By the time that World of Warcraft came on the scene in 2004, the MMORPG industry had already gravitated toward standard when it came to the interface — specifically, the camera angle. MMO players and devs seemed to prefer third-person views that either peered over the shoulder of avatars or followed right behind them. For decades now, we’ve grown used to watching our characters’ rears as they jog along, and we can’t really imagine the experience otherwise.
Yet when you think about it, while this camera perspective is overwhelmingly used in the genre, it’s not the only one that crops up in MMOs. We’ve seen both old and new titles experiment with the camera angle, sometimes out of style and sometimes out of necessity (here’s a great Gamasutra article on the subject).
For today’s list, we’re going to look at 10 MMORPGs where the camera is positioned in a different way than you’d normally expect, especially if you are coming from modern games.
Probably one of the first MMOs you thought of when you saw the title of this column was Ultima Online. The granddaddy of graphical MMORPGs came onto the scene with a look that was quite reminiscent of the RPG series to date, presenting the world in an isometric format that offered a lot of color and detail with the trade-off being that you couldn’t rotate the game world or see what was on the other side of that wall (although wall dissolves were used).
Lets go from old to new, because here’s a great example of how a modern MMO intentionally chose to go with an isometric viewpoint (with 3-D instead of 2-D sprites). There are advantages to this mode, particularly if you want a wider view for PvP purposes and to spend less system resources and artistic effort on the finer visuals. For what it’s worth, I always thought it looked very attractive, particularly with its color palette.
Aria loves to play up its “spiritual successor” to Ultima Online, which may be a factor in why this game went with a top-down camera as well. It should be noted that many of these games, Aria included, allow you to zoom the camera down to be much closer to the action if you so desire. Progress!
One major exception to the MMORPG third-person camera standard are MMOARPGs (and associated cousins). Path of Exile and Marvel Heroes are both situated in this category, preferring a Diablo-style isometric setup to handle combat that often pitted players against crowds of mobs instead of one or two at a time.
5. PlanetSide 2
Then we can take a look at first-person perspectives, which is actually quite rare in MMOs (although many games have the option to zoom in to one if you so desire). Shooter MMOs, like PlanetSide 2, function better in this perspective, which keeps the format similar to single-player and multiplayer FPS titles.
6. Meridian 59
In the Massively OP offices, we were racking our brains to think of MMOs that used a forced first-person perspective — and did not come up with that many. While some modern RPGs do feature this (and it was quite the staple back in the 1990s), there are very few MMOs outside of MMOFPS titles that do this. Meridian 59 might be one of the only ones in existence, actually, a necessary compromise to the game’s 2.5-D setup that couldn’t handle the player’s avatar without creating an ugly sprite splotch that would cover up a chunk of the screen.
Straight-up side-scrolling 2-D MMOs are fairly rare as well, allowing for crisp art to be employed while treating the game world like a standard platformer game. MapleStory found great success with its unique visual style, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some other titles like Glitch that went this route as well.
8. The Realm
Another very old MMO from the mid-1990s, The Realm went with a 2-D side perspective as well. Unlike MapleStory, it was made up of static screens that functioned more like visual chat rooms and adventure scenes than a scrolling battle-fest.
I would be highly remiss if I didn’t toss Lineage into this list. It was a massive breakout hit in the east with a lifespan that well outlived the 1990s-era isometric sprite format in which it was born. Even as 3-D and its own sequel came onto the scene, Lineage thrived and proved that some players were more concerned with gameplay than cutting-edge graphics.
I could have made this list into a top 20, I think, but I’ll end here with RuneScape. In all of its various incarnations, RuneScape’s camera has floated above the heads of its characters to keep us from peering too closely at its polygon chunky world. It definitely helped the game in its early years, since it was designed to work in browsers and on computers that didn’t have fancy graphic cards. The camera perspective meant that the screen didn’t have to mess with draw distance, too many objects, or even a skybox.