Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.
Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.
The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.
Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties
Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.
If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.
This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.
We spend a lot of time here criticizing MMOs and their community. And that’s not a bad thing. Constructive criticism is crucial for growth, and there are many mistakes and challenges dogging the world of MMORPGs. Those should be criticized.
But there is a danger in becoming too bogged down in the negative. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and appreciate what we have. MMOs have problems, but there’s also a lot about them that’s truly special. We wouldn’t be so passionate about them if that wasn’t the case.
So let’s take a moment to celebrate the things that make MMOs good, the things that no other type of entertainment can offer. The things that always bring us back for more.
If you’ve been following my articles for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed I take an extremely cynical view of the MMO community as a whole. The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” does come to mind.
But even if the MMO community is a foul place on the macro scale, that doesn’t mean there can’t be positive stories on a more personal level. While toxic players fight gold sellers for most hated player group, guilds, friends and family groups, and other small factions of players are forming and renewing relationships, making connections in the digital space.
Spend any length of time in the world of MMORPGs, and you’ll find stories of people who met their spouses in-game, or who have forged lifelong friendships in MMOs, or reconnected with old friends via gaming. There are those who have used these games to keep in touch with distant family members or friends in foreign countries. Of course, MMOs are good for socializing – it’s arguably the best digital medium for the activity.
Whatever flaws the greater community may have, there is tremendous value in those smaller connections, in the intimate bonds formed between players.
MMOs are good at giving us things to do. They’re big. Like really big. While large-scale single-player games like Skyrim and Fallout boast about their huge game worlds and dozens of hours of content, MMOs are sitting in the background like, “That’s cute.”
Even relatively small MMOs tend to rival or outstrip the largest single-player games when it comes to sheer volume of content. Just playing through the story content to level cap can often take weeks, or months. That’s without any grinding or repetition — just playing as you would a single-player title.
And then of course when you do factor in the endgame activities, the number of hours of gameplay available to you balloons even further.
Then you consider larger, older MMOs. Someone new joining World of Warcraft today would probably take at least a year, if not more, of regular play just to experience all of the content that’s currently in the game — again, without resorting to significant grinding or getting into the endgame treadmill. And that’s just one game. There’s also uniquely massive good MMOs like Eve Online, where servers house tens of thousands of players simultaneously on their monolithic servers.
Furthermore, whereas single-player titles are largely static — perhaps with a trickle of DLC that quickly runs dry — MMOs are constantly growing and evolving, with regular infusions of new content for so long as the games operate. Not only are they big, but they’re only getting bigger.
Longevity and Persistence
As I covered earlier this month with the MMOs that died piece, they don’t last forever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t possessed of incredible longevity. EverQuest is approaching its twentieth anniversary. Ultima Online has already passed that milestone. World of Warcraft has been around for over a decade.
And there are people in all of those games who have been playing from the beginning.
By comparison, even if you’re the sort of person who likes to replay games many times, most single-player games aren’t likely to last you more than a few months at best. The difference in longevity between the two categories is night and day.
This has value beyond the obvious, beyond the raw number of hours of play you’re going to get out of an MMO. Being able to play a single game for years fosters a sense of history, a sense of belonging, that’s impossible to replicate any other way.
My oldest video game character is my rogue in World of Warcraft. She’s old enough now that if she were a real person, she would have just started third grade. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. When I created my rogue, my life was completely different from how it is now, but she remains, virtually unchanged after all this time. She’s become one of the few permanent fixtures of my life, and playing her feels like visiting an old friend.
Similarly, logging into a game you’ve played for a long time can feel like coming home. This, for me, is one of the greatest appeals of MMOs. The social element has never been a perfect fit for me, but I love imaginary worlds, and whereas single-player games only let me be a tourist in their settings, MMOs let me set down roots. MMOs are good at providing a permanent virtual world to feel at home.
That’s something I truly love.
One can also look to more practical concerns. If you’re worried about keeping a budget, MMOs provide one of the most cost-effective forms of entertainment around.
Think about it. Going to see a movie will usually cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $15, and that will only keep you entertained for at most two to three hours.
That same $15 can buy you a month of subscription to an MMO, which can potentially provide dozens of hours of entertainment.
And that’s with a pay to play game. When you consider the current prevalence of free to play MMOS and buy to play titles, the potential for entertainment on the cheap becomes virtually infinite. MMOs are good options for the cheaper or poorer players, especially combined with their quantity of content. You can get hundreds of hours of gameplay for just a minimal box price, or even for nothing at all.
Yes, you may be held back in some ways if you never give in to micro-transactions, but take it from a longtime MMO player who’s had some lean times in his life: You’d be amazed how far you can get without paying a cent, even in games with relatively restrictive business models. Even the greediest games will still usually offer most content and rewards to free players; it just might take a little extra effort.
The “I Was There” Factor
If there’s one thing that no other genre of game can replicate — not even smaller scale online games — it’s the ability to say, “I was there.”
Every once in a while, something will happen in an MMO that those present will never forget. Some huge in-game event that will be forever famous… or infamous. Sometimes it’s something carefully scripted by developers. Sometimes it’s something orchestrated by the players. Sometimes it’s a total accident. But it’s always unforgettable.
If you’ve never experienced a moment like this, there’s no way to adequately describe what it’s like, but if you’ve played MMOs for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced at least one, and you know how special it is to be able to say, “I was there.”
For me, my favorite took place during the first anniversary celebration of The Secret World. I happened to find myself in the same zone as a streamer who was interviewing the game’s director at the time, Joel Bylos. When the anniversary world boss for that zone spawned, Joel used his GM powers to blow his avatar up to Godzilla size and join players in beating the tar out of the boss.
He then danced Gangnam Style for a few moments before vanishing without a trace.
It was equal parts epic and hilarious, and it’s a memory I will always treasure.
Oh, and that streamer? We’re still friends to this day.
That’s my favorite, but I have other “I was there” moments from across my MMO career. I was there when the Legion hit Westfall. I was there when Bacon Squad took the fight to the Karka. I was there when Gaia’s chosen drove back the Whispering Tide.
We all have our own moments, our own stories. That’s what the scale and the unpredictability of MMOs offer, what no other genre of game can replicate: The chance to be a part of virtual history, the chance to experience once in a lifetime moments that will never come again.
The chance to say, “I was there.”
What’s Your Reason?
We all have different feelings on different mechanics, but there’s no denying that MMOs are good and well. Some might play MMOs for the social connections. For me, it’s about the opportunity to fully inhabit a virtual world and bear witness to its history as it unfolds.
What’s your reason? What is it that keeps you coming back to MMOs?
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Considering what the acronym stands for, one would think more MMORPGs would entail at least some form of roleplay. However, RPG has become near synonymous with increasing stats through levels and equipment. This has carried into MMORPGs. The primary content in an MMORPG isn’t designed around immersion and living an alternate life. Despite a much greater opportunity for roleplaying, the gaming aspect perhaps gets overemphasized.
Of course there is nothing wrong with gamey features. Progression is a lot of fun. Many that play MMORPGs have a great need for achievement. Rewarding play with new abilities keeps a game fresh and compelling. Dungeons and Dragons, the prototypical roleplaying game, clearly understands this. But it’s able to do this in a way that doesn’t detract from players RPing. It accomplishes this through choice – every action is possible in D&D. Most MMORPGs are more linear, with a stepping stone progression. There also isn’t a Dungeon Master to help when the players do something ridiculous. So it’s understandable MMORPGs won’t match a tabletop session for roleplay potential.
Despite these limitations, some titles do offer compelling virtual worlds in which to engross ourselves. Roleplaying can happen in such organic ways that players may not even realize what’s happening. That might be roleplaying in an MMORPG at its finest. Stopping to consider how your character would react can bring detachment from the world. True immersion arises from instinctively responding to situations because your motivations are so clearly understood. To be fair, that is a hard feat to accomplish. Players rarely receive opportunities to deviate from intended quest lines. In such linear MMORPGs, simply giving the opportunities and tools to engage in RPing can also be rewarding. The inherent social nature of the genre can feed interactions more absorbing than the simple numbers game of the loot treadmill.
The point is that roleplaying comes in many forms. There’s active and passive RPing, group and solo RPing, and linear and non-linear RPing. So to it’s disingenuous to say one size fits all for MMO players seeking to add more roleplay to their lives. Below is a list of games that best fit the myriad of forms this activity encompasses. Many of these have even been played without its players realizing unintentional RPing was actually a huge component of the game’s enjoyment.
Lord of the Rings Online
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has three official roleplaying servers supported by Turbine. Unlike many MMORPGs that designate RP servers then throw them to the wolves, Turbine actually enforces a unique set of rules for LOTRO RP. The broad overview of these rules mandate lore enforced character names, in character usage of most chat channels, and harassment-free roleplaying. Trolls love to ruin RP server players’ fun, but LOTRO actually feels like a safe spot.
There’s also a wealth of content for players that synchronize with their characters. Emotes, music playing, cosmetics, and community events all offer opportunities for the budding roleplayer. For those that want it to be, Lord of the Rings Online is more than just an ascent of power to conquer Sauron’s allies. Middle-earth is steeped in rich lore, but there is no prior knowledge of this lore to enjoy oneself. The community is very welcoming, as long as you’re willing to try.
The Secret World
The Secret World (TSW) is one of those roleplaying games that forces you to roleplay without you even realizing it. This game has the best quests in the MMO genre with everything tied to the real world in a fantastical yet believable manner. TSW’s three factions offer a unique way of looking at the game world, and it’s hard not to feel enveloped in your organization’s machinations thanks to great storytelling. The game also provides other small group oriented options for more freeform roleplaying, but there are better options on this list for that. TSW proves roleplaying can exist without non-linear player choice.
The Elder Scrolls Online
Now that One Tamriel is live in The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), players have been presented with an impressive degree of freedom not seen before in a themepark MMORPG. The latest update for ESO scales the player’s level up or down to match the level of the area. That means players are free to take on whatever good or evil quests best fit their character. Though One Tamriel’s primary purpose is to enhance open ended exploration to match the single player Elder Scrolls games, it additionally enhances the game’s roleplaying.
Prior to this update though, the roleplaying scene was already thriving in ESO. ZeniMax Online Studios, who runs ESO, actively praises and supports roleplaying. The game has one of the best community RP websites of any MMORPG. The social aspect is huge in ESO with giant guilds offering someone to roleplay with at all times.
The first true MMORPG is still one of the greatest for roleplaying. Ultima Online (UO) is all about player choice. From character creation to progression, there are so many options that it can be overwhelming for new players. It’s the only game I’ve been able to play where I didn’t feel bound to combat. Of course, I still enjoy combat oriented characters, but craftsmen, thieves, musicians, and animal tamers all have their place. UO isn’t a freeing as it was when first released due to rule changes that lessened PvP (and the ability to be truly evil), but expansion packs have dramatically increased the game’s content. This has granted players access to more interactions that fall in line an imagined archetype. RPing is so great in UO because it’s inherently woven into simply playing the game.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to include Eve Online in this list. Yes, it’s a sandbox game with a ton of different skills to learn that are up to the player. Yes, the players effectively run the game world. Yes, player interactions are numerous at the highest and lowest level. But the problem is that the game boils down to acquiring power. Whether crafting, manufacturing, or killing, every character feels like they’re reaching for the same goal through different means. Still, there is more to Eve’s universe than space, stars, and ships. That the game can create such memorable narratives points to a strong roleplaying element. After all, why else do we roleplay than to create memorable stories for our characters? I maintain that choice is the most important attribute for roleplaying, and Eve Online offers it in spades. This may be a borderline addition given that RPing is not officially supported, but I feel Eve Online belongs.
Putting the RP Back in MMORPG
It’s not realistic to expect a tabletop roleplaying experience in an MMORPG. Maybe one day someone smarter than I will create such an innovative system. For now, there are still some good options for immersive play. While other games such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV do offer their own quality roleplaying communities, they don’t get the job done quite like the above games. There’s certainly more to finding your top MMO than RP-ability but, for many, it’s an important start.
RMT. Real money trading. The nasty three letter acronym associated with gold farming, pay to win, and bots. It’s existed in MMOs for the better part of two decades, back when Ultima Online gold traded at higher exchange rates (200 gold to $1 USD) than the Italian Lira, Hungarian Forint, Indonesian Rupiah, Vietnamese Dong, Colombian Peso, and several other real world countries (250 to 14,000 units to $1 USD). This was in era where all real money trading took place on eBay (sometimes facilitated by company employees), before more specialized shops opened their doors.
People will kill to become a Colombian millionaire.
Eventually, massive inflation sets in because wolves somehow drop coins and MMORPG NPCs print money on demand to buy player trash. Money sinks like repair costs and auction house taxes never offset the constant printing of game currency. Even the loss of capital when ships blow up on Eve Online can’t compete with the universe’s infinite resources. The effects of MMO currency inflation on RMT is as multifaceted as it is unclear. The obvious impact is the increased cost of goods. This drives players with more real world money, less time, or both, to seek out-of-game methods to acquire in game currency. And where there is demand, there is supply.
MMO RMT carries a host of problems. The chief issue being the devaluation of the most active players’ time. What’s the point of grinding for hours on end when top gear can be purchased for a day’s paycheck? Diminishing the reasons to actually play the MMO is a major negative for anti-RMT folks.
At some point it’s too lucrative of a money making proposition to pass up. In 2005, over 100,000 people in China reported working as full time gold farmers (“gold” acting as a moniker for all virtual MMO currency). These “players” contribute nothing meaningful to the game, mindlessly killing creatures for loot. At it’s worst, gold farming creates violations of human rights. To increase efficiency, gold sellers use bots to generate even more gold. This unnatural crowding of high end areas pushes real players out. Even if players can avoid the bot infestation, constant channel spam for “BUY GOLD $5=5000G WWW.CASH4GOLDMMOSTYLEYO.COM” ruins actual human communication. People need to be able to gripe publicly without fear of the bot takeover. The effect of the supply side absolutely damages the average player’s experience. That doesn’t even take into account the ethics of gold buying.
Inflation occurs quickly.
MMORPGs are first and foremost games. It’s even part of the acronym! Real money trading is essentially cheating. Imagine playing a board game with friends. You offer to take another player out for the price of $5. They accept and cruise to victory. What’s the point in playing when money will decide the outcome? More topically now that the NFL season has begun, imagine paying $5 to a fantasy football leaguemate for Antonio Brown. That’s a big change that affects the fair competition of the entire league. At the same time, these examples ignore a major difference between MMORPGs and other games. MMORPGs are also virtual worlds with real economies and thus, inherently valuable currency.
In the cheating examples, the time commitment for those games is significantly less than in top MMOs. You also play to win, which is rarely part of MMORPGs, despite the oft-used “pay to win” label. Competition of a sort still exists, but ultimately time dictates who sees the greatest success. When top guilds in World of Warcraft spend a full time job’s worth of hours raiding, it’s pretty obvious that not everyone can compete. Here, money is the great equalizer. After all, time = money. Does that justify real money trading? I think it’s at least a fair argument.
As evidenced by just how many RMT stores exist, a significant number of players obviously agree. It may not be fair that players can use real money to purchase virtual goods. It’s also not fair that players have more time than others. This is what happens when progression is based on primarily on time rather than skill. Players don’t really improve at MMORPGs, they just dedicate more time. The only way to advance is to play more, and that’s simply not an option for many people. How else can these individuals keep up with top players except to turn to RMT? Admittedly, some are also the cheater types who will do anything to get an unfair edge. They’re not looking to just level the playing field, but to beat out everyone else at whatever cost. RMT doesn’t change that. There’s always hacks, exploits, and bots for cheating.
Let’s take away the negative indirect affects of RMT: gold farming, chat spamming, increased customer service expenses, and bots. If we could do away with those, is the time = money defense a good enough reason to support RMT? I can see both sides. It is cheating, but it’s not like all players are playing by the same rules anyway. Putting more time into an MMORPG is like getting more moves in a board game. I think it’s up to MMORPG developers to design a game that limits the appeal and usage of RMT.
Even though World of Warcraft is rampant with gold sellers, I feel it’s designed well enough to limit RMT. The best gear must be earned in challenging raid environments and cannot be traded. The items people can buy with gold minimally impact other players. I’m not going to fault someone for spending $10 to buy a mount instead of hours of mindless grinding. Guild Wars 2 launched with the mantra end game gear should be easily attainable. Real money trading mainly leads to cosmetics in Guild Wars 2. I’m good with that. They also implemented their own developer-run RMT shop, which drastically cuts down on RMT’s outright negative ramifications. Horizontal progression may lessen the need for RMT given that there’s little to vertically separate players.
Virtual currency will always have real world value. MMORPGs will always require time to advance. Real money trading will always exist because of these perpetuities. I do not dislike RMT inherently, but don’t enjoy the environment it creates. I doubt even active real money traders do. Still, I think it has a place to eliminate tediousness. It just takes foresight to build an MMORPG with RMT and it’s effects in mind. After all, we’ve come a long way from buying gold in Ultima Online.
When I played Ultima Online for the first time, figments of my imagination began bleeding into a reality. A game now existed in which I could truly live an alternate life. In many ways, it transcended the simple game tag and provided my first virtual world experience. I expected many immersive, virtual worlds to follow. After all, MMORPGs were only entering their infancy in the late 90s when Ultima Online launched.
Wait? You mean I used to be able to see the OUTSIDE of player houses too?
For a time, I felt this virtual vision was coming to fruition. Several titles around the turn of the century created something more than a game. They created vivid, breathing virtual worlds. Nowadays MMORPGs feel a little too much like games. It’s a little disappointing because the genre is a fantastic springboard for creating believable worlds filled with player controlled alternate identities. Maybe this is a case of rose tinted bias, but I think it has more to do with the modernization of MMORPGs, the rise of casual gaming, and minimal creativity in adapting to those changes.
The biggest downside of true virtual worlds is that they require a lot of time to really appreciate. My free time allotment when in school allowed me to really dive into the alternate realities developers had crafted. Spending some extra time trying to decipher where to go for a quest in EverQuest didn’t feel frustrating. It just pulled me deeper into the world.
In today’s gaming climate, a quest-driven MMORPG would find itself with a pretty limited audience without obvious World of Warcraft style quest markers. That’s largely because somebody with a limited schedule wants to feel like they can accomplish something in thirty minutes. And somebodies with thirty minutes to spare are in the majority. This creates situations where developers create short feedback loops to fuel the MMORPG achievement addiction. And that has some long term implications that run counter to crafting virtual worlds.
It wasn’t perfect, but Star Wars Galaxies cantina performances pulled players into its virtual world.
You see, in order to create a believable virtual world, it needs to follow certain properties of the real world. One of the general properties of the real world is that in order to be successful, one needs to put hard work. It should follow then that one’s character must put in hard work in order to achieve virtual world success. “But Bro, I play games for fun not to work”, you say. Guess what? I do too!
Notice in the above paragraph the use of the word character instead of player? In general, I think developers (and publishers, probably more importantly) focus too much on what’s worked in the past. Character progression is typically a 1 to 1 ratio of character to player effort. If a character cannot progress without the player, then MMORPGs are pigeonholed into casual advancement. This is why I love MMORPGs like Eve Online, Black Desert Online, and Crowfall building AFK progression systems. It frees the player from working for all of their success and places much of that burden of the character.
Additionally, hard work is not inherently boring. If I want this blog to do well, I need to put in the effort and write a lot. My success is linked to hours spent writing, promoting, socializing, and other blog-like activities. I enjoy these things (or I wouldn’t be here). If active character progression is time consuming but enjoyable that’s OK. Unfortunately, MMORPGs tend to emphasize repetitive tasks AKA grinding. Whether it’s quest grinding or mob grinding, the negative effect on the player is the same. This is why I love dynamic events in games like Guild Wars 2 and hope to see the concept continue to evolve.
Spreadsheet simulator isn’t so bad when it lets my character, not me, do the heavy lifting.
Great, unique concepts like AFK progression and dynamic events push us closer to believable virtual worlds. They advance characters through the character handling the boring heavy lifted instead of the player. Equally important to character progression is the world’s evolution. Enticing players with the promise of a persistent world, MMORPGs subversively promise a world that behaves differently due to the player’s participation. This is largely not the case.
Persistent, Virtual Worlds
A persistent world technically means little more than a near 24/7 online, virtual game world for the player to access. MMORPGs do in fact provide that service, but persistent worlds seem to take themselves a little too literally. In the vast majority of the genre’s games, the worlds do not change. Players defeat the same quests, mobs reset, everything important gets instanced. A player’s character has nearly no impact on the persistently static worlds of most MMORPGs.
A true virtual world should change based on character actions. My immersion breaks pretty easily when GIANT DRAGON X gets defeated for the thousandth time on my server. Infinite resources, best in slot legendaries, static economies, and instanced content sever any remaining semblance of immersion. This doesn’t make modern MMORPGs bad games. It makes them bad virtual worlds.
Ultimately, immersion is why creating a true virtual world is important. Virtual worlds immerse players into inhabiting an alternate persona. This is a platform created that can continuously evolve as the player plays their character. The opportunity to interact with real people who can do real things should enhance that experience. Yet, the systems available feel anything but immersive. I enjoy progression and socializing in MMORPGs, but right now I play single player when I want immersion. That shouldn’t be the case.
I’m not saying immersion is a prerequisite for a good MMORPG. They are games, first and foremost. The genre is vast and there are many ways to entertain. I’m just saying MMORPGs are dropping the ball in an area where they had a distinct advantage fifteen years ago. Bring back actual virtual worlds, and they’ll reclaim that “believable alternate reality” throne pretty quickly.
MMORPGs have grown to such heights now that they warrant their own category for year end video game awards. However, MMOs evolve to a much greater extent than games from other genres. An MMORPG’s full potential might not be realized until years after launch. It is with this thought in mind, and the fact that hindsight is 20/20, that we’ll be taking a retroactive look at the best MMORPG by year for the past twenty years. We’ll start in 1996, the first time that multiple graphical MMORPGs would release in the same year.
Best MMORPG of 1996 – The Realm (Online)
Originally launched as simply The Realm in 1996, this cartoony MMO game graphically resembles old point and click style games like Quest for Glory. The Realm offered a surprising wealth of content in its debut year that included player housing, a 1000 level cap, multiple dungeons to explore, and a decent character creation system. The Realm Online’s most notable feature though is its turn based, tactical combat. Although most mobs aren’t terribly challenging, this style of combat added a layer of depth still not present in any many MMORPGs. It also lead to some tense, tactical PvP battles in The Realm.
Of course, The Realm is pretty flawed too. After seeing all the heavily instanced world has to offer, there isn’t much else to do besides grind. There isn’t a real trading system either (only gifting or dropping items) so players hire middle men to facilitate trades, which has been abused by scammers. Yet it doesn’t compare to the “old days” where a lack of solid protection for players’ houses led to unintended burglaries or the gold duping exploit that massively inflated every item’s price. Despite being fixed, these issues sadly persist as the most notable memories of The Realm.
The Realm Online seems to still be running. It was apparently sold to a group of fans several years ago, who have managed to keep it running but do little else to entice players.
Best MMORPG of 1997 – Ultima Online
I thought for sure that Tibia would win its year, but there’s no way it could stand up to the legacy that is Ultima Online. Not only did Ultima Online bring the term MMORPG to the world (we were calling them graphical MUDs prior), but it also created the basis for sandbox MMORPGs. Players entered Ultima Online with a vision of their character and could match that vision surprisingly well. With skills ranging from magery to musicianship to animal taming, it seemed like the developers had thought of everything. The world itself teemed with life. Hell, you could even own a castle. Pretty sweet.
The truly open nature of Ultima Online did lead to some serious player griefing though. Outside of towns, players were fair game and a lot of stronger players targeted easy prey. Since players would also drop all of their gear and loot on death, player killing could be quite profitable. Less violent players could sneak and steal items out of others’ backpacks. For victims, playing Ultima Online was probably akin to playing a shopkeeper in Skyrim. All the sudden everything was gone and you could barely react.
Eventually, Ultima Online split their servers between the PvP friendly Felucca and the carebear land of Trammel. It’s a decision that in equal parts killed and saved the game. The lack of a strong deterrent for Ultima Online criminals would have wiped out the player base, but the game also lost much of its unique “dangerous real world” feel. The most lasting memory for Ultima Online though is when a player killed the invincible Lord British, controlled by Ultima’s creator Richard Garriott.
Best MMORPG of 1998 – Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds
I’m honestly surprised that Kru Interactive hasn’t made any new games. In the late 90s they gave us Nexus, Dark Ages, and Shattered Galaxy. All were pretty cool games, and all are still running. I guess the age of 3D is scary, but that’s fine. There are plenty of 3D MMOs out there from other guys.
Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds was for many their best offering. It seems to be doing the best too in 2016 with biweekly patches. The combat has never been anything to write home about, but what made Nexus special was its social system. Nexus sported a deep political system alongside a mentor system to encourage veterans to help new players. Not everyone was friendly in Nexus, but everyone felt connected. I feel that the systems in place in Nexus make for some of the best socializing of any MMORPG. If only the actual gameplay was as addictive…
Best MMORPG of 1999 – EverQuest
Runner-up: Asheron’s Call
I was tempted to choose Asheron’s Call for 1999 because I personally enjoyed the game more. Ultimately, EverQuest’s lasting legacy proved too monumental to overlook. While developers were trying to figure out the magic MMORPG formula, it would be EverQuest that would leave the biggest imprint of the first generation MMORPGs.
EverQuest’s success was burgeoned by their dedication to creating an atmosphere that resembled tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. The game offered players mostly typical fantasy races and classes with a classic alignment system. Multiple varying server rulesets were enacted to center gameplay on a particular player activities. For example, the Vallon Zek server would go down as the first major factional warfare as one’s race dictated PvP status. Rallos Zek allowed bloodthirsty players to kill anyone, much like Ultima Online.
Most importantly for EverQuest, this MMORPG offered players difficult PvE encounters and started the whole raiding thing. The Sleeper is perhaps the most famous raid encounter of all time since it took three highly geared guilds working together for hours to take him down. Players also regenerated health slowly after combat in EverQuest, which lessened the action but increased the social interaction. I don’t miss resting, but I lament the increasingly anti-social nature of multiplayer gaming since EverQuest’s MMORPG heyday. For many veterans, EverQuest is the best MMORPG of all time.
Best MMORPG of 2000 – Allegiance
Allegiance is a pretty cool game that was ahead of it’s time. Some might argue that the lack of a massive, persistent world (games are eventually won) disqualifies Allegiance as being an MMO. I don’t agree and perhaps more importantly, there were no other MMOs released in 2000. It sort of wins by default, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. The core gameplay revolves around one member of a faction playing the role of an RTS commander with their allies controlling individual ships. Maps are explored, buildings are built, resources collected, technologies researched, and eventually full on wars are waged. It was pretty complicated then without a great tutorial and no doubt partially caused the disappointing sales numbers for developer/publisher Microsoft.
Although Microsoft pulled the plug on this pseudo-MMORPG long ago due to population, fans still run the game.
Best MMORPG of 2001 – Dark Age of Camelot
EverQuest may have been the first MMORPG to implement faction warfare, but Dark Age of Camelot perfected it. Faction warfare in Dark Age of Camelot is referred to as Realm vs. Realm (RvR), unique from the free for all brawl that was simply PvP. In Dark Age of Camelot, players would enter the MMORPG by choosing one of three mythical races to represent. The combat system resembled EverQuest so players familiar with the venerable MMORPG and looking for more structured PvP could easily jump into Camelot.
The primary focus for Dark Age of Camelot’s RvR has always been a 3-sided factional conflict. This maintains balance despite shifting populations. While one side may grow dominant, two sides can temporarily ally to turn the tides. Camelot, to this day, is simply the best MMORPG when it comes to epic castle sieges and territory defense. The population has waned, but the options for a true alternative simply aren’t there.
I do want to give honorable mentions to RuneScape for showing that browser MMORPGs could be fairly legit and Anarchy Online, specifically for their hype machine. Anarchy’s promised a unique setting, and I loved the idea of a neutral faction. The video below got me hyped beyond measure for the sci-fi MMORPG.
Unfortunately, Anarchy Online disappointed in a huge fashion and clearly released too early. It would eventually became a good MMORPG, but it’s launch would go down as one of the worst in MMORPG history. Luckily, Dark Age of Camelot would come to the rescue in October 2001.
Best MMORPG of 2002 – Final Fantasy XI
Runner-up: Ragnarok Online
Although not released until the following year in the US (along with Korean competitor, Ragnarok Online), Final Fantasy XI put PvE players to the test. EverQuest required grouping, but players could advance eventually by playing more casually. Final Fantasy XI scoffed at the idea. Not only did Final Fantasy XI require grouping, it required coordination. The game did not shy away from grinding, but did reward players with greater EXP bonuses for chaining mobs in quick succession. Although grinding mobs was all the rage until World of Warcraft’s release, Final Fantasy managed to create a rewarding system for the repetitive activity. The familiar Final Fantasy setting, with chocobos and all, also helped to draw players in.
The raids and end game bosses of Final Fantasy XI required not only high end gear, but high end skills too. Whereas most of EverQuest’s high end encounters were designed to be defeated if properly geared, Final Fantasy XI couldn’t care less. To this day, Final Fantasy XI has yet to be surpassed in the difficulty of it’s PvE encounters. It’s unlikely that it will be as providing content that only a fraction of the population will see isn’t good business.
Best MMORPG of 2003 – EVE Online
Runner-up: Star Wars Galaxies
Eve Online is to PvP what Final Fantasy XI is to PvE. To this day, Eve is still the premiere open ended PvP system. Corporations ran by actual players fight over areas of the galaxy in order to obtain resources to grow further. Fleets of hundreds engage in battles with similarly sized opponents. Politics and espionage are another layer on the complex cake that is Eve Online.
Not only did Eve Online present its players with an MMORPG that boasted sandbox freedom, it also introduced a unique skill progression system. In Eve Online, skills are learned in real time whether online or not. Want to master a particular type of battleship? Just wait a month. This concept allowed players to further engage in the content they wanted without worrying about grinding for levels. Finally, Eve Online also did away with the common practice of multiple, split servers. Upwards of 30,000 players can still be found playing Eve Online simultaneously to this day. Max player counts of individual World of Warcraft servers occupy a fraction of that.
The audience is relatively niche compared to mainstream MMORPGs, but is loyal and dedicated. There’s simply nothing quite like Eve Online to this day. That it’s still running and a better game than ever 13 years later is a testament to that statement.
Best MMORPG of 2004 – World of Warcraft
Runner-up: EverQuest II
I mean. Duh. Of course it’s World of Warcraft.
2004 would go down as the most important year for MMORPGs since 1999. It saw a couple other AAA MMORPGs releasing in EverQuest II and City of Heroes. Interesting titles such as Saga of Ryzom, Vendetta Online, Metin2 and Knight Online also debuted. But everything paled in comparison to Blizzard’s behemoth MMORPG.
World of Warcraft took the popular MMORPG formula and perfected it. Blizzard’s only truly unique contribution to the MMORPG genre was the implementation of quests as the primary method of leveling up. Until 2004, quests were largely an afterthought in MMORPGs. They were either too obfuscated or too few to be used as a form of advancement. World of Warcraft changed that and set a precedent for the importance of questing in MMORPGs. We even did a feature on MMORPGs with the best quests. You might notice that World of Warcraft is the only game listed that released before 2007.
World of Warcraft didn’t simply rely on quests to draw in millions of players though. Blizzard polished their first MMORPG to the nth degree. The art design is fantastic, the classes are interesting, grouping became useful instead of required, and the game truly brought the Warcraft universe to life in a virtual world. Is it the best MMORPG of all time? That’s debatable, but, it is certainly the most influential due to its wild success.
Best MMORPG of 2005 – Guild Wars
Runner-up: Silkroad Online
The original Guild Wars was built on delivering a near immediate endgame with long term horizontal progression, heavily instanced content, and no subscription fee. All four of these defining features things were brand new to the MMO space and have surprisingly inspired very few similar combinations.
The maximum level in Guild Wars is twenty, which can be reached in one day. From there, the primary method of advancement is learning new skills through completing various missions. Each player in Guild Wars has access to only eight skills at a time so gaining more skills doesn’t necessarily make your character stronger. Players in Guild Wars don’t chase bigger numbers but instead seek more skills to provide adaptability. Players can even create PvP only characters with access to all skills for competitive PvP. These design decisions lead to communities that don’t fracture due to varying commitment levels. It’s one of the best perks about horizontal progression, but can also lead to players feeling like there’s not enough advancement to warrant continued play. Luckily, Guild Wars does not require a subscription fee.
Up until this point, monthly subscription fees were the norm for MMORPGs. Free to Play MMOs wouldn’t become popular for a few more years yet. Thus if you wanted to play an MMORPG you had to pay a monthly fee. Guild Wars did away with that, in part thanks to the heavily instanced gameplay to lower server costs. Instanced content also allows developers to create challenges balanced around a particular number of players, at the cost lessening the massive part of the multiplayer experience. This has its pros and cons but certainly helped to define Guild Wars as one of the most unique offerings in the MMORPG genre.