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.
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.
You just started playing a new MMO or other online multiplayer game. You’re really excited and get to thinking how cool it would be to play with your friends. So what do you do to sell them on this newfound addiction? Do you tell them how awesome your rewards will be for recruiting them? Or do shower them with details about the game’s most attractive features? Unless you have a weird friend group, it’s probably more of the latter.
Until recently, MMOs and MOBAs only incentivized the recruiter and not the recruitee for participating in recruit a friend programs. It made little sense because the recruiter was already incentivized by wanting to play with their friends. MMOs already had that group of recruiters buying into pitching their game. What MMOs lacked was a reason for the recruitee to choose that friend’s game over another one. This is mirrored everyday in non-MMO products too via word of mouth. Word of mouth is a powerful tool in promotion and it results from passionate fans, not extrinsic rewards. Humans generally want to spread the word of products and services with which they’ve had good experiences. Yet online games, especially free to play MMOs, have long seemed to consider extrinsic rewards for friend recruiters the best vehicle to fuel growth.
Analyzing Recruit-A-Friend Programs
League of Legends took this self centered style to the max level with their old referral program. Recruiters could earn a ton of Riot Points (the game’s premium currency), rare skins, and even content items named after them. Of course, no ordinary person could possibly earn the top tier rewards and instead was dominated by online personalities such as TotalBiscuit. It’s unclear how this referral program impacted League of Legends’ status as a gaming powerhouse, but it has since been discontinued. That they’ve dropped incentivizing recruiting friends is indicative that Riot no longer believes it’s a strong growth driver.
Other MMORPGs have chosen to evolve their programs instead of trashing them. World of Warcraft tries to promote friends playing together via EXP boosts and friend summoning. Leveling and travel is pretty easy in WoW though so I’d question the efficacy of such a program. Final Fantasy XIV gives more tangible benefits to both friends and recruiters after a subscription is purchased. These rewards encourage low level play and partying together like an EXP boost below level 25. That rewards are capped at five recruits is odd but does suggest Square Enix is more interested in small friend groups over referrals from online recruiter warriors.
Star Wars: The Old Republic shows greater signs of adapting to the times. First, previous subscribers who have been unsubscribed for 90+ dates can be “recruited”. Most recruit a friend programs disallow old subscribers for some bizarre reason. Hoping old players return makes a lot less sense than actively trying to draw them back in. Recruitees receive unfettered access to content through level 50. New players also get a Jumpstart Bundle to make leveling easier. Recruiters receive Cartel Coins (premium currency) for each friend actively subscribed.
Among the top MMO games, the greatest disparity in recruit a friend programs lie between RuneScape and TERA. RuneScape runs an older model which heavily rewards recruiters while giving recruited friends a measly 10% EXP bump for seven days. No one’s buying into that. On the other hand, TERA is the gift that keeps on giving. TERA’s BuddyUp System lets veteran players (over level 40) mentor/recruit anyone who hasn’t played in 30 days. Mentors earn rewards while recruits level and guess what? Recruits also earn level specific rewards for leveling under their friend’s tutelage. Additionally, playing together increases a quantifiable friendship level that offers benefits such as the ability to teleport to one another.
It’s a spawning pool. Get it??
One idea I have not seen adapted to subscription or buy to play MMORPGs is the concept of spawning. For those unaware, spawning allows someone who does not own the game to play it, as long as they group with someone who does. It’s used in StarCraft 2 and older Diablo games. The hope for the developer is that the new player will get hooked enough to want to play without their friend. The only way to do that is, of course, to purchase the game. As cool as virtual item rewards are, playing a paid game for free is far more encouraging. Strong rewards for recruiters would also be justified with ‘spawning referrals’ because of the larger time investment. Spawning in MMORPGs could be exploited but simple restrictions could be put into place to avoid such situations.
Honestly, recruit a friend programs have always seemed like an afterthought. Times are a-changing though. Developers are clearly showing promising signs of adaptation in recent years. However, that evolution is far from complete. Proper recruit a friend programs can drive tons of new players and are worth investing in. Word of mouth is an exceptional marketing vehicle that MMOs will need to get creative with to properly utilize. With the ability to hand out infinite virtual goods for free, it’s just a matter of finding the right mix. MMOs want to get players hooked, and get them hooked early. And nothing is more captivating than a friend to play alongside.
MMORPGs have grown to such heights now that they warrant their own category for year end video game awards. However, MMOs evolve to a much greater extent than games from other genres. An MMORPG’s full potential might not be realized until years after launch. It is with this thought in mind, and the fact that hindsight is 20/20, that we’ll be taking a retroactive look at the best MMORPG by year for the past twenty years. We’ll start in 1996, the first time that multiple graphical MMORPGs would release in the same year.
Best MMORPG of 1996 – The Realm (Online)
Originally launched as simply The Realm in 1996, this cartoony MMO game graphically resembles old point and click style games like Quest for Glory. The Realm offered a surprising wealth of content in its debut year that included player housing, a 1000 level cap, multiple dungeons to explore, and a decent character creation system. The Realm Online’s most notable feature though is its turn based, tactical combat. Although most mobs aren’t terribly challenging, this style of combat added a layer of depth still not present in any many MMORPGs. It also lead to some tense, tactical PvP battles in The Realm.
Of course, The Realm is pretty flawed too. After seeing all the heavily instanced world has to offer, there isn’t much else to do besides grind. There isn’t a real trading system either (only gifting or dropping items) so players hire middle men to facilitate trades, which has been abused by scammers. Yet it doesn’t compare to the “old days” where a lack of solid protection for players’ houses led to unintended burglaries or the gold duping exploit that massively inflated every item’s price. Despite being fixed, these issues sadly persist as the most notable memories of The Realm.
The Realm Online seems to still be running. It was apparently sold to a group of fans several years ago, who have managed to keep it running but do little else to entice players.
Best MMORPG of 1997 – Ultima Online
I thought for sure that Tibia would win its year, but there’s no way it could stand up to the legacy that is Ultima Online. Not only did Ultima Online bring the term MMORPG to the world (we were calling them graphical MUDs prior), but it also created the basis for sandbox MMORPGs. Players entered Ultima Online with a vision of their character and could match that vision surprisingly well. With skills ranging from magery to musicianship to animal taming, it seemed like the developers had thought of everything. The world itself teemed with life. Hell, you could even own a castle. Pretty sweet.
The truly open nature of Ultima Online did lead to some serious player griefing though. Outside of towns, players were fair game and a lot of stronger players targeted easy prey. Since players would also drop all of their gear and loot on death, player killing could be quite profitable. Less violent players could sneak and steal items out of others’ backpacks. For victims, playing Ultima Online was probably akin to playing a shopkeeper in Skyrim. All the sudden everything was gone and you could barely react.
Eventually, Ultima Online split their servers between the PvP friendly Felucca and the carebear land of Trammel. It’s a decision that in equal parts killed and saved the game. The lack of a strong deterrent for Ultima Online criminals would have wiped out the player base, but the game also lost much of its unique “dangerous real world” feel. The most lasting memory for Ultima Online though is when a player killed the invincible Lord British, controlled by Ultima’s creator Richard Garriott.
Best MMORPG of 1998 – Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds
I’m honestly surprised that Kru Interactive hasn’t made any new games. In the late 90s they gave us Nexus, Dark Ages, and Shattered Galaxy. All were pretty cool games, and all are still running. I guess the age of 3D is scary, but that’s fine. There are plenty of 3D MMOs out there from other guys.
Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds was for many their best offering. It seems to be doing the best too in 2016 with biweekly patches. The combat has never been anything to write home about, but what made Nexus special was its social system. Nexus sported a deep political system alongside a mentor system to encourage veterans to help new players. Not everyone was friendly in Nexus, but everyone felt connected. I feel that the systems in place in Nexus make for some of the best socializing of any MMORPG. If only the actual gameplay was as addictive…
Best MMORPG of 1999 – EverQuest
Runner-up: Asheron’s Call
I was tempted to choose Asheron’s Call for 1999 because I personally enjoyed the game more. Ultimately, EverQuest’s lasting legacy proved too monumental to overlook. While developers were trying to figure out the magic MMORPG formula, it would be EverQuest that would leave the biggest imprint of the first generation MMORPGs.
EverQuest’s success was burgeoned by their dedication to creating an atmosphere that resembled tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. The game offered players mostly typical fantasy races and classes with a classic alignment system. Multiple varying server rulesets were enacted to center gameplay on a particular player activities. For example, the Vallon Zek server would go down as the first major factional warfare as one’s race dictated PvP status. Rallos Zek allowed bloodthirsty players to kill anyone, much like Ultima Online.
Most importantly for EverQuest, this MMORPG offered players difficult PvE encounters and started the whole raiding thing. The Sleeper is perhaps the most famous raid encounter of all time since it took three highly geared guilds working together for hours to take him down. Players also regenerated health slowly after combat in EverQuest, which lessened the action but increased the social interaction. I don’t miss resting, but I lament the increasingly anti-social nature of multiplayer gaming since EverQuest’s MMORPG heyday. For many veterans, EverQuest is the best MMORPG of all time.
Best MMORPG of 2000 – Allegiance
Allegiance is a pretty cool game that was ahead of it’s time. Some might argue that the lack of a massive, persistent world (games are eventually won) disqualifies Allegiance as being an MMO. I don’t agree and perhaps more importantly, there were no other MMOs released in 2000. It sort of wins by default, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. The core gameplay revolves around one member of a faction playing the role of an RTS commander with their allies controlling individual ships. Maps are explored, buildings are built, resources collected, technologies researched, and eventually full on wars are waged. It was pretty complicated then without a great tutorial and no doubt partially caused the disappointing sales numbers for developer/publisher Microsoft.
Although Microsoft pulled the plug on this pseudo-MMORPG long ago due to population, fans still run the game.
Best MMORPG of 2001 – Dark Age of Camelot
EverQuest may have been the first MMORPG to implement faction warfare, but Dark Age of Camelot perfected it. Faction warfare in Dark Age of Camelot is referred to as Realm vs. Realm (RvR), unique from the free for all brawl that was simply PvP. In Dark Age of Camelot, players would enter the MMORPG by choosing one of three mythical races to represent. The combat system resembled EverQuest so players familiar with the venerable MMORPG and looking for more structured PvP could easily jump into Camelot.
The primary focus for Dark Age of Camelot’s RvR has always been a 3-sided factional conflict. This maintains balance despite shifting populations. While one side may grow dominant, two sides can temporarily ally to turn the tides. Camelot, to this day, is simply the best MMORPG when it comes to epic castle sieges and territory defense. The population has waned, but the options for a true alternative simply aren’t there.
I do want to give honorable mentions to RuneScape for showing that browser MMORPGs could be fairly legit and Anarchy Online, specifically for their hype machine. Anarchy’s promised a unique setting, and I loved the idea of a neutral faction. The video below got me hyped beyond measure for the sci-fi MMORPG.
Unfortunately, Anarchy Online disappointed in a huge fashion and clearly released too early. It would eventually became a good MMORPG, but it’s launch would go down as one of the worst in MMORPG history. Luckily, Dark Age of Camelot would come to the rescue in October 2001.
Best MMORPG of 2002 – Final Fantasy XI
Runner-up: Ragnarok Online
Although not released until the following year in the US (along with Korean competitor, Ragnarok Online), Final Fantasy XI put PvE players to the test. EverQuest required grouping, but players could advance eventually by playing more casually. Final Fantasy XI scoffed at the idea. Not only did Final Fantasy XI require grouping, it required coordination. The game did not shy away from grinding, but did reward players with greater EXP bonuses for chaining mobs in quick succession. Although grinding mobs was all the rage until World of Warcraft’s release, Final Fantasy managed to create a rewarding system for the repetitive activity. The familiar Final Fantasy setting, with chocobos and all, also helped to draw players in.
The raids and end game bosses of Final Fantasy XI required not only high end gear, but high end skills too. Whereas most of EverQuest’s high end encounters were designed to be defeated if properly geared, Final Fantasy XI couldn’t care less. To this day, Final Fantasy XI has yet to be surpassed in the difficulty of it’s PvE encounters. It’s unlikely that it will be as providing content that only a fraction of the population will see isn’t good business.
Best MMORPG of 2003 – EVE Online
Runner-up: Star Wars Galaxies
Eve Online is to PvP what Final Fantasy XI is to PvE. To this day, Eve is still the premiere open ended PvP system. Corporations ran by actual players fight over areas of the galaxy in order to obtain resources to grow further. Fleets of hundreds engage in battles with similarly sized opponents. Politics and espionage are another layer on the complex cake that is Eve Online.
Not only did Eve Online present its players with an MMORPG that boasted sandbox freedom, it also introduced a unique skill progression system. In Eve Online, skills are learned in real time whether online or not. Want to master a particular type of battleship? Just wait a month. This concept allowed players to further engage in the content they wanted without worrying about grinding for levels. Finally, Eve Online also did away with the common practice of multiple, split servers. Upwards of 30,000 players can still be found playing Eve Online simultaneously to this day. Max player counts of individual World of Warcraft servers occupy a fraction of that.
The audience is relatively niche compared to mainstream MMORPGs, but is loyal and dedicated. There’s simply nothing quite like Eve Online to this day. That it’s still running and a better game than ever 13 years later is a testament to that statement.
Best MMORPG of 2004 – World of Warcraft
Runner-up: EverQuest II
I mean. Duh. Of course it’s World of Warcraft.
2004 would go down as the most important year for MMORPGs since 1999. It saw a couple other AAA MMORPGs releasing in EverQuest II and City of Heroes. Interesting titles such as Saga of Ryzom, Vendetta Online, Metin2 and Knight Online also debuted. But everything paled in comparison to Blizzard’s behemoth MMORPG.
World of Warcraft took the popular MMORPG formula and perfected it. Blizzard’s only truly unique contribution to the MMORPG genre was the implementation of quests as the primary method of leveling up. Until 2004, quests were largely an afterthought in MMORPGs. They were either too obfuscated or too few to be used as a form of advancement. World of Warcraft changed that and set a precedent for the importance of questing in MMORPGs. We even did a feature on MMORPGs with the best quests. You might notice that World of Warcraft is the only game listed that released before 2007.
World of Warcraft didn’t simply rely on quests to draw in millions of players though. Blizzard polished their first MMORPG to the nth degree. The art design is fantastic, the classes are interesting, grouping became useful instead of required, and the game truly brought the Warcraft universe to life in a virtual world. Is it the best MMORPG of all time? That’s debatable, but, it is certainly the most influential due to its wild success.
Best MMORPG of 2005 – Guild Wars
Runner-up: Silkroad Online
The original Guild Wars was built on delivering a near immediate endgame with long term horizontal progression, heavily instanced content, and no subscription fee. All four of these defining features things were brand new to the MMO space and have surprisingly inspired very few similar combinations.
The maximum level in Guild Wars is twenty, which can be reached in one day. From there, the primary method of advancement is learning new skills through completing various missions. Each player in Guild Wars has access to only eight skills at a time so gaining more skills doesn’t necessarily make your character stronger. Players in Guild Wars don’t chase bigger numbers but instead seek more skills to provide adaptability. Players can even create PvP only characters with access to all skills for competitive PvP. These design decisions lead to communities that don’t fracture due to varying commitment levels. It’s one of the best perks about horizontal progression, but can also lead to players feeling like there’s not enough advancement to warrant continued play. Luckily, Guild Wars does not require a subscription fee.
Up until this point, monthly subscription fees were the norm for MMORPGs. Free to Play MMOs wouldn’t become popular for a few more years yet. Thus if you wanted to play an MMORPG you had to pay a monthly fee. Guild Wars did away with that, in part thanks to the heavily instanced gameplay to lower server costs. Instanced content also allows developers to create challenges balanced around a particular number of players, at the cost lessening the massive part of the multiplayer experience. This has its pros and cons but certainly helped to define Guild Wars as one of the most unique offerings in the MMORPG genre.
MMOs differ in a multitude of ways from their single player cousins. One could easily argue that the most prominent difference between MMOs and non-MMOs is the potential lifespan. Single player games will typically last somewhere in 15-80 hour range. On on the flip side, some people have been playing MMORPGs like Ultima Online for over 15 years. The content that keeps players hooked in MMOs is typically referred to as the endgame. This is where characters engage in PvE raids, PvP battlegrounds, crafting high end gear, or doing some other activity where the ‘real game’ begins.
Typical MMO endgame raids take hours or days of playtime to reach
The problem with the MMO endgame is that getting to the ‘real game’ can be a huge chore, resulting in players that never see it at all. Additionally, many MMOs (MMORPGs especially) promise a virtual world to live in, but don’t actually pony up until grinding hours upon hours to get there. It’s like saying real life starts when you reach CEO. To counter this mentality, MMO Bro is highlighting 8 MMO endgames that start immediately.
Now, before beginning I want set some guidelines and expectations. Some of these online games involve a hefty learning curve. Some MMOs will offer immediate endgame for particular styles of play but not others. Veterans might even consider a number of these as MMOs without endgame content altogether. I’ll be taking all of this into account and ranking the games in order. The primary ranking is how soon a brand new player can participate in each of the game’s content segments where the largest mass of players are congregated. It is possible an MMO might score well in one content segment and poorly in another.
Now, let’s get this best of ‘immediate MMO endgames’ list started.
8. Planet Calypso (and Entropia Universe)
Planet Calypso has its differences from Entropia Universe, but both are made by the same company and work in the same fashion.Their unique aspect is that currency is directly tied to real money. Thus, players can acquire real monetary value by playing and acquiring loot or even lose it through repairs, bad investments, and the like. With that said, it is extremely difficult to actually turn a profit in these games. I would argue though that the endgame for Planet Calypso is in trying to do just that.
Both Planet Calypso and Entropia boast lifelike player run economies. The value of goods will rise and fall as players adjust to ever changing market conditions. The value of hunting a particular mob or mining a particular resource will vary from from one day to the next. The value of these is not directly tied to the level or strength of the area they’re found within.
Leveling and advancing one’s character is not necessary to the endgame of making money. A new player could technically find a profitable location to exploit. What experienced characters gain is access to a greater variety of locations, which does increase the likelihood of profitable ventures. More valuable than that though is understanding the game’s economy and mechanics. I think that a new player with a high level character would fair worse than a veteran player with a low level character when it comes to making money. Since knowledge and learning is such an integral part of playing these two games, I feel that the endgame starts on one’s first login. Unfortunately that learning might entail some serious real life monetary losses in the process.
Game #7 is one of three very similar titles on this list. Runescape is a sandbox MMORPG where players increase individual skills by using them. Once a skill is maxed out, a player can buy a cape to symbolize their success. People in the Runescape community comically refer to the endgame as collecting capes. It’s not really too far off the mark though.
The sandbox nature contributes to an endgame that either begins immediately or not at all, depending on perspective. The purpose of playing is simply to advance your character by doing whatever you want to do. And there is a lot of advancement to be had in Runescape, with a large number of experience points required to max everything out. But advancing your character to a max level doesn’t really open up too many new gameplay opportunities with one typical MMORPG exception: raiding. This is certainly an important piece of the endgame that PvE players will have to wait to experience. Unlike other level based titles though, one won’t need to be maxed out to participate. It will take some time though and bossing is certainly a large aspect of Runescape’s endgame, which keeps the game from a higher ranking.
6. Guild Wars 2
From a brief description overview, Guild Wars 2 seems like the perfect game for casual players or players looking to dive right into the endgame. The core elements of the Guild Wars 2’s endgame are World vs. World, Fractals, and Structured PvP. For those unaware, World vs. World is a massive group of instanced PvP battlegrounds where players of one server fight players of other servers in a 3-way match. Fractals are randomized small group PvE dungeons. Structured PvP is where teams of five players compete against another team in a sports-like arena fashion. All of these are accessible early for players thanks to the dynamic level adjustment system.
Dynamic level adjustment works a bit differently for each endgame activity though. In World vs. World, characters receive the stats of a max level character but not the traits or skills. Similarly, characters in fractals will scale their stats to max level but be less effective without traits or skills of “legitimate” max levels. Both World vs. World and Fractals will reward the player with experience though so by engaging in these activities, a player can both experience the endgame and progress their character. Structured PvP has no form of character advancement, but players are all put on even footing in terms of stats and skills. Dynamic level adjustment also works in the reverse for high level players entering low level areas. This means that technically one could even include questing as part of the endgame, but max level players rarely go back to previous zones simply for that.
With all of that said, PvE players won’t really experience endgame fractals until legitimately reaching max level. With only five members to a group, a lower level player is a decidedly weaker contributor than a max level player with all of their skills. Thus, it’s not likely many people will want to party with you. Admittedly, leveling is fairly fast with each level taking about an hour, but eighty hours is a bit long for an immediate endgame. However, PvP players of all types can jump in on the endgame quickly after install.
5. Ultima Online
Like a lot of the titles on this list, Ultima Online invites new players to an early MMO endgame through its unique progression system. Characters grow in strength by using the skills they want to train. So animal taming goes up from taming animals, sword fighting from fighting with a sword, and blacksmithing from making armor and weapons. There’s no actual levels in Ultima Online and improvement comes from performing personally enjoyable activities. Only seven skills can be taken to max level though so diversity of player builds is quite alive in Ultima Online. It’s surprising how few MMORPGs employ a skill-use based advancement system.
Unlike more recent MMORPGs, there isn’t a lot of guided progression in Ultima Online. You don’t go out and repeatedly raid the same dungeons to acquire better equipment. You don’t fight other guilds for territory control. You don’t dominate the auction house with crafted items. You just play the game how you want and get rewarded by advancement in those areas. The lack of endgame direction certainly limits the game’s mass appeal (more than its dated engine), but it’s also why the game is close to two decades old.
The downside is that like a lot of sandbox titles, PvP plays an important role in character freedom. In Ultima Online, combat will still be decided by the level of a character’s skill, so new players can feel pretty useless until reaching higher skill levels. If the endgame goal of an MMORPG is competitive PvP (even though there’s not a lot to fight over in UO) then this is the one aspect that will take some time.
Still, one might fairly argue that Ultima Online doesn’t even have an endgame to it. My counterargument would be that the endgame starts as soon as you choose that first skill to master.
4. Wurm Online
Despite the creator of Minecraft’s ties to Wurm Online, the game never really gained more than a niche following. The release of Wurm Unlimited on Steam has increased the popularity of this sandbox MMO (even though they’re technically different products), but its lack of mainstream popularity unsurprisingly mirrors Ultima Online’s. Wurm Online plays like a 3D version of Ultima mixed with some Minecraft.
In addition to a skill based leveling approach that is even more granular than Ultima Online, Wurm Online inhabitants have immense control over shaping the game’s landmass. Players may create tunnels through mining, flatten and raise the ground, grow crops, and build structures from raw materials. All of the towns in the game are player created and intense cooperation is needed to accomplish the higher end feats, whether on the PvE or the PvP server.
Wurm Online offers impatient endgamers the opportunity to play their character in a 3D world the way they want to play. There’s no prerequisite activities for whatever your endgame goal may be. Want to maximize your ambition and build a kingdom alongside friends and guildmates? There’s no reason you can’t start doing that on day one of Wurm Online. There is a bit more direction in Wurm Online than Ultima Online, and a bit more freedom of actions. However, this comes with the caveat that character skill and high end crafted equipment is even more important for PvP. New players simply won’t be an important participant early on, but every person counts!
Although Wurm Online and Ultima Online give early access to a similar style of the MMO endgame, Wurm just feels a bit better with all of the gameplay options. For that reason, I rank #4 just a smidge ahead of #5.
3. Planetside 2
Although Planetside developers didn’t create the first massively multiplayer FPS, they did popularize the concept. Nine years after Planetside’s launch, Planetside 2 took up the mantle and led the MMOFPS subgenre into the world of free to play gaming. It now sits as a great example of both how to start an endgame immediately and how an immediate endgame can sometimes not bring about the desired player experience.
Planetside 2 is a PvP only game where players align themselves with one of three factions to wage epic, Battlefield sized battles. The core gameplay objective revolves around territory control. Players must decide with their allies where best to strike and make gains. Given the twitch based nature of Planetside 2 and the relative strength of beginner weapons, players should be able to positively contribute to battles from the get go. Unfortunately, Planetside 2 has a surprisingly long learning curve and the lack of a good community support system to overcome it. New players can often feel like their contributions are meaningless or worse.
In part this is why Planetside 2 has developed somewhat of a misguided pay to win reputation. The most popular MMOFPS offers no paid items that cannot be achieved with gameplay alone. The length of time it takes to “max” a character is considerably lengthy though and paid players can essentially pay to skip large parts of this progression. This wouldn’t be much of an issue except, as discussed above, new players aren’t readily given the proper support system to succeed. Thus, it’s easy to feel as a new player that one must grind or pay to really start experiencing Planetside 2’s endgame. The truth is that new players need a mentor or strong community to help them learn the ropes. I would recommend any new player finding such a person or group before attempting to play.
2. Guild Wars
The max character level for Guild Wars is twenty. That should give you a hint of the priorities the developers of Guild Wars place on a fast endgame. By comparison, World of Warcraft and EverQuest have each raised their level caps by over twenty levels now.
Guild Wars emphasizes horizontal progression over vertical progression. Whether a player prefers PvE or PvP, a new player can be grouping with veterans within a week (or a single day of addicted play). The new player probably won’t actually be as good as the veterans, but it’s not due to the power of their skills. Progression comes in the form of learning hundreds of skills, multiclassing, and then narrowing those skills down to eight very synergistic abilities.
The lack of power creep in Guild Wars or a direct competitor (even with its titular successor’s release) means the first Guild Wars still has plenty of life for a new player. It’s an MMO players can play to overcome PvE or PvP challenges without worrying about a precursor grind to access said challenges.
1. Eve Online
Perhaps Eve Online’s most notable feature is its character progression system. Character skills are gained in real time, whether logged in or out. Thus, the length of time to max out a skillset is measured in years instead of weeks or months like other MMORPGs. Eve Online also emphasizes territory control with an open PvP system in the far reaches of space. So with no other explanation or experience, one would think Eve Online would be the furthest thing from an MMORPG with an immediate endgame. However, three key components allow new players to legitimately experience Eve Online’s PvP endgame within a matter of days (real time, not gameplay time).
First, all ships in Eve Online are useful and each ship type has its own skill set to develop. Just because a player knows how to pilot a capital ship doesn’t mean they’re an expert on frigates. And frigates are extremely useful. They’re quite agile and some of the more powerful weapons will have issues tracking them. Additionally, they are cheap so an army of frigates can take a while to down if replacements are readily available.
Secondly, skill gain is somewhat logarithmic. Earning your first 2% damage bonus make take a few hours. Earning your last 2% damage bonus may take weeks. Even then, Eve Online is rarely about individually encounters. Fleet engagements are where a new player will spend most of their time so the bonus damage or high tech fittings a veteran has can only carry him or her so far.
Lastly, unlike Planetside 2, Eve Online has great community support. The slower pace of the game certainly helps here, and corporations (i.e. guilds) will fight over new players. This in turn leads to new players receiving guidance for what is a complex MMO. That corporations recruit new players should provide even further evidence that newbies can contribute to endgame immediately. You don’t exactly see World of Warcraft guilds recruiting fresh players to go raiding do you?
It’s interesting to note that most of these games place an importance on PvP in the form of combat, marketplace action, or both. Both Guild Wars titles are the only options with more horizontal progression than vertical, pretty much in entire MMO genre. I think perhaps the most telling sign of an MMO with a fast endgame approach is whether or not high end guilds recruit new players. People look to recruit members that can help them in the endgame, and if newbies are getting recruited, it stands to reason that they’re going to be ready much sooner than later.
The unfortunate truth is that MMORPGs are not games that are going to be around forever. They’re reliant on developers to continually maintain and support their servers, and eventually there comes a day when that is no longer economically viable and the game is shut down forever.
Short of that, aging and unpopular games can slide into “maintenance mode,” where the servers are still running but new content and updates are no longer produced. Such a game will be abandoned by all but a small core of devoted fans, and even they may not last forever.
This knowledge can be a source of anxiety for MMO players. When wondering whether to invest time into a game, one may wonder how much longer it’s likely to operate and receive active support from its developers.
If you’re one of those people, let us help set your mind at ease. The following is a list of some of the most stable MMOs on the market. They have healthy fanbases and significant developer support and are likely to survive and thrive for many years to come.
Star Trek: Online
MMOs based on famous franchises can be an iffy proposition. The developer rents the license for the IP from its owner, and if the game isn’t pulling its weight, that owner can pull the plug at will.
However, right now, all indications are that Star Trek: Online is doing just fine.
Developer Cryptic has recently announced ST:O’s third expansion, Agents of Yesterday, which will shake up the game by taking players back in time to the era of the original series. Cryptic is also planning to bring ST:O to consoles soon, expanding its potential playerbase significantly.
Neither of these are things the game would be doing if it weren’t bringing in good revenue and maintaining a healthy population, and both should bring in new players and more activity, at least for a while.
The upcoming releases of Star Trek: Beyond and an as yet untitled new TV series will also shine a renewed spotlight on the Star Trek franchise, and that, too, should benefit ST:O.
DC Universe Online
Like ST:O, DC Universe Online is a licensed game and therefore has something of a Sword of Damocles dangling above its head, but right now, all indications are that the game is doing well.
Regular updates are still being published, and Daybreak has even announced a plan to port the game to Xbox One, DCUO having already been on PlayStation 3 and 4 for some time. It also recently added cross-platform play for PC and PlayStation users, though Xbox One players will have their own separate servers.
These are clear signs that the game is still successful enough to be worth investing significant development resources into. Launching on Xbox One will expand the game’s reach even further.
The continued success of DC Universe Online is likely because it’s managed to carve itself out a strong niche in the industry. It’s one of the few quality super hero MMORPGs currently on the market, and while MMOs on consoles are slowly becoming more common, for a long time DCUO was one of the few good options on that front. Even as more competition arrives, DCUO’s established fanbase should keep it steady for some time.
EverQuest and EverQuest II
EverQuest’s glory days at the top of the MMO world are long, long gone, but it and its successor are still plugging along with small but intensely loyal fanbases.
Even as technology marches along and these older titles fade from the public eye, they’re continuing to receive regular updates, often in the form of full expansion packs, and there’s no sign of that stopping anytime soon.
The odds of EQ and EQ2 having any significant growth at this point are negligible, but anyone who’s stuck with them this long is clearly in it for the long haul, and the EverQuest franchise’s importance to the MMO genre as a whole gives them a great deal of security.
Guild Wars 2
There was a time when Guild Wars 2 was the poster-child for rock steady developer support in the MMO world, with updates every two weeks and boundless enthusiasm for the game in the community.
In the years since launch, that has changed a bit. Updates are now more sporadic, and while GW2 has launched a major expansion pack, Heart of Thorns, it was met with somewhat mixed reviews.
That said, while it is no longer the industry’s golden child, GW2 is still a fairly healthy game. Updates might not come every two weeks anymore, but they’re still reasonably regular, and the game maintains a respectable fanbase. Work is believed to have already started on another expansion, showing that the developers still have strong faith in their game.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic had some rough patches after launch, but a controversial yet financially successful free to play conversion and several expansions have done a lot to right its course over the past few years.
By all reports, the game’s latest expansion, Knights of the Fallen Empire, has been its most successful to date, and it will theoretically set the tone for future updates to the game.
The recent up-swell in popularity for Star Wars as a whole due to the new movies should also benefit SW:TOR greatly, and the widespread appeal of Star Wars and the devotion of its fans ensures a strong fanbase for the game for a long time to come.
There will likely come a day when SW:TOR is shut down to make way for a more modern Star Wars MMO, but given how much money it’s making currently, that shouldn’t be a concern for a long time.
RuneScape is one of those interesting cases of a game that almost everyone seems to ignore, yet it remains incredibly popular and successful. You will rarely see MMO sites give it much coverage, and it gets even less discussion in the greater community, yet it’s quietly become of the genre’s bigger success stories.
RuneScape has been operating continuously since 2001, has welcomed hundreds of thousands of players, and was even named the most played free MMORPG by the Guiness Book of World Records. It updates regularly, and over the last few years it has been experimenting with opening specialty servers such as Old School RuneScape, which preserves an earlier version of the game.
The Elder Scrolls Online
Like several entries on this list, Elder Scrolls Online is based on a famous franchise with legions of fans, but unlike the others, this is a franchise solely owned by its developer. That gives it all the benefits of name recognition and passionate fans without the risk of the license being revoked if its owners feel the game isn’t turning a big enough profit.
ESO could probably enjoy a fair bit of success just by coasting on the popularity of its franchise, but it’s proven itself a strong game in its own right, with lots of quality content and strong systems.
ESO has been putting out large DLC packs with a fair degree of regularity for a while now, and it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. It’s old enough to have worked out many of its early kinks, but young enough to still have a big population and lots of excitement around it in the community.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Like ESO, Final Fantasy XIV is a game with a popular IP that is solely owned by its developer, reaping the benefits of an existing fanbase with none of the downsides.
Since it relaunched as A Realm Reborn, FFXIV has somewhat embarrassed most other MMOs by putting out meaty content updates with a regularity that would put clockwork to shame. The game’s first expansion, Heavensward, did well, and the next expansion is reported to already be in production.
World of Warcraft
In the MMO community, claims of WoW’s impending death are an everyday occurrence, but for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, World of Warcraft continues to thrive. It is true that it’s fallen significantly from its early days of glory, but it remains by far the most successful MMO on the market.
On top of that, Blizzard Entertainment has far greater commitment to its games than most other developers. It still actively supports games it released more than a decade ago. The venerable Diablo II was patched not that long ago. Even if we do reach a day where WoW is no longer a major moneymaker, it would be supremely unlikely for Blizzard to shut it down.
WoW is likely to continue declining over the next few years, but it’s still so big and so good at finding new revenue streams that it’s likely to continue being a financial success — and thus continue to get new content and updates — for years to come.
The only thing you need to be worried about is that WoW’s decline may lead to fewer and smaller updates over time. But a true maintenance mode or a shutdown is probably years, if not even decades, away.