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We Have Enough MMOs

2017 was another year without a lot of big name releases in the MMO space. We’re definitely going through a bit of a drought, especially when compared to the post-WoW boom, and that has a lot of people in the MMORPG community worried. The more hyperbolic voices among us rush to once again declare the genre dead, while more moderate figures simply hum and haw and hope for more new releases in future.

The Wrothgar zone in Elder Scrolls Online

But to that I say, “Don’t worry; be happy.” I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. I think everything is just fine. MMO players don’t need a constant stream of new titles; we just need a solid selection of games that continue to grow and prosper. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Simply put, we have enough MMOs.

What We Expect

Of course, it’s easy enough to see where this desire for more and more new games comes from. A steady stream of new releases is the bedrock of pretty much any entertainment industry. We’re used to things working that way.

Imagine if Hollywood put out only one or two movies over a period of several years. It would be disastrous. Movie theaters everywhere would go out of business. The entire film industry would collapse.

Closer to home, single-player game developers also need to keep putting out new titles if they want to survive. Even with an ever-increasing reliance on DLC, micro-transactions, and “long tail” monetization, the fact remains most people finish a single-player game (and stop paying for it) within a few weeks at most. Players and developers alike need new games to be released regularly, or the whole system collapses.

But MMOs are special, you see. MMOs aren’t something you pick up and put down in the space of hours, or days, or even weeks. MMOs are about investing months, even years of your time. Even for games that do charge for entry, subscription fees and cash shop purchases will inevitably dwarf box sales, and from the player’s perspective, long-term investment is much of the appeal. We want to be able to set down roots in a game and settle in for the long haul.

So while it’s easy to fall into the belief that a lack of new releases is a red flag, for MMOs, it really isn’t. The genre can survive for extended periods with little or no new games to speak of.

A town in the action combat MMORPG Kritika Online

If after ten or fifteen years we still haven’t seen any big-name MMO releases, then I’d get worried. Until then, I’m not concerned.

What We Want

Of course, even if you’re not worried about the health of the genre, it’s still understandable to pine for some new games to sink your teeth into. The excitement of something new and shiny cannot be denied.

Often times the hype leading up to a game’s release is at least as exciting as the actual game. Anticipation is fun. We all like to have something to look forward to.

There’s a rush to the first few days of an MMO’s life that can’t really be replicated by anything else, too. Everything is still fresh and new, not just to you but to everyone, and there’s a festival air to it all. Everything is busy. Everyone is having fun. Chat is hopping, and zones are buzzing. It’s the entire MMO experience turned up to eleven.

For those of us who comment on the genre for a hobby or for a living, new releases definitely make our lives easier, too. It’s unquestionably easier for me to review a new game than it is to find some new insight on the games that have already been out for years.

So yes, it’s understandable to want something new to play. But that still doesn’t mean a dearth of new titles is cause for concern. There are other, better ways to measure the health of the genre.

What We Need

 

A revenant character in Guild Wars 2's Path of Fire expansion

So we’re used to the idea that new releases are how entertainment industries stay afloat, and we have lots of good reasons to find new games exciting, but as I’ve said, MMOs are special, and that’s not what this genre is really about.

MMOs are not, by and large, a one and done experience. They’re not something you finish quickly… or at all. It’s not as though you’re going to play one for a few days and then move on. Not if the developers are doing their job, anyway.

No, MMORPGs are about settling down. They’re about finding a home. They’re games that you build relationships with over years.

We don’t need a constant chain of new games to play. We need games that we can stick with for the long haul, that continue to thrive years after launch.

The health of the MMORPG genre is therefore best measured not by the number of new releases, but by the prosperity and popularity of the games that are already live.

By that measure, I judge the state of the MMO genre to be strong.

We have a strong stable of big name MMOs that are getting regular infusions of quality content, like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, and Final Fantasy XIV. We have smaller and older games that continue to chug along, like Lord of the Rings Online and the EverQuests.

We have sci-fi MMOs, like EVE Online and Star Trek Online. We have shooter MMOs, like Destiny and Warframe. We have story MMOs and PvP MMOs and raiding MMOs. We have action combat MMOs and tab target MMOs, photo-realistic MMOs and anime MMOs, subscription MMOs and free to play MMOs.

A warlock character in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We live in a world where the only way I’ll find the time to play all the MMOs I want to as much as I want to is if scientists devise a way to function without sleep (and even then it would be a challenge). We have all that we need, and while you can probably point to some games that are struggling, there are at least as many that are thriving.

In the face of that, there just isn’t a pressing need to throw a lot of new games into the mix. In fact, I can even think of some downsides to the idea.

The pool of potential MMO players is, I believe, relatively static. A particularly exciting new game might attract some new players, but I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to convert a non-MMO player into the genre. I don’t think that a new MMORPG is just going to conjure itself an entirely new playerbase.

That means that any new games are going to cannibalize the players from existing games, at least to some extent. These days, most of us play multiple MMOs, but there is an upper limit to how many games each person has time for. At some point you do run the risk of the players being spread too thin between too many games, and the more people hop around, the less opportunity there is for true online communities to form.

Now, I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to say that more new MMOs would be a bad thing… but it’s not an unequivocally good thing, either.

In the years following the break-out success of World of Warcraft, we saw a steady stream of new MMOs coming out all the time, and some may see that as “the good old days,” but in practice all we got was an endless stream of barely distinguishable games that struggled to find a voice and an audience.

MMOs are not the new hotness anymore, and they’re no longer a genre that every other developer is trying to create a “me too” entry for. But that’s not a sign that the genre is dying; it’s a sign that it’s maturing, and that can only be a good thing.

A cutscene in the free to play MMORPG Blade and Soul

MMOs thrive on stability. That’s what we should seek above all else, and that’s what we have.

* * *

So I understand why some people are bothered by the relative lack of new MMOs being released these days. It’s not what we’re used to, and it gives us a lack of sexy newness to drool over.

But it doesn’t mean that MMOs are in trouble, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re dying. The genre has settled into a quiet equilibrium, and it’s chugging along just fine.

The gaming community loves to focus on the negative, but when you really think about it, now is a great time to be an MMORPG player. Maybe the best time. There are games for (nearly) every taste. Most of the big names are stable and thriving. We’ve got quality and quantity. We’ve got everything we need.

We have enough MMOs.


Niche MMOs Are the Future

In theory, it would seem like a good thing for an MMORPG to try to have as broad appeal as possible. And certainly it’s not a bad thing. But as is so often the case in life, good intentions can have negative consequences. Trying to make an MMO that appeals to everyone equally can do more harm than good.

Exploring Saturn's moon of Titan in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We MMO players are a diverse bunch, you see. Some of us are in it for the competition. Some for the story. Some for the friendships. Some of us like to quest. Others only want to raid. Others want to PvP. And so on.

But developers don’t have infinite resources. Budgets only have so much money, and employees only have so many hours in the day. If you try to please all of these disparate factions equally, you’ll spread yourself thin. MMOs that try to please everyone are more likely to end up pleasing no one.

We have seen this time and again. When every MMO tries to appeal to every group of gamers, you end up with a sea of bland games with no personality.

It’s time to move on from that paradigm. All-arounder MMOs are the past. Niche MMOs are the future.

How We Got Here

In the early days of the genre, MMO developers tended to dabble in a bit of everything. The desire at the time was to create fully fleshed out virtual worlds, and I think there was also an element of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It was a new genre. Everything was new and exciting, and experimentation was the order of the day.

I know a lot of people look back very fondly on those days, but I don’t think it’s a situation that could have continued forever. The Wild West got civilized eventually, after all.

Plus, for my money the caliber of a virtual world is determined by the quality of how it’s crafted more so than how many systems you can pile into a single game. And that’s really what this whole discussion is about: quality versus quantity.

The Battlefield Barrens event in World of Warcraft

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The end result is MMOs were initially established as games that tried to do everything, or at least as much possible.

Into this environment entered World of Warcraft, the biggest hit the MMO genre has ever seen.

World of Warcraft is the ultimate all-arounder MMO. It has pretty much every kind of content an MMO can offer: raiding, dungeons, quests, PvP, crafting, mini-games, and so forth. And its broad appeal has helped it achieve unprecedented levels of success.

But here’s the lesson the MMO community failed to learn: WoW is special. Its success was a perfect storm of timing, good design, a popular IP, and Blizzard’s massive resources. Its success reached such a scale it became self-perpetuating. These days World of Warcraft is popular and successful precisely because it’s popular and successful.

In other words, lightning doesn’t strike twice. There can’t and won’t be another WoW.

But that didn’t stop players and developers alike from chasing the fabled “WoW killer.” WoW was seen not as a lucky, unique case, but as the model for how MMORPGs should be designed going forward.

Thus began the era of the WoW clone, an endless procession of barely distinguishable games that all tried to be as broadly appealing as WoW, but never quite succeeded. They all tried to have something unique to set themselves apart from the pack — such as Rift’s dynamic events or the more robust story-telling of Star Wars: The Old Republic — but they spread themselves thin trying to do everything and so failed to achieve any real identity as games.

Most of the big name WoW clones are still chugging along, but none of them came close to dethroning WoW, and after years of at best mediocre success with such games, publishers and players alike became jaded and wary.

Ancient Sith lords in Star Wars: The Old Republic

We’ve now reached a point where the future of the MMO genre is somewhat uncertain. A lot of people seem to be worried about the survival of MMOs, but I think it’s not so much the case that MMOs are falling out of favour so much as the name is. This is seen in the case of the Destiny franchise, which is very much an MMO and also quite popular, but whose developers are hesitant to call it an MMO due to the negative connotations that term has earned.

So I don’t think MMOs are dying, but they are struggling to find their voice. To move forward, they need to get better at embracing niches.

Niche the Right Way

What do I mean when I talk about niche MMOs? Mostly I just mean games with some focus. Games that know what they want to be, and aren’t trying to be all things to all people.

When I think of a good niche MMORPG, my mind of course goes to the late, lamented Secret World. This was a game that had a very clear vision, focused on story and ambiance. Yes, it also had dungeons, and PvP, and even raids, but none of those things were allowed to distract from what the game did best: telling great stories.

Of course, TSW didn’t do so well economically, leading to its desperation reboot. But that’s due to more factors than its niche nature. It was very poorly marketed, and suffered from significant mismanagement around its launch. You don’t have your offices raided by the police if the boss is doing a good job.

What can’t be denied is that TSW’s focus made for one of the best experiences in the MMORPG world — for those whom the game appealed to, at least. Focus equals quality. Niche equals quality. And as a player I’m always going to be more concerned about quality than what brings in the most profits.

While I wouldn’t describe it as a niche game per se, another good example of an MMORPG with a clear vision is Elder Scrolls Online. It’s an adaptation of a single-player franchise, and it carries that legacy forward with a deep world, compelling quests, and rewarding exploration. It also has dungeons, raids, and PvP, but it never neglects that which it does best: its world and story. You never have to wait long for a new zone or new quests to be added.

A story cutscene in The Secret World

On the other hand, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game that has struggled to stick to a vision. It made story its selling point, but it also tried to be a raiding game in the WoW mould. It was an over-ambitious game, and it never achieved enough success to continue its myriad class stories or provide enough endgame content to satisfy the hardcore crowd.

SWTOR spent years trying to find the balance between a story-driven RPG and a WoW-style raid grinder. It never managed to fully succeed at either.

Then, they decided to double down on what they do best: story. The Knights of the Fallen Empire and Eternal Throne expansions focused on lavish story-telling, while adding only minimal group content, and it seemed to be a true reinvention of the game.

However, the endgame crowd was displeased by the shift in focus. As a result, SWTOR has once again returned to spreading itself thin, and the game has suffered as a result. Story progress has slowed to the barest trickle, whereas PvP remains a neglected mini-game, and raiders still have nowhere near enough content to satisfy them.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of public numbers on SWTOR’s population or income, so it’s hard to say how much these zigzagging changes in direction have affected the game, but anecdotally, the Knights expansion seemed to generate a real splash, despite some controversy, whereas the patches since then seem an excellent example of trying to please everyone but ultimately pleasing no one.

At the other end of the spectrum, it can also be possible to be too niche. I think a lot of upcoming crowdfunded MMOs are going to struggle due to focusing on too narrow an audience. It’s a bit of a tightrope to walk; you need to find a niche, but it needs to be a niche big enough to support a full MMORPG.

But I don’t think there’s any real future in games that are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. We’re never going to legitimize MMOs to the mainstream if all we can show are bland, soulless games that no one can tell apart. That way lies a slow death for the genre.

The new Copero flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

In a world where subscription fees are largely a thing of the past, it makes more sense for each game to carve out its own identity, rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Instead of playing one game with mediocre raiding and mediocre PvP, you can play a game with a great raiding, and a different game with great PvP. One game need not be your everything.

We must let go of the idea of an MMO that can be all things to all people. Niche games are more risky, but it’s the only way to create games that are truly memorable, truly unique. That’s where the future of MMORPG genre must lie.


The Best MMO Settings (That Aren’t Fantasy)

As we’ve discussed before, fantasy MMOs heavily dominate the genre. Even if you’re a fantasy fan, it can start to feel a bit stale after a while. Maybe you want to try something else for a change.

Though they are a minority, there are some solid non-fantasy MMORPGs out there. These are a few of your better options for an MMO with a different sort of setting.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The Dyson Sphere Iokath in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I almost didn’t include SWTOR on the grounds that it is still pretty much fantasy. Little if any of the technology in the Star Wars universe has any connection to real science, and the Force is simply magic by another name.

But it is at least a slightly different flavor of fantasy, even if it’s just a different skin on the same tropes. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change people’s feelings; I’ve known sci-fi fans who love Star Wars while decrying the fantasy genre. So while it may not make rational sense, SWTOR may still feel refreshing to those bored of traditional high fantasy.

WildStar

A space scene in WildStar

WildStar is another game that incorporates a lot of fantasy elements into its sci-fi, alongside a certain Western feel and a strong dose of humor. The end result is an eclectic setting that exists somewhere between World of Warcraft, Firefly, and Bugs Bunny.

If you really want to leave the world of magic and mystery behind, it might not be enough to satisfy you, but it’s definitely not your standard high fantasy, at least, and you can’t deny it has a very unique character. One thing WildStar has never lacked for is personality.

Star Trek Online

A Romulan starship crew in Star Trek Online

Another MMORPG based on a popular science fiction IP, but this one hews much closer to traditional science fiction than does Star Wars. Obviously, if you’re a Star Trek fan, STO is worth a look, but even if you’re not familiar with the source material, it may be worth a try as a welcome departure from the tired fantasy formula used by so many other MMOs.

STO is particularly appealing in this regard because the difference in setting is also reflected in the game mechanics. Whereas SWTOR plays like any other fantasy MMO, Star Trek Online has space combat that feels quite different from anything else in the MMO genre and captures the feel of the shows and movies very well.

Fallen Earth

A promotional screenshot from the post-apocalyptic MMORPG Fallen Earth

But maybe space ships aren’t your thing, either. Perhaps the gritty texture of a post-apocalyptic setting is more your speed. There aren’t as many options on this front as there should be, but one possibility you can consider is the sandbox Fallen Earth.

It’s an older game with a small following, but it can definitely provide a breath of fresh (if radioactive) air for those seeking relief from the endless parade of sword and sorcery.

Destiny/Destiny 2

A promotional image for the MMO shooter Destiny 2

Another strong contender on the sci-fi front are Bungie’s Destiny games, depicting a far future where humanity clings to existence amidst the ruins of Earth’s solar system. It’s got a larger than life feel similar to Star Wars, but hews a bit closer to traditional sci-fi.

They’re also another option for breaking away from traditional MMO gameplay as well as traditional settings. Both versions of Destiny take the form of first person shooters (with some RPG elements) rather than the standard action bar set-up of most MMORPGs.

DC Universe Online

A villain broods over Gotham City in DC Universe Online

It always amazes me that superhero games don’t make up a larger share of the MMO market. Given the power fantasy nature of the genre and the popularity of superheroes in general, it seems like a perfect fit.

Nonetheless, superhero MMORPGs are for some reason a rarity, despite providing arguably the best fit for an MMO of any non-fantasy genre. One of your few good options on this front is DC Universe Online. It captures the comic book feel pretty well, it boasts fantastic combat, and it has maintained a steady level of popularity for many years now, with significant updates still coming on the regular.

Whether you’re a big superhero fan or just want something far away from the realm of Elves and wizards, DCUO is one of the better options.

EVE Online

Exploring deep space in EVE Online

The notoriously convoluted game mechanics and ruthless community of EVE Online are the sort of thing you either love or hate, but one thing it definitely does deserve credit for is being one of the longest running and most successful MMORPGs that isn’t leaning on the crutch of high fantasy.

And unlike many other entries on this list, EVE is also not based on popular IP from elsewhere in the media. Its sci-fi setting of New Eden is entirely original, a wild frontier where aspiring starship pilots can find fame and fortune… or death and ruin.

Secret World Legends

The tutorial sequence from the horror MMO Secret World Legends

Surely one of the most inventive settings ever seen in the world of MMORPGs is that of the bizarre and terrifying Secret World, a torch now carried by its rebooted successor, Secret World Legends.

Combining elements of countless real world mythologies and conspiracy theories, Legends is best described as a horror game, but it also draws elements from many other genres, including sci-fi and, yes, fantasy. But even the fantasy elements have a completely different feel from the traditional Tolkien-clone MMO settings.

Unfortunately, Legends carries a lot of baggage related to its messy transition from its predecessor, The Secret World. There was a lot of dishonesty on the part of the developers and a lot of hurt feelings among fans, and so it’s difficult for me to give an unequivocal recommendation to the game as I might have in the past.

Nevertheless, if we’re judging the caliber of settings, neither incarnation of the Secret World can be beat. If it’s not something you’ve experienced before, you have no idea what you’re missing. The originality, the ambiance, and the depth are without equal.


A Dark Souls MMO: Glowing Incandescently

Dark Souls MMO coop via DS3 image

No, I’m not announcing a Dark Souls MMO, but the popular series has all the makings to deliver one. It’s hard for me not to dream about it when both the series and genre are so dear to me. Sure, the group sizes aren’t very large, but the game already feels interactive on a broad scale. Players can view messages left from hundreds of thousands of players. Covenants represent play types from cooperative to self challenging to murderous. All walks of life can be found in the multiplayer arena that is Dark Souls. In fact, I’d almost argue that Demon’s Souls, the precursor to Dark Souls, qualified. The World Tendency provided a persistent nature that almost hit the mark. It wasn’t quite there though. So how do we get from Dark Souls to Dark Souls MMO?

OK, OK, I’ll take a step back. Not everyone is familiar with the unforgiving action RPG that is Dark Souls. For those warded off by high degrees of difficulty, gamers cling to this series for good reason. It’s not just the difficulty that makes Dark Souls the series that it is but a combination of several elements.

The combat is probably the biggest fun factor. As opposed to the frantic button mashing or combination attacks of other action titles, Dark Souls slows down the pace considerably. Positioning and patience play a huge role in the combat. Striking at the right moment, timing dodges, and managing stamina will carry the day over one’s foes. It’s a surprisingly unique system that may find difficulties in an MMO setting because of how detrimental lag is for it. The best way to limit lag is following the heavily instanced route a la Warframe or Dungeons and Dragons Online. Instances of up to 16 players should be easy to pull off, but past that we’re risking slowdown (both of the client and server variety). Additionally, Dark Souls can feel pretty chaotic with just 6 players so I can’t see too much more adding anything beneficial.

Part of what separates heavily instanced MMOs like Destiny, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Warframe is the use of hubs. This gives players an opportunity to feel connected with the whole word. Hubless games like Diablo fail in this aspect so the game feels less like a virtual world. Personally, I loved the Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls II. The radiant sunshine provided a safe, if brief, respite from the rest of the broken world. Seeing it with dozens of players to interact and trade with might be a bit much. This could prove detrimental to the atmosphere of which Souls fans are accustomed. In my opinion, the best route to offset a friendly hub is with opposing covenants.

dark souls majula firelink shrine

Covenants would need to play a large role in any Dark Souls style MMO. Souls games are known for having several unique covenants (basically factions) with different emphases such as cooperative, offensive PvP, defensive PvP, and solo PvE styles. What separates the current batch of Souls games from a true fantasy MMO is how these covenants would play into the bigger picture. Right now, with the way covenants work, people only care about how their current covenant affects them. There’s no real collaboration with members of the same covenant and no real animosity towards what are essentially opposing covenants. There’s not even allegiance to a single covenant because acquiring all spells, weapons, and items usually necessitates switching. That would need to change in an MMORPG version. Covenants need to affect the game world itself in some significant manner.

World Tendency from Demon’s Souls is a good place to start. World Tendency slowly moves towards White World Tendency or Black World Tendency. This changes the accessible areas, difficulty of enemies, and appearance of both friendly and hostile NPCs. Essentially, good things move tendency towards white and evil things move it towards black. It’s actually a really cool system, but because Souls games are primarily solo experiences it could make accomplishing certain achievement based tasks rather frustrating. As such, many played in offline mode so other players couldn’t affect their World Tendency. Going back to covenants, an MMO designed around shifting world states based on covenant member actions would make for an extremely interactive and unique experience. Even simple things like the sun grower brighter or dimming based on cooperative Sunbros would dramatically enhance immersion.

The covenants and basic interactions themselves would need to change to accommodate a true MMO experience. Instead of summoning players with white soapstones, missions would generally begin with a full party. Invading mechanics would change to allow for group invasions. Location based summons could still help (expanding max party size) or hinder (expanding max invaders) to make key levels more interactive. Changes to the typical system would mainly be centered around grouping more easily with friends (an important part of MMORPGs), affecting the world for everybody, and balancing levels for group play instead of solo play.

World states, updated covenants, and hubs would help elevate Souls to MMO status, but it ignores a subtle interaction that already exists – lore. Lore plays a role in the game’s meta-interaction. Much of the history in Dark Souls is hidden or subtle. It’s so much so that players band together to share details and thoughts. Key details about plot and lore are found in the background or in item descriptions. Typically, these items are found in static locations. In a Dark Souls MMO, I’d like to see them appear more dynamically. Maybe it could even tie into covenants, with a boss’s loot table changing depending on the player.

dark souls item lore

Lore must continue playing a large role in any Dark Souls styled MMO. What’s really cool about an MMO version is that frequent updates could gradually reveal more to the player base. Instead of putting out everything at once, the developers could get even more intricate with stories. Adding lore oriented content as players discover all of what’s currently available gives players yet another reason to interact.

Dark Souls is a game series that is near and dear to my heart. MMORPGs are a genre where I love to see new things. Combining the two would make for an almost instant buy, even if the game wasn’t technically a FromSoft Souls game. I think it could really work, and I honestly believe the above recommendations serve as an outline for success. In my opinion, all of it is required to maintain the series’ theme and still deliver an MMO experience. Now, I can only wait and see if my dreams come true.

 


8 Most Visually Appealing MMOs

Gameplay is more important than graphics. Any gamer worth their salt will tell you that. But let’s be honest: You like the graphics, too. You want to step into a game and say, “Whoa.” You want virtual vistas that take your breath away, rich imaginary worlds that pull you away from the dreariness of reality.

Today, we’ll take a look at some of the most visually appealing MMOs. Not just those with the most technically competent graphics, but also those with the most unique and beautiful artistic styles. All those games that are feasts for the eyes.

8: World of Warcraft

A Night Elf monk basks in the moonlight of Shadowmoon Valley in World of Warcraft

It is interesting to consider the difference between graphics and art. A game can have impeccable, technically advanced graphics, but without good art design, it will still end up looking bland.

World of Warcraft is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its graphics weren’t even state of the art when it launched over ten years ago, yet its art design is among the very best, with vibrant colors and extravagant sights around every bend. WoW could never be mistaken for any other game; its bombastic style is utterly distinctive.

And while it may be a bit long in the tooth these days, Blizzard does take the time to improve their graphics with every expansion. Warlords of Draenor introduced new character models with incredibly expressive facial animations, and some of the new zones are truly gorgeous.

7: TERA

TERA is beautiful and bright graphics

TERA’s artistic choices may be a bit hit and miss — at times haphazardly combining cartoony elements with more realistic styles and featuring some of the genre’s most ridiculous armor models — but the quality of the graphics is top notch, and when they get it right, they get it right.

When TERA’s developers produce a horrible monster, it’s truly the stuff of nightmares. When they build a beautiful landscape, it’s truly awe-inspiring. Add to that some spectacular ability animations, and you have a game full of visual treats, despite its flaws.

6: Aion

A player character soars through the beautiful world of Aion

Aion is showing its age these days, but it when it was first released, it was among the MMO genre’s most visually striking titles, and even now, it can still impress.

Aion offers one of the genre’s most powerful character creation tools, with a dizzying variety of options, and some lovely armor and wing models, but its greatest virtue is how strange and alien its world is.

In a genre awash with generic, Tolkien-inspired fantasy settings, Aion’s world of Atreia is something truly different. Bizarre alien creatures wander in the distance and soar through the sky, and the world’s cosmos and landscape have a dreamy surrealism that is unlike anything else.

5: Skyforge

A majestic cityscape highlights Skyforge's strong visuals

The new free to play action MMORPG Skyforge boasts some impressive graphics, from detailed and colorful environments to some of the most intense and spectacular combat animations in the MMO world.

But like Aion, what truly sets it apart isn’t its technical prowess, impressive though that is, but its art design and its unusual setting.

Set in a world of mighty gods and advanced technology, Skyforge blends elements of science fiction and fantasy to create locations and landscapes that are unlike anything else. From pastoral wildernesses, to teeming technological metropoli, to enigmatic ruins set adrift in the sky, Skyforge is another game that is instantly recognizable through its unique style.

4: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

A misty night showcases Final Fantasy XIV's spectacular weather visuals

The art style in Final Fantasy XIV is a bit odd — hyper-realistic one moment, utterly cartoony the next — but when it comes to sheer graphical fidelity, it’s one of the best MMOs on the market, and it can produce some truly awesome sights.

One of FFXIV’s greatest visual strengths is its incredibly detailed and realistic systems for weather and time of day, which can transform the game world before your eyes. A forest that seems bright and serene during the day becomes a haunting place of mystery as the sun sets and a fog sets in, shrouding all in gloom.

Sunrises flood the land with amber light, and when a rain storm blows in, your character will grimace and start brushing water off their clothes. It’s a game with a brilliant eye for detail.

3: Destiny

A spectacular vista in Destiny

With no PC port in sight, MMO players without consoles can only stare longingly at the beautiful screenshots and videos coming out of Bungie’s multiplayer shooter.

Luckily — or unluckily, depending on your perspective — Destiny provides no shortage of videos and images to tantalize. Its incredible graphics depict a future vision of our solar system with color, beauty, and detail, realistic and fanciful in equal measure.

2: The Secret World

Sunset over London showcases the beauty of The Secret World

The Secret World is one of the MMORPG genres only true horror titles, and its stellar visuals play a crucial role in building its uniquely disturbing ambiance.

The graphics of TSW are for the most part realistic and detailed — horrifyingly so, in the case of many of its monster models — yet it adds a touch of style when it needs to, a slightly dreamy air to some landscapes that creates an aura of mystery and dread.

Even more impressively, TSW’s graphics can shift massively to help tell the story. Landscapes bend and distort impossibly in dream sequences. Rooms melt away into new landscapes seamlessly. Few other games can immerse the player through visual storytelling as The Secret World.

1: Guild Wars 2

A uman warrior stands over one of the many gorgeous vistas of Guild Wars 2

So far on the list, we’ve covered games with technically strong graphics but lacking art styles, and games with fantastic art design but less than stellar graphical fidelity. But there is one game that manages to hit both out of the park at every opportunity, and that game is Guild Wars 2.

Out of the whole MMORPG genre, no game balances style and realism better than Guild Wars 2. Its visuals are stylized, but not cartoony or ludicrous. Its landscapes are colorful, its character models flawless, and its animations among the smoothest and most detailed you’ll ever see. At no point is it anything but awe-inspiring.