As far as gamer stereotypes go there are few that bother me more than the image of someone curled up alone in their room, eyes glued to a screen, utterly silent and completely isolated from the world. I love to lose myself in games as much as anyone but gaming can (and should) be an intensely social hobby, and some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had with games have involved more people than I could comfortably fit in a room. That’s the beauty of the MMO (massive multiplayer online game)—it puts thousands of like-minded players within virtual arms reach. Now, with the monolithic World of Warcraft approaching its 10th anniversary, it seems like the perfect time to take a look back at some of the MMOs that have changed the face of social gaming.
Neopets might seem worlds away from the other entries in this list (and perhaps not the best note to start on) but it brought the experience of social online gaming home for many kids well before a credit card for a monthly subscription to anything else was within reach. More than that, it’s a game that even your non-gamer friends probably played and could share with you. Most of us probably remember hiding in the corner of the school library with one eye on the nearest teacher in case they got close enough to notice that you were trying to buy a rare paintbrush for your Gelert and not in fact working on that Call of the Wild book report. Neopets was also a primer in the cruel world of rare drops, grinding for gold, and the never-ending crawl for the coolest, newest kit available. In that sense the Neopets-playing child was hardened on these principles before they ever set foot in Azeroth, and probably had a distinct advantage as a result.
You can compare many MMOs to stage plays: Everyone has their role, and things generally progress along a predefined script. Star Wars Galaxies, on the other hand, was less like a play and more like an improv class. It was one big Star Wars-themed sandbox, where your goals and motivations were your own and the actual mechanics existed merely as a foundation—a suggestion—of how players should spend their time. Star Wars Galaxies closed shortly before the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and depending on who you ask that wasn’t necessarily a fair trade.
Free-to-play or pay-to-win? That question currently plagues the current free-to-play MMO market, where choice seems endless but quality remains considerably rarer. This wasn’t an issue when Runescape launched, simply because it was one of the very first free-to-play MMOs. Consequently it also became one of the largest, and helped to prove to developers that free-to-play could be sustainable. Runescape is also notable for the party hat based economy that its players forged, a longstanding curiosity of the gaming world not unlike the Team Fortress 2 earbuds currently prized for their scarcity on Steam.
Guild Wars 2 may have been a blip on the radar for some, but it’s played a large part in altering my own personal gaming habits. It was the first MMO that didn’t make me dread questing with random players, and that made me feel truly comfortable with and eager to engage in PVP combat. Guild Wars 2 provides some exceptionally flexible skills and classes, and although it could be argued that it failed to break the holy trinity of MMORPG partying (Tank-DPS-Support) as it initially promised, it’s certainly come close. As approachable as it is mechanically, its equally approachable economically. While most big-budget MMOs still launch with a subscription model mirroring World of Warcraft’s and going free-to-play within the year, GW2 launched with a box price and a non-invasive cash shop en-lieu of a subscription fee. That makes it easier to convince new players to take the leap, ensures that current players don’t feel exploited, and ensures that lapsed players don’t have a financial barrier ahead of them if they want to check back in.
For a time, Second Life was being hyped as the next big thing, not just in gaming but in online communication as a whole. Media built up expectations well beyond what the virtual world could meet, and when the bubble inevitably burst Second Life became a punchline. Second Life may not have been able to live up to the ideals that people had for it, but it still deserves some credit. Players all have the tools and the ability to build and program their own content, while the game’s economy allows them to exchange in-game currency for real-world cash—a strong incentive to create content for the game. Hobbyists have mastered the same tools that game developers use for the sake of selling virtual items to other players, and people who had never coded in their life have stumbled into learning their first scripting languages. Players of all ages (though certainly skewing into older demographics traditionally less catered-to in the gaming market) have been able to create, learn and socialize in ways they may never have thought possible before, all thanks to a virtual world where a CNET interview was once interrupted by a swarm of flying penises. Go figure.
Contrary to popular belief, Ultima Online wasn’t the first MMO; that distinction falls to any number of different candidates, depending on your precise definition. While it may not have been the first MMO on the market, it was one of the genre’s earliest and most notable successes: Ultima Online was the first MMO to reach 100,000 subscribers, and has been running for nearly 17 years. For good reason. Its developers recognized one of the biggest shortcomings in their fledgling genre—that a world full of other players isn’t much good when you can barely engage with them—and addressed it through area quests, a player-driven economy, and events with so much interactivity that one player was actually able to kill the world’s King as he gave a speech. These days, there’s a good chance that you owe at least one of your favorite MMO mechanics to Ultima Online.
The same can be said for EverQuest, which was more of a return to the roots of the RPG. The first time I was ever confronted with the idea of gaming addictions, it was when I heard my friend describe her father’s fixation with “Evercrack.” EverQuest’s addictiveness was due in no small part to the emphasis on balanced and complimentary grouping, and the essential role each player had within their parties. If you were absent, you left your friends with a huge and potentially costly vulnerability. Of course unhealthy game fixations aren’t a good thing, and that’s not why EverQuest made it on this list. While EverQuest didn’t create this player dynamic, it did use it to strengthen online player connections and interdependence, which set the stage for the popularity of World of Warcraft’s raids and dungeons in the years to come.
For a time it felt like you could count the number of MMOs that weren’t set in Tolkienesque realms on one hand, and that’s what made City of Heroes immediately stand out. A superhero MMO was the natural distillation of MMOs themselves, which often cast players as superbeings among mere mortals without much concern for lore or justification. In City of Heroes players were given access to a dizzying array of powers and travel methods, allowed to play on either side of the law, and unlike most MMOs were even allowed to shape their hero’s entire image right from the beginning. It was never a matter of finding the coolest drops or the best loot; just like any superhero (or supervillain) preparing for their debut, you pieced together your suit at the same time as you pieced together your persona.
If you’re tuned in to gaming news at all you’ve almost certainly heard a harrowing tale or two out of EVE Online. It’s the stuff of intergalactic dreams: Online warfare, offline espionage, and battles waged between behemoth ships at 3 frames per second set on a backdrop of luridly colored nebulae… And even so, none of it is scripted, none of it repeats, none of it is part of a critical path every player will inevitably find themselves on as they progress. The brutal, capitalism-fueled history of EVE Online has been defined by its players, not its developers, and that makes it fascinating to observe—even if you can’t quite work up the nerve to participate in it yourself.
Although I’m not WoW’s biggest fan, it’s hard to justify not placing it at the top of the pile. Much of World of Warcraft’s appeal boils down to one thing: It was where the people were. I’m cautious of ever making a “this was good because it was popular” argument, but at WoW’s level of popularity, it really does become a key feature. For a time it was the one game that everyone seemed to have in common. Raid night was penciled into schedules across all walks of life, and “horde or alliance?” was a question that weighed heavily on more than a few friendships. Being part of a well-coordinated mass of people taking down an extremely challenging boss is a feeling that only MMOs really offer, and that’s exactly where WoW made its mark. Its impressive (and still growing) list of dungeons and raids makes teaming up as important as it is entertaining. Endless MMOs have since tried to replicate WoW’s success (or replicate WoW full stop) but none have approached the perfect storm that was World of Warcraft at its peak.
Then again, there’s much more to your experiences with an MMO than its quality, popularity or history. There are some games that I can’t imagine calling “one of the best MMOs of all time,” even though I poured hours and hours into them and adore them to this day. In the end, the best MMOs are always going to be the ones you’ve had the best experiences with, and that comes down as much to the people you play with as it does the game itself.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.