There's no such thing as a free lunch. But how about a lunch during which you have to watch a couple of adverts, or pay 50p for extra ketchup? What if it's a plain meal you eat in the company of paying customers devouring lavish haute cuisine?

There are many possible futures for gaming, and the magic word 'free' orbits around a great many of them. It's the internet's fault, of course – this is a world that's become highly accustomed to getting what it wants whenever it wants, and without a pricetag.

On the PC especially, there are dual wars being fought against rampant piracy and punter-bewildering system specs. The answer, or at least an answer that's being toyed with of late, is free games – high on accessibility, low on technical requirements, and funded by a cocktail of advertising and micropayments for extra content.

Can free games pay?

It's a fallacy to think this is a new model. Kid/casual gamer-orientated free MMOs such as Puzzle Pirates, Neo Pets and Maple Story have amassed vast userbases and not insubstantial profits over the last couple of years. What's new is that the old guard of the gaming industry is sitting up and taking notice.

This year, we'll see the likes of EA with Battlefield Heroes, Sony with Free Realms and id Software with Quake Live all flex some free gaming muscle. Meantime, a new generation of independent developers are making a name for themselves with bold, inventive free titles – and the smaller teams (often just one or two people) means the potential to earn good cash is that much higher.

"I make most of my money from sponsors," says independent developer Edmund McMillen, co-creator of the award-winning Gish and currently working on Super Meat Boy for Wii and PC. These commercial outings are a rarity for him, however – mostly he designs experimental (and often controversial) free games.

That's not to say he doesn't make some money from them. "I could potentially make what some would call a living off of free games, but I'd still be stuck in this poverty line hole where I can't afford health insurance and a new car if my truck dies on me. I'm not the most business savvy person, but I usually find a sponsor I respect that's willing to drop a few K to basically put an ad for their site in the intro of the game as well as the title screen.

"Aside from the sponsorship, ad's do pay a little here and there, and there is always the prize money you get from NewGrounds and Kongregate [big free gaming portals]. I'm at a point where I feel like I have enough experience when it comes to game design to 'play with the big boys' when it comes to making downloadable console games."

Then there's Flashbang Studios, who've been delighting gamers recently with high-concept, high-polish games like Velociraptor Safari and Minotaur China Shop (must-plays for anyone with a sense of humour and a love of gaming).

Their reasoning for free gaming is a little different, as their designer Steve Swink explains: "Flashbang as a company has three faces: technology contractor, casual game affiliate and game developer. Arguably, game developer is the main face and is definitely the emotional glue holding the company together.

"We're all here because we love making games first and foremost. Unfortunately, that face has never been substantially lucrative. It is because of our contract work and our involvement in affiliate programs that we have financial stability. We can continue to survive making free games as we have been, provided we keep our other revenue streams open."

"As it turns out, keeping these revenue streams open crushes our fragile creative souls, so there are definitely plans in motion to monetize our games and position ourselves to focus solely on them. The plan is to set up a subscription service where players can pay a small amount to get extra features on our portal and within our games.

"The games themselves will remain free to play for the wild webs, but subscribers will get access to the maximum awesome."