Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?
Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
Winter Maiden Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)
Winter Festival of Simril
Star Trek Online (STO)
Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)
Life Day event
Protostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)
Feast of Winter Veil
Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.
The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.
Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.
Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:
How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?
Christmas elements in MMOs
The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.
My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.
Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)
But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?
A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.
Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs
1. Throwing snowballs
2. Festive warm winter clothing
3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)
4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys
5. Elk mounts
(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)
The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.
1) Sci-fi MMOs
MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.
Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)
I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.
2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs
Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.
These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.
More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.
Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)
3) High Fantasy MMOs
Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.
High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.
Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.
Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.
As we’ve discussed before, fantasy MMOs heavily dominate the genre. Even if you’re a fantasy fan, it can start to feel a bit stale after a while. Maybe you want to try something else for a change.
Though they are a minority, there are some solid non-fantasy MMORPGs out there. These are a few of your better options for an MMO with a different sort of setting.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
I almost didn’t include SWTOR on the grounds that it is still pretty much fantasy. Little if any of the technology in the Star Wars universe has any connection to real science, and the Force is simply magic by another name.
But it is at least a slightly different flavor of fantasy, even if it’s just a different skin on the same tropes. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change people’s feelings; I’ve known sci-fi fans who love Star Wars while decrying the fantasy genre. So while it may not make rational sense, SWTOR may still feel refreshing to those bored of traditional high fantasy.
WildStar is another game that incorporates a lot of fantasy elements into its sci-fi, alongside a certain Western feel and a strong dose of humor. The end result is an eclectic setting that exists somewhere between World of Warcraft, Firefly, and Bugs Bunny.
If you really want to leave the world of magic and mystery behind, it might not be enough to satisfy you, but it’s definitely not your standard high fantasy, at least, and you can’t deny it has a very unique character. One thing WildStar has never lacked for is personality.
Star Trek Online
Another MMORPG based on a popular science fiction IP, but this one hews much closer to traditional science fiction than does Star Wars. Obviously, if you’re a Star Trek fan, STO is worth a look, but even if you’re not familiar with the source material, it may be worth a try as a welcome departure from the tired fantasy formula used by so many other MMOs.
STO is particularly appealing in this regard because the difference in setting is also reflected in the game mechanics. Whereas SWTOR plays like any other fantasy MMO, Star Trek Online has space combat that feels quite different from anything else in the MMO genre and captures the feel of the shows and movies very well.
But maybe space ships aren’t your thing, either. Perhaps the gritty texture of a post-apocalyptic setting is more your speed. There aren’t as many options on this front as there should be, but one possibility you can consider is the sandbox Fallen Earth.
It’s an older game with a small following, but it can definitely provide a breath of fresh (if radioactive) air for those seeking relief from the endless parade of sword and sorcery.
Another strong contender on the sci-fi front are Bungie’s Destiny games, depicting a far future where humanity clings to existence amidst the ruins of Earth’s solar system. It’s got a larger than life feel similar to Star Wars, but hews a bit closer to traditional sci-fi.
They’re also another option for breaking away from traditional MMO gameplay as well as traditional settings. Both versions of Destiny take the form of first person shooters (with some RPG elements) rather than the standard action bar set-up of most MMORPGs.
DC Universe Online
It always amazes me that superhero games don’t make up a larger share of the MMO market. Given the power fantasy nature of the genre and the popularity of superheroes in general, it seems like a perfect fit.
Nonetheless, superhero MMORPGs are for some reason a rarity, despite providing arguably the best fit for an MMO of any non-fantasy genre. One of your few good options on this front is DC Universe Online. It captures the comic book feel pretty well, it boasts fantastic combat, and it has maintained a steady level of popularity for many years now, with significant updates still coming on the regular.
Whether you’re a big superhero fan or just want something far away from the realm of Elves and wizards, DCUO is one of the better options.
The notoriously convoluted game mechanics and ruthless community of EVE Online are the sort of thing you either love or hate, but one thing it definitely does deserve credit for is being one of the longest running and most successful MMORPGs that isn’t leaning on the crutch of high fantasy.
And unlike many other entries on this list, EVE is also not based on popular IP from elsewhere in the media. Its sci-fi setting of New Eden is entirely original, a wild frontier where aspiring starship pilots can find fame and fortune… or death and ruin.
Secret World Legends
Surely one of the most inventive settings ever seen in the world of MMORPGs is that of the bizarre and terrifying Secret World, a torch now carried by its rebooted successor, Secret World Legends.
Combining elements of countless real world mythologies and conspiracy theories, Legends is best described as a horror game, but it also draws elements from many other genres, including sci-fi and, yes, fantasy. But even the fantasy elements have a completely different feel from the traditional Tolkien-clone MMO settings.
Unfortunately, Legends carries a lot of baggage related to its messy transition from its predecessor, The Secret World. There was a lot of dishonesty on the part of the developers and a lot of hurt feelings among fans, and so it’s difficult for me to give an unequivocal recommendation to the game as I might have in the past.
Nevertheless, if we’re judging the caliber of settings, neither incarnation of the Secret World can be beat. If it’s not something you’ve experienced before, you have no idea what you’re missing. The originality, the ambiance, and the depth are without equal.
These days, themepark MMOs — games focused on structured, developer-created content — dominate the genre. They are both the most common and the most successful games around. But what is it that makes the themepark MMO such a successful model? Why have these games enjoyed such success?
I’m a pretty diehard themepark fan myself. I may play sandboxes here or there, but in the end my heart still lies with the carefully constructed worlds that only themeparks can provide. Therefore I think I can speak to what it is that has given the genre such enduring popularity, or at least why I keep coming back to them.
For me, the biggest appeal of themepark MMOs is that they give me a clear purpose. Some people like to be dropped in the middle of an open field and left to find their own fun, and I respect that, but it’s not for me.
I’m very goal-focused in games. When I log into a game, I want to have a clear idea of where I’m going and what I’m fighting for. You can say it’s the journey and not the destination that matters, and I’d agree, but I can’t start the journey if I don’t know where I’m going. I love to stop and smell the roses, but you can’t make a whole game out of that.
That’s not to say that everything need be totally linear. I think the best themeparks are those that offer the player several options on how to advance through the game and progress their character. But there still needs to be goals to be pursued, whether it’s getting the best gear, finishing the story, or even just hitting max level. There needs to be purpose to the experience. Your actions need to matter in the long term.
The ideal themepark MMO is one that offers a variety of goals and a variety of methods to achieve them. Those that marry purpose with choice achieve the best of both worlds, giving players direction without babysitting them.
As we all learned from Bill Nye growing up, inertia is a property of matter. Since we’re made of matter, it can also be a property of gamers.
The very popularity and persistence of the themepark MMO can be a mark in its favor. Odds are you’ve already played a number of themeparks and know what to expect from them. A quest-focused leveling experience, some dungeons, probably optional PvP, gear-based vertical progression, and so forth.
There’s a fine line between familiar and derivative, and there are more than a few themeparks that fall on the bad side of that line, but so long as they’re not aping past games too much, there’s nothing wrong with leaning on standard designs. That’s why we have distinct genres in the first place.
When you know what to expect, the barrier to entry is much lower. You can spend less time learning and more time enjoying the game.
Sandbox fans may disagree with me on this, but if I’m being honest, the non-themepark games I’ve played all felt a bit… flat to me. Empty. Soulless. Without color.
When you focus on player-created content instead of developer-created, the game itself begins to lose some of its personality in the process. That doesn’t make them worse games, but it does give them different appeals, different “hooks” for the player. Sandboxes are about the people you meet. Themeparks are able to develop personalities and identities all their own.
The lore, quest text, NPC dialogue, and more all contribute to adding depth to the setting of any themepark, to the point where the world almost becomes a character unto itself, and any good themepark MMO will quickly establish a distinct personality that sets it apart from the pack.
Lord of the Rings Online captures the richness and detail of Tolkien’s writing. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game of politics on both the personal and the galactic scale. World of Warcraft is, well, Warcraft — it’s a pretty unique flavor all its own. Aion has an exotic surrealism. WildStar is like Looney Tunes on acid, except somehow nowhere near as awesome as that sounds.
That’s not to say that you can’t find some pretty soulless and empty themeparks, too, but that’s the result of poor design or lazy developers, not an inherent flaw of the genre.
I’m a big believer in the idea of video games as art, and within the MMO field, themeparks are where it’s at for fans of art in gaming.
There isn’t a lot of respect for MMORPGs as an art form, even among MMO fans, and to some extent I can understand why. There are certainly plenty of examples of MMOs that have little or no artistry to them.
This is why I don’t play Rift. I find it to be an excellent game mechanically, but I find it to be such a bland hodgepodge of generic fantasy tropes that I simply can’t become invested.
But there are also exceptions, MMOs that are good examples of video games as art, and every one of them is a themepark MMO.
The Secret World‘s mission design, lore writing, voice acting, and storytelling are among the best I’ve seen — not just in MMOs, or even in games, but in all of media. SW:TOR features vivid, three dimensional characters and some genuinely powerful story arcs. Even WoW, despite its occasional stumbles, has had some moments of brilliance. Don’t believe me? Do the Bridenbrad quests in Icecrown and get back to me.
This level of artistry is not something that can happen by accident. It’s only possible when developers carefully plan and design the content. It is therefore something that only a themepark MMO can provide.
“The perfect MMORPG”. A concept as elusive as the holy grail. We rush from MMORPG release to MMORPG release hoping to be enveloped by the warm embrace of perfection. The truth is that the perfect MMORPG is highly dependent on the user. Perhaps some have already witnessed a virtual nirvana. But most of us can only dream of the possibility. And dreaming is exactly what I intend to do today.
Sadly, the Perfect World doesn’t contribute to my Frankensteined perfect MMORPG.
As a fun exercise, I’ll combine the best features from every MMORPG into one perfect MMORPG. In my opinion, this will capture the best of what every virtual world has to offer.
It all starts with character creation and nothing beats Champions Online. The freeform character development is exceptionally fun. Pretty much every type of superhero one can imagine can be created. The superhero MMORPG also offers pre-defined archetypes, but that’s so…blasé. In addition to a wealth of character powers, there’s also about twenty different options for character appearance. All of this combines into the best character creation out there.
What will we do once in game? It wouldn’t be a modern MMORPG without a quest or two. I can’t really think of a better MMORPG questing system to steal than the The Secret World’s. Whereas quest givers in every other MMORPG are overly obsessed with my rat killing count, TSW challenges my self proclaimed heroic title. Missions in this game utilize puzzles, voice acted cutscenes, lore heavy items, stealth, and an impressive tie-in to The Secret World’s immersive environment at every turn. In a lot of ways, TSW handles missions even better than many single player RPGs. I’m more of a sandbox guy at heart, but I’ll jump on a fitting themepark with quests this good.
Where The Secret World falters is combat. Luckily, our perfect MMORPG can ignore that completely. Blade & Soul offers an amazing combat system that does away with hotbar button bloat. Instead, the player builds and releases powerful abilities based on combo attacks reminiscent of Street Fighter. Reaction time is relevant but so is strategically reading one’s opponents. Additionally, the game does away with traditional class based roles that widens grouping possibilities.
Despite a great combat system, Blade and Soul does feel a bit restrictive. Part of that is the game’s economy. Instead of putting the power in the the collective players’ hands, advancement is pretty much self sufficient. In my perfect MMORPG, I want to see a truly interactive player economy. For that, none is better than Eve Online. Every module, ship, weapon, and implant can be freely sold and traded between players in Eve Online. Regional markets replace global auction houses from most MMORPGs. This gives traders a chance to take advantage of changing market conditions. Where some see price gouging arbitrage, Eve Online players see opportunity. It mimics the real world so accurately that even economists study it’s ecosystem.
While everyone wants to get their piece of the pie, some prefer more direct confrontation. It’s been around for a long time, but Dark Age of Camelot’s PvP has yet to be surpassed. Strangely, most developers still insist on World of Warcraft’s inherently unbalanced two faction system. DAoC realized early on that three factions would self regulate. The game makes proper use of PvP and allows players to level up purely through it. Castle sieges and relic conquests keep content from growing stale. Some might say a free for all system would be better, but instant camaraderie via factional warfare is a better choice for a universal, perfect MMORPG.
PvP isn’t all there is to the endgame though. Great dungeons and raids can bring both casual and hardcore guilds together in unique ways. WildStar clearly excels in this like none other. In fact, the challenges that WildStar’s dungeons present have been toned down since launch. They were just too hard. The method to success in a WildStar dungeon is rarely ever obvious. What’s really great about the instanced dungeons in WildStar is that the fun begins early on. Even the first instances in the game limit trash mobs in favor of inspired boss mechanics. The dungeons in WildStar respect me as a player. They may ask too much of my PUGs at times, but it comes with the territory.
All in all, I couldn’t ask for a more perfect MMORPG than what I created above. There are a few traditional pain points I avoided. Visuals and bells and whistles aren’t as big of a deal because a many games handle this well. If the art design is coherent and well put together, I’ll be happy. The World of Warcraft style is just as appealing as the Elder Scrolls Online. And I suppose if I cared more about story, I’d double dip into The Secret World. To me, the best stories come from the players though. Events like killing the sleeper in EverQuest, World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood plague, and Eve Online’s trillion ISK scam can’t be beat.
While such a real world amalgamation seems unlikely as games grow more niche, I can always dream. How would you Frankenstein your Perfect MMO?
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.
It’s truly amazing the amount of resources that developers devote to PvE only for it to be a generic time waster. Even the big MMORPG releases in Blade & Soul and Black Desert Online aren’t bucking the trend. We create a new character, giddy for a new world to explore. That world turns out to be full of quests. Quests to exterminate local monsters and deliver goods to nearby farmers. These quests get pretty repetitive. After all, such quests and monsters exist solely to bridge the gap between new character status and max level. It’s pretty rare that the content that gets us to max level compares to that of a single player game. Really, we’re just wasting our time on low quality content until we ding max level and move onto the real content. And it’s such an unnecessary shame.
Marshal McBride here to deliver another generic quest!
There are tons of ways content could be delivered so as not to be a waste of time. Challenging gameplay, intriguing stories, puzzle elements, escalating intensity, or maybe some actual multiplayer elements given that we’re talking about MMOs. Basically, successful single player games deliver high quality content, just less of it than a MMO. MMOs could deliver that same quality of content, but they don’t. Instead they insist on tons of garbage, practically automated content to waste our time. This isn’t in an indictment on PvE leveling but on how developers approach PvE, especially in regards to the leveling experience. Publishers spend a lot of money on games so let’s stop wasting time for both of us.
Imagine if before The Last of Us really began, there was a 80 hour series kill quests before Joel (the game’s main character) was strong enough to start the game. Some of us might tough it out to get to the good stuff, but that early content would just be fluff. A waste of time. But that’s what we do in a typical MMORPG. I think with its mission based setup, Warframe does a pretty good job of respecting our valuable time to provide meaningful content. Warframe blends story elements and good action pacing that is intrinsically enjoyable. But what about the traditional open world setting of most MMORPGs? Open worlds should rather easily deliver exploration, a type of content that games like Skyrim thrive on.
Joel grinding on some zombies to prepare for The Last of Us
And yet open world MMORPGs since Ultima Online have failed to deliver this world of exploration. Open world games follow World of Warcraft’s lead of opening up the game world one zone at a time. In turn, the primary benefit of an open world is lost. There’s no real exploration because players can only access specific zones based on their level. It’s really a shame because these worlds are created with no short amount of effort spent by the developers. And yet these worlds feel completely artificial, lifeless, and wasted because the game world becomes nothing but a series of glorified, interconnected hubs. Some games such as Wildstar and Guild Wars 2 do their part to encourage exploration, but it’s secondary to the main PvE content. The bland PvE leveling content that just wastes our time.
PvE Leveling Dulls Character Development
I like to jump into MMOs and MMORPGs because I like the feeling of developing a character for the sake of the character. I like to not necessarily have some epic tale that’s going to resolve. Or if it does, I want to continue playing that character. This, and the ability to interact with other such characters played by real people, is what drives my passion for the genre. Unfortunately, I have to engage in activities that really feel don’t mesh with my desires. And it just doesn’t have to be that way. I finished Wasteland 2 and Divinity Original Sin and enjoyed those irrespective of the power my characters were gaining. There’s no reason another MMORPG couldn’t provide the same satisfaction. After all, they are just RPGs with lots of other players. There’s actually more developers could do with that!
Instead, the content is always derivative. The problem arises from the expectation of having enough to do. And it’s a lot easier to create content when it’s of lower quality. Part of the notion of “content need” arises from keeping the player base large enough, but that’s pretty irrelevant if content is all soloable anyway. Why not just create some procedurally generated dungeons for those “high content” seekers and craft a meaningful journey for everyone else. I don’t want PvE leveling to be a waste of time. I want meaningful PvE content created with some thought and care. Single player games have been doing it forever and they live and die by it. MMORPGs need to start taking the journey more seriously, because a mindless grind is a waste of the players’ time and a waste of the developers’ time.