Massively Overthinking: Our five favorite MMORPGs of all time


Earlier this week, Redditor maxpower888 started an epic thread on the /r/mmorpg sub asking everyone to chime in and name his or her top five MMORPGs of all time. I thought it was a nifty thread to skim to see how many times the same games kept popping up (and the same games turned up in combination with each other).

“You can tell how old people are by their lists,” one gamer objected, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true!

So for this week’s Overthinking, we’re going to join in the fun, then explain our choices and puzzle out what those choices say about us — don’t forget to click the entries to expand them for explanations! You should do the same down in the comments!


Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Don’t forget to click each one for an explanation!

#1: Asheron's Call
I still think this is the game our genre needs to strive to return to, but in a modern way. Monthly updates with content. Developer lead but player controlled story progress. Social systems that encourage mentoring new players and forming almost family like units. A familiar but wholly original world, not based on an IP that could strangle story lines. The way the developers used PvP combined with story telling is something that really needs to be emulated more, but perhaps “thanks” to World of Warcraft, is seen as impossible due to the popularity of the genre now. Others have talked about returning to this era (RIP Revival), but it’s not yet been done. Just the same, this game/series introduced me not only to new game concepts, but allowed my teenage self a space where I could interact with other people and try new problem solving solutions and ways of interacting with other people without having to worry about my physical appearance as I struggled with the usual teenage issues (shyness, mood swings, voice cracking…). It may not have been the most successful MMO, but I still feel the value I got from it far surpassed anything else that was on the market at the time, and the number of EverQuest players at my school who ended up coming over to the Asheron’s Call side can probably back me up on that.
#2: Star Wars Galaxies
Before people scream about rose colored goggles, let me remind you that I didn’t start the game until after it supposedly went downhill, nearly a year before it was shut down. The economy was wrecked, the population stagnant, and the world littered with ruins of a formerly bustling game. And it was still great. Most of the combat was forgettable, but the ability to build your own quests, play and progress steadily as a non-combat character, build and battle ships (sometimes with multiple crew members), and build the actual game world is significant in terms of gaming in general. A lot of design choices refer back to this game for a reason. My time in SWG was short, but it left a strong impression on me, even though I played it with no real life friends or long term gaming partners.
#3: Ultima Online/Lineage II
I’m doing a tie here for two reasons. First, I’ve admittedly played neither, and second, they did nearly the same thing in different ways: called attention to player vs. player virtual worlds as content. I know some readers really dislike non-instanced, open world PvP, but there really is a reason it’s pursued, and these games helped show that there is a market for that. Even in Japan, where MMOs are barely known, I met people familiar with these games, thanks in part to influencing Sword Art Online’s writer Reki Kawahara. Again, from a social perspective, when you can relate games to other media and real life, they feel much, much more valuable, at least for me. These were also some of the first MMOs I’d see covered by non-gaming press, which really helped me realize that the games I was playing were building digital societies.
#4: EverQuest
Sorry WoW, but you wouldn’t have existed without EQ. Like some other titles on my list, I’ll admit to having never played it, but the fact that it had some impact on my meatspace social life shows just how influential the game was from a social standpoint. WoW brought MMOs out of the shadows, but EQ is what cast them.
#5: World of Warcraft
Love it or hate it, WoW is what brought MMOs out of the shadows and into the light of pop culture for North America – and I’d hazard Europe as well. It’s made talking about my chosen hobby much easier to explain and, in some ways, easier to share. I made a lot of friends and connections, began my first serious guild in this game, and actually got my start in blogging all because of WoW. I may not have played it in years, but it’s helped boost Blizzard from a company known only to gamers to one even non-gamers may recognize.

It’s hard not to include EVE Online here (admittedly another PvP game I’ve yet to jump into, unless you count Dust 514 or Valkyrie), but I feel as though the grand-daddies of MMOs did a few things. First, they were among some of the first successful MMOs that are IP based and more successful than their original titles (sorry, Asheron’s Call 2, I loved you but apparently I was in the minority).

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): (Brendan is on a plane destined for EVE Fanfest at the moment, but I think it’s safe to say EVE Online would top his list! -Eds)


Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I actually found the first four really easy and obvious, but my #5… ug! Click to expand each entry:

#1: Star Wars Galaxies
Jam together my lifelong obsession with Star Wars and the best player-driven economy sandbox in living memory, and you have Star Wars Galaxies, a glorious, broken mess of a game that accidentally stumbled into the perfect formula for a living, breathing virtual world, with staggeringly impressive housing, crafting, and roleplaying tools. It simply has yet to be topped.
#2: City of Heroes
While I wasn’t at all impressed with City of Heroes at launch, by the time I returned for Villains, most of the anti-solo tedium had been swept away, which only made grouping that much more fun. The so-called themepark had a sandbox’s worth of activities, from costumes and auction halls to guild housing and alts… so very many alts, you guys. It also invented the lion’s share of quality-of-life features that other MMORPGs now claim for their own. There’s a little piece of City of Heroes in almost every modern MMO.
#3: Guild Wars
Classic Guild Wars, like my second choice above, was a miserable launch experience, but Nightfall turned it around and hooked me. I had a blast building out my account with one of everything, their heroes, their armor, their skill sets. I actually enjoyed farming, chiefly because it was genuinely challenging and lucrative, and though the game lacked an auction house, I spent a significant portion of my time trading with other players. Honestly, if the game had more players now, I’d probably still be there doing the same old stuff.
#4: Guild Wars 2
Of all of the modern AAA MMORPGs, Guild Wars 2 is easily my favorite, and it’s not really because of nostalgia for the world of classic Guild Wars. It’s because Guild Wars 2 is my kind of themepark — the City of Heroes kind, with relatively free-form leveling, level-scaling, midgame entertainment, and a heavy emphasis on cosmetics and the social culture. Do-what-you-want gameplay is my thing.

Interestingly, this is the only game on my top five that came out in a period that wasn’t the 2003-2005 era. That’s why I don’t think you can use the answers to age folks. I started MMOing in 1997, yet I don’t think the real golden age began until the second/third wave of MMOs!

#5: Wrath era WoW
For my fifth choice, I waffled hard. World of Warcraft has probably made more money off me than any other MMORPG in the last 19 years, so if I have to pick one, I’d say WoW — but Wrath of the Lich King, specifically. That was the high point for content, for cosmetics, for balance between the elites and everyone else, for zone quality, for PvP — no contest.

Still, that fifth one was rough. I could have as easily said Ultima Online, which I still playAsheron’s Call, one of the greats I wish I’d played much more at its peak; or Glitch, a brilliant little sandbox that actually made me unsub UO. Twice.


Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I hate doing these, mostly because I think they’re rarely all that revelatory and prompt exactly the sort of “no, this is a better game than your pick” waving that I find intensely unpleasant. That having been said, I also doubt anyone will be surprised by mine. (Click to expand each entry!)

#1: Final Fantasy XIV
Starting with the most recent of the lot, I’m honestly giving this to both incarnations of the game. The original version was a hot mess of half-considered systems and solving problems that didn’t yet exist, but boy, there was something heady about it. It played like an early access fever dream given big-budget dedication, and even though it wasn’t very good it was certainly different. The current version, meanwhile, is an intensely polished and well-handled experience with a diverse feature list and exactly the sort of refinements I’ve wanted from this genre for years, a game that continually adds new things to do and new ways to explore its content. It’s a load of fun, it’s challenging, it’s engaging, and even its biggest missteps are often to its credit (sure, it doesn’t handle housing as well as it ought to, but it has housing, and it’s complex and well-featured.) So it’s an easy pick.
#2: World of Warcraft
It’s impossible to explain the ways that World of Warcraft changed the field of MMOs if you weren’t here beforehand, and while some of those changes weren’t beneficial, that doesn’t change the fact that the original game was a revelation. It provided a straightforward experience that was fun, comprehensible, and above all else engaging from a very early level, and for all the crap ideas it brought on as baggage from elsewhere it also destroyed several others. Sure, it’s a game that I’d argue has long since peaked, but that doesn’t make it not the best; it just means that its brightest days are behind it, and they informed some staggeringly good games that came later. I’ve said before that FFXIV feels like a sequel to the best parts of WoW at this point, and you couldn’t have the sequel without the original.
#3: City of Heroes
Yeah, everyone knows this is one of my favorite games of all time. It had a heck of a lot of flaws, which tend to get wiped out in people’s reminiscing, but it nailed the feeling of being a superhero out on the street, and it never stopped being a great game for ad-hoc grouping and making fun new characters. If there was a single game that epitomized the idea that being able to group up effortlessly was fun, this would be it, and in some way I feel like its freewheeling nature helped drive the push toward group finders that we saw later; make grouping a painless operation and a lot of people are happy to do it. It also really pushed the idea of character customization and what could be done in the MMO space. It’s gone, and I shan’t pretend that there are no better games that have come out subsequently, but it was still one of the greats.
#4: Final Fantasy XI
Forever near and dear to my heart, this was my first MMO, and I still think it’s one of the greats. Yes, in many ways it was based stolidly on the foundation of EverQuest, but it also did a lot of things on its own, and it really reveled in creating an ornate and complex world for players to invest in. It was a game that never stopped trying to be more than it had been, never moved away from trying new things, and always offered some new sort of experience over the horizon. There’s a baroque grandiosity to the game that few others have managed to equal, and there’s a reason I still go back to it on the regular now that it’s been made more accessible, like peeking behind the curtain of a play I could only see in bits and pieces before.
#5: Star Trek Online
Ah, this one’s unlikely to get many votes. And in a way, it doesn’t deserve many; Star Trek Online is a mess of conflicting systems, it’s been heavily overhauled several times, it has some horribly unclear mechanics, and so forth. At the same time, though, it’s also a game that puts a huge amount of stock in doing things that I have seen no MMO before or since attempt, and it feels like such an eager mix of ideas in the name of lore fidelity that later gets hammered into game balance. I can only imagine what it would look like if its initial development time had lasted for more than half an hour; the fact that it works so well on such a quick turnaround is nothing short of amazing.

Easy runners-up: Guild Wars, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World, MapleStory, and Ryzom.

My beloved Dark/Ice Tanker, Mirror Maze. RIP, City of Heroes.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog) – clicky clicky click to expand!

#1: City of Heroes
First real MMO I played and stuck with for any length of time, but beyond that, it was a colorful, fun title that encouraged creativity and imaginative play. Deserved a much longer life than it got. RIP.
#2: World of Warcraft
The colorful world, innovative questing system, somewhat casual-friendly nature, and addictive gameplay loop hit the spot for me and millions of others. It’s far from a perfect game, but it is certainly a good one in many respects and a genre definer.
#3: Lord of the Rings Online
WoW in Middle-earth? Maybe at first, but Turbine invested heavily into the lore and setting of the game so that this, among all MMOs I’ve played, felt the most “real.” It cultivated a community that is absolutely clever and supportive, even today. The music, the more down-to-earth fantasy, and the adherence to the source material all elevated this far above just a mere clone.
#4: The Secret World
Whether or not you play this, you have to admit that there’s just nothing else like it out there. The contemporary setting, with a focus on horror and conspiracy theories, made it more relatable than fantasy worlds. Even better, the questing is top-notch, utilizing superb voice acting and challenging design that often blurs the line between video game and real life. Plus, everyone loves the weird cosmetics.
#5: Guild Wars 2
In so many ways, the sequel vastly improved upon the original (which is fiercely loved by some but has never been my cup of tea). I might be on the outs with it these days, but if I’m honest I have to confess appreciation of its art style, event system, wide-open choice of leveling, and constant attempts to change and mold the world instead of letting it sit stagnant.


MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Anyone who has known me for five minutes should probably already know the top game on this list. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the other four share some main characteristics with the first, which is why they are games that I love (and still play). Click to expand my picks!

#1: Star Wars Galaxies
If you didn’t see that coming, you don’t know me at all. So, hello! Pleased to meet you. Basically, you can sum up the reason as: I got to live in the Star Wars universe. And I mean live in it. SWG was a living, breathing world filled with characters who made it come alive with all their personal lives and stories. It was everything I love about movies, books, and theater all wrapped up together without the monotony of predictability! I could sit back and watch stories unfold, or I could be a part of them. Unlike books and movies, I didn’t know what would happen next, because with the variable of so many individuals involved, there were many twists and turns and surprises.

I know it wasn’t the exact experience of everyone, but the combination of everything — my class, me, the mechanics, the setting, the community — made it perfect for me to be able to live and roleplay in the world fully without mechanics getting in the way. Let me emphasize: Game mechanics did not get in the way! I didn’t have to fake it or resort to “tavern RP” where people just sit around talking about their made-up personal exploits. You actually went out and lived those exploits! Even when my computer started crashing, we integrated that right into her life. And I wasn’t in any way pigeon-holed by the game to be anything particular (in the early years at least, before the dreaded changes). I didn’t have to fight, which was totally against my character; she could be true to her personality without the game getting in the way. She became a broker of information, and could acquire or point out where to get tangible or intangible goods — for a price! She could heal, she could dance, and her cats and others could protect her. Which brings up another awesome aspect: interdependency. I loved that the community needed each other. No one could do/be everything, and it made us come together. The stories were all interwoven together, which is what made them so fascinating and unpredictable.

It was a vibrant life, and I never grew tired of seeing where it went, both on a personal level and how it related to the server story as a whole. I even told my kids the ongoing stories at the dinner table. And all the stories I wrote were events as they transpired in game. That is an experience that has never been duplicated throughout all the rest of the MMOs that I have played. And I have played many (though admittedly not all). Oh man, I still miss this game.

#2: The Secret World
I love unique, I love horror movies, I love mysteries, and I love puzzles… Yeah, so this is a given. No other MMO has given me the opportunity to “win” by using my mind. Winning almost everywhere else is solely combat-based, and often twitch-response based. That is not me. But figuring things out, using knowledge? Heck yeah that’s me! The feeling of solving mysteries is a drug I can’t get enough of! And you can be rewarded for exploring and doing things considered unconventional. That sums me up pretty well right there.

Now let’s talk stories. I can’t even tell you how much I love the stories in this game, the twists, and the overshadowed darkness. It is an atmosphere unlike any other MMO, and I crave it. The atmosphere is what really ties this world together and gives it a life. It is the experience of walking through many little Twilight Zone vignettes instead of just watching them. Add the fact I can seriously look however is fitting for my character’s story/personality/mood thanks to the innovative gear system (all clothing is cosmetic, equipment is considered charms, jewelry, etc). It really gives me the feel that the character is who I want her to be, not who the game forces her to be.

#3: EverQuest II
Although the mechanics of EQII often work against me having a truly immersive experience (it was better back in the beginning!), it still offers a lore-rich world with plenty of things to sink my time and creativity into. The housing system is still top-notch, allowing for such freedom of creative expression. I spent six full months decorating one place, to the exclusion of nearly all other gameplay — except for dungeons or raids that had housing items I needed! I love seeing the creativity of others as well, and the game makes it easy to do so. I still have projects i want to complete there.

Also, the way crafting was meaningful and interdependent in the beginning will always keep this near the top of my list. Working up to being one of the two best, most trusted armorers was an accomplishment I was truly proud of and gave fun meaning to my game time. Sadly, that went away with the simplification of crafting. Why must we make everything so oversimplified? What’s wrong with having to work at something to be good and the chance to take pride in accomplishment? The loss of the racial boroughs is also still painful, as it took away a chunk of the charm and personality of the game. No longer can I stroll the streets where many a story took place, and into my little one room apartment with its own stories. Thank heavens the walls can’t talk!

#4: Lord of the Rings Online
Remember how I got to live in the Star Wars Universe? Well, I also get to live in Middle-earth. And man, do I love that experience! I don’t care for the combat (I hate how the Minstrel fights), but I love the landscape to no end. That moment of awe that just stops you in your tracks when you come across things you know from the books, that now personal connection to one of the greatest stories of all time. Little can compare. Those frozen trolls? Weathertop? Hobbit holes? To feel like some tiny little part of one of the greatest stories of all time, how could I not be so in love with that?

Now let’s talk the music system. Talk about creative expression! Being able to play music, tons of music, on different instruments is awesome. Traveling bands are a real thing. A thing I say! Music happens to be a major part/love in my life, so having such a robust system here is a major, major plus.

And honestly, I am overjoyed to be a little guy — a background character — in that world. I don’t need or want to be there hero, we already have the heroes. And we sure as heck can’t do the heroes better than Tolkien! Just to be some random person in that world, it makes me feel like I truly am a part of the world. I think so many games totally miss the mark when they try and make you THE ONE, THE HERO, THE ALMIGHTY SAVIOR OF EVERYTHING. No one wants to be Uncle Owen eh? Well, I do. OK, I’d actually prefer Aunt Beru. I just want to have my own story in the world, and LOTRO provides this. (The fact that my own story also involves a place to call my own is even better! Yay for housing, even with restrictive hooks.)

#5: Vanguard
Yes, this game had bugs. Yes, it didn’t get the love and attention it deserved (nor could SOE offer since the code was so cobbled together when they bought it they’d really need to just remake the whole game from scratch to be able to add content). Still, the game had those elements that made it a vast, varied world that I could live in, not just play through. It had some of the best classes ever created. It had a superb housing system, with an ability that was then taken and incorporated into SOE’s other games. Bless you Vanguard for giving us decorating on the Z axis!

It also had a brotherhood system that would ensure that you’d never out-level your friends and make grouping and doing the content together impossible. That was definitely a treasure! Suddenly you weren’t tied down to only playing when your friends could. You could actually still enjoy the combat content of the game those times you couldn’t both/all be on; you didn’t have to resort to just crafting or decorating if you didn’t want to. What’s this, having choices in a game? Gasp!

#6: ARK: Survival Evolved
I can’t help it, I have to add a 6th! OK, so ARK: Survival Evolved it isn’t exactly MMO, but it is a world I get to live in and affect. I get to build creative structures. What will work best, what will look best — these are things I puzzle out. I absolutely love architecture. And the feelings that come with trying to survive in a world of dinos… That adrenaline rush from the apprehension that builds in the face of the danger is addictive.

I have some real hopes of adding Shroud of the Avatar to this list as it seems to fit right into my ideals. And that, if you haven’t guessed, is a living world that is a vehicle for creative expression. A place to explore. I don’t want a game to play, I want a story to live somewhere where my actions do have a real and lasting impact on the world, be it on a small or a sometimes large scale. How will it end? What happens next? These are the things that keep me coming back for more over and over again.

Your turn!

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