Tag Archives: Defiance

The Best MMOs for Solo Players

To some, “solo MMO player” might sound like an oxymoron, but in reality, soloists make up one of the largest player groups in MMORPGs, and even people who do enjoy group play will usually end up playing solo some of the time.

Soloing MMOs used to be a hard road, but these days most games offer a wealth of solo content. Still, some are more welcoming of solo players than others. To be truly solo-friendly, an MMORPG must not only offer solo content, but also ensure that content is well-crafted and fulfilling, not just generic kill ten rats quests, and there must be meaningful rewards for solo play.

The different types of solo-friendly MMOs can be divided into a few broad tiers, so let’s take a look at what they are.

Somewhat Solo-friendly

These are games that offer a wealth of solo content, but may still reserve the very best content and rewards for group play.

World of Warcraft

A solo player in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game that definitely requires group play to get the most out of it — all the best rewards and most important story moments are found in dungeons and raids — but quick and effective group finders make them easily accessible to someone without a guild or a group of in-game friends.

The current Legion expansion has also added a great deal of fun and rewarding solo content in the form of class campaigns and world quests.

Overall, WoW’s a good choice for a “soft” soloist who prefers to play alone but isn’t totally opposed to grouping. Pure soloists may want to look elsewhere.

Lord of the Rings Online

A cutscene from Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO has no shortage of solo content, and the “epic story” of the game is quite solo-friendly. However, the quality of its side quests — which are necessary to level — tends to be fairly weak, and it does shift focus to a more raid-centric endgame once you’ve progressed far enough.

Play Lord of the Rings Online here.


A solo player in the MMOFPS Defiance

Trion’s MMO shooter has a strong focus on open world events and story-driven missions, both of which are quite approachable for the MMO soloist.

The strikes against Defiance from a solo player’s perspective would be that some of the best rewards are still locked behind group content, and that it can eventually become exceptionally grindy, which can tax the limited free time many solo players have.

Very Solo-friendly

These games have made solo players a priority and offer solid quantity and quality of solitary options.

Guild Wars 2

A thief character in Guild Wars 2

In the past, I would have considered Guild Wars 2 one of the best solo MMORPGs, but these days it’s not quite as welcoming to the soloist as it once was. Open world content has become more difficult and unforgiving, encouraging (though not requiring) the assistance of fellow players, and the endgame has shifted more toward high end raids and dungeons.

The majority of GW2 is still soloable, and you’ll still have a lot of fun content and satisfying rewards available to you, but it’s just not quite as flawlessly solo-friendly as it used to be.

Play Guild Wars 2 here.


A promotional image for the MMOFPS Warframe

Recently I’ve been considering giving Warframe a try, and reading up on it, the consensus seems to be that you can do most anything in the game solo, but some things may be difficult, and you may require a specific build to do it. So it seems like a good choice for a solo player, but perhaps not quite an ideal choice.

Play Warframe here.

Cryptic MMOs

A story quest in Star Trek Online

I’m going to lump Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, and Champions Online together because they all follow more or less the same formula. There’s an emphasis on solo story content, usually heavily instanced, and while the quests aren’t the best in the genre, they definitely are above average.

Endgame in Cryptic MMOs tends to be split between traditional dungeon content or PvP and more solo-friendly daily quest grinds. It’s not the most thrilling solo content in the world, but it’s there.

Of them all, I’d rate STO as the most solo-friendly. It has the most story-driven and overall best quest content of Cryptic’s library.

Play Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, or Champions Online here.

Exceptionally Solo-friendly

These are the crème de la crème of solo MMORPGs, where solo content is at least as fun and rewarding as any other option, if not more so.

Secret World Legends

The character creator in Secret World Legends

The Secret World was pretty much the pinnacle of the solo MMO experience, with impeccable mission design, purely optional group content, and an egalitarian endgame that allowed most anyone to get the best gear eventually.

I haven’t delved as deeply into Legends, but the general philosophy of the reboot seems to have been to move away from MMO mechanics, so if anything it should be even more welcoming to solo players (if that’s even possible).

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A story mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion

SWTOR does lose some points for having an endgame that still puts raids and dungeons at the top, but most would agree that the real attraction of the game is its story, and all of that is entirely soloable. Even if you only play the class stories, you’re still essentially getting eight high quality single-player RPGs for free… ish.

The endgame doesn’t entirely shut out the solo player, either. Most anything can grant you experience toward Galactic Command ranks, including soloable heroic missions and the like.

Play Star Wars: The Old Republic here.

Elder Scrolls Online

A nightblade character in Elder Scrolls Online

Like the other top tier solo MMOs, Elder Scrolls Online has a strong emphasis on story content, which can all be completed solo, and while the mechanics are not quite so unique as in Legends and the story not quite so powerful as in SWTOR, ESO’s questing is nonetheless a cut above what most other MMOs offer, and the sheer volume of it is staggering.

There are dungeons and raids, but they’re not at all essential to understanding the story, nor are they the only path to advancement at endgame. Crafting provides an effective, if somewhat grindy, path for solo players to achieve high-end gear, and any content will give you the XP needed for Champion Points.

What MMOs Can Learn from Mass Effect: Andromeda

Have you noticed that things are a bit quieter than usual in your MMO lately? Are the streets of Stormwind a little barren? Is the fleet not quite buzzing as much as it usually does? Is the crowd in Cyrodiil a bit thinner?

The planet Havarl in Mass Effect: Andromeda

If you’re finding that the online population is looking a bit smaller all of a sudden, you can probably place the blame on Mass Effect: Andromeda. Bioware’s juggernaut release has drawn the attention of almost everyone with any interest in RPGs, and one would expect plenty of MMO players to dive into it. I know I have.

While playing Andromeda, I can’t help but compare it to MMORPGs here and there. They’re very different games in some ways, but very similar in others, and I think there are a lot of ideas MMO developers would be well-advised to steal from Andromeda.

Persistent NPCs

Most NPCs in MMORPGs are very forgettable. They send you off to collect seven and a half boar sphincters, you get some XP, and you move on, likely never seeing them again. Even in games where more effort is put into writing interesting NPCs — like The Secret World — you still eventually end up moving on.

Mass Effect: Andromeda also has a lot of disposable NPCs that give you one side quest and are then forgotten, but like most Bioware games, it also features a core cast of companions who stick with the player through the entire game, growing and evolving along with you.

Having a persistent cast to get to know and care about gives a significant emotional hook to a game. It gives you something to fight for, a motivation to keep going, and it adds an element of investment that can’t be achieved by simple game mechanics alone.

I’ve long felt this is the way to go for MMORPGs, and I’m surprised more developers haven’t tried to buck the trend of disposable NPCs. Even Bioware’s MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, has struggled to maintain a consistent cast throughout its lifespan, though the more recent expansions seem to be making a greater effort in that regard.

The crew of the Tempest in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Only Defiance, of all games, has managed to maintain a consistent core cast from beginning to end, and I felt it gave the world and story a texture that most MMOs lack.

Freedom of Choice

One thing that I am greatly enjoying about Andromeda is that it has done away with traditional classes. Every ability in the game is available to the player. Spending skill points unlocks “profiles” that steer you toward specific playstyles, but even so there’s a tremendous potential for customization and playing the way you want, especially considering it’s easy to swap between different profiles and skill sets on the fly.

And that’s without getting into the dizzying variety of guns and customizations for those guns that exist within Andromeda. Your options in this game feel almost limitless.

I find this level of freedom incredibly liberating. I’ve never liked being tied to a narrow playstyle on one character. In Mass Effect, I enjoy playing as a biotic, but in the past games I always wished I could augment my character with some tech abilities or better combat skills without giving up my signature adept moves. In MMOs, I like playing a rogue in World of Warcraft, but I’ve always wished my rogue had an option for ranged fighting, since some fights are pretty harsh on melee.

Andromeda has given me the freedom to break the mould that once confined me, and I would like to see MMOs follow suit.

Now, the ability to customize your character without limit isn’t entirely unheard of in MMORPGs, but it is rare. Only a few games — Rift, The Secret World, and to a slightly lesser extent Elder Scrolls Online — offer a level of freedom comparable to Andromeda’s. I would like to see this become a more common idea.

Fighting the local wildlife in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Freedom of Movement

Like a lot of MMOs — and really any games with large open worlds — Andromeda tends to entail a lot of travel time. Unlike MMOs, however, I’m not finding this feels like a chore in Andromeda.

This is because movement itself is interesting gameplay. Andromeda equips players with powerful jump jets that allow them to leap and dodge with great speed and force, which makes navigating the often hostile terrain of the Heleus Cluster into a fun little mini-game all its own.

This movement system even benefits combat. Players can leap into the air to fire over enemy cover or dodge circles around powerful mobs.

When traveling longer distances, players can hop in the Nomad, an all-terrain vehicle. But whereas MMO mounts are usually just a passive speed boost, the Nomad has boosters for temporary bursts of speed and jump jets to help it clear obstacles, and the player can even toggle between different driving modes for better speed or climbing ability. Again, it makes simply getting around a lot more interesting.

I’m not sure I’d want to see too much gameplay injected into movement in MMOs, as it could become over-complicated pretty fast, but it would be nice to see a bit more effort put into the mechanics of mounts and less into coming up with ever more bizarre visuals for them.

Right now the only MMORPGs that seem to have put any real effort into making movement interesting are superhero titles like DC Universe Online and Champions Online. I don’t play those games much, but I’d take their travel powers over mounts any day.

A Non-linear World

Scanning some plants on planet Eos in Mass Effect: Andromeda

In most MMOs, you travel through the world in a very linear fashion. First this zone, then that zone. You could perhaps blame the genre’s obsession with vertical progression, but even in games with a more horizontal progression — like Guild Wars 2 — you still tend to go through the world in a pretty linear path. You can revisit old zones, but there’s usually not a lot of impetus to.

My experience of Andromeda so far has been fairly different. It’s not just that enemies scale to your level, although they do, but that the game is designed to be approached in a non-linear fashion. I regularly find new missions and activities in old zones, and rather than following a strict path from one planet to another, I am instead finding myself going back and forth between various locations as dictated by the needs of the story.

This feels a lot more natural, a lot more logical, than just going from one zone to another and forgetting about all that came before. It makes the setting of a game feel more like a real place.

This is something MMOs would have to handle carefully, as being constantly sent all over the world could quickly become irritating. In the old days, this kind of design in MMOs was a lot more common, but it was often an exercise in frustration due to long travel times and non-scaling content that made revisiting older zones pointless. With more advanced technology and better design, I do think the concept of more non-linearity in MMO worlds could be made to work, and I would enjoy it if older zones could still have some meaningful content after you’ve moved on from them the first time.

* * *

Have you been playing Andromeda? What lessons do you think MMOs could take from it?

Is Trion Worlds Really Pay to Win?

This article was updated on December 8, 2017 primarily to reflect changes made to Rift that have impacted my analysis on Trion Worlds as a whole.

Trion Worlds has acquired a bit of a reputation as a pay to win company. For every game they launch, I see questions on forums and social media asking if the game is pay to win. Some don’t even get that far. Angry gamers scream, “it’s Trion, not gonna play that p2w trash!” Are these feelings justified? Surely some of it must be. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, after all. But are people just falling in line with the hive mind? Could anonymous gamers, known primarily for their thoughtful and rational analysis, be overreacting?

Welcome to the internet, where anything is possible.

I’m going to break down the most commonly faulted cash shopss in each of Trion Worlds free to play games. I’ll judge just how pay to win it makes each of these MMOs based on the criteria at the bottom of this article. The answer may surprise you (though perhaps not in the way you think).


archeage cash shop

This is where the biggest pay to win talk stems from for Trion. People are filled with such hatred for how ArcheAge has been handled, they’ll twist words to infer Trion even admits running a p2w game. If you follow that link, read some comments too. People hate Trion Worlds. For all of the talk about how pay to win Archeage is though, people rarely cite any specific examples. As any good bro would do, I’ll set you down with the cold, hard truth.

The cash shop doesn’t sell a magic “win” button. There’s no one item that will super power your character, but there are items that are absolutely necessary to progress in the endgame. One of the best real money purchases are high quality upgrades. These items can in turn be sold on the general auction house for large sums of gold. In ArcheAge, gold can be used to obtain pretty much all of the best gear, vehicles, housing, etc. The endgame is fairly time insensitive (nice speak for grindy) so paying real money and converting to gold through the public market is not an insignificant boost. Additionally, crafting is pretty much a disaster without paying for a subscription. Players are restricted by labor points for crafting type activities, which not only generate twice as fast for subscribers but also generate while offline.

Yes – it’s an advantage for a subscription. I’m not going to call that pay to win though, especially because it can be purchased with in game gold. Subscriptions are limiting and not as open for abuse. The problem lies in the relationship between ArcheAge’s cash shop and it’s auction house. Players can literally become as powerful as the cash they spend. $1,000 is way more valuable than a year of average play time. It’s simply unrealistic to survive a grind to the top without real money help. The combination of selling both cash shop items for gold and endgame gear for gold is another serious concern. ArcheAge has a lot of cool things going for it, but if you expect to seriously compete in PvP, don’t expect to do it for free.

Verdict: Pay to Win

Atlas Reactor

This is the game Trion haters don’t want you to know about. The publisher took a while deciding how to monetize their best in house product since Rift. Fortunately, the solution they chose was the right one.

Atlas Reactor is free simultaneous turn based game with a weekly rotation of free characters. The freelancers (characters) are like League of Legends champions in terms of unique abilities. Instead of a 30 minute real time MOBA, Atlas Reactor is a 10 minute turn based tactical team death match. The weekly rotation can include any freelancer, and they’re fairly well balanced. Free players can also acquire cosmetic rewards by playing. Purchasing the game gets you every character, faster cosmetic rewards, and ranked play. At $30, it’s also a lot cheaper than buying the full roster for League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm. However, there is no way for free players to acquire new freelancers without paying that one time fee. Still, it’d be nuts to call Atlas Reactor pay to win. There’s absolutely zero vertical scaling of power to buy.

Verdict: Not Pay to Win


Defiance cash shop

Trion Worlds really wanted Defiance to succeed as a pure subscription game, possibly to get away from the pay to win moniker. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. For a time, everything was going well. Then it seemed like Trion wanted to milk Defiance for everything they could.

Defiance’s pay to win structure doesn’t jump out at you initially. The game is fun at first, with a good deal of steady progression. Eventually the grind will set in, and you’ll look for how to speed up progression outside of events. The fastest and easiest way is turning to the cash shop …maybe. You see, the cash shop in Defiance includes the chance to acquire legendary guns on par with top tier free items. Buying the best gear in the game is pretty crappy, but gambling for it is even worse. At least there isn’t a ton more than that in the pay to win department.

Verdict: Kinda Pay to Win


Trion’s free Diablo clone felt like a winner when I first played it. The intro mission starts off with a bang, and there’s a nice slew of quests to run through. Combat isn’t special but felt solid for a hack and slash. Then the high level grind reared it’s ugly head with only one legitimate means to combat it: spending money. It’s technically possible to get everything in the game for free and catch up to older/paid players. It’s just that in practice it’s absurd to dedicate your entire life to it. And that’s exactly what it would take.

The marketing speak says paying for gem refinements to advance gear is paying for convenience. It’s not. It’s paying to stand a chance and play with the big boys. Devilian is one of those games that gets you hooked on a fun 10-20 hours and slowly tests your resolve to continue progressing without spending money on cash shop advances. Do you throw away a character you spent hours on without seeing the endgame? Or do you pay some money to make a boring grindfest somewhat more palatable? Devilian does everything they can to steer you to the latter.

Verdict: Pay to Win


Rift cash shop

This is the MMORPG that started it all. Rift was one of those heralded “WoW Killers” back in the day. It turned out to be more of a “WoW deviation”, copying a lot of WoW’s gameplay with it’s own twists. It played uniquely enough with its multiclass soul system to be worthwhile on that alone. For a long time after it went free to play, many viewed it as the MMO doing it right. Then ArcheAge came along and people were clamoring for heads to roll. Did Rift actually get worse or was this simply ArcheAge hate spilling over?

There was a time not so long ago when only paid players could use earring. Yep – an entire equipment slot blocked off from use without paying money. That’s pretty inexcusable and reeks of greed. That’s been fixed, and Trion Worlds has reverted to the same system as always – charging for content. The three things paid players will want are a subscription (increases money gains), expansions (needed to level up past a certain point), and souls/callings (classes). None of these grant instant, unearned power and most importantly, none of it is scalable. Players can’t skip to godly levels of strength without putting in the time. To me, that’s the most important qualification to avoid pay to win.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say Rift is truly free to play. To hit max level, players will eventually need need to spend money for high level content. It might make Rift’s free mode more of a demo, but it doesn’t make it pay to win. However, over the past year Trion has been adding more and more content that lets paying players surpass what free players can reasonably accomplish. As such, I’ve bumped Rift from its initial scoring of “Kinda Not Pay to Win” to “Kinda Pay to Win”.

Verdict: Kinda Pay to Win


Trove is sort of Minecraft meets standard MMORPG. Not being a big fan of builders, I’ve only played for a bit. Rest assured that during my short span there was plenty of pay to win discussion. Those clamoring to proclaim “pay to win” seemed to be resting on the laurels that everything should be free. The way Trove makes money isn’t perfect, but is it pay to win?

Players can purchase classes, cosmetics, and faster progression. No class is inherently better so that’s no big deal. Cosmetics are always fine for free to play monetization. Faster progression is the concern, and it is noticeable. However, it’s a subscription fee and thus isn’t scalable. Free players won’t ever hit a paywall in Trove, but paid players get to bypass the mindless high level grinding. No matter what though, players at the top have to work to get there. The best items in the game aren’t purchasable like in ArcheAge so even if somebody had some monetary assistance, at least you know they earned it.

Verdict: Kinda Not Pay to Win

Final Verdict

All in all, Trion Worlds trends towards pay to win. Let’s take a step back and look at the developers of the game, rather than the publisher.

Kinda Pay to Win or Worse:

  • AcheAge – developed by XL Games
  • Devilian – developed by Bluehole Ginno Games
  • Defiance – developed by Trion Worlds and Human Head
  • Rift – developed by Trion Worlds

Kinda Not Pay to Win or Better

  • Trove – developed by Trion Worlds
  • Atlas Reactor – developed by Trion Worlds

Notice a pattern? If not, I’ll spell it out. The games where Trion Worlds is fully in control are the games that lean towards a fairer system. Trion certainly isn’t perfect with their own IPs (Rift’s earrings), but they certainly respond better. Why is this? Maybe Trion Worlds takes on deals other publishers don’t want and so are beholden to third party developers’ greedy demands. Maybe they are at bad at negotiating with developers when adding cash shop items. Maybe they simply don’t care and get greedy with their third party games games. All I know is that I’m going to feel a lot better about diving into Trion Worlds games made solely by Trion themselves.

Unfortunately, since initially writing this article it seems that Rift has started diving into more and more p2w indulgences. The above paragraph still has some merit. Rift went a long time without succumbing to pay for gear indulgences, so I wouldn’t rule out playing a future Trion MMORPG. I’d just keep a stringent eye on developer practices to keep them honest.

The Enemy Is Pay to Play, not Pay to Win

There was a time when lengthy ruminations on MMO business models were a staple of the community. You’ll still see people arguing the merits of free to play versus subscription from time to time, but it doesn’t have the vigor it used to. The industry has mostly stabilized, and while some games still maintain mandatory subscriptions, these days free to play and buy to play are the norm.

A warlock character in Neverwinter, a game with a very overbearing cash shop

That means cash shops are now the new normal, and there is always a great deal of anxiety around them. “Pay to win” is the frightful term whispered in the dark corners of the MMO world, a dark specter that destroys games by allowing people to exchange real world cash for in-game power.

But is it really so terrible, though? Because the more I play MMOs, and the more I think it over, the more I think we’ve been afraid of entirely the wrong thing.

On pay to win:

This thought began germinating in my mind a few weeks ago during an ill-fated return to Trion’s MMO shooter Defiance.

Pay to win is an incredibly nebulous term with no set definition, but at least a good number of people would probably say Defiance qualifies as pay to win at this point. Randomized packs bought for real cash have a chance to include legendary guns that are at least as powerful as the best items earned through gameplay.

And you know what? It didn’t affect me at all. I never even noticed it making any difference. The game felt the same to me as it did before those powerful cash weapons became so ubiquitous.

Then I hit the wall as the result of a perfect storm of grindy gameplay, over-tuned encounters, and my own poor planning. Due to my previously casual play, I found myself unable to progress the story without weeks of grinding, which I’m not interested in doing.

DLC content in the MMO shooter Defiance

In my desperation, I considered turning to the cash shop for help, but I realized even that would not be enough. I might luck into an awesome legendary gun… but it’d still be scaled to my level, just like all drops in that game, and I’d still need to level some ways to be able to tackle the content I wanted to. I might have an advantage, but it wouldn’t solve my problem.

Thus the realization dawned on me that not only was I okay with Defiance being a little pay to win, but I actually wanted it to be more pay to win. If I could buy myself a 5K EGO character in full epic gear right now, I would. Gladly. (Are you listening, Trion?)

And that got me thinking about the whole concept of “pay to win.”

Not a lot of big name games offer huge advantages for cash, but plenty of the games I play have blurred the lines a bit. The Secret World offers signet boosters that can provide a significant gain. Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft have legalized gold-selling. Defiance has its aforementioned lockboxes.

None of this has ever impacted in me a negative way. They’ve all made me squirm in discomfort when they were added, but within a few weeks I forgot they even existed.

I’m not saying these things don’t offer unfair advantages. Of course they do. But so do lots of other things.

The ugly truth that no one in the MMO community wants to admit is that MMORPGs are by their very nature incredibly bad at offering fair competition or measuring individual skill.

The character Cass Ducar in the MMO shooter Defiance

There are so many ways you can get ahead in an MMO other than being good at the game. You can mindlessly grind your way to outleveling or outgearing challenges. Better players can carry you. You can just be lucky with RNG.

Another thing no one wants to admit is that you are not a competitive player. At least, you’re probably not. MMOs are not full of people competing to be the best. Like most things in life, they’re full of an ocean of mediocre players (like me, and probably you) and a tiny, tiny minority of people who are actually the best.

The sad truth is that if you play an MMO, there’s pretty much always going to be someone more powerful than you. Probably a lot of someones. At the end of the day, does it matter how they got to be better than you?

This was why I stopped caring about cash shop gear in Defiance. Yes, a wallet warrior might beat me on the scoreboards. But so would someone who’s just played longer than me, or had better luck on drops than me, or who just happened to be the first person to the Arkfall. I had no way of knowing which option it was, and at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.

Think about how many people buy carries to the best rewards in WoW. It’s a fundamental part of the game economy by now. Raiding guilds support themselves by industrialized selling of carries. In this manner, absolutely anyone can earn the very best gear, cosmetics, mounts, and achievements.

Even I’ve done it. I didn’t earn that Grove Warden mount my Night Elf is riding around on through any skill of my own. I just dumped a lot of gold on some raiders.

The Grove Warden moose mount in World of Warcraft

You can argue I still earned that gold through gameplay, so it’s okay, but I don’t really see how clicking a few buttons to do my garrison missions is any more worthy of reward than going out and actually earning a wage in the real world.

I suppose to some extent it all ties into that pernicious fallacy that free time equals skill, but that’s a rant for another day.

The only place where it’s worth worrying about pay to win are PvP games that would otherwise offer a level playing field. If Heroes of the Storm suddenly added a cash shop item that increased your hero’s stats by 20%, that would be a problem. But for the average MMORPG? Pay to win is an illusion, a bogeyman we’re all scared of but are almost never impacted by.

I’d personally still prefer cash shops focus on cosmetics — my Defiance example notwithstanding — but that’s just not the world we live in.

That’s not to say cash shops can’t cause problems, though. We’re just scared of the wrong thing.

On pay to play:

Generally the term “pay to play” refers to MMOs that require a traditional monthly subscription in order to play. That is one example of what I’m about to discuss, but for the purposes of this post, I’m choosing to broaden the terms.

A hunter-ranger character in Neverwinter

When I think of the negative experiences I’ve had with MMO cash shops, it never has to do with power or what other players can gain by paying. It has to do with obligation, with a lack of options.

When I stopped playing Neverwinter, the cash shop was one of the big things that drove me away from the game. And while you could argue that it’s an example of pay to win, that wasn’t really the issue.

I reached the point in Neverwinter where there was basically nothing I could do to progress my character without either paying cash, or grinding until my eyes bled. And it wasn’t a one time fee I could pay and then be done with it. The game systems were designed to require steady infusions of cash, indefinitely, for you to keep playing and progressing.

It’s the endlessness of it that’s the problem. I don’t mind paying for a certain specific item or service. I can even live with paying to overcome a certain restriction or to unlock a certain feature. But when you reach the point when you’re playing the game with your wallet more than your character, that’s when everything starts to break down.

Subscription games are also an example of this, though a significantly less destructive one. At least they lay things out clearly: They’re upfront about the need to pay regularly, and the amount you need to pay is consistent and usually reasonable.

But the core problems remain. You’re repeatedly paying for the same stuff. You can’t play without paying. The game becomes a constant drain on your wallet, and there’s nothing you can do about it short of giving up the game entirely.

A skilled raid carries lesser players to free moose mounts in World of Warcraft

This is what we should be worried about, and I think this is at the heart of a lot of concerns about pay to win. Nobody wants a world where games are played through cash shops more than anything else. That’s when the fun is drained from the game. That’s where it all falls apart.

Simply trading cash for power, while viscerally distasteful, is not all that harmful in the end, at least for most games. It’s only when monetization begins to take over all of gameplay that things get ugly.

Thus, the enemy is not pay to win. It’s pay to play.

Top Eight MMORPGs with the Best Quests

Questing is perhaps the most fundamental form of structured content in MMORPGs. It forms a huge portion of the content for of genre, and virtually every MMO utilizes at least a few quests. Even sandboxes usually include some, if only to help players learn the mechanics.

Considering that, it’s a bit strange that MMO quests are so often lacking. Far too many games make them nothing but a chore to slog through on your road to endgame.

Yet this is not universally true. MMO questing is capable of providing content with compelling storylines and/or unique and interesting mechanics. We’ve ranked the best MMO quests paying attention to overall narrative, individual pieces of content, adherence to game world lore, and unique game mechanics.

8: Star Trek: Online

A boarding party during a mission in Star Trek: Online

Star Trek: Online has a somewhat different take on questing. Each mission is meant to replicate, to at least some degree, the episodic format of the Star Trek television shows. This makes each mission significantly longer, meatier, and more story-driven than you’d find in the average MMO.

The quality of individual missions can vary a bit, and the stories aren’t always terribly gripping, but it’s definitely a welcome change of pace from the usual grind, and if you’re a Trek fan, there’s a definite note of nostalgia, though ST:O’s missions don’t always echo Star Trek’s story-telling style as well as they might. Such is the disadvantage of a combat-focused MMORPG.

ST:O’s dual combat models also offer a welcome level of variety. Most missions will include both ground-based segments, where you control your character and bridge officers, and space combat segments, which do an admirable job of replicating the look and feel of battles from the Star Trek shows and movies. While the ground segments play mostly like traditional MMO combat, space combat is entirely different beast and of a style quite unique in the genre.

7: World of Warcraft

MMO Quests: The Miracle of Aessina World of Warcraft

When it first released over ten years ago, World of Warcraft set the tone for MMO questing for years to come, and as we’ve discussed, MMO quests are not always stellar, so that’s not entirely a good thing.

But while it’s true that much of WoW’s questing is mired in mediocrity, that’s not always true. Some of the most memorable, best quests in any MMORPG belong to WoW. Over the years, the developers have implemented many storylines that rise above their fellows, such as Wrath of the Lich King’s bittersweet Crusader Bridenbrad story and Cataclysm’s epic Elemental Bonds story arc.

It’s also worth noting that WoW’s questing experience has steadily improved over the years. Every expansion has brought with it more diverse mechanics, a stronger commitment to epic story-telling, and higher production values. Thanks to Cataclysm’s revamp of the old world, most of the oldest and clunkiest quests have been streamlined and improved.

And if sheer volume is what you’re after, WoW offers more content for the quest fan than just about any other game. After more than a decade, WoW has enough quests to keep a player occupied for months, if not years.

6: The Lord of the Rings Online

The logo for Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online uses a similar style of design to World of Warcraft for many of its quests, which, again, is not the best recommendation.

However, it also features an epic storyline spanning the entire game — which is still being expanded on regularly — and that is a cut above the usual rat-killing tedium. You can expect to visit iconic locales of Middle-Earth, from Moria to Gondor, and interact with major characters from the books. Each quest in Tolkein’s MMO world continues to pull players deeper into the lore. Characters’ journeys echo that of the Fellowship, slowly marching toward Mordor and offering new perspectives on the familiar events of the The Lord of the Rings.

5: Neverwinter

MMO Quests: A mysterious Foundry mission in the action MMORPG Neverwinter

The professionally made quests in Neverwinter are not much better than those you’d find in any other MMO, notably only for their use of solo dungeons with traps, hidden treasure, and exciting boss fights.

What really makes Neverwinter interesting from a MMO quests perspective is the Foundry, a tool for players to create their own quests. Of course, throwing open the floodgates like this makes for a lot of sub-par player-made quests, but player reviews make it quite easy to separate the good from the bad.

And make no mistake: Many of the player-made quests in Neverwinter are of an incredibly high quality, equaling or surpassing the professional content of many MMOs. Players also tend to offer a greater variety of content than most developers; expect puzzles and mysteries as well as more traditional combat-centric quests. Arguably, the best MMORPG quest system belongs to Neverwinter thanks to its user generated content.

4: Defiance

A mission introducing the EGO program in the shooter MMO Defiance

Defiance’s side missions are quite unremarkable — the kill ten rats quests of all kill ten rats quests — but the main story missions are actually of a very high quality, with a colorful cast of characters and lots of exciting, epic action.

Unlike most MMORPGs, which provide an endless string of NPCs that are interacted with briefly and then forgotten, Defiance tends to focus on a relatively small cast of core characters that follow you throughout the game, echoing the type of main cast you’d see on a TV show. Not surprising given Defiance’s pedigree. This allows each NPC to have a lot more depth and be a lot more memorable than you’d see in most MMOs.

Obviously, if you were a fan of the lamentably cancelled Defiance TV series, the story of Defiance the MMO will appeal to you greatly, but if you’ve never watched a single episode, Defiance’s story missions stand on their own as an exciting sci-fi adventure that anyone can appreciate.

3: Star Wars: The Old Republic

The intro to the trooper storyline in Star Wars: The Old Republic

From the game’s very inception, Bioware has shouted from the rooftops that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be an MMORPG that puts story first. And for the most part, they succeeded.

True, the side missions in SW:TOR are rarely memorable, but the main storylines, and especially the unique storylines for each class, are of a quality rarely equaled in the MMO space. They can easily rival the story-telling of the best single-player RPGs.

Not only is each class story of an incredibly high quality, but they also sell the unique feel of each class very well, making each a truly unique experience. Play James Bond in space as an Imperial agent, or be a bastion of peace and healing as a Jedi consular.

The one downside is that SW:TOR questing content is still quite mechanically dull. They may give you a really good motivation for killing those ten rats, but you’re still killing ten rats. And the developers really love button bloat.

2: The Elder Scrolls Online

MMO Quests: An Aldmeri Dominion zone in The Elder Scrolls Online

One of the problems with quests in MMORPGs is that developers often take a “quantity over quality” approach. Elder Scrolls Online takes a different tack, offering slightly fewer quests overall but making each one a significantly more substantive and compelling experience.

There’s also more of a sense of exploration and adventure when questing in ESO. Most quests are just found while exploring the world, with little or no signs pointing to them, so you need to seek them out. This could be frustrating, but ESO’s world is so detailed and so brimming with lore collectibles, skill points, and treasure that wandering is never dull.

The stories in Elder Scrolls Online are not particularly memorable as a rule, but they at least rise above the (low) bar set by the average MMO, with at least some memorable characters and stand-out moments.

1: The Secret World

MMO Quests: A cutscene during one of The Secret World's issue seven storylines

So far on this, we’ve covered games whose quests have excellent stories, as well as those who provide mechanically interesting quests. Yet only one game consistently hits the ball out of the park on both fronts. Only one game views quests as worthy of all the same mechanical complexity and spectacular production values as the best endgame content. These are the criteria worthy of the prestigious title of MMORPG with the best quests.

That game is The Secret World.

On the one hand, every main mission in The Secret World offers a strong and compelling story, provided through fully voice-acted cutscenes and readable items found along the way. Nearly all of TSW’s missions tie-in to the main story in some way, and even those that don’t feature emotional or exciting stories in their own right. There is no filler here.

On the other, TSW’s missions also feature unique, interesting, and often devilishly challenging mechanics.

Much praise has justifiably been given to TSW’s investigation missions, which feature puzzles and mysteries of incredible depth and complexity. Often investigation missions will require research into real world topics, and entire websites have been created by Funcom simply to serve as clues. Both these things blur the line between gaming and reality in mind-bending ways.

But TSW’s inventive mission design doesn’t end with investigations. Also breaking the MMO mold are sabotage missions, which feature a combination of stealth gameplay, light puzzles, dodging traps, and other inventive mechanics. Sabotage missions also help sell the game’s horror setting better than anything else, presenting you with terrifying monsters that you can only flee, not defeat.

Even TSW’s action missions, which focus on combat and are the closest to traditional MMORPG questing, also often provide light puzzle gameplay or other unusual twists, like vehicle mechanics.

MMORPG NPCs Need More Witcher and Less Skyrim

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are both hugely popular fantasy RPGs with massive, detailed game worlds, but there are some key differences between them. Notably, their non-player characters are very different beasts, with Skyrim’s NPCs being mostly shallow and uninteresting, mere wall-dressing for the player’s journey, whereas The Witcher gives depth and meaningful personality for its NPCs, whether they’re part of the main quest or a minor side quest.

The Witcher Ciri NPC

For example, in Witcher III we are introduced to the Bloody Baron. Warning! Character spoilers ahead (though I’m doing my best to keep out anything really important)…

When first meeting this Bloody Baron, he comes across a generic abusive father and husband. Both his wife and his child have gone missing, and it’s seems pretty obvious his drunken escapades have driven them away. Roughly the first quarter of the main quest is spent running errands for him to find his family members in exchange for information. As the quest unfolds, more details will be revealed about this seemingly abusive, power hungry man that might make you even pity him. The climax of his tale leaves the player in a much different state than when the quest first began. And yet, if you by the end of the quest you still think him a low piece of scum then no one could really fault you. But no matter your opinion of the Bloody Baron, his character will make you a range of emotions from revulsion to remorse.  And that’s just one of the NPCs in Witcher III. For those interested, there’s a more detailed analysis on Kotaku and a great (old) discussion on reddit about him.

By comparison, the two most notable NPCs in Skyrim are a one dimensional companion who likes to remind you how she is ‘sworn to carry your burden’ and a former adventurer whose knee is an arrow magnet.

So why are we talking about single-player RPGs on a site that mainly deals with MMOs? Because there are lessons here that are relevant to MMORPG NPCs.

Worlds without character:

MMOs are about players interacting, but that doesn’t mean the NPCs aren’t an important part of the equation. They are the other half of our virtual worlds, residents who never log off or break character. They are the heart and soul of MMO stories, and the gateway to most content.

The problem is that for such an important part of the MMO formula, very few MMORPG NPCs have any real effort put into them.

And this is where the Witcher/Skyrim example comes into play. Sprawling open world RPGs like that are the closest single-player cousins to MMORPGs, and they provide a good basis for comparison.

Right now, the NPCs in most MMOs are entirely too Skyrim and not enough Witcher.

As with so many things, the standard for MMORPG NPCs was set, at least in part, by World of Warcraft. It did much to popularize the concept of quest-based gameplay, and that design requires plenty of NPCs to provide these quests.

WoW Bridenbrad NPC

But WoW has always taken a “quantity over quality” philosophy. A game that can boast thousands of quests is going to sacrifice some depth in the questing experience, and that affects the NPCs, as well.

That’s not to say that WoW doesn’t have good quests or memorable NPCs — anyone who’s tried to save Crusader Bridenbrad or asked Calder Gray what he likes can attest to that — but these do tend to be the exception and not the rule.

And for the many games that sprang up to imitate WoW without Blizzard’s resources, memorable NPCs tend to be even rarer. We are saddled with vast virtual worlds bereft of character or personality. Even if a game designs a vast history and epic story, that story will feel empty and flat without compelling characters.

One could argue that gameplay is more important, but story can also play a crucial role. If a player comes to care about a world and its characters, they’re invested. It will keep them interested in a game even as other titles surpass it graphically and technologically.

So how can we make MMORPG NPCs better?

The diamonds in the rough:

Not all MMOs are wastelands of character. To get an idea of how things can be made better, we can look at some that have bucked the trend.

The Secret World puts more effort into its NPCs than almost any other MMO around. Relative to other MMOs, TSW has far fewer NPCs and is therefore free to put far more effort into them. Every character is lovingly imbued with colorful personality and a compelling backstory, as told through cutscenes at the start of missions as well as optional conversations.

TSW Ricky Pagan 1 NPC

Even seemingly simple characters have a surprising amount of depth. At first glance, Tokyo’s Ricky Pagan —  a rockabilly-obsessed eco activist — seems like pure comedy relief, but there is method to his madness. As you get to know him, it becomes clear that his cartoonish persona was something he retreated into to cope with the destruction of his city and the death of his friends.

Yet for all the strength of its characterizations, there are still some problems with how The Secret World handles its NPCs. For one thing, they are terribly static, rarely taking any role in the story beyond that of quest-givers. To some extent this is necessary — NPCs shouldn’t jeopardize the role of the player — but it does limit their role in the story and thus the story itself.

Also, as in most MMOs, once their quests have been given, they are left behind and all but forgotten. For all their depth, they’re still oddly temporary and ultimately somewhat irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. There’s no steady cast to form a long-term investment in.

And finally, players cannot truly interact with them. There is no conversation system, no choices to be made. We all love Nassir, but my interactions with Nassir will be exactly the same as yours, and nothing will ever change that.

One game where you can expect NPCs to stick around is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Each class has access to multiple unique companion NPCs who will stick with them over the long haul.

Inspired by the incredibly deep NPCs in Bioware’s single-player games, such as the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises, these companions have rich personalities and their own storylines in addition to providing assistance with combat and crafting. Players can even pursue romantic relationships with some of them.

These characters don’t have quite the same depth as their single-player cousins, and their storylines could use more fleshing out, but they’re an admirable effort. Keeping them around and allowing them to fight alongside the player makes it easy to form an emotional attachment to them.

However, companions have also been largely ignored in SW:TOR’s post-launch content. Some attention has finally been given to them in the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, including the addition of new class-agnostic companions, but it’s a bit piecemeal, and the long-term future of how companions will be handled is still a bit unclear.

SW:TOR has one more problem in that outside of companions and a few other major figures, the game’s NPCs are still largely an endless spree of forgettable, disposable characters that disappear almost as soon as they’re introduced.

NPC Darth Malgus in Star Wars: The Old Republic

One more MMO that’s worth looking at is the sci-fi shooter Defiance. It’s not really a game that comes up often as an example of great storytelling in an MMO, but it is noteworthy for having a very unique take on how MMORPG NPCs are handled.

Defiance has a very small cast of characters, even more so than The Secret World. Instead of them having a small, specific role in the story and then disappearing, they’re more like the cast of a television show: a small, steady group of characters that sticks around through most of the game.

Defiance’s NPCs don’t have quite the depth of TSW’s or SW:TOR’s, but they’re colorful and full of personality, and because they tend to stick around, it’s very easy to get invested in them.

So what have we learned?

The lessons:

From The Secret World and Defiance, we learn that MMOs need smaller casts. With hundreds, or even dozens, of NPCs, there is simply not enough time or resources to give them any significant development. A smaller cast allows far more effort to be put into each individual character, making them memorable and distinct.

From Star Wars: The Old Republic and Defiance again, we learn that MMORPG NPCs need a certain degree of permanence. Coming to care about a character is much less valuable if you simply leave them behind, never to be seen again, when their quests are finished. Investment is the goal, and that requires consistency.

SW:TOR also shows us the value in giving NPCs a practical use beyond beyond serving as quest-dispensers. Maybe not every game needs to offer permanent combat companions, but anything MMOs can do to make NPCs more than talking heads in towns or dead weight to be dragged through escort missions is valuable. The player can still take the starring role, but NPCs need to be able to take meaningful action, as well.

Finally, a certain degree of interactivity is valuable. NPCs become a lot more engaging when the player has the ability to control, at least to some extent, their interactions with NPCs.

NPC Kaliyo Djannis in Star Wars: The Old Republic

One could even imagine a game where this is a major choice and a crucial element of character customization. Which NPCs you have befriended and which never want to see you again could help shape what content you have access to or otherwise change your character’s journey.

Not every game needs that level of depth, but even having a choice of responses to NPCs, with no major consequences, would be an improvement over the standard paradigm.

It seems like the best route would be to treat MMORPG NPCs more like the cast of a TV series. A small cast of recurring characters that grow and evolve over time, with only occasional guest appearances by other characters.

In this model, the player would be the star of the cast, so to speak, but the NPCs would have a meaningful role, as well. Players could form strong bonds not just with each other, but with the game’s fictional inhabitants, as well, making for a more enjoyable game and greater long-term player investment. Just like in Witcher III…not so much like Skyrim.