If there’s one key differentiator between MMO games and other genres it’s that character skill trumps player skill. Even in games with MMO-style meta progression systems like some MOBAs and FPS games, player skill will win out in all but the most unbalanced systems (I’m looking at you Star Wars: Battlefront and the Han Solo pistol). In MMOs, a level 20 character is straight up better than a level 10 character. There’s no way around it, and if there’s PvP involved then the lower level character better hope they don’t cross paths.
This is born out of the MMORPG subgenre from which the broader MMO genre originated. RPGs are first and foremost about progressing a character’s prowess (regardless of what roleplayers and story lovers will argue). Taking agency out of the actual player’s hands is certainly fine. It’s much easier to balance an experience around well defined numbers than it is between players with disparate brain powers and reflexes. This ensures a proper difficulty curve for everyone that plays the game. The problem is that this creates a disconnect for players in what constitutes as skillful play.
In the absence of player skill, many gamers equate leveling or leveling speed to player skill. Thus, they shun games with auto leveling like Dragon Awaken. These same players may even argue that auto leveling is boring, while ignoring the trivial nature of leveling in the vast majority of MMORPGs.
One of many places the auto button appears in Dragon Awaken
Eve Online is one MMORPG that completely removes the player’s ability to impact leveling speed by relegating advancement to a real time system. This frees up the player’s time to engage in other activities without concern for progression. Unfortunately, most people who end up trying Eve find that “leveling time” just gets replaced with “money time”. Eve players then turn to assessing the fastest way to generate income, which is part of what turns Eve into a “spreadsheet game”. There’s more to the game, but it doesn’t change the fact that progression is boring.
Regardless of whether leveling is accomplished via play, in-game bots, or real-time advancement, it’s always pretty mindless when removing player skill. Thus, I think some element of player skill must be present even when character skill is paramount. A good example of this system in action can be found in Dungeons & Dragons Online. Each dungeon offers multiple difficulty levels that cater to casual solo players as much as they do hardcore groups. Rewards are commensurate with the challenge undertaken so choosing to up the difficulty is actually worthwhile. This exemplifies a key balancing element between mass market appeal and satisfying the loyal, hardcore niche. It’s also why we should feel comfortable calling certain games MMOs even most gameplay is instanced. Doing otherwise limits a developer’s ability to find creative solutions to age old problems.
I tend to gravitate towards the idea that developers should incorporate fewer binary elements in MMO death penalties. One such element is the all or nothing aspect of experience points. Typically, EXP is only gained from completing quests or killing enemies. There’s no partial credit. This runs counter to games in other genres where win or lose, you’ll gain EXP. Bonuses exist in those games for winning or performing well, but there’s always advancement for just playing. This method frees up an alternate progression paths where failure is OK. As is, failure is not OK in MMOs. And that’s bad.
Ultimately, I believe a hybrid vertical/horizontal progression model works best for MMOs where failure can safely exist. I’ve talked ad nauseum about the greatness of horizontal progression many times so I won’t delve too far into this. Suffice it to say that a one-two dopamine punch of progressing both oneself and one’s character simultaneously is twice the hook of progressing only one. If that sounds up your alley, maybe check out Fractured or Crowfall. I really like the ideas these developers are putting forth to improve how advancement has worked in this surprisingly stale 20-year old genre.
Character skill comes in many forms – from absolute power to diverse options. Either can provide satisfying forms of advancement. Unfortunately, such advancement often comes at the expense of player agency. Many MMOs have tackled the issue in different ways, but I think very few have hit the mark. As time passes, I expect more MMOs to find a happy medium between the player and the character.
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.
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.
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.
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.