Free-to-play games have been so popular that it’s getting harder to convince people to plunk down cash up front to buy a mobile game. But as with most good things, free games often come with a catch. The catch is the dreaded in-app purchase. These games start out free, but they’re designed to make players hit a wall eventually, and the only reasonable way over the wall is to buy in-game items using real money.
Some free-to-play games use the business model sparingly, offering players hours of friction-less fun without spending a dime. Others use a more insidious business model and turn their games into virtual casinos that offer players fun if they’d just spend another dollar (or 50). Here are 10 free mobile games that will empty your wallet if you’re not careful.
1. Pokemon Go
This game may have rekindled the world’s love affair with the colorful “pocket monsters” we grew up with, but it’s one of the many supposedly free-to-play games that turns out to be not as much fun unless you’re willing to spend a few bucks.
The premise of the game is to wander around the real world, seeking out Pokemon creatures to add to your collection. You do that by throwing PokeBalls at them. But your stock of PokeBalls is limited, so when you run out you have two options: you can replenish them by going to areas the game designates as PokeStops, or by spending money. In other words, unless you want to re-arrange your life to hang out at PokeStops all day, chances are you’ll eventually start shelling out cash if you want to keep playing.
So far, this tactic seems to be working for Nintendo and The Pokemon Company. The game started off quickly raking in money hand over fist, giving Nintendo’s stock price a serious boost. Who knew mixing a popular franchise with the tropes of free-to-play games could pay off so well?
2. Clash Royale
From the makers of Clash of Clans comes this incredible mash-up of a card game and a castle defense strategy game. You and your opponent face off with a randomly selected hand of cards pulled from your decks. The cards represent troops and artillery you can send toward each others’ castles. The goal of Clash Royale is to protect your castle while reducing your opponent’s to a pile of rubble.
Unfortunately, unless you want to spend money, you’re unlikely to get enough of the really good cards to remain competitive for very long. That’s because the players who spend big bucks can assemble super-powered decks that can dominate your low-budget army in a heartbeat. This game is incredibly fun for a while, but once you start going up against high rollers, it’s probably best to delete the app before you spend a fortune.
3. Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes
A barebones role-playing game set in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes lets you build a team of your favorite Star Wars characters and go about saving the universe. That’s the game’s promise, anyway. In reality, it takes either a ton of time or a heap of money to assemble a team of your actual favorite Star Wars characters. Unlocking fan favorites is a grind unless you’re willing to offer up your hard-earned money. Like most free-to-play games, it’s probably not worth it.
4. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Hearthstone is one of the most addictive (just one more match!) games around, thanks to its system of challenges and rewards that give players a stream of new cards they can use to endlessly tweak their decks. If you fall for this game, there’s a good chance you’ll fall hard. But when you do, beware your credit card bill, because the game is packed with expansions and items you can buy for real money to get a leg up on the competition. If you want to be a serious competitor, you don’t really have a choice.
5. Marvel Contest of Champions
With the astonishing success Marvel has had on the big screen in recent years (as it may soon have on game consoles as well), it’s no surprise you can play a mobile game starring the likes of Iron Man, Spidey, the Hulk, and Wolverine. Contest of Champions is a simplified fighting game that works surprisingly well on the touchscreen.
Then again, the pay scheme is pretty hostile toward players. As you play, an energy meter gradually depletes. When it reaches zero, you either have to wait until it fills back up to keep playing, or unload some real money. As for unlocking new heroes, you have to spend crystals for a wheel spin and hope for the best. Naturally, you can buy crystals for real-life money, increasing your chances of filling out your roster. This is yet another good game with a predatory pay scheme.
6. Final Fantasy: All the Bravest
There are plenty of great Final Fantasy games available on mobile, but this one stinks. It stinks because of trappings it borrows from other free-to-play games, to withhold the things you want until you pony up the cash for them. All told, unlocking all of the characters in this retro-style charmer costs around $50. That’s not so bad compared to some of the other money-sucks on this list, but it’s a lot to ask for a game that consists of little more than collecting assets from previous Final Fantasy games.
7. Candy Crush Saga
This colorful matching game seems so innocent on the surface, like a lollipop you might give to a child after a visit to the doctor. And it is, at first. The game starts off with a gentle difficulty curve, letting players get the hang of solving the puzzles while slowly working its addictive qualities into your brain. Before long you’re hooked, and that’s when the game shows its teeth. Things get tough, but you’re sure you could pass each level if you only had one more turn. That’s when Candy Crush Saga offers you another turn — for a price. The pay wall hits hard in this game, and it takes a sturdy constitution to stop playing before you open your wallet.
8. Mobile Strike
With a name so generic that it’s practically verbal wallpaper, Mobile Strike doesn’t seem like the kind of game that would stand out on a crowded app store. But for better or worse, this bland game full of busywork does get its hooks into players as they try to build up the most fearsome military on the planet.
Those hooks must work, because Mobile Strike is a serious money-maker. It ensnares unsuspecting gamers and gradually makes them wait for just about everything. Like in many of the worst free-to-play games, timers abound, keeping players from doing the things that will help them level up. Want to speed things along? Better pay up.
9. Game of War: Fire Age
Do you suppose the makers of this run-of-the-mill war game hoped people would mistake it for a Game of Thrones game? I wouldn’t be surprised. Regardless, the free-to-play magic the developer baked into this game continues to pay dividends as players keep pumping money into it. Why? Because after getting players used to fast city building and leveling up, your progress screeches to a halt — unless you make a bunch of in-app purchases, of course.
10. Clash of Clans
This game has you build a town, ratchet up its defenses, populate it with all kinds of warriors, and join up with others as you loot and reap the rewards. Like most games on this list, it’s an addictive game that people can’t seem to stop playing. Also like the other games, you’ll probably reach a point when your progress slows to a halt and the only way to keep enjoying it is to drop a few (hundred) dollars into it. The best advice is to remain steadfast and wait it out. Because once you start paying to speed things up, it can be tough to stop.
Not all free-to-play games are bad, but think twice about spending money on them. Often that money goes into an endless void and gets you very little.