Maybe I’m the only one to have stopped to think about it, but a great deal of the MMOs that we enjoy are based on some sort of previously established IP. That makes sense, as MMOs are inherently risky enterprises and the boost of a franchise association helps to give it that much-needed edge.
So because I had way too much free time, apparently, I also started to think about what MMOs didn’t go this route. Could I find 10 MMOs that didn’t come from some sort of book, movie, TV, or video game series? I think it’s possible, so I present for you my list of online RPGs that actually attempted to create their own worlds from scratch.
The very first title that popped into my mind when I thought of this topic was Turbine’s first MMO, Asheron’s Call. This 1999 game always impressed me by being fearlessly original with its fantasy setting (not to mention commitment to storytelling!), whipping up all sorts of critters and environments that didn’t conform to Tolkien norms.
City of Heroes
While hitching your wagon to DC or Marvel makes a kind of sense, I think it was incredibly wise for City of Heroes to strike out for its own off-brand superhero creation instead. This expanded the umbrella to include all comic book fans regardless of loyalties and probably made the game’s development a whole lot more affordable than it would’ve been if royalties or licenses had to be paid.
I think something we have to clarify in this space is that I’m not excluding titles for being so-called “spiritual successors.” If that was the case, we’d have to bump Star Citizen, which could be seen as a distant relative to Chris Roberts’ Wing Commander series, off of this list. Yet I see this as being its own independent creation — vast in scope, ambitious in design, and probably not coming out in my lifetime.
When you step back and look at the world that Carbine created from scratch, WildStar becomes even more impressive. It wasn’t just a single planet with its myriad alien species but also a galaxy-spanning conflict between major factions that all converged to this one place. It had homages, yes, but WildStar was firmly its own thing from start to finish.
Despite drawing inspiration from the Age of Discovery, New World forged its own path to launch based on a completely unique setting. Plopping everyone down on a surprise magical island in the middle of the sea was a somewhat clever way to sidestep the tricky handling of historical events, peoples, and politics at the time while retaining the cool aesthetics.
Consider how entrenched the world of Tyria is in the minds of players, I think it’s easy to forget that it’s still less than 20 years old. ArenaNet took a big risk conjuring up a brand-new setting for its unproven and innovative Guild Wars back in 2005, but it’s a risk that paid off handsomely with two proven MMOs, plenty of expansions, and millions of players.
In my mind, at least, a lot of these Asian-inspired fantasy realms bleed over into each other with a dedication to impossible sights and high-fidelity visuals. Yet that doesn’t mean we should dismiss those like Black Desert that put great effort into fashioning an eye-catching realm to explore (and exploit!) over the years.
Nothing less than an entire galaxy is the canvas upon which EVE Online is painted, and what a galaxy it is. With humanity divided into factions in this far-flung future, it’s both relatable and distanced from the player. Few online worlds capture cutthroat capitalism and the economics of outer space colonization like this MMO, that’s for sure.
Beginning as a text-based MUD, RuneScape soon broke into the three-dimensional graphical space with its simplistic yet addictive design. Upon this humble base, a skyscraper of lore, quests, systems, and community was built, taking a generic setting and turning it into something enduring.
“Norrath” went from a non-existent nonsensical term to a word that meant adventure, socialization, and fantasy roleplay thanks to the debut of EverQuest in 1999. It’s become such a beloved universe — which has spanned several MMO, single-player, and multiplayer games — that its virtual citizens never forget the memories that were made there. And it’s a place that we hope to revisit if and when a modern sequel is created!