It can be hard to find the best MMOs when there are so many of them, and so many different focuses, business models and settings. Do you want to traipse across a fantastical land as an acrobatic cat-person? Maybe you'd prefer to flit off into space, blowing up pirates and making deals as part of a huge space corporation? Or you might just want to pick up a lightsaber and have your very own epic Star Wars adventure.
Whatever your tastes, you'll likely find what you're looking for in the list below. Over the years some of the great have fallen by the wayside, but even though we're not exactly in an MMO golden age, there are still a vast number of them keeping our quest logs full. This list tries to capture what's best right now, so keep checking back for updates as more MMOs launch.
Best "Theme park" MMOs
Final Fantasy 14
Release Date: 2013 | Developer: Square Enix |Payment Model: Subscription | Steam
Final Fantasy 14's journey has been a long road full of disappointment. Launching in 2010 to an overwhelmingly negative response, Square Enix refused to give up and rebuilt the whole game with a new team. The second iteration, A Realm Reborn, has done a better job of rekindling the love fans had for Final Fantasy better than any recent game in the series. It's at once unflinchingly dedicated to following in World of Warcraft's footsteps while also introducing a host of refreshing ideas—the best being the innovative class system.
Gone are the days of needing a new character for each class: Final Fantasy 14 let's you swap between them whenever you please and there's even room to borrow abilities between classes, just like in the classic Final Fantasy Job system. But Final Fantasy 14 isn't just about combat, either. Its story starts slow but builds into a grand epic spanning continents across its three expansions, easily rivaling any of the classics like Final Fantasy 7 or 10. It's a journey worth taking, if you have the time, but one thing to keep in mind is that 14's endgame, while offering challenging and memorable boss fights, is scarce. Updates come at a steady pace, but you'll run the same dungeons and raids dozens of times.
Now is a great time to consider playing Final Fantasy 14, though. Its Endwalker expansion released in late 2021 and is a fantastic sendoff to the Hydaelyn/Zodiark saga that its story has chased so far.
World of Warcraft
Release Date: 2004 | Developer: Blizzard | Payment Model: Subscription| Battle.net
No other MMO has had a greater impact on the genre and the entirety of videogames as a whole quite like World of Warcraft. Though it might be getting on in years, World of Warcraft continues to surprise. Shadowlands, its latest expansion, returns to the glory of WoW's early years through a mix of ambitious new systems and one of the best endgames the MMO has ever had.
Whether you love dungeons, raiding, player-versus-player battles, or just exploring a wonderfully charming world, World of Warcraft has you covered. More than ever, you can play the MMO how you want, letting you pick any expansion to level up in after you hit level 10, eventually leading you towards the Dragonflight expansion. There's also fun events like Timewalking that let you revisit old expansion dungeons for cool loot, and World Quests that help you accomplish something meaningful even if you only have 20 minutes to play.
In 2023, WoW is in an interesting place. Dragonriding offers new flight mechanics and doesn't make you wait until the end of the expansion to take to the skies, and there's a whole new class/race combination thanks to the Dracthyr Evoker. One of the most recent additions is the Trading Post, which lets you earn currency that can be spent on a variety of funky cosmetic items, some previously only available from the cash shop. Basically: there's a ton to do.
Blizzard's also getting started on a whole trilogy of expansions, starting with The War Within, expected out late next year, sending players underground and introducing new systems like Warbands—which will be great news for anyone obsessed with making alts.
Guild Wars 2
Release Date: 2012 | Developer: ArenaNet | Payment Model: Buy to play | Guild Wars 2 shop
The original Guild Wars would have been firmly in the PvP section of this list, but for the 2012 sequel ArenaNet took a broader approach, giving us an MMO with the diversity and scale of World of Warcraft, but with a mountain of quirks and activities that are all its own. One moment you're playing through one of several story campaigns, then you're bouncing around an area participating in events like a charr heavy metal concert or a religious festival so you can earn enough chillies to buy a weapon that looks like a microphone, travelling into a videogame-themed dimensions to earn prizes, or duking it out in a persistent PvP battlefield where three servers collide.
Even among MMOs, the breadth of Guild Wars 2's diversions is incredibly impressive, especially when you hit level 80. That doesn't take long these days, and once you do you can start tackling all the expansion and living world activities and maps. Every time ArenaNet added an expansion or new season to the living world, it also introduced new types of mounts, from flying skyscales to handy boats, and all sorts of new systems—all of them meaningful, not just novel.
All of this is underpinned by a compelling loop that sees you exploring each region by completing small events, sprawling meta-events and heart quests—one of the best questing systems around—while hunting down points of interest, picturesque vistas and hero points that will let you flesh out your build. Developing your character is a high point too, with a flexibility that's like catnip to theorycrafters, elevated by a brisk action-based combat system that makes fights kinetic and flashy.
Arenanet recently changed how it releases expansions, with a focus on smaller expansions released more frequently, which started with Secrets of the Obscure this year. As well as more expansions, it's dropping in significant updates every few months, so once you're done with everything an expansion offers, you'll have new maps and activities waiting for you. So far, it's working well, though it's still early days.
Release date: 2022 | Developer: Smilegate | Payment model: Free to play | Steam
If you like your combat over-the-top and fast-paced, MMOARPG Lost Ark might be your new best friend. The Korean MMO differs from the rest of the games on this list by going down the action-RPG route, with an emphasis on spectacular abilities that make you feel like you're showing off with every attack.
The flashy fights are the real appeal here, in particular the big sieges that the story builds up to, but Lost Ark also has everything else you'd expect from a modern MMO, including a story-driven campaign, a huge pile of quests, loads of exploration—especially once you're given your ship—and a promising endgame that players are just starting to dig into now.
While it's the newest game in our list, Smilegate has already been quick to expand it, with new endgame activities appearing fairly regularly, along with new classes and events. Expect a decent cadence of updates and new things to play with, as the Korean version is further ahead, giving Smilegate lots of existing stuff to draw from.
Best Story-focused MMOs
The Elder Scrolls Online
Release Date: 2014 | Developer: Zenimax Online Studios | Payment Model: Buy to play | Steam
It took The Elder Scrolls Online over a year to finally find its legs, but years later it's become one of the best MMOs on the market. That's in part thanks to the steady stream of excellent premium expansions that have gradually opened up new areas of Tamriel to explore. Fans of Morrowind can venture back to Vvardenfell, the home of the dark elves, but ESO has also opened up never before seen countries like the high elf kingdom of Summerset and the Khajiit homeland of Elsweyr.
Each of these expansions is notable for their self-contained stories and often excellent side quests. If you're a lore nut for Elder Scrolls, then ESO has so much story to offer—and much of it delivered through great voice acting and fun quests. Quests, it should be noted, that thankfully deviate from the traditional 'collect 10 bear skins' busywork you see in a lot of MMOs. Instead, they're all entrenched in ESO's sprawling story.
If that's not your cup of tea, you can also design your own house, participate in chaotic three-way PVP, join the Thieves Guild, become a vampire, or explore the world in any direction you please. Thanks to the One Tamriel update, level-scaling now lets you approach even endgame zones at any level, giving you more freedom over your journey.
Read more: Major events in the Elder Scrolls timeline
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Release Date: 2011 | Developer: Broadsword | Payment Model: Free to play | Steam
Early in its life, The Old Republic had a kind of identity crisis that initially turned many away from playing. It wanted to be both a follow-up to the cherished Knights of the Old Republic while also giving World of Warcraft a run for its money and, at the time, did neither very well. But just like its setting, those days are long in the past and the Old Republic of today is far more enjoyable thanks to a refined focus on what it's always done best: telling a great story.
Where most MMOs offer only a single overarching narrative, The Old Republic has eight different class stories to experience in the main game, and all of them are exciting and fun. Whether you want to sex your way across the galaxy as a seductive imperial agent or just murder everyone as a Sith warrior, The Old Republic has some of the best storytelling ever seen in an MMO. BioWare spent a lot of money making sure that the voice acting was top-notch and it really paid off. The Old Republic's presentation is unparalleled.
Since launch, The Old Republic has expanded on that foundation with a series of expansion packs, the highlights of which include a pair of expansions that evoke BioWare and Obsidian's singleplayer Star Wars romps. What's better, SWTOR has removed much of the friction you'd normally experience in an MMO, like having to grind for levels, so now you can just blitz the story missions one after the other like a singleplayer RPG. It's great.
After 12 years of working on the MMO, BioWare handed the reins over to a third party studio, Broadsword, which is now running the show. With some of the development team sticking around, and Broadsword continuing the work BioWare started, the change hasn't been tumultuous, thankfully, and there's been no pause in the updates.
Secret World Legends
Release Date: 2012 | Developer: Funcom | Payment Model: Free to play | Steam
When it comes to telling a great story in an MMO, the entire genre has something to learn from The Secret World. Not only does it abandon the generic fantasy aesthetic for a gritty contemporary one, it also ties so many different themes together—from the illuminati to vampires—that it shouldn’t make any damn sense, but miraculously it does. Not too many MMOs can say they've borrowed from the pages of Lovecraft and The Matrix and made it work.
That love of a tale well told is best demonstrated in The Secret World's investigation missions, which require donning your detective hat to search the internet for clues to decipher puzzles. You'll pour over Wikipedia pages and through backwater websites hunting for that one piece that will make the whole picture come together.
Originally a subscription MMO, The Secret World relaunched as Secret World Legends, revamping a lot of the game's weakest systems like combat. The overhaul doesn't necessarily fix everything, and proved to be somewhat controversial among veteran players but it does go a long way to making The Secret World more enjoyable for newcomers. Just be aware that it's a bit quiet these days, but so much of what makes it great can be enjoyed solo, so it remains a great choice for any MMO players looking for a compelling yarn.
Best Sandbox MMOs
Release Date: 2003 | Developer: CCP Games | Payment Model: Free to play | Steam
When you think of modern sandbox MMOs, there's only one place to turn: EVE Online. The 18 years that EVE has been around could fill the pages of a textbook (actually, it kind of has)—but only if you're studying How to Lose Faith in Humanity 101. Its reputation for being a callous, uncaring universe was forged over a decade of war, betrayal, and scandal. But that same spartan culture has also given birth to the kind of camaraderie you'll never find anywhere else.
EVE Online is obtuse and complex as hell, and there will be times where you'll stare at the screen, clueless of what to do. CCP Games gone to great lengths to make EVE easier to understand, but your best teacher will always be the sting of failure. The good news is that a few years ago EVE Online started offering a free-to-play option, letting you dive into its sandbox with a limited set of ships and skills to use. They've since expanded the program, giving free players even more choices of what ships to fly.
Those who persevere will find a whole galaxy of possibilities at their fingertips—and really, that's always been EVE's greatest accomplishment. It's truly a living world where those with the will to rise to the top can find a way—even if that means using all those daggers in the back of the people who trusted them as a foothold.
Release Date: 2016 | Developer: Pearl Abyss | Payment Model: Buy to play | Steam
Korean MMOs are often negatively viewed as brutal grindfests, and while Black Desert doesn't break that stereotype it does offer one of the most expansive crafting systems ever seen in the genre. While the active, combo-based combat is great fun, there's dozens of career paths to take your character down in this dynamic sandbox MMO. You can be a merchant, a fisherman, or invest all your time into building a massive production empire of beer.
This is all thanks to Black Desert's complex node system. Each region is divided up into nodes that provide various resources, while properties in cities can be purchased and converted into blacksmiths, fisheries, or storage depots. Instead of doing all the hard work yourself, you can hire automated workers who level up and have their own innate skills to do the heavy lifting.
It's an intimidating system to learn when you're just starting out, but the freedom it provides is unparalleled, and it's unlike anything else in the genre. It can be just as rewarding to spend an evening tweaking your farms and leveling up your workers as it is taking down one of Black Desert's brutal world bosses. And if that doesn't suit your fancy, the node system is also the foundation for weekly guild wars, where guilds race to conquer various nodes for special bonuses—making BDO a great choice if you're into PVP as well.
Release date: 2001 | Developer: Jagex | Payment model: Free to play | Steam
One of the oldest continually running games around, and certainly the oldest MMO on this list, RuneScape has an impressive legacy, despite often being overlooked. For two decades, it's allowed players to set off on fantasy adventures, hunt down other players for sport, or just chill out and do some farming. While its grown substantially and is technically in its third iteration, the core of free-form adventuring that doesn't take itself too seriously has been maintained.
It's full of oddities, like being able to bury fallen foes and pray for their souls, increasing your corresponding skill. Sure, RuneScape is full of epic quests, gods and dragons, but a welcome silliness looms over everything, helped along by writers who never pass up the opportunity to include some gags or puns.
While the main game has much to recommend it, for those looking for a heady dose of nostalgia there's Old School RuneScape. When RuneScape evolved into the game we know now, Jagex offered players the opportunity to stick with what they knew, effectively creating a time capsule where RuneScape remains as it was 'back in the day'. It's less friendly, ugly, and grindier, but as a living slice of history it's fascinating. It's also a testament to how compelling the classic version was, still boasting an immersive-sim quality that evokes Ultima and plenty of entertaining, often tongue-in-cheek quests.
Read more: RuneScape is a lot weirder than I remembered
Best PvP MMOs
Release Date: 2012 | Developer: Rogue Planet Games | Payment Model: Free to play | Steam
That PlanetSide 2 is the only game on this list that involves shooting is telling of what a unique premise it is. It's also the only one where the entire focus is around killing other players and prizing territory from their cold, dead hands. War in PlanetSide 2 is an unending struggle between three nations each seeking to control four distinct continents.
If you're not keen on all the distractions of your average MMO, PlanetSide 2's purity of war is refreshing. You'll spend an evening conquering a whole planet and log in the next day to find you're now on the defensive. And as the cycle repeats anew, small but memorable moments begin to form in your mind; personal Alamos where you held the line against an overwhelming invasion, or the thrill of flanking and devastating an enemy force.
Moments like these are frequent in PlanetSide 2, and you'll soon have dozens of personalized stories as you spend each day in the purgatory of constant war. While recent updates introduced the ability to build bases, which have had a dramatic shift on where battles are fought and how they unfold while adding a new sense of attachment to your hard-won progress, PlanetSide 2 is definitely beginning to stagnate and lose its players. It's still a great MMOFPS, but its golden years are likely in the past.
Best Upcoming MMOs
Pax Dei is a medieval fantasy MMO with slight EVE Online vibes—it's a social sandbox MMO which will feature a player-run economy, where you'll likely be traipsing around in gear crafted by other players, and where you can carve out your own wee sanctuary with your clan. Former CCP developers, along with folks from Blizzard, Ubisoft and Remedy are working on it.
Unlike EVE, though, you'll be fighting off supernatural creatures and delving into dungeons for unique loot—all of which can be freely traded with your mates. You can expect a magic system, too, which will also include player-created elements.
Pax Dei doesn't have a release date yet, but developer Mainframe will be inviting prospective players to test the alpha version of the game soon. If you want to be involved, just head over to the Pax Dei website.
After making a survival game out of the Conan universe, Funcom has now turned its sights to the desert world of Arrakis in Dune: Awakening. Inspired by the Frank Herbert novels, and likely spurred on by the new movie, this survival MMO sounds like it's really emphasising the dangers of hanging out on a scorching planet alongside terrifying sandworms.
"We want players to feel these tensions all the time," creative director Joel Bylos told us. "We want them to be continually thinking about, if I'm going across the open sand, I have to think about the sandworms. If there's a sand storm coming, I have to know where there's shelter nearby. If I haven't built something I need to know where I can hide where I can get away from the sandstorms. So we're trying to create this tension. But we're also approaching it from the viewpoint of a little more accessibility, something like Valheim, where it's not like just gonna kill you instantly. So you have a little bit of leeway."
Funcom also promises a "vast and seamless Arrakis" that will be shared by "thousands of players." Along with survival and crafting systems, you'll also encounter spice, which is how you'll develop your character. To grow quickly, you'll need to keep your spice levels high. But you won't be punished if you don't keep remembering to ingest the powerful drug. It's more like how Valheim handles food. There are lots of benefits, but you don't die from starvation.
There's no release date yet, but you can sign up for beta access on the official site.
Ashes of Creation
Ashes of Creation's big hook is the promise of a properly dynamic world. It's a boast a lot of MMOs have made before, but Ashes' node system does sound very promising. Nodes are locations scattered across the world that players can develop with time and effort, starting as a patch of empty ground and potentially transforming into a fortress players can besiege or a town where they can buy their own home.
These nodes have different specialities and ways to interact with them. Buying a home in one, for instance, makes you a citizen, allowing you to vote for the player government. They can attract different NPCs, too, determining the kinds of services they offer.
Open PvP, quests, crafting and all the usual stuff will be present, but I reckon it's going to be the node system that attracts players to it. The developer is currently hosting periodic alpha tests for those with a key, but no doubt you'll be able to check it out in more open beta tests as it nears the finish line.
Palia is a real twist for the MMO genre. It's not an RPG, nor a shooter, and is not set in space either. It's a social simulation MMO—so think games like Stardew Valley. From its reveal trailer, Palia will include resource gathering, gardening, and decorating. Its website also mentions cooking, fishing, and romance "with elements of open world adventure games." If you've ever wanted Animal Crossing to be an MMO, this is one to keep an eye on. As of early 2023, Palia is still going through small closed testing and hasn't made mention of a release date yet.
PC Gamer Newsletter
Sign up to get the best content of the week, and great gaming deals, as picked by the editors.
Fraser is the UK online editor and has actually met The Internet in person. With over a decade of experience, he's been around the block a few times, serving as a freelancer, news editor and prolific reviewer. Strategy games have been a 30-year-long obsession, from tiny RTSs to sprawling political sims, and he never turns down the chance to rave about Total War or Crusader Kings. He's also been known to set up shop in the latest MMO and likes to wind down with an endlessly deep, systemic RPG. These days, when he's not editing, he can usually be found writing features that are 1,000 words too long or talking about his dog.