In the old (skool) days, when you wanted a new video game you went into town and browsed the shelves of the two dozen shops that sold them. There were used games shops, high street chains, platinum bargain bins and even supermarkets and corner shops overflowing with hot new titles.
But gone are the days of brick and mortar video game shops. Most are delivered digitally now, whether it’s on your desktop PC, smartphone or console. It’s sad to see the shelves empty of Blu-rays, DVDs, CDs and for those old people out there (like me), cartridges and cassettes.
There’s a benefit to the digital age of gaming though, and that’s being able to play for free. So for #VideoGamesDay (12th September) here are my top tips for finding great games to play without digging into your pockets.
This is the primary distribution platform for computer gamers, although it’s not limited to PCs any more. The Steam library has grown to epic proportions, and there are always games with special offers, including a lot of freebies.
To play them you’ll first need to sign up for Steam, and to download its desktop client. This is all free, you’ll be glad to hear, and it’s available for Windows, Mac and even for Linux.
Launch the Steam client once it’s all installed and you can browse by price, which gives you a simple list of all the games on there for free, and those that are only a few pence or a couple of quid.
And you don’t need a powerhouse computer in order to play a lot of Steam games. True, the latest titles usually need the kind of PC they use at NASA, but for the smaller, older or indie games, even an old laptop is more than equipped to handle their digital delights.
This stands for “Good Old Games,” and the service works much like Steam in terms of digital delivery for Windows, Mac and Linux computers. The difference is in the types of games on offer.
As its name suggests, GOG focuses on retro gaming, and is a fantastic way to relive your gaming youth without dabbling in the dodgy waters of torrents. All the games on GOG are officially licensed and properly procured, and it also offers advice on what’s needed to get them running on modern machines.
So if you’ve got a hankering for a classic PC game like Populous: The Beginning, Dungeon Keeper or ThemePark, this is the place to start.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that all GOG games are DRM free, which means there’s no copyright protection that could prohibit you from moving your GOG games to a new computer later on.
iTunes App Store and Google Play
As much as I’ve owned a dozen different consoles over the years, and have my face buried in a computer for half the day, much of my gaming is now on a smartphone screen.
And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of free games for the touchscreens. What I will say is it’s good to pay attention to how these games are monetised, as there are multiple options that all fall under the “free gaming” banner.
You’ve got straight up free games, but those are rarer than it might seem.
Then there’s ad-supported, which is a game that you can download and play for free, beginning to end, but you’ll either see banner adverts or videos popping up that interrupt your play.
“Freemium” is a game that you can download without paying for it, but at some point it’s going to ask you to cough up a bit of cash (probably a small amount) to continue past a certain level or to unlock the remainder of the game.
Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter if it means you get to play a game for a while without having to stump up. But if you’re the kind of player who winds up investing a lot of time into your gaming habit, make sure you’re aware before you suddenly hit an unwelcome paywall after committing weeks or months to your efforts.
Retro Gaming Emulation
Just to make sure everyone’s up to speed, “emulation” refers to a piece of software that mimics a console or computer so you can play the games that were made for those older machines. So a Sega Mega Drive emulator, for example, lets you load up and play digital versions of old cartridges like Sonic the Hedgehog or Streets of Rage (make sure you legally own the games before you do, of course).
It’s not unrealistic to say there are hundreds of thousands of retro games out there, and the challenge in firing them back up on a modern computer isn’t as tough as it used to be.
Getting an emulator working used to be a real chore, but over the years some very clever people have made it a lot easier for the rest of us. EmulationStation, RetroArch, HyperSpin, MAME and a whole lot of other software packages work straight out-of-the-box and run on even the most basic computers.
In fact, if you’re interested in expanding your hardware horizons, the Raspberry Pi is an amazing (and very cheap!) option for playing pre-1997 video games. The arcade gaming table in the image below is powered by a Raspberry Pi, and runs thousands of arcade machine games from the '80s! Take a good, long look at RetroPie if retro gaming is your bag. It's incredible, and insanely easy to set up, even for complete novices.
The Internet Archive even has a wide range of abandonware (games that no longer have an owner) that you can play right in your web browser.
This is a bit vague, admittedly, but there are a lot of online PC games that have adopted the free-to-play methods described above for smartphones. For the most part they encourage you to buy digital goods (could be a set of armour, a ship or a gun, for example) and they do it by letting you play for free. It’s a pretty good deal, to be honest.
Now you just need to find them. Most of these games, like Fortnite, Dota 2 and RuneScape all run on their own websites, so it’s not like Steam where you can go to one place to find them all.
The best approach is to decide what kind of game you’re looking for. Is it a cutting edge FPS, a fantasy RPG or strategic sports management? You can be fairly sure it’s out there and even if the first one you find is a paid game, there’ll be others that welcome you in for free.
To get you started, here’s a list of cool online free video games you can jump into today, to help you enjoy #VideoGamesDay to its fullest.
- Star Wars: The Old Republic
- Planetside 2
- Lord of the Rings Online
- Fortnite Battle Royale
- Dota 2
- Path of Exile
- League of Legends