Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of concern in the MMORPG community about MMOs becoming less multiplayer. The worry is that an increased emphasis on solo-friendly content, smaller scale or more optional grouping, and other systems that aren’t as reliant on other players is stripping the genre of its identity.
But have you stopped to consider that this may well be a two-way street? Just as MMOs are becoming more like non-MMOs over time, so are other genres becoming closer to MMOs.
Spreading the MMO love
MMOs are famously addictive. Their penchant for repeatability, scale, and (nearly) endless progression makes for a perfect cycle of reward and satisfaction that keeps players coming back for more.
Developers know this, and so MMO-style progression systems are now found in many more styles of games, from MOBAs to shooters.
Take the recently released and hugely successful Overwatch. It offers an odd hybridization of the traditional MMO progression systems, leveling and loot. In Overwatch, every match grants experience, and when you level up, you get a crate of random cosmetic loot. There are enough cosmetics to keep the average player grinding for a good long time.
Or take Blizzard’s other non-MMO online game, Heroes of the Storm. It offers persistent out of match progression on the levels of both the account and the individual heroes. Earning the most basic rewards from these systems is quite easy, but maxing everything out is a Herculean grind the likes of which would make the most hardcore of old school MMO players shudder.
You can find plenty of other examples of online games adding MMO-like progression systems. Counter Strike: Global Offensive offers boxes of randomized loot, which has even led to a rather bizarre gambling scandal.
Less cynically, the social aspect of MMOs also offers a lot of benefits for players, and that, too, is beginning to creep into non-MMO titles.
Take Battleborn, for instance. At face value it seems a very traditional game, with multiplayer on the one hand and a story mode on the other.
But Battleborn’s story mode need not be played solo. You can tackle it with friends, or even random players via matchmaking. You basically never have to play Battleborn alone if you don’t want to. When you think about it, is it really so different from heavily instanced MMOs like Vindictus? You may not be running across other players in an open world, but you are constantly connected to a greater playerbase.
Even single-player games aren’t purely solitary affairs these days. Story-driven indie game Oxenfree allows players to send messages forward in time, which will then be received by other players when they play through the game. Oxenfree and the similarly story-heavy Life Is Strange both offer the player statistics comparing their choices with those of other players, allowing people to see where they stand among the greater community.
With platforms like Steam, Origin, and Battle.Net, you never need to be separated from your gaming friends. You can be fully connected, chatting up a storm, even while playing a purely solitary game.
Blurring the lines
All this is leading to a scenario where the lines between what is and isn’t an MMO are becoming ever fuzzier.
Let’s look at The Division. Is this an MMO?
We covered it on this site, so that would seem to argue that we at least think so, but it’s a bit more complicated than that really. It’s close enough to an MMO to be potentially relevant to our readers’ interests, but whether it really fits the bill of an MMORPG as we’ve traditionally understood the concept is a lot harder to determine.
The Division is always online, and it has a huge and largely seamless game world, but in most of its content, you will never encounter other players unless you specifically make the decision to group with them, via your friends list or matchmaking. It is entirely possible to play The Division solely as a single-player game and get many hours of entertainment out of it without ever having any meaningful interactions with other players. Its Dark Zone, the only part of the game where interacting with other players is compulsory, could be compared to the optional multiplayer of certain single-player titles.
The Division is not quite an MMO but more than a single-player or co-op game. It’s part of a new breed of game that doesn’t quite fit into or traditional conceptions of genre. You can see it as either a corruption of the MMO genre, a slide toward single-player games, or as single-player games beginning to bridge the gap between themselves and MMOs. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Is this the future?
All this gets one to wondering what the future of multiplayer gaming looks like.
The worst case scenario for fans of traditional MMO gaming would be for the lines to be blurred so much that large scale MMORPGs as we know them vanish entirely, and we are left with nothing but multiplayer but non-massive games, like MOBAs.
Personally I don’t think that will happen, but I do think it’s a valid concern that conventional MMORPGs may become an increasingly niche market.
On the other hand we might see MMO concepts proliferate to the point where we MMO fans can find something familiar no matter where we go in the gaming world. The DNA of MMORPGs may blend into that of gaming as a whole until the two are inseparable.
That also seems like something of an extreme scenario, but we do see multiplayer and MMO-like concepts becoming ever more common, so it may not be too far from the truth.
What is clear is that we are going to continue to see the lines between MMOs and non-MMOs blur. This can be frightening to those of us who value the traditional model, but there’s also a lot of exciting potential here. Online gaming is still breaking new ground, and the possibilities are endless.
MMORPGs have grown more numerous in their yearly releases at this point. But have they actually gotten better? Some would argue no as many simply tried to tweak World of Warcraft. Whatever you may think, at least these winners have proven themselves the best MMORPG by year for their respective time periods.
Best MMORPG of 2006 – Dungeons & Dragons Online
Runner-up: Wurm Online
I probably played more of 2005’s Silkroad Online in 2006, but Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) was the better overall game even back then. It follows the heavily instanced nature of 2005’s Guild Wars with instanced quests that players can form small groups to overcome. It uses a modified D&D 3.5 ruleset as the backbone for combat and advancement. Unlike tabletop D&D though, players fight in real-time. In fact, DDO employs a bit of twitch based combat where players must manually aim attacks. This was a first for a mainstream fantasy MMORPG and lent itself to creating a unique experience at launch.
Overall, Turbine did a great job of bringing Dungeons and Dragons to an MMO environment. Dungeon masters narrate quests, each with their own story for those who find themselves interested. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough content to level up purely on unique quests. Players will need to repeat quests, some several times, in order to sufficiently advance to take on new quests. To make matters worse, some quests can be quite difficult without an adequate party composition that can take some time to fill. For these reasons, DDO can really grow tiresome but there is no denying its 2006 crown.
Best MMORPG of 2007 – Lord of the Rings Online
Turbine found itself on a roll from 2006-2007. After handling one major fantasy IP more than competently, they were given the reigns to the vaunted world of Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings Online sought to create an immersive MMORPG steeped in the rich lore of Tolkein’s masterpiece. For the most part, they succeeded. The entire game feels like a community struggle against evil. Even the PvP system disallows players fighting each others’ characters, but instead allows one side of players to temporarily control the monsters.
The greatest strength of Lord of the Rings Online is its adherence to the lore. Even little things like calling achievements deeds and parties fellowships add to the ambience. Fellowships are required for challenging instances, rewarding coordinated players with group attacks called Fellowship Manoeuvres. The classes are fairly unique too. Wizards such as Gandalf are rare so magically inclined players instead take on the role of rune-keepers and lore-masters. Physical combat classes are similarly unique to LOTRO. Players can even play a variety of musical instruments, forming impromptu bands in town squares. The game simply comes to life and to this day continues to build on its iconic world.
Lord of the Rings Online combines a well told MMO story, compelling quests, and a rich world steeped in lore. It’s an MMORPG with a strong draw for those who appreciate a little role-playing in their role-playing game.
Best MMORPG of 2008 – Age of Conan
Runner-up: Warhammer Online
Warhammer Online and Atlantica Online came close to winning this. After all, in 2008 Age of Conan was a mess. The game lacked in content, the combat felt clunky, endgame felt repetitive, and bugs ran rampant. The game entertained in Tortage, Age of Conan’s solo tutorial area for the first twenty levels, and then promptly fell off a cliff. Funcom is just a terrible company when it comes to MMORPG launches, but they sure do know how to turn things around.
Age of Conan is now brimming with content, the unique combat system feels responsive, and the multitude of unique classes are a welcome change from typical fantasy MMORPGs. Players will find themselves with plenty to do as they progress their character to the maximum level of eighty. Typical endgame raids await to continue powering up, but honestly other games do those better. And for a mature setting, the PvP is sadly lacking with class balance issues and mediocre systems. Still, the combat system combined with a rich environment has provided a lasting legacy that tops 2008’s other offerings.
Best MMORPG of 2009 – Champions Online
Runner-up: Runes of Magic
2008 didn’t set any lasting trends in the MMORPG industry, but at least it didn’t disappoint like 2009. Several titles flopped, building on 2008 to give further rise to the notion that MMORPG developers really suck at living up to their promises. Champions Online would be the second superhero themed MMORPG released by Cryptic Studios, having sold their first (City of Heroes) to NCSoft. It’s also the obvious choice for 2009 as this year’s only title to bring something unique to the genre. The current state of the game feels money grubbing, but there is a lot Champions Online offers to would be superheroes.
Champions Online’s character customization might still be better than every competing MMORPG. Not only from the perspective of combining desired superpowers for a character, but appearance customization is worlds ahead of other games too. Speaking of appearances, the visual style lends itself to a fulfilling 3D comic book world that immerses players in the role of their characters. Combat, PvP, and crafting leave a lot to be desired in it’s current state though and the free to play system is extremely stifling. 2009: the year of we do what we can with what we have.
Best MMORPG of 2010 – Final Fantasy XIV
Guess who’s back? Back again. Final Fantasy’s back. Tell a friend.
Good grief, 2010’s MMORPGs in 2010 vs. 2010’s MMORPGs in 2016 are a massive difference. Star Trek Online and Perpetuum are both in much better places than they were six years ago. Vindictus and Dragon Nest, still two of the best free targeting MMORPGs, have only added content to what were strong Korean releases. But nothing has changed as much as Final Fantasy XIV.
The game was such a train wreck on release that Square Enix stopped charging subscription fees for over a year while they revamped the game, ultimately culminating into “A Realm Reborn”. Now, Final Fantasy XIV stands as a benchmark for traditional MMORPG play. Much like Final Fantasy XI, strong group coordination is required to overcome the game’s most difficult challenges. However, solo play for the majority of progression is much more viable. The job system provides an incentive to revisit old areas and adds diversity to class builds. Perhaps the latest Final Fantasy MMO’s most noteworthy feature though is its strong narrative. The game features characters you won’t immediately forget with cut scenes reminiscent of its single player brethren. It’s no surprise then that questing is a strength of this MMORPG.
As it stands, Final Fantasy XIV is a perfect title for those seeking a modern adaption of MMORPGs from the early 2000s. Subscription fee included.
Best MMORPG of 2011 – TERA
Far and away, 2011 gave me the longest pause to consider which title to choose. TERA, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Rift are the MMOs that most readily come to mind, but DC Universe and the now defunct Rusty Hearts are both underrated. Ultimately, I went with TERA primarily because its combat system offers the most unique gameplay.
TERA’s combat really embraces the “new” style that eschews classic tab targeting for freeform player targeted skills. Players in TERA need to actually aim their abilities at the target to hit them. Additionally, the combat pacing is much faster than MMO competitors. These two design decisions lead to a combat system that rewards players not purely for equipment (although that’s important too) but for their individual skill as well.
The downside is that TERA’s enemies in the open world are beyond bland. Interesting dungeons aren’t available for at least twenty levels and PvP doesn’t really begin until max level. So although leveling is relatively fast, the combat is still a chore for a good while until adequate challenges present themselves. When those challenges do come around though, the game really shines. TERA also features a great free to play system that is, in our opinion, not pay to win.
Best MMORPG of 2012 – The Secret World
Runner-up: Guild Wars 2
This was a fun year. Blade & Soul, which came out in America in 2016, notably released in Korea this year. It offered some great combat, but in the end I really only considered two Western MMORPGs: The Secret World and Guild Wars 2. They both offered a compelling and unique sales pitch but couldn’t be further apart at launch. As with every single Funcom MMORPG, The Secret World released in a half baked state. On the other hand, Guild Wars 2 felt rather complete. Naming The Secret World the winner would’ve certainly surprised my 2012 self. However, Guild Wars 2 has felt pretty stagnant despite their latest expansion while The Secret World has only grown stronger as a dark, atmospheric, story driven MMORPG.
The Secret World has built a rich environment for its player base to explore and currently offers the best MMO quests. There are no filler missions in The Secret World, with each tying into the main story arch. Many unique concepts abound during these integral quests. Players will need real world research to decipher clues, Metal Gear Solid skills to sneak through occult locations, deduction to solve coded puzzles, and fortitude to defeat rich Lovecraftian creatures. The Secret World advances MMO questing to the next generation and sits there squarely by itself.
Despite an excellent freeform character skill system, the combat does leave something to be desired. This certainly puts a damper on enjoying endgame dungeons, but shouldn’t dissuade interest from The Secret World. It’s not a game for tacticians or action junkies but for those seeking to be immersed in a deep, Lovecraftian-esque world. With a story that still sees regular updates and a buy to play option to get started, The Secret World is going strong.
Best MMORPG of 2013 – Warframe
Runner-up: Aura Kingdom
Might as well dub this the year of pay to win. All the larger populations MMOs like ArcheAge, Neverwinter, and Echo of Soul sooner or later fell into pay to win ways of varying degrees. I wanted to choose Wizardry Online here, but it never realized its potential prior shutting down. Aura Kingdom almost won due to a cute anime MMO styling that employs Aeria’s most reasonable freemium system to date. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to overcome Warframe.
Like Guild Wars, one could argue Warframe isn’t an MMORPG. There isn’t anything massive about the game other than its player base, chat, and the marketplace. I’m generally inclusive when defining an MMO though, and Warframe is the best of the games I considered.
First, combat in Warframe resembles Devil May Cry with a combination of fast paced melee and ranged abilities. Cooperative missions are the the primary form of content and advancement and places players in a central position in an ever growing galactic conflict. To overcome these missions, players can purchase a multitude of unique Warframes to pilot. These are similar to League of Legends champions in terms of offering significantly different gameplay without necessarily being stronger than one another. The game is extremely grind heavy, but there are a lot of interesting warframes, weapons, modules to collect. Though progression is slow, it’s extremely rewarding. A lot of the grind can be bypassed with cash, but ultimately everything can be acquired through in game play.
Warframe is a solid choice for the experiencing the life of a cyberninja, as long as repeating co-op missions (albeit of high quality) to acquire new equipment sounds fine.
Best MMORPG of 2014 – WildStar
Runner-up: Elder Scrolls Online
To give you an example of how difficult it was to choose between WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online, I think I swapped these five times before finally settling on Wildstar. I’m fairly confident Elder Scrolls Online will stand the test of time due to Tamriel’s rich lore and the series’ dedicated fan base. On the other hand, WildStar seems to constantly be on life support after a bad launch. For now, the population is revitalized thanks to the Steam launch, and there is just so much to love about WildStar.
The quirky universe, colorful palette, and HGTV quality house decorating give WildStar a lot of character. Yet it is the fast paced, action oriented combat system that truly gives WildStar a place in the crowded MMO market. The vast majority of moves telegraph their hit area, giving opponents a short time to dodge or counter. Despite this, the telegraphing doesn’t tend to the clutter the screen and provides players clear information with which to react. PvP battlegrounds reward competent play, but PvE is where WildStar really shines.
Many consider WildStar’s raids to be the best raids that any MMORPG has to offer (including those from you know who). Instanced dungeons and expeditions (group quests) offer challenging content that doesn’t just give you a win because you’re new. It’s truly a rewarding experience. Theorycrafting is fun thanks to easy respecs and a slew of combo-laden options. While the game is reasonably solo friendly, WildStar really shines with group content. If Steam doesn’t provide an adequate population boost this could be detrimental for what is a fantastically underrated free to play MMORPG.
Best MMORPG of 2015 – Skyforge
I’m not trying to knock Skyforge (OK, maybe I am a little bit) but proclaiming this the best MMORPG of 2015 caps off a weakened state of recent MMOs. Let’s give Skyforge it’s due though. It is the best MMORPG of 2015.
Skyforge’s progression system is one of the more unique aspects about the game. Players will navigate something similar to a sphere grid in Final Fantasy X (or Path of Exile) to progress. All characters can eventually access all classes and change freely between them outside of missions. As you might notice, free targeted action combat has grown popular and Skyforge implements its own version. Enemies aren’t as interesting as say, the aforementioned Wildstar, and are a bit too damage spongey. Still, the moves themselves look great and give motivation to level up. The active content revolves around missions but players can solo them when populations are low. The missions are fun the first time around, but even the random bonus objectives don’t entice replay as much as say, Warframe.
Although it takes a while to get there, what truly sets Skyforge apart are the AFK activities. These are polarizing, but it’s the main reason why you’d stick with Skyforge. As a god (eventually with a bad ass divine form), you’ll slowly grow your followers to provide character boosts. This is represented through a Facebook-esque game called the order system. You’ll recruit adepts, assign them to missions, build sanctuaries, they’ll level up, you’ll get bonuses and then repeat. The constant growth in Skyforge can be addicting. The appeal here is greatest for achievement/progression junkies or someone who just wants to play a god in an MMORPG.
Twenty Years of MMORPGs
That does it. Twenty years, twenty MMORPGs. Well, forty if you count runner-ups but second place is the first loser, right? We don’t speak of them (much). And while we could look back on this in another decade with a very different 2012 – 2015. I don’t see much changing with MMOs older than that.
I’d be flabbergasted to see people in 100% agreement with these so if there’s anything to add, all human comments are welcome.
MMORPGs have grown to such heights now that they warrant their own category for year end video game awards. However, MMOs evolve to a much greater extent than games from other genres. An MMORPG’s full potential might not be realized until years after launch. It is with this thought in mind, and the fact that hindsight is 20/20, that we’ll be taking a retroactive look at the best MMORPG by year for the past twenty years. We’ll start in 1996, the first time that multiple graphical MMORPGs would release in the same year.
Best MMORPG of 1996 – The Realm (Online)
Originally launched as simply The Realm in 1996, this cartoony MMO game graphically resembles old point and click style games like Quest for Glory. The Realm offered a surprising wealth of content in its debut year that included player housing, a 1000 level cap, multiple dungeons to explore, and a decent character creation system. The Realm Online’s most notable feature though is its turn based, tactical combat. Although most mobs aren’t terribly challenging, this style of combat added a layer of depth still not present in any many MMORPGs. It also lead to some tense, tactical PvP battles in The Realm.
Of course, The Realm is pretty flawed too. After seeing all the heavily instanced world has to offer, there isn’t much else to do besides grind. There isn’t a real trading system either (only gifting or dropping items) so players hire middle men to facilitate trades, which has been abused by scammers. Yet it doesn’t compare to the “old days” where a lack of solid protection for players’ houses led to unintended burglaries or the gold duping exploit that massively inflated every item’s price. Despite being fixed, these issues sadly persist as the most notable memories of The Realm.
The Realm Online seems to still be running. It was apparently sold to a group of fans several years ago, who have managed to keep it running but do little else to entice players.
Best MMORPG of 1997 – Ultima Online
I thought for sure that Tibia would win its year, but there’s no way it could stand up to the legacy that is Ultima Online. Not only did Ultima Online bring the term MMORPG to the world (we were calling them graphical MUDs prior), but it also created the basis for sandbox MMORPGs. Players entered Ultima Online with a vision of their character and could match that vision surprisingly well. With skills ranging from magery to musicianship to animal taming, it seemed like the developers had thought of everything. The world itself teemed with life. Hell, you could even own a castle. Pretty sweet.
The truly open nature of Ultima Online did lead to some serious player griefing though. Outside of towns, players were fair game and a lot of stronger players targeted easy prey. Since players would also drop all of their gear and loot on death, player killing could be quite profitable. Less violent players could sneak and steal items out of others’ backpacks. For victims, playing Ultima Online was probably akin to playing a shopkeeper in Skyrim. All the sudden everything was gone and you could barely react.
Eventually, Ultima Online split their servers between the PvP friendly Felucca and the carebear land of Trammel. It’s a decision that in equal parts killed and saved the game. The lack of a strong deterrent for Ultima Online criminals would have wiped out the player base, but the game also lost much of its unique “dangerous real world” feel. The most lasting memory for Ultima Online though is when a player killed the invincible Lord British, controlled by Ultima’s creator Richard Garriott.
Best MMORPG of 1998 – Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds
I’m honestly surprised that Kru Interactive hasn’t made any new games. In the late 90s they gave us Nexus, Dark Ages, and Shattered Galaxy. All were pretty cool games, and all are still running. I guess the age of 3D is scary, but that’s fine. There are plenty of 3D MMOs out there from other guys.
Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds was for many their best offering. It seems to be doing the best too in 2016 with biweekly patches. The combat has never been anything to write home about, but what made Nexus special was its social system. Nexus sported a deep political system alongside a mentor system to encourage veterans to help new players. Not everyone was friendly in Nexus, but everyone felt connected. I feel that the systems in place in Nexus make for some of the best socializing of any MMORPG. If only the actual gameplay was as addictive…
Best MMORPG of 1999 – EverQuest
Runner-up: Asheron’s Call
I was tempted to choose Asheron’s Call for 1999 because I personally enjoyed the game more. Ultimately, EverQuest’s lasting legacy proved too monumental to overlook. While developers were trying to figure out the magic MMORPG formula, it would be EverQuest that would leave the biggest imprint of the first generation MMORPGs.
EverQuest’s success was burgeoned by their dedication to creating an atmosphere that resembled tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. The game offered players mostly typical fantasy races and classes with a classic alignment system. Multiple varying server rulesets were enacted to center gameplay on a particular player activities. For example, the Vallon Zek server would go down as the first major factional warfare as one’s race dictated PvP status. Rallos Zek allowed bloodthirsty players to kill anyone, much like Ultima Online.
Most importantly for EverQuest, this MMORPG offered players difficult PvE encounters and started the whole raiding thing. The Sleeper is perhaps the most famous raid encounter of all time since it took three highly geared guilds working together for hours to take him down. Players also regenerated health slowly after combat in EverQuest, which lessened the action but increased the social interaction. I don’t miss resting, but I lament the increasingly anti-social nature of multiplayer gaming since EverQuest’s MMORPG heyday. For many veterans, EverQuest is the best MMORPG of all time.
Best MMORPG of 2000 – Allegiance
Allegiance is a pretty cool game that was ahead of it’s time. Some might argue that the lack of a massive, persistent world (games are eventually won) disqualifies Allegiance as being an MMO. I don’t agree and perhaps more importantly, there were no other MMOs released in 2000. It sort of wins by default, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. The core gameplay revolves around one member of a faction playing the role of an RTS commander with their allies controlling individual ships. Maps are explored, buildings are built, resources collected, technologies researched, and eventually full on wars are waged. It was pretty complicated then without a great tutorial and no doubt partially caused the disappointing sales numbers for developer/publisher Microsoft.
Although Microsoft pulled the plug on this pseudo-MMORPG long ago due to population, fans still run the game.
Best MMORPG of 2001 – Dark Age of Camelot
EverQuest may have been the first MMORPG to implement faction warfare, but Dark Age of Camelot perfected it. Faction warfare in Dark Age of Camelot is referred to as Realm vs. Realm (RvR), unique from the free for all brawl that was simply PvP. In Dark Age of Camelot, players would enter the MMORPG by choosing one of three mythical races to represent. The combat system resembled EverQuest so players familiar with the venerable MMORPG and looking for more structured PvP could easily jump into Camelot.
The primary focus for Dark Age of Camelot’s RvR has always been a 3-sided factional conflict. This maintains balance despite shifting populations. While one side may grow dominant, two sides can temporarily ally to turn the tides. Camelot, to this day, is simply the best MMORPG when it comes to epic castle sieges and territory defense. The population has waned, but the options for a true alternative simply aren’t there.
I do want to give honorable mentions to RuneScape for showing that browser MMORPGs could be fairly legit and Anarchy Online, specifically for their hype machine. Anarchy’s promised a unique setting, and I loved the idea of a neutral faction. The video below got me hyped beyond measure for the sci-fi MMORPG.
Unfortunately, Anarchy Online disappointed in a huge fashion and clearly released too early. It would eventually became a good MMORPG, but it’s launch would go down as one of the worst in MMORPG history. Luckily, Dark Age of Camelot would come to the rescue in October 2001.
Best MMORPG of 2002 – Final Fantasy XI
Runner-up: Ragnarok Online
Although not released until the following year in the US (along with Korean competitor, Ragnarok Online), Final Fantasy XI put PvE players to the test. EverQuest required grouping, but players could advance eventually by playing more casually. Final Fantasy XI scoffed at the idea. Not only did Final Fantasy XI require grouping, it required coordination. The game did not shy away from grinding, but did reward players with greater EXP bonuses for chaining mobs in quick succession. Although grinding mobs was all the rage until World of Warcraft’s release, Final Fantasy managed to create a rewarding system for the repetitive activity. The familiar Final Fantasy setting, with chocobos and all, also helped to draw players in.
The raids and end game bosses of Final Fantasy XI required not only high end gear, but high end skills too. Whereas most of EverQuest’s high end encounters were designed to be defeated if properly geared, Final Fantasy XI couldn’t care less. To this day, Final Fantasy XI has yet to be surpassed in the difficulty of it’s PvE encounters. It’s unlikely that it will be as providing content that only a fraction of the population will see isn’t good business.
Best MMORPG of 2003 – EVE Online
Runner-up: Star Wars Galaxies
Eve Online is to PvP what Final Fantasy XI is to PvE. To this day, Eve is still the premiere open ended PvP system. Corporations ran by actual players fight over areas of the galaxy in order to obtain resources to grow further. Fleets of hundreds engage in battles with similarly sized opponents. Politics and espionage are another layer on the complex cake that is Eve Online.
Not only did Eve Online present its players with an MMORPG that boasted sandbox freedom, it also introduced a unique skill progression system. In Eve Online, skills are learned in real time whether online or not. Want to master a particular type of battleship? Just wait a month. This concept allowed players to further engage in the content they wanted without worrying about grinding for levels. Finally, Eve Online also did away with the common practice of multiple, split servers. Upwards of 30,000 players can still be found playing Eve Online simultaneously to this day. Max player counts of individual World of Warcraft servers occupy a fraction of that.
The audience is relatively niche compared to mainstream MMORPGs, but is loyal and dedicated. There’s simply nothing quite like Eve Online to this day. That it’s still running and a better game than ever 13 years later is a testament to that statement.
Best MMORPG of 2004 – World of Warcraft
Runner-up: EverQuest II
I mean. Duh. Of course it’s World of Warcraft.
2004 would go down as the most important year for MMORPGs since 1999. It saw a couple other AAA MMORPGs releasing in EverQuest II and City of Heroes. Interesting titles such as Saga of Ryzom, Vendetta Online, Metin2 and Knight Online also debuted. But everything paled in comparison to Blizzard’s behemoth MMORPG.
World of Warcraft took the popular MMORPG formula and perfected it. Blizzard’s only truly unique contribution to the MMORPG genre was the implementation of quests as the primary method of leveling up. Until 2004, quests were largely an afterthought in MMORPGs. They were either too obfuscated or too few to be used as a form of advancement. World of Warcraft changed that and set a precedent for the importance of questing in MMORPGs. We even did a feature on MMORPGs with the best quests. You might notice that World of Warcraft is the only game listed that released before 2007.
World of Warcraft didn’t simply rely on quests to draw in millions of players though. Blizzard polished their first MMORPG to the nth degree. The art design is fantastic, the classes are interesting, grouping became useful instead of required, and the game truly brought the Warcraft universe to life in a virtual world. Is it the best MMORPG of all time? That’s debatable, but, it is certainly the most influential due to its wild success.
Best MMORPG of 2005 – Guild Wars
Runner-up: Silkroad Online
The original Guild Wars was built on delivering a near immediate endgame with long term horizontal progression, heavily instanced content, and no subscription fee. All four of these defining features things were brand new to the MMO space and have surprisingly inspired very few similar combinations.
The maximum level in Guild Wars is twenty, which can be reached in one day. From there, the primary method of advancement is learning new skills through completing various missions. Each player in Guild Wars has access to only eight skills at a time so gaining more skills doesn’t necessarily make your character stronger. Players in Guild Wars don’t chase bigger numbers but instead seek more skills to provide adaptability. Players can even create PvP only characters with access to all skills for competitive PvP. These design decisions lead to communities that don’t fracture due to varying commitment levels. It’s one of the best perks about horizontal progression, but can also lead to players feeling like there’s not enough advancement to warrant continued play. Luckily, Guild Wars does not require a subscription fee.
Up until this point, monthly subscription fees were the norm for MMORPGs. Free to Play MMOs wouldn’t become popular for a few more years yet. Thus if you wanted to play an MMORPG you had to pay a monthly fee. Guild Wars did away with that, in part thanks to the heavily instanced gameplay to lower server costs. Instanced content also allows developers to create challenges balanced around a particular number of players, at the cost lessening the massive part of the multiplayer experience. This has its pros and cons but certainly helped to define Guild Wars as one of the most unique offerings in the MMORPG genre.
Landmark is a game with a strange and somewhat sad history. It was originally a spin-off of EverQuest: Next, but when Next’s development was cancelled, Landmark was all that was left.
But now it’s finally been officially launched. After all the drama surrounding EQ:N and Landmark’s seemingly endless journey through early access, my expectations for Landmarks were set pretty low, but I maintained a vague curiosity, so I decided to give it a shot.
What I found was not the empty afterthought I expected, but a surprisingly charming and enjoyable little game.
Getting your bearings:
The first thing you’ll notice upon joining Landmark is that the game is gorgeous. Stunningly, breath-takingly gorgeous. It hits a perfect balance between style and realism to create a world that is detailed and vibrantly colorful. So much of my time has been spent just wandering around and gawking at the beauty of it all.
The only stumble for the visuals of the game is its character models, which plunge headlong into the darkest depths of the uncanny valley. Faces are more than a little terrifying.
Character customization is also woefully inadequate — I’m particularly amused by a “facial hair” option for female characters, which does nothing. Though I suppose the point is to show your personality through your build, not your character. Still, surely they could have included a few more options.
On the plus side, character animations are incredibly good. Far more fluid and natural than in most MMOs. Seeing your character adjust their stance to account for a slope or slide down the side of a hill is a real joy.
Movement in general in Landmark is fantastic. Every player is issued a grappling hook to allow them to traverse caverns and mountains with ease, and depending on what boots you have equipped, you can unlock various movement powers to help you get around. Few other MMOs make simply getting around such an enjoyable experience.
The core gameplay of Landmark is very basic, but it works. A lot of your time will be spent gathering resources — chopping down trees, mining ore, and so forth. This is quite easy to do, and even the rarer resources aren’t too hard to track down.
It does take a lot of grinding to get enough resources to build anything substantial. In any other game, this would be intolerable, but the beautiful graphics and stellar soundtrack are incredibly soothing, and that makes the grind bearable, if not necessarily enjoyable.
Combat is simple, though more challenging than you might expect. You get just two skills based on whatever weapon you have equipped, and you have a few different choices of armor, but there’s no real vertical progression here.
Landmark’s combat would get old fast if fighting was as crucial here as it is in the average MMO, but it’s a pretty small part of this game. Generally the only place you’ll find significant numbers of enemies is within the chaos caverns, cave systems where the rarest resources are found.
The caverns are an interesting experience. They capture the feeling of exploring the unknown a lot better than your average MMO dungeon crawl, but they’re also pretty repetitive. The only real variety comes from the ruins found at the end of each cavern, which were player-designed. Even then it’s mostly a visual change, as there’s just not that much variety in the combat encounters.
But combat and adventuring aren’t the main attraction in Landmark, so let’s talk about what really matters: building.
Making your mark:
The building tools in Landmark can seem a little overwhelming at first. There’s no shortage of options right from the start, and there are dozens more prop recipes to be unlocked over time.
But the game has a very good (if somewhat lengthy) tutorial that does a good job of showing you basics, and once you find your footing, it’s surprisingly easy to build what you want. I haven’t been too ambitious with my creations, but so far I’ve yet to encounter anything I couldn’t figure out how to make.
It also helps that Landmark thus far seems to have an unusually welcoming community for an MMO. General chat is lively and usually seems happy to answer any questions newbies might have.
The relative ease of building and the warmth of the community lead me to believe Landmark would be a very good MMO for children to play, either alone or (ideally) with their parents. I know I would have loved this game when I was a kid.
At the higher end, the potential for what can be created seems pretty impressive. I haven’t spent a lot of time exploring other people’s builds, but so far I’ve found a functioning stargate, a Tim Horton’s, a large and detailed medieval castle, and the starship Enterprise.
What I haven’t found a lot of yet is builds with combat or stories, both of which are theoretically options. But it’s early in the game’s life, so maybe that will come later.
My one major complaint with building right now would be that you don’t get a whole lot of real estate for it.
Before you can build, you have to stake your claim somewhere in the world. Finding a good spot can take some doing, though it doesn’t seem like all the land has been taken quite yet.
Claims themselves are not that big, though, and by default you can only have one. It costs real money to unlock more. Given how inexpensive Landmark is, that isn’t too unreasonable, but personally I would have preferred to have at least two claims off the bat.
It’s also worth noting you need to maintain your claim. They did a pretty good job of making this as painless as they could; you don’t need to pay anything — simply log in to extend the life of your claim. But you do need to be diligent about it, or you will lose your claim. The design will be recorded, so what you’ve built won’t be lost forever, but finding a new claim to rebuild on could be a hassle.
Landmark has far exceeded my expectations, but it’s definitely got some problems.
It is lacking in polish, which is pretty baffling considering how long it spent in early access. There are bugs and some stability issues. I haven’t found any of this to be too game-breaking — I’ve found workarounds for all the issues fairly quickly — but it’s sloppy, and it’s just not acceptable in a game that spent so long in beta.
My biggest concern, though, is longevity. I’m not really sure what you’re supposed to do with yourself once you’ve finished building your claim. I suppose you could start building new claims, but that costs cash, and even then, you’ll eventually run out of claim slots.
You can explore what other people have built, but I can’t imagine that holding my — or most other players’ — attention for too long.
There’s also a lot of lingering negativity directed toward the game because of EverQuest: Next’s cancellation, but I would encourage people to let go of that.
The sad truth is that game development doesn’t always work out, especially when trying new things, and Next was trying a lot of new things. In the end it’s probably for the best that Daybreak cancelled the game rather than release something that fails to meet our expectations. I understand the frustration — I’m upset about losing Next, too — but don’t be blinded by it, and don’t think that Daybreak are the villains because of it.
It is unfortunate for the people who bought into Landmark in the hopes of having their creations ported to Next, but early access is always a gamble. I’m not entirely without sympathy, but if you paid for Landmark in the hopes of helping to build Next, the fact is you’re the one who took the chance of paying for something that didn’t exist.
It also needs to be said that Landmark was never the beta for EverQuest: Next, as I’ve seen a lot of people claim. It was always intended to be a separate game. Landmark isn’t an abandoned, unfinished version of Next; it is its own finished game.
Oh, Landmark could — probably should — offer more than it does. I want more character customization options, myself. But it was always intended to be a building tool, not a full-fledged MMORPG.
And as a building tool, it’s pretty good. Not perfect, but good.
Much to my own surprise, I’m going to recommend Landmark. It’s not necessarily worth making your new main game, but it’s got enough going for it to be worth checking out. Even if you only end up running around and exploring for a few days, the game should still justify its paltry ten dollar cost.
For my part, I need to dig out a cellar for my cottage.
If you play a lot of online games, you can reach the point where it feels like if you’ve seen one MMORPG, you’ve seen them all. That can apply to a lot of aspects of design: combat, classes, endgame, and even environments.
Eventually a lot of places in MMOs are going to start looking the same. The same themes just keep showing up over and over. There are certain types of zones that every MMO seems to have.
These are a few of the more common ones.
Low level spider-cave:
It is at this point an immutable law. If you are a low level MMO player, you will end up in a cave full of giant spiders. It has happened. It is happening. It will happen. It is inevitable, inescapable.
Why are MMO developers so obsessed with spiders? It is a mystery with no answer. Certainly giant spiders are a good and classic fantasy monsters, but this obsession with them has reached unhealthy levels.
It’s at the point now where having a low level cave full of giant scorpions would qualify as wild, groundbreaking innovation in the MMO field.
What fantasy locale is more iconic than the enchanted forest? MMO developers will never pass up an opportunity to have one.
These zones are usually dominated by Elves or Elf analogues. You can expect improbably large trees, soothing quasi-New Age music, and probably a fair bit of sparkling.
These are usually among the most beautiful zones to behold, but ironically also among the most boring to play through. The quests are usually just killing random animals, picking flowers, and doing other tedious chores more suited to a groundskeeper than a hero of the realm.
It’s almost as if MMO developers are so proud of the beautiful scenery they’ve created that they don’t want it disturbed by having any real action take place there. But it’s a bit hard to feel a sense of adventure when all you’re doing is gathering herbs and listening to not-Enya.
Year-round Halloween zone:
True Horror MMOs are very few and far between, but for some reason, nearly all MMOs will have at least one zone with a horror twist.
It’s often a forest, but not always. It could also be a swamp, abandoned farmlands, or occasionally another biome. It’s always grim, gloomy, and full of cobwebs and ghosts. There’s probably going to be a quest involving a haunted house at some point. Expect a graveyard or two.
Basically it’s year-round Halloween.
It does get a bit repetitive, but this is definitely one of the better themes to revisit ad nauseam, if you’re going to lean on old traditions. Halloween themes are a great way to bring out anyone’s inner kid, and a darker and creepier zone is often a welcome change of pace from the more traditional fantasy tropes.
Being social games, MMOs need places for players to congregate. Developers are fond of building massive, visually spectacular in-game cities for this purpose. Well-intentioned, but it doesn’t take long for the idea to fall flat on its face.
What happens when you cram detailed environments, dozens of NPCs, and hundreds of players into a small space?
If you guessed “a colossal quicksand pit of lag that turns something that used to be a video game into an experience resembling a slideshow of your aunt’s trip to Europe except with more Elves,” congratulations, you win!
The funny thing is that developers have to know this is going to happen. They know how the limits of technology better than anyone. And yet they just keep trying to funnel all their players into a single, over-crowded subzone.
Maybe they just enjoy making people with lower end computers cry bitter tears of frustration.
The desert zone no one likes:
Have you ever heard someone say their favorite zone in an MMORPG is the desert one?
No, of course you haven’t. That’s never happened. No one likes desert zones.
And yet every game seems to have one. An entire zone of sand, dirt, and grey rocks. It’s always boring, always tedious, and everyone is always glad to be free of it, but such zones just keep being made. Maybe the repetitive scenery is easier to design. It’s hard to say why. All that’s clear is desert zones will always be with us, like an incurable illness.
It would help if the developers at least put some creativity into their desert areas. Some of the world’s greatest natural wonders exist in deserts, like the Grand Canyon or Uluru. Why must MMO desert zones be naught but endless sand and blandness?
That One Zone:
We all have one. That one zone. The zone that makes your eye twitch when its name is so much as mentioned. The zone that haunts your dreams. The zone you despise above all others, the one you wish had never been created.
Maybe it’s a very poorly designed zone, with ugly environments and tedious quest flow. Maybe it’s a place where you had a particularly bad experience, a humiliating gank or a catastrophically bad dungeon run.
Maybe it’s a perfectly fine zone, but you’re just sick of it. Maybe there’s no other option in that level range, and you’ve had to bring every alt through it until its familiarity breeds a contempt without equal.
Whatever the reason, it’s the bane of your existence.
And yet you just can’t seem to escape it. Sooner or later, you end up going back there again, no matter how much you wish you could forget it. A crucial quest sends you back there. A friend needs help with a nasty boss that resides there. You’re leveling an alt, and you need to play through it again.
You hate it, but you can’t avoid it, and that only makes you loathe it all the more.
A cursory search on Google shows that a lot of people think a lot of DLC sucks for a lot of games. Who can blame them? Companies are getting greedy and releasing day 1 DLC and even cutting out content altogether from the base game to sell as DLC. Bioware/EA did this with “From Ashes” for Mass Effect 3 and Capcom with basically the entire final chapter for Asura’s Wrath. Some companies get so crazy with DLC they create 300+ of them for $10+ each. Destiny even locked away old content for those that didn’t purchase The Taken King DLC. At best these practices lead to hesitation in the gaming community when hearing ‘DLC’, and at worst leads to outright hate for the term. It’s a shame because DLC has so much potential.
I’d be pissed too if my story got cut short!
When I really enjoy a game, I want to keep playing it. This is true of MMORPGs I play and true of single player games too. Great games are magic carpet rides that let me experience worlds with spectacular people, places, and events. An all too common phrase is ‘all good things must come to an end’. But do all good things have to come to an end? That may be a whimsical point of view, but I play games with laser guns, dragons, wizards, zombies, and all sorts of non-existent creations. Why not be a little fanciful with my favorite worlds too?
DLC is the opportunity for developers to continue supporting their game well past release in a way that benefits themselves and their players. Developers create an income source without needing to build a game from the ground up and players can experience new content in a world they love. I don’t really think anyone has a problem with that on paper, but major publishers and gaming corporations are ruining the term DLC for everyone. I feel that too often indie developers or smaller studios shy away from downloadable content because of the negative connotation it carries. Expeditions: Conquistador is a fantastic non-linear tactical RPG in an underused setting with the potential for both new campaigns and current campaign extensions. Yet it seems like that opportunity will never be explored. This makes Cortes sad.
Obviously, some developers just want to work on a new IP or a new game. It’s not like developers ignore creating DLC solely because of the negative connotation. That’s understandable, but it’s so easy now to taken up by the swath of DLC hatred and avoid even considering it. Luckily, The Witcher 3’s handling of DLC should inspire some of these developers to continue building upon their already successful games. The handling of Witcher 3’s NPCs inspired our post about MMORPG NPCs so we figured we would take another look at something CDPR is handling very well.
More expeditions please!
Ignoring CDPR’s free add-on content for The Witcher 3, the two expansions to end Geralt’s journey are nothing short of amazing. The latest expansion, Blood and Wine, is large enough to be a brand new game in its own right. It introduces new features, landmasses, characters, and other content while making references to the main story for those who completed it. It does so without alienating players who did not purchase Hearts of Stone, their first piece of paid DLC (although every Witcher 3 fan should just buy the season pass for both expansion packs). Although CDPR planned both of these paid DLC from the onset of the game’s launch, their original game did not suffer for it. Without getting too spoilery, I still wish they would fix the Reason of State quest in the base game, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the best open world RPG I’ve ever played by a mile and a half. I want to continue that journey for as long as possible.
This is the way DLC is meant to be implemented. Witcher 3’s DLC isn’t required to fix or finish the original game. It simply brings more to do and extends the shelf life of a very enjoyable game. The price of both expansions is also representative of their content, as opposed to the previously mentioned From Ashes for Mass Effect 3. Hearts of Stone costs $10 for 10 hours of gameplay. Blood and Wine is $20 for 20-30 hours of gameplay plus UI improvements. From Ashes is $10 for less than an hour of gameplay. All three are enjoyable adventures, but CDPR’s pricing system makes a lot more sense than Bioware’s. They aren’t banking on feeding a drug addiction like Bioware/EA but instead offer a fair value proposition.
Now, I don’t want to come off as a fanboi for CDPR declaring that they are the only big boys to do DLC right. FromSoftware has delivered great post-release content for their ‘SoulsBorne’ games without intentionally sabotaging the base game. On the strategy front, Paradox has supported Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II players to the nth degree with what are primarily single player games evolving more than most MMOs. For FPS fans, Arkane Studios didn’t skimp out on The Knife of Dunwall or The Brigmore Witches when they developed those respective DLC for Dishonored. They simply extended the lore and experience for the action stealth title.
Companies exist that care about bringing quality DLC to their fans at a reasonable price. They simply have been overshadowed by greedy behemoths. The rave reviews for Witcher 3’s DLC Blood and Wine speak volumes to the vastness that downloadable content can bring to our gaming experience. It’s pretty rare for gaming news to shine DLC in a positive light, and it’s unfortunate that it takes a one of kind experience with 2015’s Game of the Year to make us see this.
I actually want to see more DLC, especially for my favorite games. I’m sad knowing that Blood and Wine will likely be my last experience with Geralt and crew. But at least I have a ton of high quality content to relive (especially if books are included). This is thanks to post-game support that CDPR was able to monetize and customers able to enjoy for at a fair price. That’s a win-win for both parties, and it’s trend I hope to see spread across the industry.