One of my favourite scientific mysteries is the debate over what constitutes death. You might think that’s a simple question to answer, but it’s not. People can be revived after their hearts stop, if too much time hasn’t passed. Even after the brain dies, some biological processes continue for some time, making death much less a hard line and more of a continuum.
In the same way, it’s a lot harder than you’d think to define at what point an MMORPG can be considered a “dead” game. There is never any shortage of people willing to claim that any and every game is dead or dying, after all. If you want a creative way to commit suicide, try taking a drink every time someone on a forum claims WoW is dying, and enjoy your liver failure.
But for every person declaring a game dead, there’s usually at least one or two still playing it, so can it really be dead?
Let’s see if we can determine when, in fact, an MMO actually dies.
A lot of times when someone says a game is dead or dying, really what they mean is that it’s in decline. Player numbers are down, and patches are becoming smaller or less frequent.
That this is considered to qualify as “dead” really proves nothing but how hyperbolic some members of the community can be, even before we consider the fact that in many “dying” games the extent of the decline tends to be greatly exaggerated. No one likes a content gap, but it doesn’t a dying game make.
Even in cases where the decline is real, I think we can safely declare that it doesn’t mean a game is dead. No product stays at the peak of its success forever, and a certain degree of decline is not cause for panic.
At the end of its life-cycle, an MMO reaches the stage known as maintenance mode. No further development is planned; if patches come at all, they’ll only be minor bug fixes or other maintenance tasks.
This is where things get a bit more debatable. A large part of what makes MMOs special is that they are living, evolving games that grow with time. When you cut that off, it ceases to function as an MMO in a very fundamental way.
It also does the playerbase no favors. Maintenance mode ensures that few if any new players will join, and even loyal veterans are likely to start drifting away.
Still, games can continue operating in maintenance mode for many years. Just ask players of the original Guild Wars. And if people are still playing and having fun, is that truly a dead game?
For those who aren’t Chicken Littles proclaiming death upon a game at the slightest sign of trouble, the most obvious time to declare a game dead is when it officially closes. The servers go dark, characters people have sunk potentially hundreds of hours into are lost to the aether, mournful blog posts are shared across cyberspace, and loyal players are left to find a new digital home.
A closed game seems pretty conclusively dead. Certainly the former players will go into mourning.
And yet, even then, death is not always truly death. Formerly closed games sometimes return, perhaps under new publishers, though these resurrections tend to be short-lived. See the rollercoaster life cycle of Hellgate: London.
Even failing an official resurrection, MMOs can still cheat death following closure. This is the world of emulators, wherein passionate fans salvage old code to run private servers of their favourite games.
The poster child for this phenomenon has to be Star Wars Galaxies, a game whose intensely passionate fanbase has kept its memory alive through a thriving emulator community.
This, more than anything else, illustrates what a nebulous concept the idea of a “dead” game is. SWG fits the bill of a dead game better than most anything, having been officially shuttered for many years and being far beyond the hope of any growth or further development. And yet there are plenty of people playing it right now, as you read this.
And again, if people are playing it, can you truly say it’s dead?
So if even an official closure doesn’t always mean the end of an MMO, what is true death for an online game?
I would say that a game is only truly and irrevocably dead when it has been erased beyond any hope of revival. When its assets have been utterly expunged from the digital world, and its fanbase has vanished or diminished beyond recognition.
And in the age of the Internet, that’s spectacularly hard to do. Not impossible, of course — just ask the players of that Korean MMO that was deleted from existence a few years back — but given how hard it is to ever fully erase anything from the Internet, the odds of any MMORPG being killed beyond any hope of revival are surprisingly slim.
And that makes all the hand-wringing over “dying” games seem all that much more silly. If you listened to the commentariat, you would be left with the impression that MMOs are fragile things, rarely surviving past their initial launch and under constant threat of disappearing, but the exact opposite is true. MMOs are, by and large, incredibly resilient, and extremely difficult to truly kill.
That doesn’t make it less upsetting when a game you love begins to decline or even closes, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you worry for the future of your favorite game or wonder whether it’s worth investing in a new title if it’s not topping the charts, always remember just how hard it is for an MMO to truly die.
I’ve been thinking about endings lately. About how and if MMOs can end. I’m not talking about when games shut down — or at least not entirely — but about the stories within MMOs, and whether they can ever be given satisfying conclusions.
This is a complex topic, so let me explain.
The Rock and the Hard Place
Although MMORPGs are not often thought of as a particularly narrative-driven genre, story is nonetheless a fairly essential part of the MMO experience — or at least the themepark MMO experience, anyway. It’s what steers the direction of the game and gives what we do a sense of purpose.
Even if you’re not the sort of person to delve deeply into lore, most would agree that it’s more interesting to fight the traitor Arthas Menethil atop the Frozen Throne than it is to fight Raid Boss #3.3.12 in a gray box.
So story is important, but MMOs are unusual in that they are meant to be continuous. There isn’t the same beginning, middle, and end structure. That persistence is a large part of what makes MMOs appealing, but it’s a double-edged sword, because it cuts out something terribly important to any good story: the end.
To see how important endings are, look at Mass Effect 3. This is a game almost universally reviled, and that’s purely on the basis of its ending. I vehemently disagree with the criticism of ME3’s ending, actually, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere, and either way it illustrates how much an ending colors people’s perceptions of a story.
The trouble with MMOs is that their entire point is to not end, so the story just forges ahead endlessly. This usually results in one of two things, and neither is desirable.
The first is the game sunsets and shuts down entirely. Since no one plans to lose their job, the developers will be unprepared for this, and the story will either end unfinished or be given an ending that’s far too rushed.
The other is that a game just keeps going on and on, and inevitably, this is going to take a toll on its story-telling. I’m sure we can all think of one or two TV shows that ran for too long and stretched the story past its breaking point. This is no different. A story you love going on forever is one of those things that sounds great until you achieve it, and then you realize that no story can remain compelling forever.
But what can be done? Can MMOs ever truly achieve satisfactory endings?
Saying Goodbye Is Hard
MMOs are, in the end, businesses, and while I do think many developers also care about the artistic side of things, the fact remains that choosing to end a profitable game based purely on artistic integrity is going to be a hard sell, to put it mildly.
Perhaps it is then up to the players to choose their own ending, to simply stop playing whenever they reach what they feel could be a satisfying conclusion to the story. You’d be surprised how many people stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King simply because the Lich King’s story was what they cared about, and with it done, they no longer had any investment.
That’s not an ideal solution, though. It can be hard to judge when the right moment to leave is. I know a lot of those people who quit after Wrath missed out on some of WoW’s best story-telling by not playing expansions like Legion and Mists of Pandaria. And it can be hard to make a clean break, especially if you still have friends in the game.
There are some examples of developers delivering true endings to their MMO’s story, but they’re few and far between. The original Guild Wars comes to mind, but it ceased new development largely to make way for its sequel, so I’m not sure that’s really an ending per se.
One other example is Final Fantasy XI, which as I understand it did try to deliver a conclusion to its story before entering maintenance mode. Unfortunately I’ve never played that game, and as an old title with a small community, it’s hard to find a lot of information about it, so I’m not sure exactly how that panned out. Did it wrap up every loose end, or was it simply an end to content updates rather than a true conclusion of the story?
That’s a rare case, too. Square Enix is a very successful company with another popular MMO under its belt. Few have the resources to give a proper send-off to an aging game like that.
The one other option I see is to wrap up the big storyline of a game, then continue with smaller, more minor story quests for so long as the game persists.
There is actually a recent example of this. Lord of the Rings Online was a game whose story had a clear conclusion: the destruction of the One Ring. I honestly thought they’d keep procrastinating about getting to that forever, but now with the recent Mordor expansion, the Ring’s journey has finally ended, yet the game persists, now forging new ground as it deals with the aftermath of the War of the Ring.
This seems like an excellent idea to me, but again I do not play LotRO, so I can’t speak with authority on how well it’s worked out. I like the idea, at least.
I’m not sure this would work for every game, though. World of Warcraft defines itself by being as bombastic and epic as possible. Abandoning major threats for smaller stories of character and culture just wouldn’t quite work there. It may instead be doomed to continue on until it becomes totally ridiculous (some might argue it’s already there).
This is another situation that lacks an easy solution.
How would you give closure to MMO stories, and do you have any examples of it being done well?
PvE (Player vs. Environment) systems in MMORPGs are systematically all very similar. Obviously some games deliver more enjoyable challenges from artificial intelligence than others. Yet the core gameplay boils down to the same objective: kill bad guys and take their loot. On the other hand, PvP (Player vs. Player) in MMORPGs vary widely by objective, scope, and type. Which PvP system is the best for MMORPGs? To some extent, this depends on the game. Arena combat is a better fit for World of Warcraft than Eve Online. That doesn’t mean arena combat is better than Eve Online’s free-for-all PvP combat. People seeking a PvP MMO typically come to the table with a vision in mind. To me, the best PvP systems for MMORPGs coincide with the experiences people see in those visions.
In the spirit of competition that draws many to a seek an MMORPG with a good player vs player system, I’ll be eliminating one system at a time. By the end of this post, there will be only one. Highlander style is the best style, after all. This we learn at a young age.
First on the chopping block is duels. It’s a fun time waster challenging friends to fight mano a mano, but that’s all it’s really good for. MMORPGs where duels are the highest form of player fighting are typically placed there as an afterthought. Blade and Soul is the only MMORPG where high end PvP is built around dueling. While it’s an improvement over dueling random folks in town, matches still tend to get repetitive. The problem with duels is that there’s not enough dynamic play for a strong PvP system. Strategies change depending on the class but not dramatically so. The player skill element arises from playing one’s class well, assuming gear is even and class balance on point. There’s not as much to react to compared to stronger 1v1 venues such as RTS games and CCGs.
Next has to be PvP battlegrounds. This PvP type caters to players looking for a quick, instanced PvP experience. Usually fighting in battlegrounds is incentivized with unique gear rewards. The problem is that battlegrounds are inherently casual experiences. People hop in by themselves or with small groups and just run around like headless chickens. There’s no sense of community here because the battlegrounds’ instanced nature changes who plays from match to match. There’s nothing really on the line and the lack of any pressure from a loss diminishes the PvP experience. The mentality going into battlegrounds then becomes grouping with the few people that care about teamwork and hoping for the best. There’s just too random many people in a battlegrounds fight to communicate effectively. Big PvP battles require coordination to get the most out of them, and that’s not something battlegrounds handle very well.
Battlegrounds and duels are weak PvP experiences so cutting them felt good. Arena PvP though can be pretty awesome, and it’s next on the list. In 3v3 and 5v5 matches (or even larger like the original Guild Wars), class dynamics really start to matter. Even 2v2 displays expertise greater than the sum of its parts. Teamwork is huge in the arena and World of Warcraft’s arena competition has shown how important player skill and class knowledge are on the big stage. What makes arena combat great is also what keeps it from rising to the heights of greatest PvP system.
WoW’s PvP arena as an e-sport
The small group on small group battles requires everyone to be on their ‘A’ game to succeed. Not only can that be overly stressful at times, but it also significantly limits the audience that can participate. The people that play an MMORPG and can enjoy arena combat day in and day out are relatively few. Arena players instead typically gravitate towards MOBAs or arena shooters. So while arena type combat is enjoyable, it doesn’t mesh with the virtual worlds that are MMORPGs.
2. Open PvP
Open PvP systems allow players to kill each other with little to no restrictions. It creates a dangerous world, which fits in well with the games built around that concept. Open PvP can be full of lame griefing, but it can also create a unique atmosphere. To ensure that players can still enjoy the game, good developers will incentivize and discourage particular activities. This may include huge penalties for indiscriminate killing or major bonuses to joining a guild that necessitate ‘choosing a side’. What’s enjoyable about open PvP systems is simply the freedom that the game gives to the players. This creates wild stories, such as the ones that Eve Online is known for. The price of admission isn’t always worth it though, and that’s why it’s hard to rate as the best player fighting system.
I considered creating another heading for guild wars or territory wars but felt those played equal parts to the highest ranking forms of player vs. player combat. In a good open PvP system, players are encouraged to band together to survive and/or thrive. This isn’t just because there is safety in numbers, but because resources and territories can be controlled by large groups. Open systems without these type of objectives to fight over might even be a worse experience than only offering duels.
One other note: open PvP is generally exclusionary to other PvP types. You’ll notice that World of Warcraft, for example, uses all PvP systems on this list except for the open variety. That doesn’t necessarily mean WoW does all of these well. As noted earlier, Blade and Soul is built around duels. World of Warcraft includes dueling because it’s simple to do so, but it doesn’t add anything to the game. More on this in the next section.
1. Faction Wars
What separates faction wars from the rest of the bunch is its perfect mix of approachability, coordination, teamwork, scale, and variety. Faction wars can cater to both big guilds and individuals, admittedly with different levels of success. Still, there’s a lot to be said about an involved faction war system. The best example of how to integrate this system into an MMORPG is Dark Age of Camelot. The Realm vs. Realm play in that game is legendary, bringing together thousands of players to assault other realms while defending their own.
This castle could be yours!
The greatness of a factional PvP war system is that it essentially combines the best components of all of the above systems without any of the flaws. Like duels, individual skill matters, but there’s no shortage of variance. Unlike casual battlegrounds, faction players will see the same people assisting the realm. This camaraderie leads to trust which leads to coordination. Arena combat might be great for small groups, but it’s really only for the best of the best. On the flip side, any competent human can contribute positively to their faction. And finally, against open PvP, faction warfare still gives the thrill of big battles and potent enemies but with a safe zone to protect against uneven ganking/griefing. In factional PvP systems, help is almost always just around the corner.
As I alluded to in the open PvP section, listing factions and war as bullet point descriptions doesn’t make a true faction war MMORPG. Games like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic might meet the technical definition of a factional MMORPG. Yet, I would in no way consider these faction war MMOs. A proper faction PvP system is more than just telling players to pick a side and fight the other side when seen. Proper rewards and incentives must be given, which can be as simple as the World vs. World server ladder in Guild Wars 2 or as complex as the aforementioned Camelot. So don’t be fooled by fancy terms when seeking a new MMORPG. Look into the details of what that MMORPG experience offers to see if it truly is what it says it is.
If you’re not sure which of these suit you best, try looking at individual MMORPGs. This list of PvP MMOs should help out.
Stargrace from MMOQuests posted last week about the issue that multiple servers creates in MMOs. It’s something that really resonated with me because it’s indeed a very frustrating experience. If I know or meet somebody outside of a game who happens to play that same game, I do have a general expectation I that should be able to play with that person. However, the way most MMORPGs works is that players must choose a server when they create their character. That character is then tied to that server for remainder of their artificially born life. Since a big part of MMOs is spending time building up your character, taking hours/days/weeks, it’s unlikely that players will want to start a new character on a new server.
So if Joe and I independently start playing Final Fantasy 14 and, after heavily investing in our characters, discover we each play, our first thought is going to be “cool we can play together”. However, our hearts will sink when we learn we’re actually on different servers. So even though we want to play together, and we both have characters with compatible power levels, we aren’t able to do so.
The above example is one of those stupid issues in MMOs. We already have level restrictions separating friends from players, so why in 2016 should servers further that divide? No other genre of game separates its player base due to some arbitrary decision at character creation. Personally, I feel it also detracts from the ‘massively multiplayer’ aspect. When World of Warcraft had 15 million people playing, it didn’t really mean much to me. The people on my server, the people I could actually interact with, numbered in the tens of thousands. Not the millions.
Now of course, we can’t just have one server, where everyone in the same area can see each other and interact. Especially for popular MMORPGs, overcrowded mob farming would ruin enjoyment and tank server performance. Luckily, a good solution already exists: instanced channels. Instanced channels have been used by Guild Wars and a number of Korean MMOs. These instanced channels replicate the game world and allow players to generally move freely between these replicas. The game servers will choose which instanced channel to place players automatically. Players can also manually choose certain channels, in case they want to play with particular people.
The main detractors of instanced channels are typically against any instancing at all. They say that it breaks immersion, or splits the community, or makes the player interaction less natural. It can be off-putting to be hunting in the Fairy Forest, and maybe a thousand other players are also hunting in the Fairy Forest, but you can only see 20 of them. Players who like open PVP especially seem to dislike it because it can be hard to retaliate against other players. It can make conquering territory (officially or unofficially) less meaningful.
I used to think that way. Switching channels really would break my immersion and made the game feel more like…well…just a game. I’ve become much more realistic in my approach to MMORPGs since then though. Instanced channels actually provide a lot of benefits besides the obvious. It gets rid of ever needing those nasty server merges. The number of players can be perfectly optimized for the content in each area. And of course if you happened to realize that a friend is playing the same game as you, you can actually play with them. These all deal with player interaction, but there’s so much more to it.
I think one of the best benefits is something that doesn’t get talked about much. Instanced channels create more potential gameplay opportunities for players. Maybe each channel is a little bit different based on player actions. Guilds could be strong in one channel but not the other. Maybe the completed public quests led to a different landscape. Instead of just one world to explore the player’s character actually gets access to dozens. This creates more ways in which the character can affect the world and more ways to find their happy place.
Instanced channels would ideally be integrated into the overall story of the MMO world. Take the multiple shard premise from Ultima Online. But instead of shards representing different servers, they would embody multiple channels that players could travel between. To enhance the role-playing aspect, players could need to physically enter a portal to travel between channels. Perhaps different channels even come with unique rule sets. Open PvP could be confined to one or few channels for when the mood strikes. Players who want to avoid it entirely can easily do so.
There’s a lot of unexplored potential for instanced channels in MMORPGs. So far they’ve just been used to replicate servers to reduce congestion. In fact, most MMORPGs with channels still have unique servers, which is incredibly frustrating. The ability to create multiple dynamic worlds that are spun off of one original world is something that even sandbox developers have largely ignored. I’m just imagining an MMO right now where the price of admission for one world actually grants my character access to dozens. Imagine exploring such alternate realities built by the players simply by entering a portal. The world that you’ve grown accustomed suddenly morphs into a refreshing landscape. Healthy player populations and the ability to interact with anyone who plays the same game as you is just icing on the cake.
It’s time to do away with individual servers. Instanced channels have been underutilized by MMORPG developers for too long. In the real world, everybody is just an internet connection away from interacting with one another. In the virtual world that MMOs attempt to create, we should be no less apart.
Over the past few days I’ve been sinking my teeth into the Das Tal alpha test. And it’s been fantastic – not because the game is anywhere near launch ready but because the groundwork is laid for an incredible and innovative MMORPG. This is a game that turns combat, player interaction, and leveling on its head. It resembles multiplayer survival games like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved combined with a two dimensional combat mashup of League of Leagues and Guild Wars. Unfortunately, while Das Tal evokes a refreshing blend of many successful multiplayer games, it falls short of delivering a great multiplayer experience. But it’s just an alpha test, and after playing it I’m excited to see where this game ends up next year. Believe me, that’s not something I say very often about alpha tests.
Das Tal advertises itself as the MMO where MOBA meets sandbox. Character movement is controlled via WASD instead of a mouse typically used in top-down MOBAs like League of Legends. At first I wasn’t a fan, but combat turned out to be slower paced than expected. The WASD controls allowed for more precise attacks, which is critical for oh so many reasons.
First, there are no auto attacks in Das Tal. Every attack must be manually aimed. Lining up an attack, especially a ranged shot, can be difficult between all of the character movements. Second, all abilities hit all targets in an area whether foe, friend, or self. This really takes positioning to the next level. One of my favorite PvP fights was against a mage channeling a healing aura. I blinked into his aura, stayed close, and let him drain his energy on healing both of us. Without any remaining energy for abilities, my opponent fell easily. All of the positioning and manual aiming makes combat rather challenging in a group. Or at least, I assume it would. Das Tal’s group support is absolutely abysmal at this stage and is one of the game’s biggest flaws.
As far as I can tell, there is no way to actually form a group with other players. You can’t trade directly with them either. Really, the only way you can interact with another player is to attack them. It’s incredibly frustrating to find players willing to cooperate who simply can’t because the game doesn’t allow for it.
Throughout the game world, resource points spawn which can be claimed and contested by players. These points, along with enemy drops, are the only source for materials needed to level up, craft new gear, increase abilities, and advance your character in any way. Thus, one might feel that grouping up to secure these resources would be a smart survival strategy. In Das Tal, the only way to facilitate that is to let one person claim the points, split the loot manually, and then drop it on the ground. This isn’t 1998. These features are simply not optional for an MMORPG of any kind. Das Tal must create mechanics that not only encourage grouping, but actually allow it. History has shown that everyone is a target in an open, survival PvP MMO. If players can’t band together to survive then it’s going to be a sad, lonely road to /uninstall.
Clans are supposed to serve as the primary social interaction. Events seem to run frequently and territories lay in wait to be conquered, all of which serve as endgame content. While that’s great, I ascribe to the belief that the core gameplay elements must first and foremost be enjoyable, clan or no. It’s also worth noting that individuals in a clan will conquer resource points for their clan instead of themselves. I believe this allows anyone in the clan access to the resource point’s loot. So that’s sort of a way to group, but it’s like asking me to get married on the first date.
Where resource spawns succeed is in creating dynamic focus points to engage players with one another and/or against local mobs. Every few minutes, messages display alerting the player of a nearby resource spawn, with each unique area providing distinct resources. So if multiple players want obsidian to craft a better staff, the scarcity of spawns will create natural conflict. The winner after five minutes of this king of the hill battle will earn solo access to loot the resource point. Of course, Das Tal offers full looting of player’s corpses so sometimes the real danger doesn’t begin until trying to store one’s glittering prizes. The player’s stash is the only place safe from antagonistic interference.
Speaking of which, the stash is a very strange device. There are many potential stashes littered throughout the world’s makeshift towns, but a player can only store items in one of them at a time. This gives off a nomadic vibe, as players must constantly seek new homes in search of higher quality resources and better skill trainers. And the full risk of a nomadic lifestyle comes with it as players can lose all of their items transporting them to a new stash. You can imagine my surprise when I first found this out, trying to drop off some loot in a place far away from my home base. Luckily, I didn’t encounter any aggressive players on the road to town. In town was a different story.
While trying to stow away my inventory (the managing of which is rather cumbersome), I discovered that absolutely nowhere is safe in Das Tal. Another player, hidden in a bush, assaulted me. I managed to dance around long enough to store everything, but the writing on the wall was clear for such a feature. I’m not looking forward to the griefers’ inevitable camping of stash spots if the current system remains in place. Small safe zones simply must exist for players to craft, manage items, and talk without fearing death. I love the tension that Das Tal’s open rule set creates, but tension is only fun with an even ebb and flow. Constant tension does not make good game design.
My other complaints were pretty minor. Some resources spawned in inaccessible points. Level notifications took up too much real estate when they popped up in battle. Players were oddly split between two servers, despite relatively low populations. The insane frequency of mob spawning often frustrated when simply trying to loot the last five dead mobs. The benefits of each increased ability level are completely unclear. Visuals, sound effects, and animations reminded me frequently that I was testing an alpha product. But despite all of that, Das Tal exhibits a certain charm that many of today’s top MMOs lack.
Player levels don’t matter that much and only serve as a maximum power mark. What really matters is the ability levels of the selected weapons and armor skills, which combined act as the player’s class. Like Guild Wars, players are limited to equipping only a select number of abilities (up to 10). This creates no shortage of decision making when building a synergistic skill set. I spent most of my time wielding a staff and switching armor between robes and leather. Both armor types felt different, fun, and viable. It’s the perfect trinity. Learning and advancing skills requires particular resources but never felt like a grind because of the skill based combat, player threat, and frequency of drops. The best thing I can say about my experience during Das Tal’s alpha is that it felt rewarding.
Das Tal is not going to be a mega popular hit. Its hardcore, open world PvP will appeal to a niche audience. But that’s not something MMORPGs should shy away from. The days of a one size fits all MMORPG are long gone, with nearly every online title including some form of MMO gameplay. Das Tal realizes this and never tries to misrepresent itself as something it’s not. The only question is whether they can create a system that is still fun for weaker, newer, or clanless players.
Those interested in the game can still try it out for a few more days. Registered users can get a free Das Tal alpha key from mmorpg.com. The alpha test runs through the end of the week. If you’re reading this too late for that, first you should follow us on Twitter. Second, you can visit the Das Tal website to sign up for future alpha tests.
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.