Feature: Surely the best games in life aren’t free… except, it turns out, some of them are. Join us for an exploration of skintness as we examine five of the finest freebies not on the market…
Free games! I know what you’re thinking. ‘If they were so good, they wouldn’t be free,’ right? You played a free game once, and it was so bad you nearly died? Well, that is unfortunate. Poor you.
Because guess what? Not all free games are terrible! And I know that there are at least – ooh – five of them that I’d happily swap a few lunch monies for.
These aren’t ‘free-to-play’ titles – which increasingly means ‘free to play for a little bit and then empty your pockets, this is a robbery’. The titles below are completely free to download, own and play in their entirety.
We’re also going to get the thoughts of some of the people behind the games and see how and why these clearly talented developers chose to, or felt they had to, give their creations away.
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s play!
Juggle some numbers…
WHAT IS IT? An addictive ten-minute roguelike/RPG/puzzle game.
Desktop Dungeons initially appears to be a traditional RPG in which players battle their way through dungeons by levelling up a character so they can fight bigger and badder enemies. But it plays more like a puzzle game, as all the numbers that usually sit behind the scenes are right there in front of you.
You spend your time musing over numbers. That sounds easy, but it can be deceptively tricky to build up the experience points, power-ups and favour of the gods needed to defeat the level 10 boss lurking in each dungeon.
Designed as something you can play in a ten-minute coffee break, Desktop Dungeons is spawning a fully-fledged commercial release. So how come the alpha version is still free? Danny ‘Dislekcia’ Day of QCF Design explains: “The first version of Desktop Dungeons was simply available for people to download if they enjoyed it. We all do that with our prototypes – it helps us find ideas that are really going to work well.”
With this one, they hit the nail on the head. As well as positive press and server-stretching demand, the game recently won the Excellence in Design award at the Independent Games Festival – something Day says was a complete surprise.
Given the overwhelming reaction, does Day regret offering the game for free in the first place? “No regrets at all,” he says. “In fact, keeping the alpha free and working on that has turned out to have been one of the best things that we could have done: there’s essentially a free demo out there that people love to play, and we understand the design space well enough to be able to make an even better experience.”
WHAT IS IT? A 2D platformer with a sneaky twist.
Released by Curve Studios towards the end of last year, the memorably named Stealth Bastard shares the short, hard levels and 2D platforming style of Super Meat Boy, but also asks you to plot, plan and sneak your way past obstacles and enemies on your way to hacking computers, activating machinery, and generally causing all sorts of mischief. There’s a great community setup as well, with global best times appearing upon completion of each level, and a bundled editor that’s already spawned over 300 user-made levels.
A game developer by profession, Stealth Bastard creator Jonathan ‘Bidds’ Biddle originally aimed to tackle the project as a solo affair. It was only after pressure from his colleagues at Curve that Bidds let them bring in an artist, music and level designers to add some polish to the game in the last few months of production.
Curve Studios is an established development house with a number of WiiWare, PSP and PSN releases in its back catalogue. Having spent relatively little on developing Stealth Bastard, Curve valued its worth as an advert for their talents as greater than what they could earn from sales, so released it for free. With word spreading fast and the game notching over 35,000 downloads in its first ten days, it looks like the gamble paid off.
Micro-management of micro-people…
WHAT IS IT? A dwarf settlement management game, and internet religion.
Dwarf Fortress is a base-building, tunnel digging, ore-mining, elf-trading, mushroom-growing, pet-taming, dwarf-managing simulator, and you’ve probably heard of it. Managing your dwarves’ happiness and sanity is just as important as feeding them, or training them to fight monsters and heal their incredibly detailed ailments and injuries.
With its ASCII graphics, hostile difficulty and lack of built-in tutorials. it’s daunting to get into. But a bit of persistence reveals one of the most in-depth and engrossing experiences you can play. Unique stories emerge every time you play, thanks to the game’s clever randomisation – and this has spawned epic tales told via fan-fiction, web-comics and blogs.
“Back in 2006 when we put the game out we’d never really had any response to any game we had released previously,” says creator Tarn ‘Toadyone’ Adams. “Watching Dwarf Fortress threads spring up all over the place was a pretty amazing experience.”
The game continues to be updated regularly thanks to the generous donations of many of those fans, which allows Tarn and his team to continue working on the project long after release. “It’s hard to overstate how awesome the community has been,” he says. “People have been very generous, especially considering that they don’t have to pay at all.”
Of course, most players don’t donate. But that’s not a problem, says Adams. “We’re happy with how things have worked out since we’re still able to continue working on the game and to do it in a way that allows everybody that wants to play the game to play it. I’m pretty optimistic now about being able to continue working for some time to come.”
WHAT IS IT? Mario meets Indiana Jones in infinitely randomised levels.
Spelunky is another game that merges some classic styles with procedurally generated levels, this time giving 2D platforming a taste of random, emergent, roguelike gaming. The aim is simple: to get to the exit of each level and, if you’re lucky, bring as many golden treasures, useful items or stranded damsels with you as possible.
The challenge comes from the random layout of each level, and the items and enemies within them. Reaching the exit is sometimes as easy as enjoying one of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, but at other times as hard as watching the whole of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull without plucking your own eyeballs out and stuffing them in your ears.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Spelunky’s simple appearance is deceptive. Success involves fine-tuning a delicate balance between quick thinking and careful strategy, and the game responds comprehensively to your decisions. Few things compare with the joy of seeing a band of shopkeepers tirelessly hunt you down because you stole a length of rope a while back.
Spelunky’s creator Derek Yu (aka Mossmouth) is hard at work finishing an XBLA version of the game, which will add improved visuals and multiplayer when it’s released later this year. In the meantime, the original PC game is still entirely free, ridiculously challenging, and immensely fun.
From sea to semi-detached…
WHAT IS IT? The world’s premier octopus-pretending-to-be-a-human-dad simulator.
We’ve seen that free games can give us new twists on the classics, but we also often see a willingness to try out the craziest ideas. Octodad is short, and rough around the edges, but the tender humour, charming characters and sheer inventiveness are what win you over. Because this is a game in which you play as an octopus who’s stolen the identity of a human male, and will go to any lengths to keep his secret safe.
The game’s development team, Young Horses Inc., met on the Game Dev program at DePaul University, Chicago, and got together with the intention of entering a game into the 2011 IGF awards. “As a student project trying to get into the Independent Games Festival, it was always the plan to release our game for free,” says artist Chris Stallman. “We wanted as many people as possible to play and enjoy it.”
So how far did it get? Has the number of downloads been a surprise to Seth? “Such a great surprise!” he enthuses. “I was hoping that at least a few thousand people would experience Octodad, but thanks to the overwhelming support from other developers and media outlets, it has been downloaded about 125,000 times!”
Work is under way on Octodad 2, a game that is being funded using a Kickstarter campaign, and thanks to Octodad’s popularity it’s already exceeded its $20,000 target.
“The most important thing when seeking funding is to have something incredible already playable, whether it’s a couple of free games, a cutting edge prototype, or an interactive 3D photo journey through your mom and dad’s 30th anniversary pool party,” says programmer Devin Scott-Tunkin. “No one’s going to invest in a good idea by itself.”
So there you go. You don’t need to pay anything to play interesting, innovative, engrossing or fun games on your PC. Just don’t let the major studios hear you saying anything like that. They might get angry. -Anthony Bushell