MMOs are, at their heart, about playing with other people. Even as a mainly solo player, I acknowledge this. To this end, developers have come up with many forms of content designed specifically to be tackled by groups, but they’re not all created equal. Each form of group content has its pros and cons.
Dungeons are the archetypical RPG experience: a party of adventures venturing into forgotten ruins in search of wealth and glory. In MMORPGs, dungeons are usually for groups of about four to six players, which makes them a happy balance between being social but not too crowded.
Dungeons tend to represent a stepping stone between the easy outdoor content and the more challenging raids. This is both one of their chief virtues, and their downfall.
The problem with dungeons is that they are, almost invariably, viewed only as that stepping stone. They are rarely granted the privilege of being an endgame unto themselves, instead being treated as little more than a funnel into raids. This makes it hard to achieve satisfying progression as a dungeon fan. You end up living as a second class citizen to the “real” players, who raid.
For better or for worse, raids have long been held up as the pinnacle of MMO group content. They feature the largest group sizes, the highest difficulty, and the best rewards.
For those who enjoy them, raids are as good as it gets. The MMO community is full of stories of fond memories, lifelong friendships, and even marriages that grew out of raid groups.
The downside is that while the raiding community is incredibly vocal and passionate, it’s also incredibly small. Due to the high time and skill requirements of raiding, most players simply can’t be bothered. Hard numbers for such things are always difficult to come by, but from the evidence I’ve seen it seems that raiders usually make up about 1-5% of a MMORPG’s playerbase, at best.
The problem arises from the fact that raids are also very resource intensive, and by their nature as the intended pinnacle of endgame, they tend to offer the most desirable rewards and the highest production values. Thus, huge amounts of development resources are being devoted to a tiny minority of players.
It’s not impossible for raiders and non-raiders to coexist, but it’s a difficult tightrope for a developer to walk. You need to reward the raiders for their hard work without kneecapping everyone else. Raids are inherently disruptive to the balance of a game.
Small Group Content
By “small group content,” I mean content that is designed for groups, but groups of a size less than the traditional dungeon group — two to three people.
The fact there’s no commonly accepted term for content scaled to this size — the way there is for dungeons and raids — should tell you how common it is. World of Warcraft experimented with scenarios in its Mists of Pandaria expansion, which were catered to three player groups, and the upcoming Battle for Azeroth will add a similar feature in the form of Island Expeditions. Secret World Legends also has a feature called scenarios that can done by duos, but beyond those I struggle to think of many examples of dedicated small group content in MMOs (feel free to mention others in the comments).
People who prefer to play in twos or threes are therefore usually relegated to playing quest content that was designed for soloists, forcing them to endure phasing issues or difficulty that wasn’t tuned for more than one person.
And I really don’t understand why. Again, not being a developer or researcher, I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally as a longtime MMO player, I’ve found that groups of two or three (often couples or close friend groups) are by far and away the most common form of social group in MMOs. The fact that most group content is built solely for larger groups baffles me.
PvP doesn’t immediately come to mind for me when discussing group content, but duels and the occasional gank notwithstanding, player versus player gameplay is almost always group-based.
The trouble with PvP from a social perspective is that it necessitates losers as well as winners. For this reason, it has a higher potential for toxicity (not that PvE doesn’t have its fair share, as well).
As a result, I think it’s better to enter PvP with a group of people you already know and trust, rather than trying to form connections mid-match. The exception may be for slower paced, larger scale PvP such as Guild Wars 2’s WvW or Cyrodiil in Elder Scrolls Online. The persistent nature of those contests gives time for meaningful social connections to flourish.
A world boss spawns, and the call goes out in general chat. In a matter of minutes, dozens or even hundreds of players descend upon the unsuspecting mob, full of fire, fury, and the lust for loot.
First introduced by the dearly departed Warhammer Online and made a major selling feature of both Rift and Guild Wars 2, public events are MMOs at their wildest and most chaotic. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on personal perspective, but for my money, I feel public events are the purest expression of what MMORPGs should be, organic and epic in equal measure.
That said, there are other perspectives. Many argue — with more than a little justification — that public events are naught by mindless zergs. Even as a huge fan of the concept, I struggle to defend them from this criticism.
Others say that the lack of organization makes it difficult if not impossible to form meaningful social connections. If it’s just a mindless swarm of people spamming abilities, where’s the opportunity for friendships to form?
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.