Massively Overthinking: Our favorite MMORPGs of all time, 2021 edition

    
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Five years ago this week – back in 2016 – the MOP team and readers did an epic Massively Overthinking picking out their top five MMORPGs of all time. Thanks to the collapse of Livefyre years ago, most of the comments on that piece were lost. And it’s been five years, so I’m wondering if our tastes and opinions have changed in that time. Plus, we have added new writers since then. And hey, five years is such a nice round number.

All of this is telling me that it’s time to do it again, to refresh our “top five of all time” list. I’m asking our writers and readers to select their top five MMORPGs of all time and tell everyone why those games are on the list – or still on the list, as the case may be. (If you’re not running script-blockers, you should be able to click on the entries to unveil each writer’s thoughts on his or her picks.)

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw):

#1: Asheron's Call
To this day it’s spoiled me in terms of online game service. If you ask me for cash every month, I better be getting more than store options. Even forgetting that those updates were giving players new items, skills, monsters, dungeons, quests, playable races, and land masses, in addition to bug fixes and balance, it also had original, on-going stories that allowed players to directly interact with the story, not through cut scenes, but both GM interaction and lore-driven quest triggers only players who followed the lore could figure out. It’s the textbook definition of what an MMO should be.
#2: Asheron's Call 2
I know I’ll get flack for this, but I don’t care. While the sequel was hated by a large portion of the original playerbase, it brought new people into the genre. The quest lines that nearly took you to the level cap was essentially what Blizzard had done with World of Warcraft before WoW did it. The graphics for its time were amazing, especially the water, and the AI could group quite well (but PvE players in beta didn’t like mobs banding together to take over player territory). While the sequel moved from individual skills to more of a class based game, there was still a good amount of freedom and the classes were super unique. The bee chucking Hive Keepers, the bottle throwing or Jekyll/Hyde Alchemists, the fantasy-turret dropping Tacticians… and we still had monthly updates, interactive GM events, and obscure quests you’d want a lore keeper to help you crack. If Microsoft hadn’t shoved their buggy chat feature into the game that kept players from chatting in a group driven game, AC2 really might have held people’s attention better.
#3: Star Wars Galaxies
I came very late to the party on this one, and admittedly some other games scratched certain itches better and sooner than SWG did for me. However, SWG also combined several of those features into one game. My favorite gathering system by far, interesting crafting, multi-player vehicles (in space!), superb player housing, non-combat leveling options, good roleplay tools, and fantastic character customization. Damn. NGE wasn’t quite as bad as people claimed IMO, but it was similar enough to the AC1/AC2 shakeup that I understood where people were coming from, especially dancers and Jedi. The Old Republic was fun, but honestly? SWG felt more like an MMO and should have been the template. SWTOR could have just been a kind of online Baldur’s Gate experience in the SW universe.
#4: Darkfall
It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, no doubt. But Darkfall felt like it captured a lot of the same energy of EVE Online but with more identifiable avatars and in a fantasy-based world with less mathcraft. No, it wasn’t perfect, but the single-server PvP game with regional conflicts and territory control felt like an oasis after years of WoW raiding. The few times I met someone else who played, we could easily talk about the game, sometimes even meet up if our guilds and allies weren’t at war and if we weren’t too far apart. Opening the second server felt like a mistake, as did trying to make a sequel which, ah, worked out very poorly.
#5: Horizons (Istaria)
Go play it. No joke. While it’s much less active than when it launched, Horizons/Istaria had a lot of the things I loved about the original Asheron’s Call series but in a more typical fantasy setting. Yes, the monthly updates are long gone, and there hasn’t been a new player race added probably 2004, but the game that’s still there is a reasonably structured, open economy sandbox for PvE fans. I enjoyed some time in Crowfall, but it was weird how a 2021 PvP game made me revisit a 2003 PvE game that still satisfied me. It wasn’t a great combat game, but for people who wanted to be a real, aging, flying dragon and crafters, it was great. Builders could tackle major building projects on a fairly customizable level. And like SWG at launch, it was a player-driven economy. In many ways, it still is, and players who liked some of Crowfall’s ideas but not PvP should check it out. If a few of your crafting-minded friends were to pick up the game with you, you’d all be able to have sweet-looking homes/taverns/whatever you want on the physical gameworld, not some instanced stuff you bought in the game shop. I learned more about economy and game markets in Horizons than any other game, and it prepped me for item management in every game since, including PvP games like Darkfall and Crowfall.

Andy McAdams: This was actually harder than I expect it to be. I have to give honorable mentions to ESO, FFXIV, WoW, and EQII as others that I thought about in this list. If you ask me this again next week, my list will probably have changed.

#1: Anarchy Online
My very first MMO, and I’m still wild about it. It hasn’t aged gracefully, but the systems and the game design are still better than the majority of games out there. Couple with that a pet class that could heal, tank, mezz (remember when mezzing was a thing, when MMOs were about more than the race to the highest deeps? Pepperidge Farms remembers. Also me). The world was huge, it was a sci-fi MMO, and we still have woefully few of those. The non-instanced player cities were so cool. I could go on and on, but Anarchy Online set the bar for me when it comes to MMOs.
#2: Glitch
The no-combat, no-class delightfully weird and exceptionally nerdy video game that eventually spawned the juggernaut that is Slack. I loved the absurdity and the humor. It was such a unique and fun game. I’ve thrown out a few “milking butterfly” jokes over the years too, and gotten the exact kind of reaction you would expect.
#3: Guild Wars 2
I have such a weird relationship with Guild Wars 2. I could not wait for the game to come out and when I first started playing I was so excited – but the first time and really the second time I tried to play I didn’t really “get it.” It was fun, and I had fun but it wasn’t until maybe the 3rd time I picked it up that it started click with me. I think a lot of that was de-conditioning myself from WoW-style elder-game play. The sylvari are my favorite race ever in a fantasy world (narrowly beating out kender), and the mesmer is such a fun class. I do wish I could turn all my purple butterflies to something else … maybe dragonflies.
#4: The Secret World
This was another game that I followed super close. I didn’t ‘play’ the ARG leading up to it, but I loved to follow along. That game had so much going for it: the urban/contemporary setting, the eldritch horror, the classless design and downplaying the trinity. It was everything I expected out of a Funcom game. I had stopped playing well before the gutting and rebirth as Secret World Legends, but I had always intended to go back. I still technically could – but it seems like that ship has sailed.
#5: Wildstar
Ugh, Wildstar. Non-living proof of just how toxic developer hubris can be. The game that it had become before it shut down was so fun. The humor was absurd and way over the top, the classes were fun. The housing is still probably still the best out of any game. It could just never quite shake the hardcore cupcake image. They spent so much time creating it that when it was actually hurting them, they couldn’t change the narrative. NCsoft did better by Wildstar than it did by CoX, but I think there was still so much more they could have done.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf):

#1: Lord of the Rings Online
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. There’s some good in this MMO, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
#2: The Elder Scrolls Online
This game does so many things well: Level scaling, character flexibility, interesting classes, deep lore, fun story-telling, and interesting environments. Not to mention they’ve mastered the once-a-quarter content release cycle.
#3: EVE Online
EVE is the best sandbox I’ve played. It’s the current benchmark for building a world and letting the players run it. From the self-sustaining economy to the world-record space battles to the headline-grabbing corporate espionage, there’s somehow never a dull moment and many dull moments happening simultaneously! The only downside to this title is that I don’t have enough time to live in it.
#4: Guild Wars 2
It’s been a few years since I’ve really sat down to play GW2, but most everything that has stuck with me is positive. Both the classes and races are interesting and unique. The personal story offered a different way to progress your character outside of the leveling grind. Guild Wars 2 was the first game that introduced me to level-scaling, which I consider a major contributor to knocking down a major MMO barrier to entry.
#5 New World, maybe
While I’ve not played New World in a few weeks, I do think there are some good bones to build on. It’s an absolutely beautiful world with a few systems that seem to make sense. I’m going to continue to give this one the benefit of the doubt for a while because I’m cautiously optimistic that they can pull an ESO and make it into something truly interesting for the long-term.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): My top four haven’t really changed in the last five years. I am pretty consistent on them. They await toppling.

Star Wars Galaxies
I stand by my opinion that Star Wars Galaxies was the best virtual world MMORPG the genre has ever seen. It was also one of the messiest, buggiest pieces of crap to ever launch. But truthfully, no MMO before or since has built social systems or space flight as robust; few have met its standard for housing; and literally none top it for crafting and economy. There’s a reason I’m still playing it in 2021 on a rogue server.
City of Heroes
As I type this, I’ve actually been back to playing City of Heroes again on a rogue server, and I’m constantly reminded of how well it holds up all these years later. It was really special. I’m not even a superhero fan really at all, but this game continues to impress me with its methodical combat, its breadth of customization, and its alt-friendly mechanics. I’m still in love with it.
Guild Wars
Classic Guild Wars was not love at first sight for me; it was a mess at launch, and I didn’t really succumb to its charms until the late Factions/early Nightfall era. But from then on, I was hooked on the gameplay loop, on outfitting alts and heroes, on farming, on tinkering with builds, on trading, on seeing what I could do with my own self and my minions. I remember farming greens in a window while playing TTRPGs with friends. Don’t tell them!
Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 tells me at least once a month that it doesn’t want my type of gamer, and yet I’m still following it around like a lost puppy because of its gorgeous world, its jump-in-jump-out level-agnostic gameplay, and the best mounts in the genre. I don’t see myself leaving until the lights go out; it’s one of the few MMOs my entire family can and does play together.
LOTRO, Glitch, or Ultima Online
Last time, I picked Wrath-era World of Warcraft for my fifth slot, which made sense because it was the high point for WoW’s quality and breadth of content for multiple player types, plus we weren’t quite as far off from those days when I still had fondness for WoW and hope for its future, or hope for my future in it, I suppose. However, my opinion has cooled significantly over the last few years, even before the scandals, and I’m less certain it should make my top five. This spot should probably go to Ultima Online, which lit the way; Glitch, which never got the accolades it deserved; or Lord of the Rings Online, which is still a fabulous Tolkien sandpark. Every one of these games save WoW is still on my hard drive, which says it all.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): There’s only one MMO for me and that’s Guild Wars. It’s not only the perfect MMO but the perfect game for me. Everything about it worked for me: solid PvP, challenging PvE, interesting theorycrafting, a focus on player skill rather than levels, and the Assassin class had the best combat animations in any MMO. Go ahead, pick up that game today and tell me that it didn’t age well. I doubt that’ll be the case, I tell you what. The heroes also helped ensure the game’s longevity too. During these quieter days, someone who hasn’t logged in can do any of the content because of them!

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog):

#1: WildStar
I am going to forever hold a candle for this one. It had so many good things going for it, including a truly great story and world, extremely fun combat (they made healing fun!), and a stylish graphics style.
#2: Final Fantasy XIV
I mean, this is my “home game,” so it probably is going to come as no surprise that this one is among my all-timers. I don’t really know what praise I could offer that hasn’t already been said by better people than me.
#3: World of Warcraft
Look, I get that this one is… bristly right now, and for extremely good reasons, but we all cannot ignore the impact this game has had on the genre. It represented a quantum shift in MMO design that will resonate well after Blizzard kills it, and that has to be respected, like it or not.
#4: Elite Dangerous
Totally personal choice, this, but this hits the fourth spot because it made me appreciate sandbox space flight MMO titles. This one still has a deep place in my heart as a result, even with its warts.
#5: Star Wars Galaxies
Speaking of sandbox appreciation, playing SWGL gave me a whole new understanding and affection for the legacy of this title, especially since I missed the boat of this title back when it was still online officially. Sometimes an old dog can learn new tricks.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant):

#1: Guild Wars 2
It’s not perfect. Sometimes it feels like it’s flailing to figure out what it wants to be, even years after launch. Its release cadence, while improving recently, has very often been a bit of a mess. Balance isn’t perfect. But for me, there’s no MMORPG I would rather be playing over the long haul. The combat is fun and engaging without being too frantic. The graphics and the music are gorgeous. Character customization, both visually and in terms of gameplay, is some of the best in the industry. The community, while it has its toxic elements like any community, is by and large pretty great. And, perhaps most importantly, there is a wide variety of content available, and the game rewards me for doing whatever I feel like doing today.
#2: The Lord of the Rings Online
You would think that a licensed Lord of the Rings game, from the bygone era when every company was scrambling to become “the next WoW,” would be a shameless cashgrab made by people who watched the movies a while back and maybe looked at the books once, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Its developers have taken so much care to make sure the lore and the world match up as perfectly as possible with the pages of Tolkien’s magnum opus. Sure, on the surface, it’s a WoW clone set in Middle-Earth, but LOTRO has an inexplicable quality to it that keeps me coming back to it over and over.
#3: The Elder Scrolls Online
I don’t like action combat, but the storytelling and world of ESO won me over. It launched as a mess, but won me over because the devs figured out what people wanted, learned from their mistakes, and shaped it into something great.
#4: Star Wars: The Old Republic
My love for this game has waned over the years, but its storytelling is still the gold standard for any MMORPG. It has kind of ruined other MMOs’ stories for me, to be honest, because if I can’t have at least some influence over what my character says and does in the story, I don’t feel as much a part of it; it’s not a roleplaying game if I can’t roleplay through the story.
#5: WildStar
This game had so much potential. I loved everything about the combat in this game. The housing system was incredible. The tone of the writing and the worldbuilding somehow managed to be both goofy and epic at the same time, and the sci-fi setting was a breath of fresh air. The soundtrack is still one of my favorite albums. My mount was a DeLorean hoverboard. In some parallel universe, it’s one of the top MMOs out there, but in this one, it was sadly mismanaged and just never managed to turn the Titanic away from the sunset iceberg.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): First of all, I want to say that just like I did back in 2016, I hate doing these. However, my thinking has actually changed a bit from 2016 (which it should, that was five years ago), so it’s probably just as well that we have a refresh along the way. So, in rough order…

#1: Final Fantasy XIV
In the five years since I originally voted this one, FFXIV has really come into its own with two more expansions (soon to be a third), a vociferous playerbase, more positivity from both the developers and players, more players in general, transparency, kindness, and generally a large bushel of things showing how you can run an MMO successfully. But you don’t need me to wax poetic about this game any more; I already do it often enough, I did a whole media tour about it. The game is a treasure.
#2: World of Warcraft
This game, meanwhile, is more like a ruin. Sure, it was hugely important at one point, but right now you should definitely not be trying to stay within it, because it’s a damn mess and a half. However, I don’t think you can really talk about MMOs without talking about the huge influence that it had on the industry as a whole and how many people it introduced to the genre. It’s being run terribly and the company behind it is an open sewer, but there was a time when this was legitimately so big that it’s almost incomprehensible.
#3: Guild Wars 2
Someone should write an article about how this is the MMO that defined the last decade. What’s that? I already did? Well then.
#4: City of Heroes
As I said last time, this is a game with a heck of a lot of flaws that can be easy to elide and the obvious black mark of being shut down and then revived in a rogue server explosion, which is always a little uncertain. But it’s also a great game for ad-hoc grouping, for player customization, for fun times, for just going and hunting and killing skuls. My views on this one in particular haven’t really changed since the last time, but even as it gets older, my love for this particular title doesn’t diminish. That’s a good thing, I’ll note.
#5: Glitch
Wait, really? Yes. Partly because I feel like this is a list that should be about more than just my personal favorite titles (what a coincidence, my list of favorites perfectly lines up with the best titles, what are the odds), but partly because the more time goes by the more I appreciate what Glitch was trying to do. There are a lot of things that didn’t work around it, and it’s hardly a flawless masterpiece, but it was genuinely trying to be something very different in the MMO space and push forward what social interaction for a game could do. I respect that, and I think it deserves to be remembered along the way.

Runners-up? Well, there are a lot. Ultima Online is the type specimen in ways that deserves a particular dose of affection, Final Fantasy XI is still my first MMO ever, Star Trek Online is still a standout among licensed IPs, and Lord of the Rings Online deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award. Also, the original Guild Wars, if for no other reason than the people who always get very angry about calling it an MMO.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): A top five favorite MMOs of all time seems like a cruel restriction, as I could go to 10 easily, but here goes:

  • Lord of the Rings Online – obviously, as I’ve loved and played this since beta;
  • World of Warcraft  -despite recent events, this had a huge impact on my love of MMORPGs;
  • The Secret World – Best. Story. Ever.;
  • Fallen Earth – my dark horse candidate; and
  • WildStar – double jumping, hoverboards, and housing.

But let it stand for the record that I’m incensed I didn’t get more slots. I think I should’ve had the option to steal one or two from Chris and MJ.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe): I’m not a fan of of-all-time lists because do we mean that they are currently great games or are they good at the time. I’m going with the latter.

#1: Star Wars Galaxies
This was literally the most immersive game that I have ever played. The mechanical concepts were deep and the idea that a player can live in the Star Wars universe pulls at every nostalgia trigger I have. The game has been “dead” for 10 years, and it’s still one that comes up in MMO conversations all the time.
#2: Elder Scrolls Online
When an MMORPG can tell a solid and compelling story, that is an incredible feat. When it mixes with great gameplay and a world that feels alive and changing, then we are looking at an MMO that will be tough to top. And the biggest thing is that it just keeps growing. The studio is still investing a lot of time and money into the game, so there is still more to come.
#3: Star Wars: The Old Republic
If you know me, you’d know that this one would be on my list. I put this one neck and neck with Elder Scrolls Online for very similar reasons. The only reason I put this after ESO is that I always feel like I’m playing a game in SWTOR. The stories are in many ways better than ESO and the consequences are higher, but I always feel that I’m fighting to be immersed instead of just feeling a part of the story. That said, the developers and writers are still very passionate about what they are making even after a decade of low lows and high highs.
#4: DC Universe Online
Did you know that this game is still around? Yeah, and it’s still great! I know many people will go to City of Heroes to get their superhero fix, but I personally feel a lot more connected to DC. And get this: The developers are still adding things to this game and continuing the story that started over 10 years ago.
#5: Conan Exiles
I have to have at least one modern one on this list. And I know it’s not really an MMO, and also I know that Funcom has really done a number on the game. But the base game plus the modding community makes the game beyond amazing. I would literally not play this game if it wasn’t for the mods, and now that I’m starting to make mods myself, I really see how incredibly rich this game can be. More online games should consider allowing for mods.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash):

#1: Guild Wars
The game that really brought me fully into MMOs. It just clicked for me on every level. First and foremost the buy-to-play model made it possible for me to play whenever I was able to as a broke college kid. The separation of PvP and PvE game modes made it so easy for me to pick up and play at any time. I spend thousands of hours in game and likely hundreds just playing random arenas. The class build combinations offered so many options for customizing your play too. I don’t think any game will compare.
#2: Guild Wars 2
As the successor to my all time favorite, it goes without question that I’d love it. Especially at release when so many of the ideas were building on top of the great work from the original Guild Wars. If they had listened to the community (namely me) more and actually implemented all the great features that made the original Guild Wars PvP so great, then this probably would’ve been my #1 game. Unfortunately, they have basically abandoned PvP. So as much as I still love GW2, it’ll never be as great as the original.
#3: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
I only played WAR until shortly after the first (only?) expansion but I have very fond memories. There were so many epic battles that were amazing. They basically created the open world events that anyone who participated in got rewards for. It is too bad they dropped the ball in so many ways. I think it really could’ve been so much more than it ultimately was.
#4: Final Fantasy XI
My very first MMO. I think it was a birthday present one of first years post high school graduation. I just never played a game with hundreds of other players before so it was eye opening. I even made a friend on game that I kept on touch with for several years until eventually time lost us. I remember how cool it was getting my first advancement job as a dragoon. It has a lot of grindy bits and the monthly sub that ultimately forced me to let it go, but it’ll always hold a special place in my memories.
#5: Earth: 2025
Now, I know this won’t count as an MMO in most circles but I did more role playing and spent more real life hours thinking about this game than any other. I literally started a world war in this game. Players from all around the world, half of which I couldn’t speak the same language as, banded together to fight aggressive countries. It was an epic war that lasted weeks. There’s something about a battle of that scale that you just never forget. The game itself might not have seemed like much, being a simple text based online game, but they’re was a so much depth. From the strategy needed to grow your country, to collaborating with others, to fighting to grow your country; it really was done of the most exciting times I’ve ever had in gaming.

Tyler Edwards (blog):

#1: The Secret World
You knew this was gonna be my answer. The most immersive, most intriguing, most brain-blasting, most infuriating-but-in-a-good-way MMO I’ve played. Almost everything about it was just about perfect for me, from the impeccable story-telling to their near-limitless build options. In a way, it even launched my game design career. It was my desire to adapt TSW’s setting to 5E that got me started tinkering with design in the tabletop space. Years after its de facto demise, it’s the game I just can’t let go. I still think about it every day, and I even still play it on occasion, even if it often seems I’m the only person left on the whole server.
#2: World of Warcraft
I always had a love/hate relationship with this game, and these days it definitely isn’t looking so hot, but it is the game I’ve spent the most time in over the years, and there are moments when I really was blown away by the experience of exploring Azeroth. It may be my least favourite Warcraft game, but I still can’t deny my infinite love of the setting, and at the end of the day, it does what it says on the tin: It puts you into the world of Warcraft.
#3: Star Wars: The Old Republic
Perhaps a bit of surprising inclusion considering my lukewarm feelings toward the source material and the fact I was extremely turned off by my first few attempts to play the game, but the way Knights of the Fallen Empire put the focus on the story sucked me in, and since then I’ve played every class story and every expansion. I still find the gameplay mediocre at best (although I have mellowed on the business model, which turns out to be more opaque than greedy once you really delve into it), but it does have some of the best story-telling in the MMO field, and honestly some of the stories could stand with the all-time best of the video game genre. Long after I’ve stopped being bothered by the terrible graphics, tedious combat, and janky business model, I’ll still smile when I think about the journey my Imperial agent has been through.
#4: Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online
I know it’s a bit of a cheat to include two in one entry, but I really think these both deserve this rank, and I can’t decide between them. Both are games that seem like exactly what I want on paper but failed to fully click with me in practice. I’ve played more of ESO, and I think it is in many ways the better game, but I think GW2 has done more to innovate and move the genre forward, and that deserves respect.
#5: New World
Now, I know putting New World on this list so soon after launch is a bold claim, and I fully acknowledge that there is a decent chance I’ll look back on this in a year and absolutely cringe. It’s not even so much that I’m a rabid fan of the game — I’m still not even convinced I’ll still be playing a month from now — but there is a reason it made such a big splash, and it’s not just the clout of the Amazon name, although that definitely helped. Maybe it doesn’t have a lot of wildly innovative mechanics, but the way the games’ features come together feels fresh. I fully acknowledge it has many issues, but they’re really much beyond what I’d expect of any MMO at this stage of its life, and it does have a solid foundation of solid gameplay. Whether or not it turns out to be the right game for me, I think it’s the injection of new blood the genre needed to stay healthy.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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