Death is just a part of life when you’re living in a MMO world. You, as the player, are constantly seeking out new enemies to overcome and defeat. Those same enemies are looking to turn the table on you. Most of the time you will be victorious. But occasionally a challenge will be too difficult and the encounter will end with character’s lifeless body slumped over.
A familiar site for many MMORPG vets
What happens next depends on the MMORPG. Some developers view death as a minor speed bump on the way to progressing your power. Others believe that death should be a huge deterrent from poor play or overeager exploration. There are many opinions on what are the ideal ramifications from player death. Some go so far as to even request permadeath in their MMORPGs. I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for this. Player death is a complex matter that can enhance immersion and overall enjoyment, but can easily do the opposite as well.
I won’t be covering all of the death penalties since Massively OP already did that some time ago. I’ll instead focus on their places in the MMORPG metaverse. Developers can thank me later!
Light Death Penalties
Light death penalties include temporary debuffs, minor item repairs, and corpse runs. These are typically best for MMOs that cater to one of two player types. The first are exploration driven players. These are players who enjoy games like Skyrim and want to interact with unique people and places. For these players, MMOs are like a playground to explore and use their imagination. When was the last time you heard about major penalties for failing to use the playground properly? Everything in the playground exists for relaxation and carefree enjoyment.
The second player type is one who is primarily motivated by character progression. These players want to continually improve their character(s). Heavy death penalties obviously slow that down. When leveling up and acquiring new gear slows down too much, these players abandon ship. MMORPGs catering their experience to individual progression will not find success with heavy-handed penalties. The main reason is that this game play type is all about achievement. Employing strict consequences for defeat is akin to telling players their former achievements are null and void. Imagine telling a major league pitcher their no-hitter no longer counts because they gave up ten runs in their next outing. That’s basically what heavy death penalties do to character progression enthusiasts.
Medium Death Penalties
These entail exp loss or debt after player defeat, medium item repairs, or permanent loss of one or a few lesser items. Medium death penalties are best for games where progression is more group centric than individually focused. There are few explanations for this. The core reason is that although a loss may set a player back, they still have their friends. These friends can either help a player get back to where they were quickly or at least find company in their misery. However, this can only keep a player from being too negatively impacted so much. For example, all of the players in a guild dying in a raid and losing a few hours of effort stings but is acceptable. A guild losing an entire town that they controlled and built up doesn’t just sting. It devastates. When the line gets crossed and a group loses too much, the fallout isn’t just one person quitting but potentially an entire small community.
The higher death penalties also provide encouragement for grouping. However, most people don’t like to be forced to group with strangers in this era of MMORPGs. So if grouping is key to avoid instances of player defeat, which will incur noticeable penalties, it’s important to provide content that will create long-term goals for guilds and communities. This may include gearing up for raids, acquiring and saving guild points for a guild hall, or gathering resources to siege an opposing faction’s castle.
Heavy Death Penalties
Things get rough here. We’re talking about full looting, major item destruction, lots of levels, or even permadeath. The consequences of actions in games with heavy death penalties are severe. Although people who prefer lighter penalties may see these as extreme, they do have their place.
The purpose here is to immerse the player in a more believable environment. These games should be less about a player’s destination and more about their journey. Eve Online is perhaps the MMORPG industry’s best example of proper usage. Players can lose spaceships worth literally hundreds or thousands of real life dollars in the blink of an eye. These losses are absolutely devastating, but Eve Online boasts some of the most memorable content of any virtual world. The stakes are simply higher when so much is on the line.
One last note: if the notion of grinding for end game content exists in a particular MMO game then heavy death penalties should be avoided at all costs.
Serving a Proper Penalty
To recap, death penalties should be a reaction to the type of gameplay that an MMORPG developer wants to deliver. Light penalties should be used when content will be catered towards explorers an individual progressionists. Medium death penalties best fit content catered towards strong guild and group progression. Heavy death penalties will find their place in creating an immersive and dynamic storytelling experience.
Too many times the player death penalty is an afterthought, but picking the right one is crucial to any MMO’s long-term health.
When I played Ultima Online for the first time, figments of my imagination began bleeding into a reality. A game now existed in which I could truly live an alternate life. In many ways, it transcended the simple game tag and provided my first virtual world experience. I expected many immersive, virtual worlds to follow. After all, MMORPGs were only entering their infancy in the late 90s when Ultima Online launched.
Wait? You mean I used to be able to see the OUTSIDE of player houses too?
For a time, I felt this virtual vision was coming to fruition. Several titles around the turn of the century created something more than a game. They created vivid, breathing virtual worlds. Nowadays MMORPGs feel a little too much like games. It’s a little disappointing because the genre is a fantastic springboard for creating believable worlds filled with player controlled alternate identities. Maybe this is a case of rose tinted bias, but I think it has more to do with the modernization of MMORPGs, the rise of casual gaming, and minimal creativity in adapting to those changes.
The biggest downside of true virtual worlds is that they require a lot of time to really appreciate. My free time allotment when in school allowed me to really dive into the alternate realities developers had crafted. Spending some extra time trying to decipher where to go for a quest in EverQuest didn’t feel frustrating. It just pulled me deeper into the world.
In today’s gaming climate, a quest-driven MMORPG would find itself with a pretty limited audience without obvious World of Warcraft style quest markers. That’s largely because somebody with a limited schedule wants to feel like they can accomplish something in thirty minutes. And somebodies with thirty minutes to spare are in the majority. This creates situations where developers create short feedback loops to fuel the MMORPG achievement addiction. And that has some long term implications that run counter to crafting virtual worlds.
It wasn’t perfect, but Star Wars Galaxies cantina performances pulled players into its virtual world.
You see, in order to create a believable virtual world, it needs to follow certain properties of the real world. One of the general properties of the real world is that in order to be successful, one needs to put hard work. It should follow then that one’s character must put in hard work in order to achieve virtual world success. “But Bro, I play games for fun not to work”, you say. Guess what? I do too!
Notice in the above paragraph the use of the word character instead of player? In general, I think developers (and publishers, probably more importantly) focus too much on what’s worked in the past. Character progression is typically a 1 to 1 ratio of character to player effort. If a character cannot progress without the player, then MMORPGs are pigeonholed into casual advancement. This is why I love MMORPGs like Eve Online, Black Desert Online, and Crowfall building AFK progression systems. It frees the player from working for all of their success and places much of that burden of the character.
Additionally, hard work is not inherently boring. If I want this blog to do well, I need to put in the effort and write a lot. My success is linked to hours spent writing, promoting, socializing, and other blog-like activities. I enjoy these things (or I wouldn’t be here). If active character progression is time consuming but enjoyable that’s OK. Unfortunately, MMORPGs tend to emphasize repetitive tasks AKA grinding. Whether it’s quest grinding or mob grinding, the negative effect on the player is the same. This is why I love dynamic events in games like Guild Wars 2 and hope to see the concept continue to evolve.
Spreadsheet simulator isn’t so bad when it lets my character, not me, do the heavy lifting.
Great, unique concepts like AFK progression and dynamic events push us closer to believable virtual worlds. They advance characters through the character handling the boring heavy lifted instead of the player. Equally important to character progression is the world’s evolution. Enticing players with the promise of a persistent world, MMORPGs subversively promise a world that behaves differently due to the player’s participation. This is largely not the case.
Persistent, Virtual Worlds
A persistent world technically means little more than a near 24/7 online, virtual game world for the player to access. MMORPGs do in fact provide that service, but persistent worlds seem to take themselves a little too literally. In the vast majority of the genre’s games, the worlds do not change. Players defeat the same quests, mobs reset, everything important gets instanced. A player’s character has nearly no impact on the persistently static worlds of most MMORPGs.
A true virtual world should change based on character actions. My immersion breaks pretty easily when GIANT DRAGON X gets defeated for the thousandth time on my server. Infinite resources, best in slot legendaries, static economies, and instanced content sever any remaining semblance of immersion. This doesn’t make modern MMORPGs bad games. It makes them bad virtual worlds.
Ultimately, immersion is why creating a true virtual world is important. Virtual worlds immerse players into inhabiting an alternate persona. This is a platform created that can continuously evolve as the player plays their character. The opportunity to interact with real people who can do real things should enhance that experience. Yet, the systems available feel anything but immersive. I enjoy progression and socializing in MMORPGs, but right now I play single player when I want immersion. That shouldn’t be the case.
I’m not saying immersion is a prerequisite for a good MMORPG. They are games, first and foremost. The genre is vast and there are many ways to entertain. I’m just saying MMORPGs are dropping the ball in an area where they had a distinct advantage fifteen years ago. Bring back actual virtual worlds, and they’ll reclaim that “believable alternate reality” throne pretty quickly.
MMORPGs have grown to such heights now that they warrant their own category for year end video game awards. However, MMOs evolve to a much greater extent than games from other genres. An MMORPG’s full potential might not be realized until years after launch. It is with this thought in mind, and the fact that hindsight is 20/20, that we’ll be taking a retroactive look at the best MMORPG by year for the past twenty years. We’ll start in 1996, the first time that multiple graphical MMORPGs would release in the same year.
Best MMORPG of 1996 – The Realm (Online)
Originally launched as simply The Realm in 1996, this cartoony MMO game graphically resembles old point and click style games like Quest for Glory. The Realm offered a surprising wealth of content in its debut year that included player housing, a 1000 level cap, multiple dungeons to explore, and a decent character creation system. The Realm Online’s most notable feature though is its turn based, tactical combat. Although most mobs aren’t terribly challenging, this style of combat added a layer of depth still not present in any many MMORPGs. It also lead to some tense, tactical PvP battles in The Realm.
Of course, The Realm is pretty flawed too. After seeing all the heavily instanced world has to offer, there isn’t much else to do besides grind. There isn’t a real trading system either (only gifting or dropping items) so players hire middle men to facilitate trades, which has been abused by scammers. Yet it doesn’t compare to the “old days” where a lack of solid protection for players’ houses led to unintended burglaries or the gold duping exploit that massively inflated every item’s price. Despite being fixed, these issues sadly persist as the most notable memories of The Realm.
The Realm Online seems to still be running. It was apparently sold to a group of fans several years ago, who have managed to keep it running but do little else to entice players.
Best MMORPG of 1997 – Ultima Online
I thought for sure that Tibia would win its year, but there’s no way it could stand up to the legacy that is Ultima Online. Not only did Ultima Online bring the term MMORPG to the world (we were calling them graphical MUDs prior), but it also created the basis for sandbox MMORPGs. Players entered Ultima Online with a vision of their character and could match that vision surprisingly well. With skills ranging from magery to musicianship to animal taming, it seemed like the developers had thought of everything. The world itself teemed with life. Hell, you could even own a castle. Pretty sweet.
The truly open nature of Ultima Online did lead to some serious player griefing though. Outside of towns, players were fair game and a lot of stronger players targeted easy prey. Since players would also drop all of their gear and loot on death, player killing could be quite profitable. Less violent players could sneak and steal items out of others’ backpacks. For victims, playing Ultima Online was probably akin to playing a shopkeeper in Skyrim. All the sudden everything was gone and you could barely react.
Eventually, Ultima Online split their servers between the PvP friendly Felucca and the carebear land of Trammel. It’s a decision that in equal parts killed and saved the game. The lack of a strong deterrent for Ultima Online criminals would have wiped out the player base, but the game also lost much of its unique “dangerous real world” feel. The most lasting memory for Ultima Online though is when a player killed the invincible Lord British, controlled by Ultima’s creator Richard Garriott.
Best MMORPG of 1998 – Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds
I’m honestly surprised that Kru Interactive hasn’t made any new games. In the late 90s they gave us Nexus, Dark Ages, and Shattered Galaxy. All were pretty cool games, and all are still running. I guess the age of 3D is scary, but that’s fine. There are plenty of 3D MMOs out there from other guys.
Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds was for many their best offering. It seems to be doing the best too in 2016 with biweekly patches. The combat has never been anything to write home about, but what made Nexus special was its social system. Nexus sported a deep political system alongside a mentor system to encourage veterans to help new players. Not everyone was friendly in Nexus, but everyone felt connected. I feel that the systems in place in Nexus make for some of the best socializing of any MMORPG. If only the actual gameplay was as addictive…
Best MMORPG of 1999 – EverQuest
Runner-up: Asheron’s Call
I was tempted to choose Asheron’s Call for 1999 because I personally enjoyed the game more. Ultimately, EverQuest’s lasting legacy proved too monumental to overlook. While developers were trying to figure out the magic MMORPG formula, it would be EverQuest that would leave the biggest imprint of the first generation MMORPGs.
EverQuest’s success was burgeoned by their dedication to creating an atmosphere that resembled tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. The game offered players mostly typical fantasy races and classes with a classic alignment system. Multiple varying server rulesets were enacted to center gameplay on a particular player activities. For example, the Vallon Zek server would go down as the first major factional warfare as one’s race dictated PvP status. Rallos Zek allowed bloodthirsty players to kill anyone, much like Ultima Online.
Most importantly for EverQuest, this MMORPG offered players difficult PvE encounters and started the whole raiding thing. The Sleeper is perhaps the most famous raid encounter of all time since it took three highly geared guilds working together for hours to take him down. Players also regenerated health slowly after combat in EverQuest, which lessened the action but increased the social interaction. I don’t miss resting, but I lament the increasingly anti-social nature of multiplayer gaming since EverQuest’s MMORPG heyday. For many veterans, EverQuest is the best MMORPG of all time.
Best MMORPG of 2000 – Allegiance
Allegiance is a pretty cool game that was ahead of it’s time. Some might argue that the lack of a massive, persistent world (games are eventually won) disqualifies Allegiance as being an MMO. I don’t agree and perhaps more importantly, there were no other MMOs released in 2000. It sort of wins by default, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. The core gameplay revolves around one member of a faction playing the role of an RTS commander with their allies controlling individual ships. Maps are explored, buildings are built, resources collected, technologies researched, and eventually full on wars are waged. It was pretty complicated then without a great tutorial and no doubt partially caused the disappointing sales numbers for developer/publisher Microsoft.
Although Microsoft pulled the plug on this pseudo-MMORPG long ago due to population, fans still run the game.
Best MMORPG of 2001 – Dark Age of Camelot
EverQuest may have been the first MMORPG to implement faction warfare, but Dark Age of Camelot perfected it. Faction warfare in Dark Age of Camelot is referred to as Realm vs. Realm (RvR), unique from the free for all brawl that was simply PvP. In Dark Age of Camelot, players would enter the MMORPG by choosing one of three mythical races to represent. The combat system resembled EverQuest so players familiar with the venerable MMORPG and looking for more structured PvP could easily jump into Camelot.
The primary focus for Dark Age of Camelot’s RvR has always been a 3-sided factional conflict. This maintains balance despite shifting populations. While one side may grow dominant, two sides can temporarily ally to turn the tides. Camelot, to this day, is simply the best MMORPG when it comes to epic castle sieges and territory defense. The population has waned, but the options for a true alternative simply aren’t there.
I do want to give honorable mentions to RuneScape for showing that browser MMORPGs could be fairly legit and Anarchy Online, specifically for their hype machine. Anarchy’s promised a unique setting, and I loved the idea of a neutral faction. The video below got me hyped beyond measure for the sci-fi MMORPG.
Unfortunately, Anarchy Online disappointed in a huge fashion and clearly released too early. It would eventually became a good MMORPG, but it’s launch would go down as one of the worst in MMORPG history. Luckily, Dark Age of Camelot would come to the rescue in October 2001.
Best MMORPG of 2002 – Final Fantasy XI
Runner-up: Ragnarok Online
Although not released until the following year in the US (along with Korean competitor, Ragnarok Online), Final Fantasy XI put PvE players to the test. EverQuest required grouping, but players could advance eventually by playing more casually. Final Fantasy XI scoffed at the idea. Not only did Final Fantasy XI require grouping, it required coordination. The game did not shy away from grinding, but did reward players with greater EXP bonuses for chaining mobs in quick succession. Although grinding mobs was all the rage until World of Warcraft’s release, Final Fantasy managed to create a rewarding system for the repetitive activity. The familiar Final Fantasy setting, with chocobos and all, also helped to draw players in.
The raids and end game bosses of Final Fantasy XI required not only high end gear, but high end skills too. Whereas most of EverQuest’s high end encounters were designed to be defeated if properly geared, Final Fantasy XI couldn’t care less. To this day, Final Fantasy XI has yet to be surpassed in the difficulty of it’s PvE encounters. It’s unlikely that it will be as providing content that only a fraction of the population will see isn’t good business.
Best MMORPG of 2003 – EVE Online
Runner-up: Star Wars Galaxies
Eve Online is to PvP what Final Fantasy XI is to PvE. To this day, Eve is still the premiere open ended PvP system. Corporations ran by actual players fight over areas of the galaxy in order to obtain resources to grow further. Fleets of hundreds engage in battles with similarly sized opponents. Politics and espionage are another layer on the complex cake that is Eve Online.
Not only did Eve Online present its players with an MMORPG that boasted sandbox freedom, it also introduced a unique skill progression system. In Eve Online, skills are learned in real time whether online or not. Want to master a particular type of battleship? Just wait a month. This concept allowed players to further engage in the content they wanted without worrying about grinding for levels. Finally, Eve Online also did away with the common practice of multiple, split servers. Upwards of 30,000 players can still be found playing Eve Online simultaneously to this day. Max player counts of individual World of Warcraft servers occupy a fraction of that.
The audience is relatively niche compared to mainstream MMORPGs, but is loyal and dedicated. There’s simply nothing quite like Eve Online to this day. That it’s still running and a better game than ever 13 years later is a testament to that statement.
Best MMORPG of 2004 – World of Warcraft
Runner-up: EverQuest II
I mean. Duh. Of course it’s World of Warcraft.
2004 would go down as the most important year for MMORPGs since 1999. It saw a couple other AAA MMORPGs releasing in EverQuest II and City of Heroes. Interesting titles such as Saga of Ryzom, Vendetta Online, Metin2 and Knight Online also debuted. But everything paled in comparison to Blizzard’s behemoth MMORPG.
World of Warcraft took the popular MMORPG formula and perfected it. Blizzard’s only truly unique contribution to the MMORPG genre was the implementation of quests as the primary method of leveling up. Until 2004, quests were largely an afterthought in MMORPGs. They were either too obfuscated or too few to be used as a form of advancement. World of Warcraft changed that and set a precedent for the importance of questing in MMORPGs. We even did a feature on MMORPGs with the best quests. You might notice that World of Warcraft is the only game listed that released before 2007.
World of Warcraft didn’t simply rely on quests to draw in millions of players though. Blizzard polished their first MMORPG to the nth degree. The art design is fantastic, the classes are interesting, grouping became useful instead of required, and the game truly brought the Warcraft universe to life in a virtual world. Is it the best MMORPG of all time? That’s debatable, but, it is certainly the most influential due to its wild success.
Best MMORPG of 2005 – Guild Wars
Runner-up: Silkroad Online
The original Guild Wars was built on delivering a near immediate endgame with long term horizontal progression, heavily instanced content, and no subscription fee. All four of these defining features things were brand new to the MMO space and have surprisingly inspired very few similar combinations.
The maximum level in Guild Wars is twenty, which can be reached in one day. From there, the primary method of advancement is learning new skills through completing various missions. Each player in Guild Wars has access to only eight skills at a time so gaining more skills doesn’t necessarily make your character stronger. Players in Guild Wars don’t chase bigger numbers but instead seek more skills to provide adaptability. Players can even create PvP only characters with access to all skills for competitive PvP. These design decisions lead to communities that don’t fracture due to varying commitment levels. It’s one of the best perks about horizontal progression, but can also lead to players feeling like there’s not enough advancement to warrant continued play. Luckily, Guild Wars does not require a subscription fee.
Up until this point, monthly subscription fees were the norm for MMORPGs. Free to Play MMOs wouldn’t become popular for a few more years yet. Thus if you wanted to play an MMORPG you had to pay a monthly fee. Guild Wars did away with that, in part thanks to the heavily instanced gameplay to lower server costs. Instanced content also allows developers to create challenges balanced around a particular number of players, at the cost lessening the massive part of the multiplayer experience. This has its pros and cons but certainly helped to define Guild Wars as one of the most unique offerings in the MMORPG genre.
MMOs differ in a multitude of ways from their single player cousins. One could easily argue that the most prominent difference between MMOs and non-MMOs is the potential lifespan. Single player games will typically last somewhere in 15-80 hour range. On on the flip side, some people have been playing MMORPGs like Ultima Online for over 15 years. The content that keeps players hooked in MMOs is typically referred to as the endgame. This is where characters engage in PvE raids, PvP battlegrounds, crafting high end gear, or doing some other activity where the ‘real game’ begins.
Typical MMO endgame raids take hours or days of playtime to reach
The problem with the MMO endgame is that getting to the ‘real game’ can be a huge chore, resulting in players that never see it at all. Additionally, many MMOs (MMORPGs especially) promise a virtual world to live in, but don’t actually pony up until grinding hours upon hours to get there. It’s like saying real life starts when you reach CEO. To counter this mentality, MMO Bro is highlighting 8 MMO endgames that start immediately.
Now, before beginning I want set some guidelines and expectations. Some of these online games involve a hefty learning curve. Some MMOs will offer immediate endgame for particular styles of play but not others. Veterans might even consider a number of these as MMOs without endgame content altogether. I’ll be taking all of this into account and ranking the games in order. The primary ranking is how soon a brand new player can participate in each of the game’s content segments where the largest mass of players are congregated. It is possible an MMO might score well in one content segment and poorly in another.
Now, let’s get this best of ‘immediate MMO endgames’ list started.
8. Planet Calypso (and Entropia Universe)
Planet Calypso has its differences from Entropia Universe, but both are made by the same company and work in the same fashion.Their unique aspect is that currency is directly tied to real money. Thus, players can acquire real monetary value by playing and acquiring loot or even lose it through repairs, bad investments, and the like. With that said, it is extremely difficult to actually turn a profit in these games. I would argue though that the endgame for Planet Calypso is in trying to do just that.
Both Planet Calypso and Entropia boast lifelike player run economies. The value of goods will rise and fall as players adjust to ever changing market conditions. The value of hunting a particular mob or mining a particular resource will vary from from one day to the next. The value of these is not directly tied to the level or strength of the area they’re found within.
Leveling and advancing one’s character is not necessary to the endgame of making money. A new player could technically find a profitable location to exploit. What experienced characters gain is access to a greater variety of locations, which does increase the likelihood of profitable ventures. More valuable than that though is understanding the game’s economy and mechanics. I think that a new player with a high level character would fair worse than a veteran player with a low level character when it comes to making money. Since knowledge and learning is such an integral part of playing these two games, I feel that the endgame starts on one’s first login. Unfortunately that learning might entail some serious real life monetary losses in the process.
Game #7 is one of three very similar titles on this list. Runescape is a sandbox MMORPG where players increase individual skills by using them. Once a skill is maxed out, a player can buy a cape to symbolize their success. People in the Runescape community comically refer to the endgame as collecting capes. It’s not really too far off the mark though.
The sandbox nature contributes to an endgame that either begins immediately or not at all, depending on perspective. The purpose of playing is simply to advance your character by doing whatever you want to do. And there is a lot of advancement to be had in Runescape, with a large number of experience points required to max everything out. But advancing your character to a max level doesn’t really open up too many new gameplay opportunities with one typical MMORPG exception: raiding. This is certainly an important piece of the endgame that PvE players will have to wait to experience. Unlike other level based titles though, one won’t need to be maxed out to participate. It will take some time though and bossing is certainly a large aspect of Runescape’s endgame, which keeps the game from a higher ranking.
6. Guild Wars 2
From a brief description overview, Guild Wars 2 seems like the perfect game for casual players or players looking to dive right into the endgame. The core elements of the Guild Wars 2’s endgame are World vs. World, Fractals, and Structured PvP. For those unaware, World vs. World is a massive group of instanced PvP battlegrounds where players of one server fight players of other servers in a 3-way match. Fractals are randomized small group PvE dungeons. Structured PvP is where teams of five players compete against another team in a sports-like arena fashion. All of these are accessible early for players thanks to the dynamic level adjustment system.
Dynamic level adjustment works a bit differently for each endgame activity though. In World vs. World, characters receive the stats of a max level character but not the traits or skills. Similarly, characters in fractals will scale their stats to max level but be less effective without traits or skills of “legitimate” max levels. Both World vs. World and Fractals will reward the player with experience though so by engaging in these activities, a player can both experience the endgame and progress their character. Structured PvP has no form of character advancement, but players are all put on even footing in terms of stats and skills. Dynamic level adjustment also works in the reverse for high level players entering low level areas. This means that technically one could even include questing as part of the endgame, but max level players rarely go back to previous zones simply for that.
With all of that said, PvE players won’t really experience endgame fractals until legitimately reaching max level. With only five members to a group, a lower level player is a decidedly weaker contributor than a max level player with all of their skills. Thus, it’s not likely many people will want to party with you. Admittedly, leveling is fairly fast with each level taking about an hour, but eighty hours is a bit long for an immediate endgame. However, PvP players of all types can jump in on the endgame quickly after install.
5. Ultima Online
Like a lot of the titles on this list, Ultima Online invites new players to an early MMO endgame through its unique progression system. Characters grow in strength by using the skills they want to train. So animal taming goes up from taming animals, sword fighting from fighting with a sword, and blacksmithing from making armor and weapons. There’s no actual levels in Ultima Online and improvement comes from performing personally enjoyable activities. Only seven skills can be taken to max level though so diversity of player builds is quite alive in Ultima Online. It’s surprising how few MMORPGs employ a skill-use based advancement system.
Unlike more recent MMORPGs, there isn’t a lot of guided progression in Ultima Online. You don’t go out and repeatedly raid the same dungeons to acquire better equipment. You don’t fight other guilds for territory control. You don’t dominate the auction house with crafted items. You just play the game how you want and get rewarded by advancement in those areas. The lack of endgame direction certainly limits the game’s mass appeal (more than its dated engine), but it’s also why the game is close to two decades old.
The downside is that like a lot of sandbox titles, PvP plays an important role in character freedom. In Ultima Online, combat will still be decided by the level of a character’s skill, so new players can feel pretty useless until reaching higher skill levels. If the endgame goal of an MMORPG is competitive PvP (even though there’s not a lot to fight over in UO) then this is the one aspect that will take some time.
Still, one might fairly argue that Ultima Online doesn’t even have an endgame to it. My counterargument would be that the endgame starts as soon as you choose that first skill to master.
4. Wurm Online
Despite the creator of Minecraft’s ties to Wurm Online, the game never really gained more than a niche following. The release of Wurm Unlimited on Steam has increased the popularity of this sandbox MMO (even though they’re technically different products), but its lack of mainstream popularity unsurprisingly mirrors Ultima Online’s. Wurm Online plays like a 3D version of Ultima mixed with some Minecraft.
In addition to a skill based leveling approach that is even more granular than Ultima Online, Wurm Online inhabitants have immense control over shaping the game’s landmass. Players may create tunnels through mining, flatten and raise the ground, grow crops, and build structures from raw materials. All of the towns in the game are player created and intense cooperation is needed to accomplish the higher end feats, whether on the PvE or the PvP server.
Wurm Online offers impatient endgamers the opportunity to play their character in a 3D world the way they want to play. There’s no prerequisite activities for whatever your endgame goal may be. Want to maximize your ambition and build a kingdom alongside friends and guildmates? There’s no reason you can’t start doing that on day one of Wurm Online. There is a bit more direction in Wurm Online than Ultima Online, and a bit more freedom of actions. However, this comes with the caveat that character skill and high end crafted equipment is even more important for PvP. New players simply won’t be an important participant early on, but every person counts!
Although Wurm Online and Ultima Online give early access to a similar style of the MMO endgame, Wurm just feels a bit better with all of the gameplay options. For that reason, I rank #4 just a smidge ahead of #5.
3. Planetside 2
Although Planetside developers didn’t create the first massively multiplayer FPS, they did popularize the concept. Nine years after Planetside’s launch, Planetside 2 took up the mantle and led the MMOFPS subgenre into the world of free to play gaming. It now sits as a great example of both how to start an endgame immediately and how an immediate endgame can sometimes not bring about the desired player experience.
Planetside 2 is a PvP only game where players align themselves with one of three factions to wage epic, Battlefield sized battles. The core gameplay objective revolves around territory control. Players must decide with their allies where best to strike and make gains. Given the twitch based nature of Planetside 2 and the relative strength of beginner weapons, players should be able to positively contribute to battles from the get go. Unfortunately, Planetside 2 has a surprisingly long learning curve and the lack of a good community support system to overcome it. New players can often feel like their contributions are meaningless or worse.
In part this is why Planetside 2 has developed somewhat of a misguided pay to win reputation. The most popular MMOFPS offers no paid items that cannot be achieved with gameplay alone. The length of time it takes to “max” a character is considerably lengthy though and paid players can essentially pay to skip large parts of this progression. This wouldn’t be much of an issue except, as discussed above, new players aren’t readily given the proper support system to succeed. Thus, it’s easy to feel as a new player that one must grind or pay to really start experiencing Planetside 2’s endgame. The truth is that new players need a mentor or strong community to help them learn the ropes. I would recommend any new player finding such a person or group before attempting to play.
2. Guild Wars
The max character level for Guild Wars is twenty. That should give you a hint of the priorities the developers of Guild Wars place on a fast endgame. By comparison, World of Warcraft and EverQuest have each raised their level caps by over twenty levels now.
Guild Wars emphasizes horizontal progression over vertical progression. Whether a player prefers PvE or PvP, a new player can be grouping with veterans within a week (or a single day of addicted play). The new player probably won’t actually be as good as the veterans, but it’s not due to the power of their skills. Progression comes in the form of learning hundreds of skills, multiclassing, and then narrowing those skills down to eight very synergistic abilities.
The lack of power creep in Guild Wars or a direct competitor (even with its titular successor’s release) means the first Guild Wars still has plenty of life for a new player. It’s an MMO players can play to overcome PvE or PvP challenges without worrying about a precursor grind to access said challenges.
1. Eve Online
Perhaps Eve Online’s most notable feature is its character progression system. Character skills are gained in real time, whether logged in or out. Thus, the length of time to max out a skillset is measured in years instead of weeks or months like other MMORPGs. Eve Online also emphasizes territory control with an open PvP system in the far reaches of space. So with no other explanation or experience, one would think Eve Online would be the furthest thing from an MMORPG with an immediate endgame. However, three key components allow new players to legitimately experience Eve Online’s PvP endgame within a matter of days (real time, not gameplay time).
First, all ships in Eve Online are useful and each ship type has its own skill set to develop. Just because a player knows how to pilot a capital ship doesn’t mean they’re an expert on frigates. And frigates are extremely useful. They’re quite agile and some of the more powerful weapons will have issues tracking them. Additionally, they are cheap so an army of frigates can take a while to down if replacements are readily available.
Secondly, skill gain is somewhat logarithmic. Earning your first 2% damage bonus make take a few hours. Earning your last 2% damage bonus may take weeks. Even then, Eve Online is rarely about individually encounters. Fleet engagements are where a new player will spend most of their time so the bonus damage or high tech fittings a veteran has can only carry him or her so far.
Lastly, unlike Planetside 2, Eve Online has great community support. The slower pace of the game certainly helps here, and corporations (i.e. guilds) will fight over new players. This in turn leads to new players receiving guidance for what is a complex MMO. That corporations recruit new players should provide even further evidence that newbies can contribute to endgame immediately. You don’t exactly see World of Warcraft guilds recruiting fresh players to go raiding do you?
It’s interesting to note that most of these games place an importance on PvP in the form of combat, marketplace action, or both. Both Guild Wars titles are the only options with more horizontal progression than vertical, pretty much in entire MMO genre. I think perhaps the most telling sign of an MMO with a fast endgame approach is whether or not high end guilds recruit new players. People look to recruit members that can help them in the endgame, and if newbies are getting recruited, it stands to reason that they’re going to be ready much sooner than later.
Actively playing a new MMORPG has really got me thinking about how I spend my time. Although I love the concept of virtual worlds I tend not to stick around very long because mechanics tend to feel very rehashed. Black Desert Online does rehash a lot of typical Korean features such as heavy grinding and the worship of RNGesus. It also brings a lot of new or underutilized features into the fold, which is why I’ve stuck around. One of these features is away from keyboard (AFK) progression. Creating a proper AFK MMORPG isn’t easy though as a game needs to balance automated progression with an actual reason to play.
In Black Desert Online players can engage in a few activities that progress their character even while they’re AFK. The two most prominent of these are fishing and horse training, both of which can net significant sums of money. Earnings don’t match the results of active play but are a nice way for casual players to somewhat keep up. I really appreciate this progression that occurs while I’m doing other things. Horse training and breeding in particular has added a unique set of goals for me to accomplish. Without the AFK option, I wouldn’t have near the patience to try it out. I also enjoy that actually playing the game will net significantly more progression (in both money and levels) so the game isn’t purely playing itself.
Black Desert Online
Unfortunately, Black Desert encourages players a little too strongly to stay online, even if doing nothing. Workers mining and chopping trees won’t repeat jobs if the the player isn’t online to play taskmaster. Regeneration of energy, which is used to craft goods, grinds to a halt while offline. In this aspect, Black Desert takes two steps forward and one step back and is my biggest pet peeve with the game. My computer has to be on and logged in 24/7 to make full use of AFK progression. That’s right – if I log out for any reason these AFK activities stop. Even worse, as someone who needs energy and employs tons of workers to gather raw materials, my crafting progression basically halts while offline.
Ideally, Black Desert would solve this by allowing players to set offline actions that would repeat until stopped for some reason such as getting killed or the server going down for maintenance. I don’t see that happening though and it’s definitely a negative for an otherwise unique take on AFK progression. Either way, Black Desert is far from the first to showcase its talents as an AFK MMORPG.
Eve Online started the whole AFK progression idea over a decade ago. Players learn skills in the game in real time (whether logged on or off). Every skill corresponds to the ability to do something cool in Eve Online. Everything from manufacturing to placing buy/sell orders to piloting capital ships requires some real time investment. It’s one of those core features that led to players dubbing it ‘spreadsheet simulator’. Planning out skills and timers became an integral part of progression in Eve Online. For the first several years of the game, skill training could not be queued so players would even set alarms to avoid wasted time. Luckily the dev team has since added skill queuing, but Eve is no less a numbers and planning game.
Crowfall is following Eve’s lead by making the bulk of character progression a real time, AFK affair. Crowfall does improve on Eve Online’s pure AFK skill training by allowing players to gain basic proficiency from playing. It will essentially act as a tutorial for gaining the basic concepts of a skill or archetype and skip a boring intro period gated by real time. Similar to Eve, the payoffs for earlier training will be much more efficient than later training. For example, In Eve Online the skill Gunnery would add +2% rate of fire per level regardless of if that level took 2 minutes or 2 days. Crowfall appears to be doing something similar. It means new players won’t fall too far behind and the game will reward exploring multiple play styles.
The point of Eve Online and Crowfall’s AFK progression system is twofold. First, hardcore players can’t get too far ahead because skills are limited by real world time. Second, without the need to ‘level up’ constantly the players are free to do what they want. However, MMORPGs need progression. Without progression in MMORPGs, players tend to leave. It’s one of the bigger criticisms of Guild Wars 2 (which, funny enough, was not an issue with its predecessor).
The form of progression in Eve Online is earning Isk, the game’s currency. It’s been a while since I’ve played Eve but I remember that being one of the most boring MMORPG experiences in my lifetime. Mining ore and killing NPC ships were the basic money making activities. Neither really kept me from falling asleep. I eventually started making money through market orders which improved the game, but also gave me less of a reason to actually play outside of occasional fleet battles.
Although the dev team for Crowfall has answered many questions about their vision, it’s unclear how the finished product will turn out when it comes to active progression. There seems to be many similarities with Eve Online in terms of gathering raw materials and killing weak monsters to build up. I’d rather see primary gains from things like pillaging enemy lands that encourage more enjoyable activities rather than building up to the fun.
On the far end of the AFK progression spectrum are browser MMORPGs that fully embrace playing the game for you. MageRealm is a decently high production browser MMO. The main selling points of the game are delivering a full MMORPG experience with no download and automated combat/movement. Just tell your character where to go and what to do and the game will take care of the rest. Obviously this hinders the overall depth of the game quite a bit, but it allows casual players to keep up from work, home, or pretty much wherever. But if a game primarily plays itself, is there really any point to it?
I really do like AFK progression when it’s integrated well. That’s been done to some extent now but still leaves a lot to be desired. Ideally the perfect AFK progression and leveling system would meet these requirements:
AFK Progression occurs whether or not I am logged in.
I can progress my character’s levels, skills, and wealth further, to at least some extent, by actually playing.
The game rewards my logging in and playing significantly more than my not playing.
The game rewards enjoyable and/or risky activities over mindless repetition for advancement.
AFK progression has its place in the MMORPG world, especially those where PvP is a focus. It allows for constant achievement and advancement despite real world scheduling conflicts. But creating a game that’s fun whether logged in or not? That’s a challenge I think developers have yet to fully overcome.
EVE Online is a game that generates strong feelings. Some love it, some hate it, but everyone has an opinion. Whatever side you take, it’s clear the game has carved itself a strong niche. It has a very passionate core fanbase and has achieved incredible longevity within the MMO space. With the recent outbreak of World War Bee, EVE is in the headlines more than ever these days.
There tends to be a perception that EVE’s lasting popularity is at least in part due to a lack of competition within its particular niche of space-based sci-fi sandboxes.
But that perception is not entirely rooted in reality. Take, for example, Vendetta Online. It’s a relatively obscure MMO, but for the past ten years and more, it’s been quietly chugging along, providing an extensive sci-fi universe for aspiring space ship pilots to explore, exploit, and battle over. It offers many of the same features as EVE, and can even boast some accomplishments EVE lacks.
I decided to take a look at Vendetta and see how it stacks up relative to its more famous cousin.
Earning my wings:
The most immediately obvious difference between EVE and Vendetta is their wildly different control schemes.
EVE has often been criticized for its rather stilted and sometimes arcane controls. It’s a game of menus, and it feels very artificial. It doesn’t deliver on the fantasy of darting through space as an ace pilot.
Vendetta is a completely different beast.
Vendetta Online gives players much more immediate and direct control of their ships and makes piloting a much more realistic affair. Twitch-based controls give players the freedom to dart and weave through all three dimensions.
To get into more detail, Vendetta offers a choice between two control schemes that can be easily swapped between at any time based on preference or the needs of the moment.
The first, default option is an “aircraft” style mode where much of the piloting is simplified. Point the mouse in the direction you want to go and accelerate (or decelerate). The game handles the rest. This is extremely intuitive and easy to pick up, though it does lack a certain degree of precision and can be slightly awkward in certain circumstances that require a more careful touch.
The second mode is more interesting. It aims for realism by giving players the freedom to move their ship in three dimensions as an actual spaceship would. Vendetta has a near-total adherence to real Newtonian physics. Hope you paid attention in science class.
This mode is obviously a lot more challenging, and it comes with a real learning curve. It’s pretty easy to end up spinning wildly out of control, the stars blurring into a nauseating kaleidoscope around you.
But despite that, I quickly came to prefer the controls in Vendetta Online. Learning curve or no, it offers much greater control and precision, and personally I just found it much more fun. It is so true to life that it just immerses you in the game utterly, and it’s a beautiful thing when you get it right. Even something as simple as gliding into a docking port becomes a thrill. I never imagined a mere control scheme could make such a difference.
I imagine that experienced players with good twitch skills and a strong stomach could pull off some truly spectacular maneuvering, and I expect the high end PvP in Vendetta must be something else.
Those who are not quite such sci-fi nerds may have a different experience, but I kept hearing Kara Thrace’s voice in my head throughout all my time with Vendetta. If you ever wanted to be Starbuck, this is the game for you.
The one downside is that Vendetta’s realistic control scheme makes looting rather difficult. How you collect loot in this game is to simply fly into it, which sounds perfectly easy, but small loot boxes plus big empty space plus hyper-realistic physics leads to some real frustration. I spent more time than I’d like to admit fluttering about in little spirals desperately trying to impact the loot right before me.
Maybe there’s an easier way, but if so, the game needs to make it clearer.
Like the flight controls, the combat in Vendetta is simple in concept but potentially complex in practice. In essence, you just point and shoot.
But once again, the scale of space and the realistic flight model makes things a bit more interesting. You need to anticipate, firing at where the enemy will be, not where they are. The game helps a little with this with a reticle that attempts to predict enemy movement, but it’s not perfect, so there’s still a fair bit of player skill involved.
I imagine that progressing through the game and unlocking an ever greater variety of ships and weapons would add a significant degree of depth and complexity to the system, as well.
This is a recurring theme in Vendetta: The basics are very simple and easy to grasp, but it’s clear there’s a vast well of complexity waiting to be explored once you get past the fundamentals. This stands in stark contrast to EVE, which also offers incredible complexity but tends to throw you into the deep end and hope you learn to swim.
One minor complaint I have about the combat is that the game plays a sound whenever one of your shots successfully connects with the enemy. This is a good idea in theory, but the particular sound they use is a rather harsh and obnoxious beep, and it can be rather grating.
The wider universe:
From what I saw during my trial period, Vendetta appears to offer a fairly similar selection of potential activities as EVE Online.
PvP is clearly a major focus in the game. Vendetta players must ally themselves with one of three factions. The enlightened Itani Nation are at war with the militaristic Serco Dominion, and players of both sides can clash over various objectives in deep space.
The third faction is the Union of Independent Territories, or UIT, which is neutral in the conflict. Players of this faction can potentially play both sides of the Itani/Serco conflict, which is a pretty interesting twist on the traditional model of MMO factions.
There are also NPC opponents in the form of renegade machines called the Hive, though I’m not of the impression that PvE makes up a huge part of the Vendetta experience.
There are also missions of various types, including mining, trading, and research. Vendetta has separate leveling paths for each type of activity, which can affect what types of ships you have access to.
I also noticed what appears to be a fairly extensive reputation system, allowing players to make friends (or enemies) of a variety of NPC factions throughout the galaxy.
On the whole, Vendetta Online comes across as a very deep and full-featured sandbox experience, almost overwhelmingly so.
Of course, I doubt it can quite equal the vast and near baffling complexity of EVE Online, nor the scale and viciousness of its politics, but what game can? For some, being a little less complex than EVE can even be seen as a virtue — it’s brutally steep learning curve is legendary. Vendetta clearly has an intense learning curve as well, but it’s at least a slope rather than a cliff. You can, to some extent, ease into the experience.
On the other hand, Vendetta definitely lags behind EVE when it comes to production values. EVE is a beautiful and graphically advanced game, whereas Vendetta’s relatively low budget shows in its visuals.
That’s not to say Vendetta is an ugly game by any stretch of the imagination. Its star fields and planetary vistas are quite nice to look at, and overall the game’s visuals are at least decent on average. But it’s not going to compete with EVE, or any newly released MMO, in that regard.
One other area where Vendetta exceeds EVE Online — and basically every other MMO, for that matter — is the sheer number of different ways to play it offers. Its developers have made it a goal to make Vendetta playable on as many platforms as possible.
So Vendetta is playable on the PC, of course, but also Macs and Linux machines; on Android, Windows, and iOS mobile devices (including smartphones); in virtual reality on the Oculus Rift; and even on the Ouya.
And all players play and interact within the same game universe, regardless of platform.
That’s pretty damn impressive.
Vendetta may not have quite the same level of scale or depth as EVE, but it’s a pretty rich sandbox in its own right, and it’s accomplished some impressive things for a relatively obscure title.
A common refrain from many people is that they’d play EVE Online if it provided a more intuitive or realistic flight model, and for those individuals, Vendetta seems an obvious choice.