A few weeks ago, we looked into ideas that Western MMORPGs would do well to borrow from their Eastern counterparts. Now, it seems only fair to do the reverse, for there are also areas where the East would do well to take some cues from us.
To address an elephant in the room, a lot of people will highlight grinding and overbearing monetization as the chief sins of Eastern MMOs, and I won’t say that’s entirely wrong as those are common problems in games from Asia, but I don’t think it’s a universal truth, and plenty of Western games are grindy or greedy too. I don’t see it as a black and white issue.
Either way, the idea of Eastern games being tedious and “pay to win” has been beaten to death, so I’d rather focus on other areas where Eastern games would do well to take some lessons from the West.
Putting More Effort into Story
I wouldn’t say that Eastern games are lacking good lore or the potential for interesting stories. I’ve been saying for years that Aion’s lore is really fascinating and far better than it ever gets credit for.
The problem, though, is that in most Eastern games I’ve played, the story still feels like kind of a background element. There isn’t a lot of effort put into developing it or helping the player experience it in a dynamic way. It’s usually bland quest text.
In the West, we’ve seen MMO games make great strides toward better story-telling in recent years. Voice-acting, cutscenes, and story events have greatly increased in both quality and quantity. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World (RIP), and Elder Scrolls Online have shown that MMOs can offer stories as strong as anything in the single-player realm, and often treat story as meaningful content in its own right, equal to raiding or PvP.
You generally don’t see this kind of thing in Eastern games, and even when you do, it’s usually hampered by poor localization. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort being made.
The one notable exception to this, at least that I’ve seen, is Final Fantasy XIV, but it’s gone to the opposite extreme. I never thought I could play an MMO that spent too much time on story even for me, but Square Enix found a way. So… many… cutscenes…
Better Racial Choices
One thing that always bugs me about Eastern MMOs is that a lot of them don’t offer a selection of playable races, and even when they do, their racial choices tend to be severely underwhelming. You can be a human, a tall human, a human with cat ears, an Elf analogue, or for some reason a prepubescent girl.
I think this is a trade-off for how much more powerful the character creators in Eastern games tend to be. It’s a lot of work to design robust customization options for a variety of strange and exotic races. But Guild Wars 2 did a pretty good job of balancing both, so clearly it can be done.
Western games don’t always have as much racial variety as I’d like, either, especially when it comes to more recent titles, but even so it’s safe to say we’ve got the East beat in this regard.
World of Warcraft lets you be (among other things) a giant cow, a zombie, a panda, a werewolf, or a space goat with tentacles. GW2 lets you be anything from a giant Viking to a cat monster with horns to a talking salad. I don’t even have space to list the staggering variety of oddball races the EverQuest games let you play as.
Armor that Deserves the Name
“Realistic armor” probably isn’t the right term, seeing as MMO armor is almost never realistic, but there’s a line between “adding some artistic flair because it looks cool” and “you’re literally fighting dragons in a pole-dancer costume.” Most Eastern games have soared so far past that line they circled the Earth and passed it again.
Putting aside the obvious sexism, I just can’t take a game seriously when even high level armor leaves all major organs and arteries exposed. It’s just dumb. And the fact that the aforementioned little girl races usually end up in stripper costumes too just adds a whole other level of wrongness.
TERA general chat is still the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG, and I played The Secret World as my main game for years.
The West definitely doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to the “female armor” issue, but things have certainly gotten better over time, with most sets in most games now being about as revealing (or non-revealing) for either gender and armor in general making at least some effort toward verisimilitude. And even at our worst, we never quite equaled the absurdity of gear in many Eastern games.
Eastern games often seem a little too eager to throw immersion out the window when the mood strikes them. I remember aways back TERA added a police car mount completely out of the blue.
A police car. In a secondary world high fantasy MMORPG.
That’s an especially egregious case, but it seems to be pretty common for Eastern MMOs to randomly through in cross-overs with totally unrelated games or other obvious anachronisms that just don’t make sense in context.
This is another area where the West definitely doesn’t have a perfect track record, either. You can find the Hellbugs from Defiance in Rift for some reason, and World of Warcraft’s events tend to echo real world holidays to an uncomfortable degree, but I’m not sure we’ve ever gone to quite the same extremes the East has.
I’m not a fan of the favoritism some people have when it comes to Eastern versus Western MMORPGs. Historically, I’ve spent more time in Western games, but I’m not going to write off a whole hemisphere because of it.
Ultimately, I think both regions’ design philosophies have their pros and cons, and both could benefit by taking lessons from the other. This being an English language site, I’m guessing most people here have a pretty good idea of what Western games have to offer, so let’s start with a look at what the West can learn from Asian games.
Strong Character Creators
These days the gap between Western and Eastern character creators isn’t as stark as it once was, but the best MMORPG character creators are still found in Asian titles like Aion and Black Desert. These games let you tweak virtually every aspect of your character’s appearance in excruciating detail, allowing you to create the avatar of your dreams.
Western games just don’t quite match up. Even those that do offer a lot of options, like Elder Scrolls Online, don’t offer the same fine touch as something like Black Desert. Just because there’s a slider for your character’s nose doesn’t mean you can get it looking exactly the way you want.
Some may find such things frivolous, but for those for whom it matters, it matters a lot.
More Imaginative Settings
Both Western and Eastern MMOs are perhaps a bit too hung-up on the high fantasy genre, but it seems to me as if there tends to be a bit more flavor in the settings of Eastern games.
There’s a certain alien feeling to the worlds of Eastern MMOs that you don’t just find anywhere else. The creatures are stranger, the landscapes more otherworldly, and the cultures more fantastical. There’s often a strong magitech influence that you don’t see as much of in Western titles, which hew closer to traditional fantasy archetypes.
This may simply be another set of cultural tropes that only feel fresh because I’m not as used to them. This is definitely true in cases where the MMOs draw on quintessentially Eastern concepts, such as wuxia MMOs like Blade and Soul. Either way, though, the settings of Asian MMOs often feel like a breath of fresh of air.
Part of the reason I tend to hold a relatively high opinion of Aion despite it being a fairly generic game is that I found its world so enchantingly strange.
Better Combat Animations
One of the stranger differences between Western and Eastern MMOs is how much effort is put into combat animations. Our developers here in the West just can’t seem to make them anywhere near as good as their Asian contemporaries.
It’s not just that Asian games use more and bigger particle effects when it comes to combat abilities, although they certainly do, and I definitely appreciate it.
But even at a more fundamental level, the animations are just better. They’re faster, they have much more of a feeling of weight behind them, and their sound effects are much more dramatic. If I hit someone with a sword in Rift, pretty much the only feedback I get is seeing their health drop. If I hit someone with a sword in TERA, I feel it.
We’re starting to see a little more effort put into combat animations in Western MMOs. Neverwinter’s are pretty weighty, and World of Warcraft has improved their animations a lot in the most recent expansion. But overall the West is still lagging far behind the East on this front.
If there’s one thing I love in Eastern games, it’s the opportunity to play classes that fight by swinging a giant scythe at their foes. You can’t tell me that’s not awesome, because it objectively is.
Examples include the oracle of Dragon’s Prophet or the Reaper of Kritika Online, both classes who can slice through their foes like so much dry wheat.
This is an experience that for whatever reason Western developers simply don’t offer. If scythes appear at all in Western games, it’s usually just a staff skin for caster classes, a mere stat stick that isn’t actually used in combat.
That’s not good enough. Just having a scythe is not enough. I must be able to slice through my foes like the Grim Reaper himself.
On that note, Eastern games tend to offer a lot of weapon choices and archetypes that are often neglected by the West.
Spears come to mind. Classes that favor a spear as their preferred weapon, such as Final Fantasy XIV’s dragoon, are fairly common in Eastern MMOs, but often neglected by their Western counterparts. It’s pretty strange when you think about it, as spears and polearms were one of the most popular weapons of history. Swords, by comparison, were relatively rare.
I can think of a few other archetypes that seem more common in Eastern games: martial artists, archers without pets, gunslingers… Again, this may simply be a different set of cultural tropes, and perhaps from the perspective of someone in Asia Western games feel like they have better class choices, but I enjoy the variety. Perhaps developers in both hemispheres should just try to expand their class choices in general.
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 more numerous in their yearly releases at this point. But have they actually gotten better? Some would argue no as many simply tried to tweak World of Warcraft. Whatever you may think, at least these winners have proven themselves the best MMORPG by year for their respective time periods.
Best MMORPG of 2006 – Dungeons & Dragons Online
Runner-up: Wurm Online
I probably played more of 2005’s Silkroad Online in 2006, but Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) was the better overall game even back then. It follows the heavily instanced nature of 2005’s Guild Wars with instanced quests that players can form small groups to overcome. It uses a modified D&D 3.5 ruleset as the backbone for combat and advancement. Unlike tabletop D&D though, players fight in real-time. In fact, DDO employs a bit of twitch based combat where players must manually aim attacks. This was a first for a mainstream fantasy MMORPG and lent itself to creating a unique experience at launch.
Overall, Turbine did a great job of bringing Dungeons and Dragons to an MMO environment. Dungeon masters narrate quests, each with their own story for those who find themselves interested. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough content to level up purely on unique quests. Players will need to repeat quests, some several times, in order to sufficiently advance to take on new quests. To make matters worse, some quests can be quite difficult without an adequate party composition that can take some time to fill. For these reasons, DDO can really grow tiresome but there is no denying its 2006 crown.
Best MMORPG of 2007 – Lord of the Rings Online
Turbine found itself on a roll from 2006-2007. After handling one major fantasy IP more than competently, they were given the reigns to the vaunted world of Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings Online sought to create an immersive MMORPG steeped in the rich lore of Tolkein’s masterpiece. For the most part, they succeeded. The entire game feels like a community struggle against evil. Even the PvP system disallows players fighting each others’ characters, but instead allows one side of players to temporarily control the monsters.
The greatest strength of Lord of the Rings Online is its adherence to the lore. Even little things like calling achievements deeds and parties fellowships add to the ambience. Fellowships are required for challenging instances, rewarding coordinated players with group attacks called Fellowship Manoeuvres. The classes are fairly unique too. Wizards such as Gandalf are rare so magically inclined players instead take on the role of rune-keepers and lore-masters. Physical combat classes are similarly unique to LOTRO. Players can even play a variety of musical instruments, forming impromptu bands in town squares. The game simply comes to life and to this day continues to build on its iconic world.
Lord of the Rings Online combines a well told MMO story, compelling quests, and a rich world steeped in lore. It’s an MMORPG with a strong draw for those who appreciate a little role-playing in their role-playing game.
Best MMORPG of 2008 – Age of Conan
Runner-up: Warhammer Online
Warhammer Online and Atlantica Online came close to winning this. After all, in 2008 Age of Conan was a mess. The game lacked in content, the combat felt clunky, endgame felt repetitive, and bugs ran rampant. The game entertained in Tortage, Age of Conan’s solo tutorial area for the first twenty levels, and then promptly fell off a cliff. Funcom is just a terrible company when it comes to MMORPG launches, but they sure do know how to turn things around.
Age of Conan is now brimming with content, the unique combat system feels responsive, and the multitude of unique classes are a welcome change from typical fantasy MMORPGs. Players will find themselves with plenty to do as they progress their character to the maximum level of eighty. Typical endgame raids await to continue powering up, but honestly other games do those better. And for a mature setting, the PvP is sadly lacking with class balance issues and mediocre systems. Still, the combat system combined with a rich environment has provided a lasting legacy that tops 2008’s other offerings.
Best MMORPG of 2009 – Champions Online
Runner-up: Runes of Magic
2008 didn’t set any lasting trends in the MMORPG industry, but at least it didn’t disappoint like 2009. Several titles flopped, building on 2008 to give further rise to the notion that MMORPG developers really suck at living up to their promises. Champions Online would be the second superhero themed MMORPG released by Cryptic Studios, having sold their first (City of Heroes) to NCSoft. It’s also the obvious choice for 2009 as this year’s only title to bring something unique to the genre. The current state of the game feels money grubbing, but there is a lot Champions Online offers to would be superheroes.
Champions Online’s character customization might still be better than every competing MMORPG. Not only from the perspective of combining desired superpowers for a character, but appearance customization is worlds ahead of other games too. Speaking of appearances, the visual style lends itself to a fulfilling 3D comic book world that immerses players in the role of their characters. Combat, PvP, and crafting leave a lot to be desired in it’s current state though and the free to play system is extremely stifling. 2009: the year of we do what we can with what we have.
Best MMORPG of 2010 – Final Fantasy XIV
Guess who’s back? Back again. Final Fantasy’s back. Tell a friend.
Good grief, 2010’s MMORPGs in 2010 vs. 2010’s MMORPGs in 2016 are a massive difference. Star Trek Online and Perpetuum are both in much better places than they were six years ago. Vindictus and Dragon Nest, still two of the best free targeting MMORPGs, have only added content to what were strong Korean releases. But nothing has changed as much as Final Fantasy XIV.
The game was such a train wreck on release that Square Enix stopped charging subscription fees for over a year while they revamped the game, ultimately culminating into “A Realm Reborn”. Now, Final Fantasy XIV stands as a benchmark for traditional MMORPG play. Much like Final Fantasy XI, strong group coordination is required to overcome the game’s most difficult challenges. However, solo play for the majority of progression is much more viable. The job system provides an incentive to revisit old areas and adds diversity to class builds. Perhaps the latest Final Fantasy MMO’s most noteworthy feature though is its strong narrative. The game features characters you won’t immediately forget with cut scenes reminiscent of its single player brethren. It’s no surprise then that questing is a strength of this MMORPG.
As it stands, Final Fantasy XIV is a perfect title for those seeking a modern adaption of MMORPGs from the early 2000s. Subscription fee included.
Best MMORPG of 2011 – TERA
Far and away, 2011 gave me the longest pause to consider which title to choose. TERA, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Rift are the MMOs that most readily come to mind, but DC Universe and the now defunct Rusty Hearts are both underrated. Ultimately, I went with TERA primarily because its combat system offers the most unique gameplay.
TERA’s combat really embraces the “new” style that eschews classic tab targeting for freeform player targeted skills. Players in TERA need to actually aim their abilities at the target to hit them. Additionally, the combat pacing is much faster than MMO competitors. These two design decisions lead to a combat system that rewards players not purely for equipment (although that’s important too) but for their individual skill as well.
The downside is that TERA’s enemies in the open world are beyond bland. Interesting dungeons aren’t available for at least twenty levels and PvP doesn’t really begin until max level. So although leveling is relatively fast, the combat is still a chore for a good while until adequate challenges present themselves. When those challenges do come around though, the game really shines. TERA also features a great free to play system that is, in our opinion, not pay to win.
Best MMORPG of 2012 – The Secret World
Runner-up: Guild Wars 2
This was a fun year. Blade & Soul, which came out in America in 2016, notably released in Korea this year. It offered some great combat, but in the end I really only considered two Western MMORPGs: The Secret World and Guild Wars 2. They both offered a compelling and unique sales pitch but couldn’t be further apart at launch. As with every single Funcom MMORPG, The Secret World released in a half baked state. On the other hand, Guild Wars 2 felt rather complete. Naming The Secret World the winner would’ve certainly surprised my 2012 self. However, Guild Wars 2 has felt pretty stagnant despite their latest expansion while The Secret World has only grown stronger as a dark, atmospheric, story driven MMORPG.
The Secret World has built a rich environment for its player base to explore and currently offers the best MMO quests. There are no filler missions in The Secret World, with each tying into the main story arch. Many unique concepts abound during these integral quests. Players will need real world research to decipher clues, Metal Gear Solid skills to sneak through occult locations, deduction to solve coded puzzles, and fortitude to defeat rich Lovecraftian creatures. The Secret World advances MMO questing to the next generation and sits there squarely by itself.
Despite an excellent freeform character skill system, the combat does leave something to be desired. This certainly puts a damper on enjoying endgame dungeons, but shouldn’t dissuade interest from The Secret World. It’s not a game for tacticians or action junkies but for those seeking to be immersed in a deep, Lovecraftian-esque world. With a story that still sees regular updates and a buy to play option to get started, The Secret World is going strong.
Best MMORPG of 2013 – Warframe
Runner-up: Aura Kingdom
Might as well dub this the year of pay to win. All the larger populations MMOs like ArcheAge, Neverwinter, and Echo of Soul sooner or later fell into pay to win ways of varying degrees. I wanted to choose Wizardry Online here, but it never realized its potential prior shutting down. Aura Kingdom almost won due to a cute anime MMO styling that employs Aeria’s most reasonable freemium system to date. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to overcome Warframe.
Like Guild Wars, one could argue Warframe isn’t an MMORPG. There isn’t anything massive about the game other than its player base, chat, and the marketplace. I’m generally inclusive when defining an MMO though, and Warframe is the best of the games I considered.
First, combat in Warframe resembles Devil May Cry with a combination of fast paced melee and ranged abilities. Cooperative missions are the the primary form of content and advancement and places players in a central position in an ever growing galactic conflict. To overcome these missions, players can purchase a multitude of unique Warframes to pilot. These are similar to League of Legends champions in terms of offering significantly different gameplay without necessarily being stronger than one another. The game is extremely grind heavy, but there are a lot of interesting warframes, weapons, modules to collect. Though progression is slow, it’s extremely rewarding. A lot of the grind can be bypassed with cash, but ultimately everything can be acquired through in game play.
Warframe is a solid choice for the experiencing the life of a cyberninja, as long as repeating co-op missions (albeit of high quality) to acquire new equipment sounds fine.
Best MMORPG of 2014 – WildStar
Runner-up: Elder Scrolls Online
To give you an example of how difficult it was to choose between WildStar and Elder Scrolls Online, I think I swapped these five times before finally settling on Wildstar. I’m fairly confident Elder Scrolls Online will stand the test of time due to Tamriel’s rich lore and the series’ dedicated fan base. On the other hand, WildStar seems to constantly be on life support after a bad launch. For now, the population is revitalized thanks to the Steam launch, and there is just so much to love about WildStar.
The quirky universe, colorful palette, and HGTV quality house decorating give WildStar a lot of character. Yet it is the fast paced, action oriented combat system that truly gives WildStar a place in the crowded MMO market. The vast majority of moves telegraph their hit area, giving opponents a short time to dodge or counter. Despite this, the telegraphing doesn’t tend to the clutter the screen and provides players clear information with which to react. PvP battlegrounds reward competent play, but PvE is where WildStar really shines.
Many consider WildStar’s raids to be the best raids that any MMORPG has to offer (including those from you know who). Instanced dungeons and expeditions (group quests) offer challenging content that doesn’t just give you a win because you’re new. It’s truly a rewarding experience. Theorycrafting is fun thanks to easy respecs and a slew of combo-laden options. While the game is reasonably solo friendly, WildStar really shines with group content. If Steam doesn’t provide an adequate population boost this could be detrimental for what is a fantastically underrated free to play MMORPG.
Best MMORPG of 2015 – Skyforge
I’m not trying to knock Skyforge (OK, maybe I am a little bit) but proclaiming this the best MMORPG of 2015 caps off a weakened state of recent MMOs. Let’s give Skyforge it’s due though. It is the best MMORPG of 2015.
Skyforge’s progression system is one of the more unique aspects about the game. Players will navigate something similar to a sphere grid in Final Fantasy X (or Path of Exile) to progress. All characters can eventually access all classes and change freely between them outside of missions. As you might notice, free targeted action combat has grown popular and Skyforge implements its own version. Enemies aren’t as interesting as say, the aforementioned Wildstar, and are a bit too damage spongey. Still, the moves themselves look great and give motivation to level up. The active content revolves around missions but players can solo them when populations are low. The missions are fun the first time around, but even the random bonus objectives don’t entice replay as much as say, Warframe.
Although it takes a while to get there, what truly sets Skyforge apart are the AFK activities. These are polarizing, but it’s the main reason why you’d stick with Skyforge. As a god (eventually with a bad ass divine form), you’ll slowly grow your followers to provide character boosts. This is represented through a Facebook-esque game called the order system. You’ll recruit adepts, assign them to missions, build sanctuaries, they’ll level up, you’ll get bonuses and then repeat. The constant growth in Skyforge can be addicting. The appeal here is greatest for achievement/progression junkies or someone who just wants to play a god in an MMORPG.
Twenty Years of MMORPGs
That does it. Twenty years, twenty MMORPGs. Well, forty if you count runner-ups but second place is the first loser, right? We don’t speak of them (much). And while we could look back on this in another decade with a very different 2012 – 2015. I don’t see much changing with MMOs older than that.
I’d be flabbergasted to see people in 100% agreement with these so if there’s anything to add, all human comments are welcome.
Gameplay is more important than graphics. Any gamer worth their salt will tell you that. But let’s be honest: You like the graphics, too. You want to step into a game and say, “Whoa.” You want virtual vistas that take your breath away, rich imaginary worlds that pull you away from the dreariness of reality.
Today, we’ll take a look at some of the most visually appealing MMOs. Not just those with the most technically competent graphics, but also those with the most unique and beautiful artistic styles. All those games that are feasts for the eyes.
8: World of Warcraft
It is interesting to consider the difference between graphics and art. A game can have impeccable, technically advanced graphics, but without good art design, it will still end up looking bland.
World of Warcraft is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its graphics weren’t even state of the art when it launched over ten years ago, yet its art design is among the very best, with vibrant colors and extravagant sights around every bend. WoW could never be mistaken for any other game; its bombastic style is utterly distinctive.
And while it may be a bit long in the tooth these days, Blizzard does take the time to improve their graphics with every expansion. Warlords of Draenor introduced new character models with incredibly expressive facial animations, and some of the new zones are truly gorgeous.
TERA’s artistic choices may be a bit hit and miss — at times haphazardly combining cartoony elements with more realistic styles and featuring some of the genre’s most ridiculous armor models — but the quality of the graphics is top notch, and when they get it right, they get it right.
When TERA’s developers produce a horrible monster, it’s truly the stuff of nightmares. When they build a beautiful landscape, it’s truly awe-inspiring. Add to that some spectacular ability animations, and you have a game full of visual treats, despite its flaws.
Aion is showing its age these days, but it when it was first released, it was among the MMO genre’s most visually striking titles, and even now, it can still impress.
Aion offers one of the genre’s most powerful character creation tools, with a dizzying variety of options, and some lovely armor and wing models, but its greatest virtue is how strange and alien its world is.
In a genre awash with generic, Tolkien-inspired fantasy settings, Aion’s world of Atreia is something truly different. Bizarre alien creatures wander in the distance and soar through the sky, and the world’s cosmos and landscape have a dreamy surrealism that is unlike anything else.
The new free to play action MMORPG Skyforge boasts some impressive graphics, from detailed and colorful environments to some of the most intense and spectacular combat animations in the MMO world.
But like Aion, what truly sets it apart isn’t its technical prowess, impressive though that is, but its art design and its unusual setting.
Set in a world of mighty gods and advanced technology, Skyforge blends elements of science fiction and fantasy to create locations and landscapes that are unlike anything else. From pastoral wildernesses, to teeming technological metropoli, to enigmatic ruins set adrift in the sky, Skyforge is another game that is instantly recognizable through its unique style.
4: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
The art style in Final Fantasy XIV is a bit odd — hyper-realistic one moment, utterly cartoony the next — but when it comes to sheer graphical fidelity, it’s one of the best MMOs on the market, and it can produce some truly awesome sights.
One of FFXIV’s greatest visual strengths is its incredibly detailed and realistic systems for weather and time of day, which can transform the game world before your eyes. A forest that seems bright and serene during the day becomes a haunting place of mystery as the sun sets and a fog sets in, shrouding all in gloom.
Sunrises flood the land with amber light, and when a rain storm blows in, your character will grimace and start brushing water off their clothes. It’s a game with a brilliant eye for detail.
With no PC port in sight, MMO players without consoles can only stare longingly at the beautiful screenshots and videos coming out of Bungie’s multiplayer shooter.
Luckily — or unluckily, depending on your perspective — Destiny provides no shortage of videos and images to tantalize. Its incredible graphics depict a future vision of our solar system with color, beauty, and detail, realistic and fanciful in equal measure.
2: The Secret World
The Secret World is one of the MMORPG genres only true horror titles, and its stellar visuals play a crucial role in building its uniquely disturbing ambiance.
The graphics of TSW are for the most part realistic and detailed — horrifyingly so, in the case of many of its monster models — yet it adds a touch of style when it needs to, a slightly dreamy air to some landscapes that creates an aura of mystery and dread.
Even more impressively, TSW’s graphics can shift massively to help tell the story. Landscapes bend and distort impossibly in dream sequences. Rooms melt away into new landscapes seamlessly. Few other games can immerse the player through visual storytelling as The Secret World.
1: Guild Wars 2
So far on the list, we’ve covered games with technically strong graphics but lacking art styles, and games with fantastic art design but less than stellar graphical fidelity. But there is one game that manages to hit both out of the park at every opportunity, and that game is Guild Wars 2.
Out of the whole MMORPG genre, no game balances style and realism better than Guild Wars 2. Its visuals are stylized, but not cartoony or ludicrous. Its landscapes are colorful, its character models flawless, and its animations among the smoothest and most detailed you’ll ever see. At no point is it anything but awe-inspiring.
As pretty much any gamer knows, free MMO games are rarely truly free. Servers and new content cost money to create, and developers aren’t running a charity service. Therefore, they need to monetize their games to pay for those things and to pay for their time. Unfortunately, a most games give insurmountable advantages to big money spenders that free players simply cannot achieve. This is pretty frustrating, even gamers willing to spend money, because it means everyone has to pay just to keep up. The ideal system encourages players to spend by providing options to supplement a fun activity, rather than putting that fun activity behind a paywall (commonly referred to as a pay to win or p2w game).
Below is a list of games which should offer fair, free to play content for gamers of all genres, ranging from tank simulator fans to lovers of cute JRPG style MMOs. So which free to play MMO games best eschew pay to win in favor of a fair, freemium model? Read on!
Star Wars: The Old Republic
In Star Wars: The Old Republic, the pay shop is setup for convenience and access to content. Certain costumes are available only by paying money, but they do not enhance the character’s power. Most players who pay will choose the subscription model as that’s what Bioware incentivizes the most. Paying for the subscription permanently unlocks the credit cap (which can be removed temporarily by free players) , gives players EXP faster, adds rest EXP, and adds unlimited access to special content such as Cartel Warzones and Space missions. However, there are plenty of other options for advancing through both PvP and PvE outside of this special content. Free players can get really far into the game without noticing restrictions and even when the decision comes to possibly pay for the game, it’s not very expensive. In some ways, Star Wars offers a really, really long demo for free players and a subscription simply unlocks maximum fun.
Guild Wars 2 follows a similar model to Star Wars, encouraging free players to switch to paid by offering more convenience and more content. Unlike Star Wars though, players only need to buy the full priced game once to gain access to this content rather than pay a subscription. Most of this content becomes unlocked by the time the player reaches higher levels such as World vs. World at level 60 where hundreds of players fight hundreds of other over keeps, castles, and supply points and at level 30 an automated ‘looking for group’ feature. These are always free for paid players. Those who buy the game also gain access to daily login bonuses, world transfers, more inventory spots, and more characters slots. Anyone can also buy gems to gain access to cosmetic content as well. Guild Wars 2 is fun from start to finish, which is ideal for any game, free to play or otherwise. Within a few hours, players can decide whether purchasing the game is worth it to upgrade their experience.
Those who have played World of Tanks before will be happy to see another tank simulator MMO enter the market without p2w game features. Although World of Tanks offers the same end game platform for free and paid players and isn’t a bad choice, there’s a lot more of a grind involved to get to and stay at the top. Armored Warfare doesn’t have as many premium features that players have to pay for in order to compete in top tier combat. The thing that World of Tanks players view as most pay to win is premium ammo, and that’s not something Armored Warfare sells. Of course players will gain access to better tanks faster in Armored Warfare, but the economy in the game is a lot more fair compared to its closest competitors. Instead of worrying about paying in game money just to use their tanks effectively, players in Armored Warfare can instead look ahead to which tanks they want next.
TERA is such an anti p2w game that players who don’t care about costumes won’t even see much of a difference between paid and free play until end game. The company seems to make the majority of its money off of costumes and appearance changes, especially for its cuter character models. While there are some really great cosmetic options that may make you jealous, none of those give any statistical bonuses. In the end game, players who pay will essentially have higher drop rates for equipment compared than their 100% free to play counterparts. So free players will need to clear more dungeons or grind for more gold to make up for the RNG differences compared to paid players. But it’s a great system that simply saves paid players time without providing any permanent advantage. TERA really gets the time = money equation right and avoids paying to win. Additionally, better equipment only goes so far because TERA’s twitch based combat means player skill counts for as much as player equipment.
Lord of the Rings Online offers a really great free to play model for those who hate pay to win games. Instead of focusing on convenience, the company chooses to focus on providing content to players. This content can be unlocked individually for those who prefer to take their time. For those who play more regularly, a subscription will be more efficient. All of the expansion areas such as Moria and Helm’s Deep and mode games such as monster play must be paid for with real money. Players who spend money will also level up a bit faster, but this has no impact of long term strength capabilities. There are several small benefits for becoming a paid player as well, but access to the entirety of the game world is the biggest boon for those who decide to pay money. Lord of the Rings is something that really can be enjoyed by purely free players, especially those who play more casually.
Although League of Legends’ status as an MMO is debatable, given that players only interact with 9 others at a time, it does offer a great free to play model. As a MOBA, players take on the role of a single champion for roughly a 30-minute 5v5 match. These champions gain levels and buy items in the confines of an individual game, which do not persist between games. The player’s account does level up to give access to runes and masteries, which slightly boost the champion’s strength. However, players are always matched against others around their same level so there’s no benefit in a competitive sense to paying money to level up faster. Where the game really makes money is off of skins for champions to change their appearance and from buying the champions themselves. Every champion can be purchased with real money or in game currency. And the champions that cost more aren’t necessarily more powerful. It’s entirely possible to play League of Legends competitively with a relatively small roster of champions. More champions does provide more variety which can be part of the fun for some in a game like this. League of Legends is absolutely not a p2w game and is a very fair game to play completely for free.
I’ll start by saying Astro Empires is by far the most pay to win game on this list. However, it is the most fair out of all of the empire building browser games out there that I could find. It’s mainly on this list to provide an MMO browser strategy game that isn’t pay to win for those interested. Whereas most of these empire building games give you straight power for cash, Astro Empires simply caps your maximum strength until you pay for premium time. What’s the difference? Well in a browser empire MMO, like Wartune for example, players can build armies, structures, and resources as fast as they want by paying money. Players can literally finish buildings instantly that take free players over one day of waiting to finish. There’s no cap to this ‘instant building finish’, and it’s easy to see how much of a pay2win game scenario this creates. In Astro Empires, players simply can’t expand their empire past a certain point without paying. So to grow into a massive empire, players much spend money. However, players can’t spend tons of extra cash to get ahead like they can in a game like Wartune. The premium time isn’t too expensive either, and the game can be played without limitations for long enough to get a feel for the game. There’s no fully fledged empire building MMO where free players can truly compete with paid players, but Astro Empires seems the least egregious of the bunch.
Crossout blends Mad Max’s post apocalyptic world and crazy vehicular customization with instanced action combat. Game modes range from two team, capture point PvP to ‘survive against hordes’ PvE campaigns. Clan combat should appeal to hardcore players especially as Crossout is moderately sized and competitive.
This MMO walks a fine line when it comes to premium currency. Everything in the game is absolutely obtainable through in-game play and a reasonable (meaning not obsessive) play schedule. That said, players can spend real money to progress faster. While doing so may be fun in the short term, everyone eventually ends up in a ranking tier appropriate for their skill level and vehicle strength. I’d actually argue against spending anything more than $20 for the first few months of play. You’d only be artificially increasing your rank instead of learning to play the game against people of your own skill level. And at some point, that’s going to lead to frustration which sort of defeats the whole purpose of playing free MMOs or games of any kind.
Warframe is an example of a game that chooses to do free to play by giving players quicker access to more options and more content. Similar to MOBA champions, Warframes differ in the role they offer to a party and their playstyle but aren’t necessarily stronger than one another. They also must still be individually mastered through in game play so players will not simply be able to reach the top through paying cash. Similar to Guild Wars 2, the premium currency can be sold/traded between players. This allows all players to purchase equipment components and the convenience driven items that comprise the majority of the cash shop. Free players may consider acquiring top tier equipment to be a bit of a grind without paying money. However, Warframe offers a ton of interesting missions that can be completed solo or as a group. Reaching the top is certainly faster with money in Warframe, but all players regardless of spend will cap out at the same power level. If you are more about the journey than the destination, Warframe is a solid sci-fi, action based MMORPG.
There’s a lot of grinding in Blade & Soul, but it’s not one of those games where the endgame is blocked off from free players. Paid players can certainly skip some of that grind to speed up the situation, but it’s far from insurmountable (especially compared to something like ArcheAge). Terminology matters, and I’d lump Blade & Soul into the category of Pay to Progress. You may disagree with that terminology and lump all of them in the big P2W bucket. If that’s the case then definitely avoid this game. Blade & Soul offers relatively modern combat in a compelling package of advanced skills. It’s just that in order to see it all in a timely fashion, paying a little bit of money will go a long way.
The path to delivering a fair non-p2w game lies in offering visual customization, gameplay variety, and decreasing leveling grind. There’s plenty of money to be made in this route as some of these titles are the most popular of the free to play genre. It’s a lot easier to develop a successful game long-term when it’s not just paid players having fun. And these 10 free MMO games that aren’t pay to win should give everyone plenty of options to find something enjoyable to play.