still being developed, has always been completely free, the most popular servers record and archive your games for all to see, and some servers even let you watch other people play in realtime and even ask them questions. has countless archived games, does not have advertisements, and makes it very easy for a beginner to know where to start looking for help in climbing a very steep learning curve.
  • Wakfu, set for official release in February 2012 and currently in open beta, has designs of becoming this through Freemium. Non-subscription players can only learn a few of the professions (which are more or less essential to getting equipment), can't mint money (the only way to GET money, as Money Spiders is averted) and can't spend any if they manage to get it, can't affect the ecosystem (harvesting and replanting resources-and monsters-is integral to the game), and can only quest in the tutorial area and the new players area, are restricted to walking rather than using any of the various forms of rapid transit, and are even limited to using emote animations found in the beginner area. Also, employees will sometimes get together to make fun of non-subscription players and their mothers.[3]
  • Global Agenda just barely averts this - you're still competitive at lower levels, and the game is still extremely fun, but there are some game modes and aesthetic armors that it will take forever to unlock if you don't pay.
  • Tribes: Ascend allows you to purchase gold which can be used to unlock new classes, weapons, support items, EXP boosts and loadout slots. Playing the game earns you EXP which can be used to do this as well, however most unlocks require a ludicrous amount of EXP to trade for the unlocks - some of the strongest weapons in the game require up to ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND EXP in order to initially unlock. A typical match can earn a player anywhere between 500-2000 EXP. At least item upgrades are significantly less expensive...

Fictional Examples

  • In the fourth season of The Guild, Codex and Tink find out that the company about to purchase their game plans on turning it into one of these.

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  1. "The World's Most Popular Free MMORPG", quoted from its website front page!
  2. Yes, I know, that's not free but compared to the five to ten dollars per hour every other service charged...
  3. Not actually true.