A common question that I see posited around forums and Reddit is, “What MMO should I play?” If there is a more loaded question than that in this community, I haven’t heard it. What is usually being asked, by both newcomers and long-time players, is, “What MMO is right for me that I haven’t played yet?”
While I hear you and have been there, the truth is that there is no one universal answer to that question. There are just hundreds if not thousands of MMOs, big and small, out on the market, each with its own personality, feature set, and setting. Those have to be compared and matched up with the millions of people who all have their own unique preferences. It’s what makes recommending an MMO a difficult proposition.
I’m game for difficult! Today’s list won’t be “10 MMOs that I think you should play” but a rundown of how to sort through the important categories that are out there in the hopes of finding the game that’s right for you.
I feel that this is an important starting point to the discerning player because if you hate fantasy, you shouldn’t be urged by friends to check out a half-dozen fantasy titles. While fantasy is quite prominent in the industry, there are many other genres represented including but not limited to steampunk (City of Steam), science fiction (Star Trek Online), horror (The Secret World), superhero (DC Universe Online), racing (The Crew), FPS (PlanetSide 2), kids (Wizard101), historical (Sword of the New World), post-apocalyptic (Fallen Earth), dancing (Music Man Online), virtual worlds (Second Life), and so on.
If you’re going to be immersing yourself into a game for many, many hours, it shouldn’t boast an environment or design that annoys you. That’s a good recipe for a frustration-quit in a week or two.
2. Do you have a regional preference?
Not all MMOs are created the same, especially when they hail from different regions and countries around the world. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you at all where a game comes from, but I find that the culture of the dev team can flavor a game from the top-down in ways that can both attract and repulse gamers.
For example, Asian MMOs are hit and miss with me. Sometimes they’re so steeped in a culture that I don’t understand well that I have a hard time getting into the spirit of the game when that spirit involves anime expressions and inexplicably large house pets romping around. Another reason to consider regions is that some people have issues with paying or setting up a subscription with an overseas country.
3. How much combat do you want?
It might seem silly to ask whether or not a player wants to fight in a prospective MMO, but you know what? Not everyone does. There are plenty of MMOs out there that either eschew combat completely or else downplay it in favor of social, crafting, and economy elements. Puzzle Pirates, Mabinogi, and RuneScape come to mind as decent low-combat alternatives.
4. What kind of combat appeals to you?
Assuming that combat is OK with you or a big part of the appeal of MMOs, then you have to come to grips with the fact that not all combat is created equal. Generally, there are two major categories of combat styles: traditional and action combat.
Traditional (also referred to as hotkey or tab-targeting) combat is the older style that allows you to pick out a target and then go through your hotbar skills to defeat it, usually with a global cooldown keeping you from just spamming all of the buttons at once. Games like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic epitomize this style.
Action combat usually utilizes fewer skills in favor of quicker moves, constant movement (and avoidance of danger spots), and reflex decisions. Neverwinter and WildStar would be two examples here, although there are games like Guild Wars 2 that straddle the line between both formats.
5. Are you more of a sandbox or a themepark player?
Instead of thinking of sandbox and themeparks as an “either or” setup, you’re better off to picture a spectrum where games fall on a line between the two extremes. MMOs will tend to lean one way or the other, and which appeals more to you will sway your opinion greatly.
Sandboxes call out to players who would rather use tools to make their own content and progress their own way, while themeparks hew to a more defined path that allows for dev-crafted experiences and stories. That’s about as gross a generalization as I can make, but it’s the gist of the spectrum. So maybe you’d like a pure sandbox (Ultima Online), a thematically rich themepark (RIFT), or something in-between (ArcheAge).
Here’s another loaded topic for you: MMO business models are often some of the most contentiously debated issues in the community, with arguments being made for the virtues and downfalls of each type. Instead of taking one person’s word on a specific model, realize that what it comes down to is how much you want to spend on a game, how you are comfortable spending it, and what you’re willing to settle for with a game that needs to make money somehow.
Subscription-based titles like Final Fantasy XIV offer a full package with one monthly price (plus the occasional double-dipping service or item transaction), which particularly appeals to those who want to settle into a game and don’t want to worry about the baggage that other models can bring. Free-to-play (and F2P/subscription hybrids) like Allods Online have a zero-point access but are looking to nickle-and-dime you in various departments, sometimes throwing up a pay wall when you’re far into the game. Buy-to-play like The Secret World requires a large up-front cost and the occasional DLC payment but usually employ fewer shady tactics than F2P games do.
7. What specific features interest you?
MMOs come with an array of offerings in an attempt to appeal to a broad audience. Some of those features might be up your alley and can serve as powerful incentives to check out a game. Are you looking for incredible player housing options? EverQuest II has you covered. Do you enjoy running player-made missions? Neverwinter is all over that. Want to collect and battle pets? World of Warcraft has that in spades. Want to explore an IP-rich world ripped straight from best-selling books? I’d recommend Lord of the Rings Online.
8. How mature or kid-friendly should the game be?
MMO gamers range from young kids to teens to adults to parents and grandparents. I think it’s important to recognize that not everyone wants a ton of blood and nudity and harsh language in a game, just as it’s important to acknowledge that a mature slant can appeal to a subset of gamers.
So maybe you want a gritty fantasy world like Age of Conan, a cutthroat environment like EVE Online, or a voyage into the macabre like The Secret World. That’s fine; there are games out there for you. But maybe you also want titles to play with your children, which is part of why Pirate101, Trove, and Wakfu are on the market.
9. How fresh or fleshed-out do you prefer?
Getting in on the ground floor of an MMO is very important for some, especially those who follow the crowds like part of a school of fish. So if that’s you, maybe you’ll be so into the latest gaming craze that you’ll want to get in on beta tests and into early access programs like Crowfall or Shroud of the Avatar.
On the flip side, maybe you’re the type of gamer who prefers a game that’s past the launch drama and has had some significant time to iron out bugs and patch in a hefty amount of content. Older titles like Guild Wars and Dungeons and Dragons Online can supply this in spades.
10. What are your friends playing?
In my experience, the choice of which MMO to play is heavily influenced by which games our friends are playing. Having friends and family to connect with in a game can be a wonderful asset to your MMO career, strengthening relationships while providing sources of reliable recommendations.
Alternatively, you could plug into a multi-game community to provide that social network while you can sample each of the games that community supports. I don’t know about you, but I hate feeling alone when I enter a new game. Removing that loneliness from the equation even before I log in is a wonderful relief.