Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO vs. SWTOR: Who Handles the IP Better?

Many games are based on pre-existing imaginary worlds. Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) are two such MMO games that have become popular, not in the least due to their IP. But which of the two handles the IP better?

IP and Licensing

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible ownership that is based on creations of the mind. While the word technically focuses on the possession of creations, fans often use it to refer to the collection of ideas themselves. This is how it will be used in this article.

For a fair comparison, let’s look at what intellectual property each MMO has access to. I’m going to assume you are broadly familiar with the fictional worlds of Middle-earth and Star Wars.

SWTOR screenshot of Yavin IV

Yavin IV 3000 years before the rebel base (SWTOR)

LOTRO is based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or ‘Tolkien’s legendarium’. However, the MMO only has a license for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit. This means the game is not allowed to refer to events or characters from other works by Tolkien, such as The Silmarillion.

SWTOR is based on the Star Wars universe. The license covers the entire IP, but as the game takes place about 3000 years before the events in the movies, a large part of game design is left to the imagination of its developers. We know from interviews and livestreams that SWTOR’s developers have regular contact with Disney’s Star Wars team to discuss whether new story plans fit.

How do you measure the ‘essence’ of an IP?

Needless to say, the translation from book or movie to MMO is never going to be direct; they’re different mediums, created by different people at different times. Nobody is going to do a perfect job, and judging how good of a job has been done is subjective by definition. To come up with a convincing argument, I will measure three attributes: worldbuilding, aesthetics and story.

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional universe. One could argue that Tolkien was the ‘ultimate worldbuilder’. He described the imaginary world of Middle-earth in incredible detail, including history spanning thousands of years, genealogical trees of historic figures and entire languages (complete with alphabets and scripts) for the various races inhabiting his world. Some of Tolkien’s books are fictional historical works that are completely dedicated to worldbuilding and do not contain a plot. Because worldbuilding was such an important part of Tolkien’s writing, a successful use of the IP in an MMO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world.

Worldbuilding in Star Wars is done in a visual, cinematic manner. Think of the much celebrated first scene of Episode IV: a seemingly never-ending Star Destroyer dwarfs the helpless Corvette ahead. The Destroyer has a slick interior design; the many people working on it are faceless, void of identity, in their uniforms. No word has been said, but everything about the Empire radiates power and dominance. With the blink of an eye, the visuals explains the power structure in a galaxy far, far away.

LOTRO screenshot of Rohirric sky

The sky of Rohan: birds circle in the air (LOTRO)

Aesthetics is not so much about how the fictional world is constructed, but rather about whether its representation holds true. Think of auditive, textual and, above all, visual information. When judging aesthetics, we should not only look for obvious iconic elements (e.g. a Star Wars MMO should have lightsabers; the Shire needs hobbit holes), but also for less tangible aspects, such as immersion.

Finally, story is an important aspect. Both IPs feature an epic story with heroes that play a vital role in reshaping the world. But because MMOs are inhabited by many player controlled characters, not everyone can be the main hero. How are these stories handled? Do players have the feeling they are part of the narrative?

Use of IP in LOTRO

I wrote earlier that a successful use of the IP in LOTRO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world. I can already give away that the game has succeeded in this regard. Every detail that is in the books can be found in-game. Regions that are only briefly mentioned in LOTR, such as Dunland, have been believably filled in with the help of anthropological and archaeological knowledge.

LOTRO Screenshot hobbit hole

A hobbit hole in the Shire (LOTRO)

In one aspect, LOTRO’s developers have deliberately opted to deviate from Tolkien’s worldbuilding. The Lord of the Rings namely was written almost 70 years ago and is a product of its time: it contains some elements of racism and the narrative is dominated by males. From the Rohan expansions onwards, LOTRO has made a clear effort to make the voice of women and children heard, giving them a larger role than in the original IP. Children play out in the streets of villages you pass; several quests introduce you to how the war is experienced by them. Meanwhile, women are left in the charge of towns while their men are fighting in the war. Without deviating from the medieval inspired setting of Middle-earth, LOTRO passes the Bechdel test effortlessly.

As for aesthetics, all iconic elements that you would expect are present. Bag End, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop… even the Black Gate can be visited. Landmarks are an important aspect that makes players connect with the IP and carry over LOTRO’s feeling of realism. LOTRO’s landscapes are celebrated in the MMO scape, and with good reason: they are incredibly detailed (day-night cycles and a weather system) and are still competitive with new titles even though the MMO is a decade old. The in-game music varies by region and adds to the immersion.

LOTRO’s ‘epic story’ follows the fellowship to Mordor. The player character is no known hero, but helps persons of note from behind the scenes. This is a clever way of handling the unwritten rule that players are heroes, while all seats are already taken. However, it could be argued that the player is too much of a Mary Sue, being pals with all the important figures while saving countless towns and people in the time-span of one year – not very realistic.

Screenshot of the Eternal Throne of Zakuul in SWTOR

The Eternal Throne of Zakuul (SWTOR)

Use of IP in SWTOR

We have seen how the Star Wars movies use the visual to support intuitive worldbuilding. This method is also heavily utilized in SWTOR and is something that sets the MMO apart from others. ‘Visual worldbuilding’ is everywhere: from the black and red, slick design of the Imperial Empire to the Eternal Empire depicted above. The row of golden outfitted Zakuulan knights on the way to the Eternal Throne, situated on top of the Spire, signal wealth and power much like the aforementioned intro to A New Hope.

Of course, visual worldbuilding is not done exclusively in SWTOR, but the emphasis on the visual and cinematic throughout the game is undeniable. For instance, the overwhelming majority of quests have a cutscene. Cutscenes in SWTOR don’t merely consist of stationary NPCs, but are also action based and show your own character in their custom outfit. To strengthen the cinematic experience, quests in SWTOR have voice acting. Both NPCs and player characters are voice acted and a stunning amount of 16 different (base class and gender determined) voices are available to represent the player.

Developing cutscenes and recording voice actors must have taken a good chunk out of SWTOR’s budget, meaning that less funds were available for other aspects of the game. Landscape design seems to have suffered a bit. This is not to say planets in SWTOR look bad. Indeed, the landscapes are quite decent, but they lack the amount of detail and immersion of LOTRO: no day-night cycle nor weather are present. As for other aesthetics: iconic Star Wars archetypes are represented in the base classes, such as smuggler, jedi knight, bounty hunter and sith warrior. Lightsabers and weapons both look great and SWTOR easily beats LOTRO when it comes to animations. A clear effort has been made to meet the visually appealing combat of the movies. The in-game music gives the player the same feeling of epicness as in the IP and is of more consistent quality than in LOTRO.

Screenshot from SWTOR's desert

The iconic two suns of Tatooine (SWTOR)

Storytelling is another strong suit of SWTOR. Between its well-written, compelling stories, player choices (sometimes granting dark or light side points) and sheer amount of story content, every other MMO I’ve tried out since has disappointed. SWTOR’s base game comes with 8 distinct class stories that continue up to level 50. The game also features companions that have conversations and small stories attached to them. The latest expansions have focused on story exclusively and allowed players to make choices with more consequences.

Conclusion

So which MMO handles the IP best? I feel compelled to go with the boring answer: there is no clear winner. Both MMOs are inspired by the worldbuilding of their respective IPs and have made a unique translation of their IP to a virtual world. LOTRO has focused on superb landscapes and immersion while SWTOR stands out for its storytelling and cinematic spectacle. If you prefer one over the other, I suspect it is because you enjoy certain aspects (aesthetics, story etc) more than others. Or perhaps you have a preference of IP, or simply care about other (non IP related) gameplay matters more. It is not because one MMO has done a worse job with the IP than the other.


Checking up on the WoW Clones of Yesteryear

When World of Warcraft achieved a heretofore unknown level of success for an MMORPG, everyone and their monkey wanted a piece of the action. As a result, the MMO industry experienced a long stretch where nearly every big name release sought to copy most of the core mechanics of Blizzard’s juggernaut.

An Elf character in Lord of the Rings Online

“WoW clones,” they were dubbed, and while fans often rankle when the term is applied to their favorite game, more often than not the shoe fits. Sure, most of them had some special twist to the formula that they shouted from the rooftops in an attempt to stand out, but at their core they embodied the same core formula. Tab target combat, copious but simple quests, and an endgame focused on instanced PvE.

The years passed, and eventually the procession of new WoW clones slowed down. Nowadays MMOs aren’t as afraid to forge their own paths. But most of the bigger WoW clones are still chugging along. Now that the fad is passed, it may be interesting to look at how these games have fared over the years, and whether they’ve stuck to their WoW clone guns or started to establish identities of their own.

Rift

I don’t know about you, but personally, when I hear “WoW clone,” Rift is always the first game that comes to mind.

Nearly everything about Rift, from its game mechanics to its setting, seemed copied directly from World of Warcraft, and all this was thrown into a starker light by the masterfully if unintentionally ironic “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” marketing campaign.

Its soul system, which allows you to essentially build your own class, and dynamic events gave it a bit of a twist, but in the end it still looked like a game that had been separated from WoW at birth.

But I should not be too harsh to Rift. What it lacks in originality it usually makes up for with polish. I have always found Rift to have incredibly solid mechanics and an almost overwhelming amount of content. If you’re going to do a WoW clone, this is the way to do it.

A landscape in Rift

And for quite a while Rift’s reputation in the community reflected this. I remember a long period of time during which Rift seemed to be something of a golden child in the MMORPG community, earning acclaim even from those who did not play it.

These days opinion has soured somewhat, but I suspect this probably has as much to do with the lingering fallout over ArcheAge as anything Rift has done. It’s had some stumbles — notably the most recent expansion, Starfall Prophecy, has had some uncharacteristic issues with quality control — but for the most part it still seems to be the same game it’s always been.

Indeed, Rift has been nothing if not consistent over the years. Like most WoW clones, it had to undergo a free to play transition, but for the most part it’s stuck to its guns.

Aion

Aion has always been a little more creative than some other WoW clones. Its surreal setting is a refreshing change of pace from the standard Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, its endgame places a much greater emphasis on factional PvP, and it integrates flight directly into its combat… at least in some parts of the game.

However, it’s not done much to shake up its original formula or further differentiate itself from the pack since its launch. Its added plenty of new content, but it hasn’t done much to change the core of the game experience.

Like most WoW clones, it eventually dropped its mandatory subscription in favor of a free to play model, but that’s probably the biggest change it’s undergone.

Fighting mobs as a gunslinger in Aion

Aion is one of those strange games that never seems to get much attention within the community and yet seems to be quite successful all the same. It’s still getting significant updates on a fairly regular basis despite being relatively long in the teeth these days.

Much of this can probably be attributed to its popularity in South Korea, where it has long been one of the more popular MMOs on the market. But it must also have a decent number of fans in the West, or it wouldn’t still be running over here. You may not hear much from Aion players, but clearly they exist.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR has had a more turbulent lifespan than most WoW clones, and that makes it perhaps the most interesting case to study.

Despite or perhaps because of massive pre-launch hype, Bioware’s first and only entry into the MMO field had a pretty rough reception post-launch. The phrase “TORtanic” became a favorite of the ever-hyperbolic comment section. Lack of endgame content and oppressively generic gameplay significantly damaged the game.

This eventually led to a conversion toward one of the industry’s more restrictive free to play models. It proved economically successful but severely damaged SW:TOR’s reputation within the community, a stain that lingers to this day.

SW:TOR continued to struggle with direction for a time. It had sold itself on a greater commitment to story than any other MMO, but it had never achieved the level of success necessary to fund continued development of unique story for all eight classes. It tried to strike the balance between an endgame-driven WoW clone and a story-driven RPG and never entirely satisfied either side of the equation.

Emperor Arcann in Star Wars: The Old Republic

This changed with the game-changing Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion in late 2015. KotFE redesigned much of the core game systems, implementing global level-scaling and greatly streamlining the leveling process. The net result of these changes was an experience with a much greater emphasis on story. While Bioware still couldn’t manage to continue the unique class stories, KotFE’s new content did feature more and better story content than previous expansions.

This makes SW:TOR arguably the only WoW clone to shake off its lineage of aping Blizzard and establish a clear identity of its own. It’s now less of an MMO and much closer to Bioware’s single-player titles, but there is something to be said for focusing on what you’re good at.

And the gamble seems to have paid off. Knights of the Fallen Empire seems to have heralded something of a renaissance for the game, and by all reports SW:TOR is doing very well. It is a bit hard to say how much of this is due to how the game has changed and how much is simply due to the greater hype around Star Wars in general caused by the new films, but at the very least, KotFE’s changes don’t appear to have hurt it any.

Lord of the Rings Online

In contrast to SW:TOR, LotRO has been pretty consistent in sticking to traditional designs. Its one major change came when it joined the ranks of free to play MMOs in late 2010. For a time, it seemed to be giving up on raiding, but now raids are once again on the menu.

LotRO’s popularity has dwindled somewhat over the years, but it maintains a very devoted core playerbase, and most would highlight its community as one of the more tight-knit in the MMO space, with a strong role-playing contingent and frequent player-run events.

Until recently, Lord of the Rings Online seemed to be heading down a dark road, coming to a head with its developer, Turbine, giving up on MMOs altogether, but the development team has now struck out on their own as Standing Stone Games, and the future for LotRO now seems cautiously optimistic, with a new expansion centered around Mordor on the way.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Confronting a large mob in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

I was hesitant to include FFXIV in this list. Not because it’s not a WoW clone — it absolutely is — but because it’s a more recent game and thus doesn’t quite fit in with the explosion of WoW clones that produced many of the above titles.

Interestingly, though, it’s probably one of the most successful WoW clones to date. By all reports it’s one of the more successful MMOs period, with a strong playerbase and an incredible frequency of content updates. It’s even managed to hang onto its subscription-based business model so far.

This despite the fact it’s no more original than Rift or any number of others. One could attribute FFXIV’s success to its obvious polish and quality, but even then it’s not so far ahead of the competition. Perhaps it’s simply the strength of the Final Fantasy brand, but it’s an interesting aberration all the same.

Conclusions

Unfortunately it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from all this. There aren’t a lot of clear patterns to be seen.

The one thing that can be said with certainty is that none of these games have matched World of Warcraft’s success, but given that many of them rival WoW in quality (and may even surpass it in some specific areas), it’s hard to say that’s the result of any failing on their part. Perhaps WoW was simply a fluke of timing that cannot ever be replicated.

As a gamer, I wish that more games had taken SW:TOR’s path and established firm identities for themselves, but I can’t know whether or not they would have been more successful if they had.


Why Themepark MMOs Work

These days, themepark MMOs — games focused on structured, developer-created content — dominate the genre. They are both the most common and the most successful games around. But what is it that makes the themepark MMO such a successful model? Why have these games enjoyed such success?

The Vault of the Wardens dungeon in the themepark MMORPG World of Warcraft

I’m a pretty diehard themepark fan myself. I may play sandboxes here or there, but in the end my heart still lies with the carefully constructed worlds that only themeparks can provide. Therefore I think I can speak to what it is that has given the genre such enduring popularity, or at least why I keep coming back to them.

Purpose

For me, the biggest appeal of themepark MMOs is that they give me a clear purpose. Some people like to be dropped in the middle of an open field and left to find their own fun, and I respect that, but it’s not for me.

I’m very goal-focused in games. When I log into a game, I want to have a clear idea of where I’m going and what I’m fighting for. You can say it’s the journey and not the destination that matters, and I’d agree, but I can’t start the journey if I don’t know where I’m going. I love to stop and smell the roses, but you can’t make a whole game out of that.

That’s not to say that everything need be totally linear. I think the best themeparks are those that offer the player several options on how to advance through the game and progress their character. But there still needs to be goals to be pursued, whether it’s getting the best gear, finishing the story, or even just hitting max level. There needs to be purpose to the experience. Your actions need to matter in the long term.

The ideal themepark MMO is one that offers a variety of goals and a variety of methods to achieve them. Those that marry purpose with choice achieve the best of both worlds, giving players direction without babysitting them.

Familiarity

As we all learned from Bill Nye growing up, inertia is a property of matter. Since we’re made of matter, it can also be a property of gamers.

Fighting as a Jedi consular in the themepark MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic

The very popularity and persistence of the themepark MMO can be a mark in its favor. Odds are you’ve already played a number of themeparks and know what to expect from them. A quest-focused leveling experience, some dungeons, probably optional PvP, gear-based vertical progression, and so forth.

There’s a fine line between familiar and derivative, and there are more than a few themeparks that fall on the bad side of that line, but so long as they’re not aping past games too much, there’s nothing wrong with leaning on standard designs. That’s why we have distinct genres in the first place.

When you know what to expect, the barrier to entry is much lower. You can spend less time learning and more time enjoying the game.

Personality

Sandbox fans may disagree with me on this, but if I’m being honest, the non-themepark games I’ve played all felt a bit… flat to me. Empty. Soulless. Without color.

When you focus on player-created content instead of developer-created, the game itself begins to lose some of its personality in the process. That doesn’t make them worse games, but it does give them different appeals, different “hooks” for the player. Sandboxes are about the people you meet. Themeparks are able to develop personalities and identities all their own.

The lore, quest text, NPC dialogue, and more all contribute to adding depth to the setting of any themepark, to the point where the world almost becomes a character unto itself, and any good themepark MMO will quickly establish a distinct personality that sets it apart from the pack.

Leveling up in the themepark MMORPG WildStar

Lord of the Rings Online captures the richness and detail of Tolkien’s writing. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game of politics on both the personal and the galactic scale. World of Warcraft is, well, Warcraft — it’s a pretty unique flavor all its own. Aion has an exotic surrealism. WildStar is like Looney Tunes on acid, except somehow nowhere near as awesome as that sounds.

That’s not to say that you can’t find some pretty soulless and empty themeparks, too, but that’s the result of poor design or lazy developers, not an inherent flaw of the genre.

Artistry

I’m a big believer in the idea of video games as art, and within the MMO field, themeparks are where it’s at for fans of art in gaming.

There isn’t a lot of respect for MMORPGs as an art form, even among MMO fans, and to some extent I can understand why. There are certainly plenty of examples of MMOs that have little or no artistry to them.

This is why I don’t play Rift. I find it to be an excellent game mechanically, but I find it to be such a bland hodgepodge of generic fantasy tropes that I simply can’t become invested.

But there are also exceptions, MMOs that are good examples of video games as art, and every one of them is a themepark MMO.

The opening cutscene for the mission The Way of Things in the themepark MMORPG The Secret World

The Secret World‘s mission design, lore writing, voice acting, and storytelling are among the best I’ve seen — not just in MMOs, or even in games, but in all of media. SW:TOR features vivid, three dimensional characters and some genuinely powerful story arcs. Even WoW, despite its occasional stumbles, has had some moments of brilliance. Don’t believe me? Do the Bridenbrad quests in Icecrown and get back to me.

This level of artistry is not something that can happen by accident. It’s only possible when developers carefully plan and design the content. It is therefore something that only a themepark MMO can provide.


MMORPGs With Good Roleplaying

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Considering what the acronym stands for, one would think more MMORPGs would entail at least some form of roleplay. However, RPG has become near synonymous with increasing stats through levels and equipment. This has carried into MMORPGs. The primary content in an MMORPG isn’t designed around immersion and living an alternate life. Despite a much greater opportunity for roleplaying, the gaming aspect perhaps gets overemphasized.

MMORPG Roleplaying - keep calm and roleplay

Of course there is nothing wrong with gamey features. Progression is a lot of fun. Many that play MMORPGs have a great need for achievement. Rewarding play with new abilities keeps a game fresh and compelling. Dungeons and Dragons, the prototypical roleplaying game, clearly understands this. But it’s able to do this in a way that doesn’t detract from players RPing. It accomplishes this through choice – every action is possible in D&D. Most MMORPGs are more linear, with a stepping stone progression. There also isn’t a Dungeon Master to help when the players do something ridiculous. So it’s understandable MMORPGs won’t match a tabletop session for roleplay potential.

Despite these limitations, some titles do offer compelling virtual worlds in which to engross ourselves. Roleplaying can happen in such organic ways that players may not even realize what’s happening. That might be roleplaying in an MMORPG at its finest. Stopping to consider how your character would react can bring detachment from the world. True immersion arises from instinctively responding to situations because your motivations are so clearly understood. To be fair, that is a hard feat to accomplish. Players rarely receive opportunities to deviate from intended quest lines. In such linear MMORPGs, simply giving the opportunities and tools to engage in RPing can also be rewarding. The inherent social nature of the genre can feed interactions more absorbing than the simple numbers game of the loot treadmill.

The point is that roleplaying comes in many forms. There’s active and passive RPing, group and solo RPing, and linear and non-linear RPing. So to it’s disingenuous to say one size fits all for MMO players seeking to add more roleplay to their lives. Below is a list of games that best fit the myriad of forms this activity encompasses. Many of these have even been played without its players realizing unintentional RPing was actually a huge component of the game’s enjoyment.

Lord of the Rings Online

lord of the rings online roleplaying

Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has three official roleplaying servers supported by Turbine. Unlike many MMORPGs that designate RP servers then throw them to the wolves, Turbine actually enforces a unique set of rules for LOTRO RP. The broad overview of these rules mandate lore enforced character names, in character usage of most chat channels, and harassment-free roleplaying. Trolls love to ruin RP server players’ fun, but LOTRO actually feels like a safe spot.

There’s also a wealth of content for players that synchronize with their characters. Emotes, music playing, cosmetics, and community events all offer opportunities for the budding roleplayer. For those that want it to be, Lord of the Rings Online is more than just an ascent of power to conquer Sauron’s allies. Middle-earth is steeped in rich lore, but there is no prior knowledge of this lore to enjoy oneself. The community is very welcoming, as long as you’re willing to try.

The Secret World

the secret world roleplaying

The Secret World (TSW) is one of those roleplaying games that forces you to roleplay without you even realizing it. This game has the best quests in the MMO genre with everything tied to the real world in a fantastical yet believable manner. TSW’s three factions offer a unique way of looking at the game world, and it’s hard not to feel enveloped in your organization’s machinations thanks to great storytelling. The game also provides other small group oriented options for more freeform roleplaying, but there are better options on this list for that. TSW proves roleplaying can exist without non-linear player choice.

The Elder Scrolls Online

elder scrolls online roleplaying

Now that One Tamriel is live in The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), players have been presented with an impressive degree of freedom not seen before in a themepark MMORPG. The latest update for ESO scales the player’s level up or down to match the level of the area. That means players are free to take on whatever good or evil quests best fit their character. Though One Tamriel’s primary purpose is to enhance open ended exploration to match the single player Elder Scrolls games, it additionally enhances the game’s roleplaying.

Prior to this update though, the roleplaying scene was already thriving in ESO. ZeniMax Online Studios, who runs ESO, actively praises and supports roleplaying. The game has one of the best community RP websites of any MMORPG. The social aspect is huge in ESO with giant guilds offering someone to roleplay with at all times.

Ultima Online

ultima online roleplaying

The first true MMORPG is still one of the greatest for roleplaying. Ultima Online (UO) is all about player choice. From character creation to progression, there are so many options that it can be overwhelming for new players. It’s the only game I’ve been able to play where I didn’t feel bound to combat. Of course, I still enjoy combat oriented characters, but craftsmen, thieves, musicians, and animal tamers all have their place. UO isn’t a freeing as it was when first released due to rule changes that lessened PvP (and the ability to be truly evil), but expansion packs have dramatically increased the game’s content. This has granted players access to more interactions that fall in line an imagined archetype. RPing is so great in UO because it’s inherently woven into simply playing the game.

Eve Online

eve online roleplaying

I wasn’t sure whether or not to include Eve Online in this list. Yes, it’s a sandbox game with a ton of different skills to learn that are up to the player. Yes, the players effectively run the game world. Yes, player interactions are numerous at the highest and lowest level. But the problem is that the game boils down to acquiring power. Whether crafting, manufacturing, or killing, every character feels like they’re reaching for the same goal through different means. Still, there is more to Eve’s universe than space, stars, and ships. That the game can create such memorable narratives points to a strong roleplaying element. After all, why else do we roleplay than to create memorable stories for our characters? I maintain that choice is the most important attribute for roleplaying, and Eve Online offers it in spades. This may be a borderline addition given that RPing is not officially supported, but I feel Eve Online belongs.

Putting the RP Back in MMORPG

It’s not realistic to expect a tabletop roleplaying experience in an MMORPG. Maybe one day someone smarter than I will create such an innovative system. For now, there are still some good options for immersive play. While other games such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV do offer their own quality roleplaying communities, they don’t get the job done quite like the above games. There’s certainly more to finding your top MMO than RP-ability but, for many, it’s an important start.


What Top Korean MMOs Say About The West

lineage 2: a top korean mmo

American and Korean made MMORPGs dominate the market, as demonstrated by an earlier infographic on Which Country Makes the Best MMOs. Yet their paths to prominence have led to unique deviations. It’s easy for nationalists to say one is better than the other, but that’s largely subjective. It’s clear though that developers from these countries exhibit very different design decisions.

What appeals to one audience may not appeal to another. In the context of two countries on opposite sides of the world, most of that appeal has to do with the culture itself. This Google translated page of top Korean MMOs tells a different story than does our list of top MMOs or MMORPG.com‘s ratings. Americans and Europeans seem to share similar opinions so I’ll be lumping the transatlantic partners into one “Western” group. The differences between Westerners and Koreans create talking points that can lead to some interesting conclusions.

The five Korean MMOs where we see the largest disparity are Lineage, Lineage II, Dungeon Fighter Online, Mabinogi, and Hero Online. Some of these aren’t even available in the West. It’s not that publishers haven’t tried porting them. They just haven’t succeeded. So what do these titles share in common? Not a lot, at least first glance. Lineage is a war-centric PvP MMO. Mabinogi is a free form, cooperative, life skills heavy MMORPG. Dungeon Fighter Online is a side scroller and Hero Online a fairly generic post World of Warcraft MMORPG. That’s not to say there aren’t commonalities though.

The easiest similarity to point out is that all of these Korean MMOs involve significant amounts of grinding. In the West, we typically think of grinding as killing creatures over and over to level up. While that’s one type of grinding, it’s not the only kind. Lineage is heavy with the creature grinding, but for Dungeon Fighter it’s running the same missions. Characters advance in Hero Online via kill quests and Mabinogi via using skills. Maxing out characters in all of these titles takes a long time (especially when counting rebirths). For Koreans that’s more gameplay. For Americans and Europeans, that’s more bland repetition. There’s more to these games than just advancement though.

mabinogi, one of korea's top mmos

Pets are everywhere in Korea’s top MMOs. This has made it’s way over to the West but largely as more of a cosmetic addition. In Korea, pets are heavily integrated into the gameplay itself. Hell, in Lineage II you can ride a freaking wyvern into battle! Graphics obviously aren’t a big deal either. Most of these Korean MMORPGs didn’t look advanced on release so by today’s standards, ugly may be too generous. Mabinogi is the only visually impressive title with its artistic cel-shading. Conversely, Western audiences show difficulty not praising (or criticizing) a game’s appearance.

Where we see the most prominent differences between the two audiences though is in monetization. Mainly, Koreans seem unfazed by pay to win cash shops. Westerns froth at the mouth at the very mention. I would guess this stems from most of Korean gaming occurring in gaming cafes with an hourly rate. From that perspective, it makes a lot of sense. If every hour costs money, why not spend some extra cash to speed up advancement? It’s probably more cost efficient to pay the publisher than pay the gaming center. By contrast, Western play time is typically free so non p2w MMOs find more mainstream success.

Perhaps though, what is missing from this list of Korean MMOs is more telling than what can be found. Inspired questing is a huge component of successful MMORPGs in the West. World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Elder Scrolls Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Rift, and Final Fantasy XIV are all successful MMORPGs. They’re also quest heavy games, but other titles have gained support with a sandbox approach. Eve Online, RuneScape, and ArcheAge are successful sandbox MMORPGs without a huge quest emphasis, so it’s not a prerequisite for success in the US. Interestingly, almost all of the best quest-driven MMORPGs come from well recognized IPs in the West. That leads me to two takeaways. One, themepark MMORPGs are better served by an existing IP. Two, sandbox MMORPGs might be the path to success for Korean MMOs.

That’s a number of differences between MMOs popular in the West vs. Korea. But what does it mean?


it means that us Westerns dislike grinding, or at least need to have it obfuscated. We’re more interested in the destination vs. the journey. Lengthy leveling hasn’t been in vogue here for over a decade. Reaching endgame seems to be all that anyone talks about. Meanwhile, lengthy leveling is still going strong in Korea. An affinity for pets in Korean MMOs speaks of a greater attachment to their avatars. A willingness to spend money to “win” or advance that avatar reinforces the idea.

Westerners also appear to be more brand loyal. The most well known MMORPGs here almost all result from some popular, preexisting IP. Branding plays its part in Korea too but is in a completely different league. It’s unclear whether Americans and Europeans love questing or if questing centric gameplay is the easiest path to delivering existing IPs to customers. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both.

It’s fun to see how different cultures view their virtual worlds when their physical worlds are separated by more than just miles.


Best MMORPG By Year: Part 2 (2006 – 2015)

Ten years down, ten to go. If you haven’t read it yet, check out our Best MMORPG By Year: Part 1 (1996 – 2005).

MMORPGs have grown more numerous in their yearly releases at this point. But have they actually gotten better? Some would argue no as many simply tried to tweak World of Warcraft. Whatever you may think, at least these winners have proven themselves the best MMORPG by year for their respective time periods.

Best MMORPG of 2006 – Dungeons & Dragons Online

Runner-up: Wurm Online

dungeons and dragons 2006 best mmorpg

I probably played more of 2005’s Silkroad Online in 2006, but Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) was the better overall game even back then. It follows the heavily instanced nature of 2005’s Guild Wars with instanced quests that players can form small groups to overcome. It uses a modified D&D 3.5 ruleset as the backbone for combat and advancement. Unlike tabletop D&D though, players fight in real-time. In fact, DDO employs a bit of twitch based combat where players must manually aim attacks. This was a first for a mainstream fantasy MMORPG and lent itself to creating a unique experience at launch.

Overall, Turbine did a great job of bringing Dungeons and Dragons to an MMO environment. Dungeon masters narrate quests, each with their own story for those who find themselves interested. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough content to level up purely on unique quests. Players will need to repeat quests, some several times, in order to sufficiently advance to take on new quests. To make matters worse, some quests can be quite difficult without an adequate party composition that can take some time to fill. For these reasons, DDO can really grow tiresome but there is no denying its 2006 crown.

Best MMORPG of 2007 – Lord of the Rings Online

Runner-up: Elsword

lord of the rings online 2007 best mmorpg

Turbine found itself on a roll from 2006-2007. After handling one major fantasy IP more than competently, they were given the reigns to the vaunted world of Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings Online sought to create an immersive MMORPG steeped in the rich lore of Tolkein’s masterpiece. For the most part, they succeeded. The entire game feels like a community struggle against evil. Even the PvP system disallows players fighting each others’ characters, but instead allows one side of players to temporarily control the monsters.

The greatest strength of Lord of the Rings Online is its adherence to the lore. Even little things like calling achievements deeds and parties fellowships add to the ambience. Fellowships are required for challenging instances, rewarding coordinated players with group attacks called Fellowship Manoeuvres. The classes are fairly unique too. Wizards such as Gandalf are rare so magically inclined players instead take on the role of rune-keepers and lore-masters. Physical combat classes are similarly unique to LOTRO. Players can even play a variety of musical instruments, forming impromptu bands in town squares. The game simply comes to life and to this day continues to build on its iconic world.

Lord of the Rings Online combines a well told MMO story, compelling quests, and a rich world steeped in lore. It’s an MMORPG with a strong draw for those who appreciate a little role-playing in their role-playing game.

Best MMORPG of 2008 – Age of Conan

Runner-up: Warhammer Online

age of conan 2008 best mmorpg

Warhammer Online and Atlantica Online came close to winning this. After all, in 2008 Age of Conan was a mess. The game lacked in content, the combat felt clunky, endgame felt repetitive, and bugs ran rampant. The game entertained in Tortage, Age of Conan’s solo tutorial area for the first twenty levels, and then promptly fell off a cliff. Funcom is just a terrible company when it comes to MMORPG launches, but they sure do know how to turn things around.

Age of Conan is now brimming with content, the unique combat system feels responsive, and the multitude of unique classes are a welcome change from typical fantasy MMORPGs. Players will find themselves with plenty to do as they progress their character to the maximum level of eighty. Typical endgame raids await to continue powering up, but honestly other games do those better. And for a mature setting, the PvP is sadly lacking with class balance issues and mediocre systems. Still, the combat system combined with a rich environment has provided a lasting legacy that tops 2008’s other offerings.

Best MMORPG of 2009 – Champions Online

Runner-up: Runes of Magic

champions online 2009 best mmorpg

2008 didn’t set any lasting trends in the MMORPG industry, but at least it didn’t disappoint like 2009. Several titles flopped, building on 2008 to give further rise to the notion that MMORPG developers really suck at living up to their promises. Champions Online would be the second superhero themed MMORPG released by Cryptic Studios, having sold their first (City of Heroes) to NCSoft. It’s also the obvious choice for 2009 as this year’s only title to bring something unique to the genre. The current state of the game feels money grubbing, but there is a lot Champions Online offers to would be superheroes.

Champions Online’s character customization might still be better than every competing MMORPG. Not only from the perspective of combining desired superpowers for a character, but appearance customization is worlds ahead of other games too. Speaking of appearances, the visual style lends itself to a fulfilling 3D comic book world that immerses players in the role of their characters. Combat, PvP, and crafting leave a lot to be desired in it’s current state though and the free to play system is extremely stifling. 2009: the year of we do what we can with what we have.

Best MMORPG of 2010 – Final Fantasy XIV

Runner-up: Vindictus

final fantasy xiv 2010 best mmorpg image

Guess who’s back? Back again. Final Fantasy’s back. Tell a friend.

Good grief, 2010’s MMORPGs in 2010 vs. 2010’s MMORPGs in 2016 are a massive difference. Star Trek Online and Perpetuum are both in much better places than they were six years ago. Vindictus and Dragon Nest, still two of the best free targeting MMORPGs, have only added content to what were strong Korean releases. But nothing has changed as much as Final Fantasy XIV.

The game was such a train wreck on release that Square Enix stopped charging subscription fees for over a year while they revamped the game, ultimately culminating into “A Realm Reborn”. Now, Final Fantasy XIV stands as a benchmark for traditional MMORPG play. Much like Final Fantasy XI, strong group coordination is required to overcome the game’s most difficult challenges. However, solo play for the majority of progression is much more viable. The job system provides an incentive to revisit old areas and adds diversity to class builds. Perhaps the latest Final Fantasy MMO’s most noteworthy feature though is its strong narrative. The game features characters you won’t immediately forget with cut scenes reminiscent of its single player brethren. It’s no surprise then that questing is a strength of this MMORPG.

As it stands, Final Fantasy XIV is a perfect title for those seeking a modern adaption of MMORPGs from the early 2000s. Subscription fee included.

Best MMORPG of 2011 – TERA

Runner-up: Rift

tera 2011 best mmorpg image

Far and away, 2011 gave me the longest pause to consider which title to choose. TERA, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Rift are the MMOs that most readily come to mind, but DC Universe and the now defunct Rusty Hearts are both underrated. Ultimately, I went with TERA primarily because its combat system offers the most unique gameplay.

TERA’s combat really embraces the “new” style that eschews classic tab targeting for freeform player targeted skills. Players in TERA need to actually aim their abilities at the target to hit them. Additionally, the combat pacing is much faster than MMO competitors. These two design decisions lead to a combat system that rewards players not purely for equipment (although that’s important too) but for their individual skill as well.

The downside is that TERA’s enemies in the open world are beyond bland. Interesting dungeons aren’t available for at least twenty levels and PvP doesn’t really begin until max level. So although leveling is relatively fast, the combat is still a chore for a good while until adequate challenges present themselves. When those challenges do come around though, the game really shines. TERA also features a great free to play system that is, in our opinion, not pay to win.

Best MMORPG of 2012 – The Secret World

Runner-up: Guild Wars 2

the secret world 2012 best mmorpg image

This was a fun year. Blade & Soul, which came out in America in 2016, notably released in Korea this year. It offered some great combat, but in the end I really only considered two Western MMORPGs: The Secret World and Guild Wars 2. They both offered a compelling and unique sales pitch but couldn’t be further apart at launch. As with every single Funcom MMORPG, The Secret World released in a half baked state. On the other hand, Guild Wars 2 felt rather complete. Naming The Secret World the winner would’ve certainly surprised my 2012 self. However, Guild Wars 2 has felt pretty stagnant despite their latest expansion while The Secret World has only grown stronger as a dark, atmospheric, story driven MMORPG.

The Secret World has built a rich environment for its player base to explore and currently offers the best MMO quests. There are no filler missions in The Secret World, with each tying into the main story arch. Many unique concepts abound during these integral quests. Players will need real world research to decipher clues, Metal Gear Solid skills to sneak through occult locations, deduction to solve coded puzzles, and fortitude to defeat rich Lovecraftian creatures. The Secret World advances MMO questing to the next generation and sits there squarely by itself.

Despite an excellent freeform character skill system, the combat does leave something to be desired. This certainly puts a damper on enjoying endgame dungeons, but shouldn’t dissuade interest from The Secret World. It’s not a game for tacticians or action junkies but for those seeking to be immersed in a deep, Lovecraftian-esque world. With a story that still sees regular updates and a buy to play option to get started, The Secret World is going strong.

Best MMORPG of 2013 – Warframe

Runner-up: Aura Kingdom

warframe 2013 best mmorpg image

Might as well dub this the year of pay to win. All the larger populations MMOs like ArcheAge, Neverwinter, and Echo of Soul sooner or later fell into pay to win ways of varying degrees. I wanted to choose Wizardry Online here, but it never realized its potential prior shutting down. Aura Kingdom almost won due to a cute anime MMO styling that employs Aeria’s most reasonable freemium system to date. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to overcome Warframe.

Like Guild Wars, one could argue Warframe isn’t an MMORPG. There isn’t anything massive about the game other than its player base, chat, and the marketplace. I’m generally inclusive when defining an MMO though, and Warframe is the best of the games I considered.

First, combat in Warframe resembles Devil May Cry with a combination of fast paced melee and ranged abilities. Cooperative missions are the the primary form of content and advancement and places players in a central position in an ever growing galactic conflict. To overcome these missions, players can purchase a multitude of unique Warframes to pilot. These are similar to League of Legends champions in terms of offering significantly different gameplay without necessarily being stronger than one another. The game is extremely grind heavy, but there are a lot of interesting warframes, weapons, modules to collect. Though progression is slow, it’s extremely rewarding. A lot of the grind can be bypassed with cash, but ultimately everything can be acquired through in game play.

Warframe is a solid choice for the experiencing the life of a cyberninja, as long as repeating co-op missions (albeit of high quality) to acquire new equipment sounds fine.

Best MMORPG of 2014 – WildStar

Runner-up: Elder Scrolls Online

wildstar 2014 best mmorpg image

To give you an example of how difficult it was to choose between WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online, I think I swapped these five times before finally settling on Wildstar. I’m fairly confident Elder Scrolls Online will stand the test of time due to Tamriel’s rich lore and the series’ dedicated fan base. On the other hand, WildStar seems to constantly be on life support after a bad launch. For now, the population is revitalized thanks to the Steam launch, and there is just so much to love about WildStar.

The quirky universe, colorful palette, and HGTV quality house decorating give WildStar a lot of character. Yet it is the fast paced, action oriented combat system that truly gives WildStar a place in the crowded MMO market. The vast majority of moves telegraph their hit area, giving opponents a short time to dodge or counter. Despite this, the telegraphing doesn’t tend to the clutter the screen and provides players clear information with which to react. PvP battlegrounds reward competent play, but PvE is where WildStar really shines.

Many consider WildStar’s raids to be the best raids that any MMORPG has to offer (including those from you know who). Instanced dungeons and expeditions (group quests) offer challenging content that doesn’t just give you a win because you’re new. It’s truly a rewarding experience. Theorycrafting is fun thanks to easy respecs and a slew of combo-laden options. While the game is reasonably solo friendly, WildStar really shines with group content. If Steam doesn’t provide an adequate population boost this could be detrimental for what is a fantastically underrated free to play MMORPG.

Best MMORPG of 2015 – Skyforge

Runner-up: Trove

skyforge 2015 best mmorpg image

I’m not trying to knock Skyforge (OK, maybe I am a little bit) but proclaiming this the best MMORPG of 2015 caps off a weakened state of recent MMOs. Let’s give Skyforge it’s due though. It is the best MMORPG of 2015.

Skyforge’s progression system is one of the more unique aspects about the game. Players will navigate something similar to a sphere grid in Final Fantasy X (or Path of Exile) to progress. All characters can eventually access all classes and change freely between them outside of missions. As you might notice, free targeted action combat has grown popular and Skyforge implements its own version. Enemies aren’t as interesting as say, the aforementioned Wildstar, and are a bit too damage spongey. Still, the moves themselves look great and give motivation to level up. The active content revolves around missions but players can solo them when populations are low. The missions are fun the first time around, but even the random bonus objectives don’t entice replay as much as say, Warframe.

Although it takes a while to get there, what truly sets Skyforge apart are the AFK activities. These are polarizing, but it’s the main reason why you’d stick with Skyforge. As a god (eventually with a bad ass divine form), you’ll slowly grow your followers to provide character boosts. This is represented through a Facebook-esque game called the order system. You’ll recruit adepts, assign them to missions, build sanctuaries, they’ll level up, you’ll get bonuses and then repeat. The constant growth in Skyforge can be addicting. The appeal here is greatest for achievement/progression junkies or someone who just wants to play a god in an MMORPG.

Twenty Years of MMORPGs

That does it. Twenty years, twenty MMORPGs. Well, forty if you count runner-ups but second place is the first loser, right? We don’t speak of them (much). And while we could look back on this in another decade with a very different 2012 – 2015. I don’t see much changing with MMOs older than that.

I’d be flabbergasted to see people in 100% agreement with these so if there’s anything to add, all human comments are welcome.

Missed the first ten years? Start over with the Best MMORPG by Year.