When we look at the video games that have truly stood the test of time, MMORPGs are always near the top of that list. The genre has been around for decades, and many of its earliest titles like Everquest are still playable to this day. So, what's the secret sauce that makes MMOs so popular and long-lasting?
Broadly speaking, MMOs offer players a sense of freedom, giving them massive open worlds to explore, dozens of side activities to pursue, spooky dungeons to conquer, and epic quests to complete -- all in the company of thousands, or even millions, of other players.
These players might cooperate with you, work against you, or do both at different parts of your in-game journey. Best of all, these players can live just about anywhere in the world. With few exceptions, the player base of most popular modern MMOs span multiple countries. You can hop into a World of Warcraft Dungeon queue with players from Germany, Russia, Canada, and France without even realizing it!
However, impressive as many MMOs are, like most other genres, it's always been survival of the fittest. Lesser games have come and gone over the years, long since faded into obscurity. In contrast, others have maintained its popularity due to their excellent gameplay, unique features, or frequent updates.
To help you discover some of those games, we're bringing you our list of the top 10 best MMOs out there (in no particular order).
- Graphics: Good
Similar: Tera, Black Desert Online, Guild Wars 2
- Pay Model: B2P (Pay once) with a mostly-cosmetic cash shop
Until Bethesda creates an Elder Scrolls game with proper coop, or one of the many in-development multiplayer Skyrim mods reaches the finish line, fans of the franchise have been left with very few opportunities to explore the world of Tamriel with their friends. That's where The Elder Scrolls Online comes in.
ESO launched in a rough state, but like many "live" games these days, it bounced back impressively. The combat system is entirely action-based and emulates traditional, single-player Elder Scrolls game combat quite well (for an MMO). You only hit what you're aiming at, and you can block, dodge, and sneak just as you can in other Elder Scrolls games. The quests are all fully voice-acted, and you're able to make meaningful choices that can alter their outcomes. And, thanks to the game's plethora of expansions, there's plenty of content to delve into, and an ever-expanding map that one day hopes to cover the entirety of Tamriel.
The Elder Scrolls Online also stands out from the pack with its free-form character progression systems. You do pick a class during character creation, but that only dictates three of your available ability trees -- all of the other powers at your disposal are unlocked through weapon or armor skill progression and faction quests. Further, you can mix and match gear at will, often with excellent results: play a Sorcerer decked out in full plate and a greatsword, or cast lightning bolts out of a fancy staff as a Dragon Knight. You can even embrace your sadistic side and turn into a vampire or werewolf (or just break into someone's house and steal everything that isn't nailed down).
There are guilds to join, homes to buy, and you can marry other players, though it doesn't do much but provide you both with an XP bonus while playing together. The game is free-to-play, like many others on this list, so as usual, you have nothing to lose by giving it a shot... except for a decent chunk of hard disk space -- ESO is quite the beefy game.
- Graphics: Good
Similar: Black Desert Online
- Pay Model: F2P or P2P
Sci-fi MMO EVE Online might be notorious for having a hardcore player base and a steep learning curve, but it's better than ever in 2020. Though the MMO is intimidating for new players, if you're looking for an immensely-gratifying, sci-fi sandbox to play in, few games will come as close to scratching that itch as this one does.
In developer CCP Games' own words, EVE Online is a fully community-driven spaceship MMO where each player is free to chart their own path through a massive, sprawling galaxy. You can be an explorer, tasked with mapping out the farthest reaches of space, or a bounty hunter, taking down deadly targets for the glory of it, or for the hefty payout that waits for you at the end.
If both of those activities sound a bit too intense for you, you might consider becoming a humble trader, transporting goods from place to place in search of the best prices and highest profits. Alternatively, you can get involved in the universe's political systems, and attempt to take over some of the highest offices in the game.
And, if altruism is your cup of tea, EVE Online is offering players the opportunity to participate in the fight against Covid-19 by completing various in-game tasks that help researchers categorize cells.
However, with all that freedom comes quite a bit of risk and complexity. EVE Online's interface and combat system are confusing at best, and its PvP mechanics can be ruthless for the unprepared -- expect to lose more than a few ships at the start of your journey. Some veteran players will even target new players just to see their reaction. Still, if you can get past the first few days of overwhelming play and perhaps join up with a bigger clan or group, EVE Online truly shines as one of the most impressively-reactive multiplayer sci-fi games around today.
- Graphics: Beautiful
- Similar: Neverwinter, The Elder Scrolls Online
- Pay Model: B2P (pay once) with a cash shop (gameplay-affecting). Can pay for various in-game advantages
No modern MMORPG list would be complete without Black Desert Online. Though it's a controversial game in some respects (some players accuse it of being "pay-to-win"), it also happens to be one of the best sandbox MMOs on the market, with a low barrier to entry. It's only $10 on Steam, and can often be found for half that price.
In BDO, you start by choosing one of 20 gender-locked classes and subsequently delving into what is easily the most in-depth character creation system we've ever seen in an MMO. After that, you are let loose into a beautiful fantasy world, where you can do almost anything you want.
You can become a fisherman (or woman), go hunting for rare beasts, or fight off challenging PvE world bosses and even other players using the game's intimidating (but ultimately rewarding) combo-based action combat system.
Speaking of fighting other players, BDO is a PvPer's dream come true. A massive emphasis has been placed on world PvP in this game, primarily due to the player-driven economy system and the lack of any real protection against player-killing while you're out in the world -- once you hit a certain level, that is.
If you get tired of all the combat or miscellaneous "life skills," you could experiment with worker empires instead. In BDO, you can amass an army of NPC slav-... I mean, employees to do your bidding for you. They can farm, mine, craft, or even investment bank for you, reducing your workload and allowing you to enjoy the game's other, more entertaining systems.
Graphics: Cartoony, but attractive
Similar: LOTRO, FFXIV
Pay Model: P2P (monthly subscription) with a cosmetic cash shop (pets, mounts, miscellaneous account-related services)
Gamers of all stripes have heard of Blizzard's highly-successful, 16-year-old (and counting) MMORPG World of Warcraft. Millions upon millions of players have invested their money and time into this game since its launch in 2004, and it isn't difficult to see why.
Its beloved cartoony art style, nostalgic and ever-expanding world, and its veritable mountain of playable content have allowed it to continue running well past the day many naysayers assumed it would die off.
World of Warcraft truly has something for just about everyone. If you enjoy working together with other players, then delve into one of the game's frantic and challenging end-game raids to see how many bosses you can slay. If you prefer to show your skill in a more confrontational way, there's plenty of PvP action as well, in the form of Battlegrounds, Arenas, and the unpredictable, open-world (but now opt-in) PvP the game was once famous for.
Alternatively, you can kick back with some of WoW's less-intense activities, such as fishing, cooking, exploration, mount and pet collecting, or even story progression. With the launch of World of Warcraft: Classic earlier this year, the WoW IP expanded its reach even further.
Aiming to replicate the game in its original "vanilla" state, Classic has generated more buzz in the MMO community and pulled in far more players than Blizzard could have anticipated. Players love the back-to-basics gameplay, not to mention the return of many removed features, items, quests, and class abilities.
The graphics aren't the best in comparison to the live game, but Classic is a fantastic alternative to WoW proper for anyone who wants a slower, more difficult (and arguably more rewarding) MMO experience. Whichever version of the game you choose to try out, you likely won't be disappointed.
If you do go with the "normal" version of WoW, now is arguably the best time to hop in. Ahead of the Shadowlands expansion, Blizzard has entirely overhauled WoW's levelling systems and new-player experience. There's an all-new tutorial island, complete with detailed explanations of various game mechanics, and a "squished" level cap (bringing the max level down to 50 from 120).
With a free account, you can battle your way up to level 20, unlocking new passive or active class abilities every time your XP bar fills. You can even choose which era of content you want to experience during your journey to level 50 -- you're no longer forced to go through every expansion (even the worst ones) just to hit level cap.
If you're looking for some advice on which zone to start in, I personally recommend Mists of Pandaria. Unlike most of WoW's other expansions, MoP, for the most part, offers you a relaxing and laid-back levelling experience. There are dark threats brewing under the surface, but at the end of the day, you'll be exploring idyllic country sides, helping chunky pandas brew beer, and even dabbling in a bit of farming and fishing.
- Graphics: Beautiful
Similar: Rift, World of Warcraft
- Pay Model: Monthly subscription, must buy the base game as well, plus cosmetic cash shop
If you take lore seriously in your MMOs, Final Fantasy XIV is a must-play. Available on PlayStation, PC, and Mac, FFXIV brings the story-rich world and history of the single-player franchise to the multiplayer arena and it does so in spectacular fashion.
FFXIV is one of the most visually-impressive MMOs on the market, with massive, beautifully-rendered cities, attractive character designs, and phenomenal cutscenes. The story is a big selling point, thanks to its varied, intriguing, and sometimes downright adorable cast of characters and many gripping plot moments. Each in-game class also has its own specific storyline, which helps immerse you in the world and make you feel like you're a part of something bigger. This is something few other MMOs manage to pull off successfully, despite their best efforts.
The class system in FFXIV is another stand-out feature. Unlike the vast majority of other MMOs that force you to roll a new character every time you want to try a new class, FFXIV lets you level all available classes on a single character. You can still make "alts" if you'd like, but it's not quite as mandatory as it is in other games.
The combat and general "MMO" systems in FFXIV are nothing to write home about -- again, it all closely resembles old-school MMOs like WoW or Everquest with tab-targeting and a normal action bar -- but they're far from bad; particularly with how well-animated and fluid most class abilities are. If you aren't put off by a subscription fee, FFXIV is a wonderful choice for anyone who wants a more traditional MMORPG with a more substantial focus on quality storytelling.
Similar: The Elder Scrolls Online, Neverwinter
Pay Model: B2P (pay once) with a cosmetic cash shop
Guild Wars 2 has been on the market for a respectable 8 years. Its recipe for success lies in its tendency to buck traditional MMORPG trends in favor of newer, fresher ideas. Starting with the combat, Guild Wars 2 scraps the slower, slightly more static target-based systems of games like WoW and replaces it with a much more action-oriented alternative. You can dodge roll out of danger, use your weapon-specific abilities to zip around the battlefield, or simply crash into the ground with devastating area-of-effect attacks.
Mounts are another area where Guild Wars 2 innovates. Unlike other MMOs, which mostly use mounts for basic ground or flying speed boosts, this game's rideable companions are all mighty in their own ways. The Raptor is fast on its feet and possesses an upgradeable leap ability that can help you cross massive chasms. The Griffon, on the other hand, can glide and employs a mixture of diving and soaring techniques to cross long, horizontal distances. The Skimmer lets you dive underwater and swim faster than usual (or skim along the surface), and the Springer can leap high into the air. And then there's the slightly-newer Roller Beetle -- one of my personal favorites -- which can tuck itself into a ball and help you careen across the land at breakneck speeds.
If that's not enough for you, Guild Wars 2 also does away with normal MMO progression. Instead of grinding out repetitive kill or fetch quests for experience, you travel to different dynamic world events, which might task you with defending an objective, escorting a caravan, playing whack-a-mole with annoying farm vermin, or infiltrating an enemy camp in disguise. When you decide you want something a bit more linear, Guild Wars 2's main story is nothing to sneeze at -- it is lengthy, varied, and at times surprisingly emotional.
If any of this sounds like your cup of tea, feel free to give Guild Wars 2 a shot now. Like LOTRO, it's free-to-play (with optional paid expansions), so there's minimal risk involved on your part.
- Graphics: Good
Similar: World of Warcraft, Rift
- Pay Model: F2P or P2P (membership) with a cosmetic (and minor gameplay effects) cash shop, few F2P restrictions. Can earn cash shop currency in game
It may not be as as well known as WoW, but Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) is a long-lasting MMO with a whopping 13 years of history behind it. The game brings Tolkien's lore-rich fantasy universe to life in the form of a mesmerizing, story-focused MMORPG.
The game's original creators, Turbine, took great care to respect the Lord of the Rings source material during development. This means that, through your travels, you'll find many accurately-rendered towns, cities, and famous characters from the LOTR canon. You can visit Mordor in all of its glory, or simply walk the crowded streets of Bree.
Lord of the Rings Online does have the usual raids, dungeons, and miscellaneous trade skills that you'd expect from an MMO, but those aren't the main selling points. It's the excellent story quests, quirky side activities (such as playing and creating your own in-game music), immersive environments (including the peaceful Shire), and thematic playable races and classes that make it stand out.
Want to take on the role of a Bilbo-like Hobbit burglar? Go for it! What about something a bit more exotic? Try out the "Beorning" class-race combo, and shapeshift into a hulking bear at will. Or, pick up your lute and inspire your allies with the power of music through the Bard class. The choice is always yours. Ultimately, Lord of the Rings Online is an MMO for true fans of this universe, and it's very well-suited to solo players who value immersion. Since it's free-to-play, you have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.
- Graphics: Decent (for a browser MMO)
Similar: World of Warcraft, Black Desert Online
- Pay Model: F2P or P2P with a cosmetic cash shop (Monthly subscription unlocks “Members-only” content - areas, quests, skills)
Runescape is a game that is near and dear to my heart. I've played it in some capacity since its initial launch way back in 2007 when it was just a simple browser game. The reason it's kept me -- and thousands of others -- hooked for so long is its emphasis on complete and total player freedom.
While it has a tile and click-based movement system and it doesn't let you jump, you are free to do whatever you want within the limits of the game from the moment you enter the fictional world of Gielinor. There is no central story to follow, no linear leveling system, and you don't even pick a class or race upon launch. Instead, you can choose to level up your choice of over two dozen skills (in the "main" game, RuneScape 3 -- more on that in a second), each with their own unique progression methods and associated quests.
By far, though, RuneScape's most significant selling point is its questing system. Every quest you undertake is a real adventure, with its own lovingly-written, multi-step story and characters. It's impossible to describe the "average" quest in the game, as there is no such thing.
Some quests will only take you a few minutes to finish, but others can take upwards of 10 hours or multiple days to complete. In one quest, you might be herding very stubborn sheep into a pen, and the next, you'll be helping an adorable cave goblin girl explore the surface world in an emotional, multi-part quest series. Or, you might take on the very gods themselves, or help entirely new cities establish themselves.
Like World of Warcraft, RuneScape comes in two flavors: the standard game is known as "RuneScape 3," and a variant based on its 2007 state has been dubbed "Old School Runescape." RuneScape 3 has a WoW-like action bar combat system, cutscenes, and more "modern" (by RuneScape standards) graphics. In contrast, OSRS has the old, click-and-wait combat system and decidedly ugly but charming visuals.
OSRS is often considered the slower, more rewarding version to play, and its separate development team creates plenty of exciting and meaty new content for players to delve into. Of the two games, I'm partial to OSRS. However, both are free-to-play (with an optional membership to unlock more content), so pick whichever suits your fancy and dive right in.
Notably, both RuneScape 3 and OSRS are now available on mobile across both iOS and Android. We wouldn't necessarily recommend playing more hardcore content in this format (such as RS3's raids), but for general, low-intensity skilling or weak monster grinding, it's a great way to pass the time.
- Graphics: Average
Similar: World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons Online
- Pay Model: F2P or P2P with a cash shop
Dungeons & Dragons fans have never been starved for choice when it comes to game variety. Within this franchise, there are numerous excellent CRPGs, strategy games, action RPGs, and much more. Even in the realm of MMOs, this universe doesn't disappoint.
Players have two main choices here: Dungeons & Dragons Online, which strives to stay closer to the tabletop game it's based on, and Neverwinter, a free-to-play MMORPG that takes more queues from other MMOs than its own source material.
Indeed, the basic formula behind Neverwinter is quite similar to WoW's. As usual, you have plenty of raids and dungeons to participate in. However, unlike WoW, Neverwinter's combat is fast-paced and action-oriented, and it'll require quick reflexes to get the most out of. Each class feels unique, and there are plenty of them on offer, ranging from Barbarians to Rangers, or Warlocks to Clerics.
In true D&D fashion, you're also able to choose from quite a few different races during character creation. Some are similar to what you'd find in other MMOs, such as dwarves and humans, whereas others are a bit more exotic, like the terrifying Dragonborn or demonic Tieflings.
All in all, if you otherwise enjoy games like WoW or SWTOR but find their combat systems to be a bit lacking, Neverwinter is a fantastic, free-to-play alternative that will keep you occupied for quite some time.
Similar: World of Warcraft, LOTRO
Pay Model: F2P (with restrictions), P2P (membership), cash shop
Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't the sequel fans of the Knights of the Old Republic franchise were hoping for, but it wound up being an excellent MMO in its own right after a couple years of dedicated development.
At its core, SWTOR doesn't break away from the standard MMORPG formula much. There are raids, dungeons, fetch and kill quests to partake in, and the combat system isn't too different from WoW's. However, it does have a few unique ideas that make it an exceptional experience, particularly when it comes to story.
In SWTOR, most dialogue is fully voice-acted (player characters included), and these sequences include Mass Effect-style cinematic cameras and dialogue wheels. These dialogue options allow you to roleplay whatever sort of character you wish -- you can be a complete jerk or a paragon of virtue.
Both paths are supported equally, no matter which faction you join. Even a Sith warrior can be a nice guy in SWTOR. However, your decisions will affect where you land on the game's dark-and-light side morality scale. Make too many evil decisions, and you might lock yourself out of some sweet light side-exclusive gear (and vice versa), but if you make "good" decisions at specific points, your less-savory companions may lose respect for you.
Speaking of companions, that's another neat feature in SWTOR. Each player can snag up to five class-appropriate followers throughout their travels, one of which can directly follow them at any given time. Companions can interject in dialogue, help you in combat, and become romance options if they like you enough. They also have their own storylines for you to pursue, which helps to make SWTOR feel like a proper successor to the KOTOR games, though it doesn't always hit the mark.
SWTOR is a free-to-play game, with an optional paid membership (which you'll probably want), so like several other titles on this list, it's worth trying out at least once.