MMORPGs are massive in so many ways. Across hundreds of games, they bring in 10 billion dollars a year and have audiences that expand well into the tens of millions. In just World of Warcraft, players have collectively logged more time than our species has spent evolving on this planet—over 6 million years. The best MMORPGs share the beautiful ideal that anyone from anywhere can become anything within the confines of these virtual worlds (and grind out some epic loot in the process).
We've come a long way from the text-based multi-user dungeons of yesteryear. So to celebrate that awesome lineage, we've rounded up the best MMOs that you can still play today. Whether you want to kick ass as some sort of human-cat hybrid or conquer the galaxy as a ruthless dictator, the MMOs on this list represent the best the genre has to offer. To make things easy, we've broken this list down into categories that really get at the heart of what makes each of these games exemplary.
Best MMOs in 2020
A lesson in history
An incredible number of MMOs have played a critical role in shaping the genre, but many of them are much older and less populated than in their better days. For that reason, this list focuses on MMOs that still have a lot of life left in them, rather than those that are slowly winding down or have already run their course. If you want to read about the genre's past, check out our brief history of MMO games.
Though we heartily recommend every entry in this list, if we had to choose just one MMO to recommend in 2020, it would be Final Fantasy 14. Few MMOs check every box, but FF14 comes close with its gorgeous graphics, captivating story, robust features, excellent dungeons, and consistent quality updates. What's more, now is an excellent time to start playing because Final Fantasy 14's third expansion, Shadowbringers, is due out this summer—which means even more to explore and do.
Of course, Final Fantasy 14 does have its problems. The endgame can be repetitive and not everyone gels with its World of Warcraft-style leveling and questing. If that's the case, we also recommend The Elder Scrolls Online as our second pick for the best 2020 MMO. Similar to FF14, ESO comes packed with features and things to do. After a number of expansions and updates, you can easily spend longer getting through ESO's story campaign than you ever did on Skyrim.
If neither of those tickle your fancy, though, have no fear. Here's the other great MMOs you can play, each sorted by category to help you find the right one for you.
"Theme park" MMOs
In the world of MMOs, "theme parks" are that movie you like to put on in the background—the one you've seen a thousand times but still love. They don't push you into deep waters like most sandbox MMOs do, instead wrapping you up in a comforting and familiar blanket. They are games that, just like their name implies, are all about having fun as you tour from one attraction to the next. Though they might rely on a time-worn formula, they can still conceal a surprise or two. These are often the most popular MMOs, and they've earned their reputations with every dungeon, every level, and every quest.
World of Warcraft
Release Date: November 23, 2004
Payment Model: Subscription with paid expansions
No other MMO has had a greater impact on the genre and the entirety of videogames as a whole quite like World of Warcraft. For that reason, putting it anywhere but first on this list just doesn't feel right. Though it might be getting on in years, World of Warcraft continues to surprise with expansions. Battle for Azeroth, its latest, wasn't received as positively as previous expansions, but it's still worth exploring. Taking players on a high-seas adventure to two new islands, Battle for Azeroth introduces some interesting new gamemodes like procedurally-generated Island Expeditions and Warcraft 3-esque Warfronts.
Whether you love dungeons, raiding, player-versus-player battles, or just exploring a wonderfully charming world, World of Warcraft has you covered. In Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard really drives this home with weekly activities like PVP Brawls with whacky rulesets like no gravity, Timewalking events 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.
The biggest flaw with Battle for Azeroth currently is its endgame gear system, which Blizzard has committed to fix in the upcoming 8.2 patch. If you're a hardcore player, it's easy to feel the grind and frustration of a system that relies too heavily on RNG. That said, World of Warcraft's endgame is still very diverse and fun—even if it has frustrating flaws. The path to its throne is littered with the bones of would-be usurpers, but World of Warcraft's unparalleled zeal for bringing the world of Azeroth to life is a force to be reckoned with.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Developer: Square Enix
Payment Model: Subscription with paid expansions
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 in both the Heavensward and Stormblood 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. This summer, the new Shadowbringer expansion will release, bringing a variety of new areas, classes, and features.
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Developer: Bluehole Studio
Payment Model: Free-to-play
Where some MMOs cast wide nets to catch as many players as possible, Tera's vicious combat has always been its driving force. The overall structure of progression sticks close to the template that World of Warcraft popularized—that is until you step out into the field and try and take down one of Tera's "Big-ass Monsters." These brutes pack a serious punch, and the desperate dance as you dodge and attack set a new standard for action-based combat in MMOs. Even to this day, despite many that have tried to do it better, Tera is still king of the hill when it comes to killing stuff.
Transitioning to free-to-play wasn't always a smooth journey, but Tera's insistence on delivering great action gives it a singular focus that kept it moving forward when so many of its peers were floundering. It's microtransactions aren't egregious and you can buy most premium items with in-game currency if you have a nose for grinding, which is a welcome change. You might have to put up with playing a weird little girl with bunny ears, but those who can look past it will find one of the best—and most challenging—theme park MMOs.
While theme parks can be great, not everyone wants to be led by the hand everywhere they go. Some of us like to take our time and smell the roses, while others want to trample those roses as they build an empire with thousands of real players and become a space dictator. If you're the type of person who likes building a sand castle just to kick it down, sandbox MMOs are where it's at. The freedom and consequence they offer will turn away those looking for a more relaxing experience, but if you truly want to embrace the potential of what an online world can offer, there's never been another choice.
Release Date: May 6, 2003
Developer: CCP Games
Payment Model: Free-to-play with a premium subscription
When you think of modern sandbox MMOs, there's only one place to turn: EVE Online. The 16 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: January 4, 2001
Payment Model: Free-to-play with premium subscription
As the oldest MMO on this list, Runescape should be like a crotchety old man, and yet here it is looking young and appealing as ever. That's because being original never gets old and, despite the rise and fall of popular MMOs, Runescape has never stopped being original. Though the fancy graphics and new additions are nice, Runescape still values freedom above all else. You're dropped into the world with little more than a few items and a general sense of direction. Where to go is for you to decide. That emphasis on choice gave birth to one of the more varied skill systems in the genre, as players can pursue anything from professional monster slaying to just being a lumberjack. That spirit of freedom is even extended to which version you want to play, giving players the choice between the current version or the "old school" Runescape so many love.
Runescape has also come a long way from its early days of 2D sprites in 3D environments, but that "ugly duckling syndrome" led to a focus on having a great personality over all the fanciest bells and whistles—and it doesn't hurt that just about anyone and their grandmother could play it through a browser. Over a decade later, that pursuit of substance over style makes Runescape one of the most endearing and unique MMOs available.
Black Desert Online
Release Date: March 3, 2016
Developer: Pearl Abyss
Payment Model: Buy-to-play
Korean MMOs are often negatively viewed as brutal grindfests, and while Black Desert Online 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 Online'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 Online'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.
With such an emphasis on huge worlds and freedom, telling a coherent story in an MMO isn't an easy thing. All those pages of pointless quest dialogue are, more often than not, tossed to the side in favor of just getting the job done and moving on to the next task. So when an MMO manages to build a world and tell a story worth listening to, it's a rare thing indeed. Listed below are the best MMOs to play if you just want to immerse yourself in a rich story instead of getting all wrapped up in the vain pursuit of grinding for new gear or leveling up.
The Secret World
Release Date: June 19, 2012
Payment Model: Free-to-play with DLC
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. And like Lovecraft's best, The Secret World is a bizarre page-turner that will have you digging deep to unravel all of its mysteries.
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. Earlier this year, The Secret World relaunched as The Secret World: Legends, revamping a lot of the game's weakest systems like combat. The overhaul doesn't necessarily fix everything, but it does go a long way to making The Secret World more enjoyable for newcomers.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Release Date: December 20, 2011
Payment Model: Free-to-play with DLC
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 followup 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.
In recent years, The Old Republic has expanded on that foundation with a series of expansion packs. The latest, Knights of the Eternal Throne, packs in a KOTOR-worthy cast of characters and a dramatic story that stands tall among the best tales ever told in an MMO.
Final Fantasy 11
Release Date: May 16, 2002
Developer: Square Enix
Payment Model: Subscription with DLC
Early in its life, Final Fantasy XI was criticized for not being branded a spin-off when many assumed that the MMO wouldn't have a proper story—a core focus of every Final Fantasy game. Well, those people were wrong, Final Fantasy XI's story is actually one of the best that Square Enix has ever done. It uses the expansive framework of an MMO to tell tales that are massive in scope yet, at times, painfully intimate. Appreciating those stories, however, will require putting up with some poorly-aging graphics and a rather tedious menu system.
While Final Fantasy 14 is undoubtedly the better MMO overall, FFXI's old school sensibilities and its epic story is still worth experiencing. Each of its several expansions is a self-contained tale that demonstrates the kind of heart-felt and sweeping storytelling that Final Fantasy is famous for, but none more so than Chains of Promathia, which on its own feels like the best of Final Fantasy wrapped up into one episode. Recent updates have made progression much easier and more enjoyable whether you play alone or as a group, so experiencing Final Fantasy XI's nostalgic approach to storytelling is easier than ever—really, just ask anyone who tried leveling (and wound up de-leveling on death) when the game first game out.
Lord of the Rings Online
Release Date: April 24, 2007
Payment Model: Free-to-play with DLC
Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online is often overshadowed by more popular MMOs, but writing it off as a mere clone of World of Warcraft would be a mistake. Though they share similar combat and questing, The Lord of the Rings Online uses both as foundations to explore Tolkien's Middle-Earth more intimately than any video game before or after. As you follow in the fellowship's footsteps, the world of Middle-Earth comes to life in wonderful clarity, adding a kind of depth to Tolkien's work while still respecting what makes it so honored to begin with.
Even if you just enjoy the movies, The Lord of the Rings Online is practically a must. Each realm that Turbine brings to life is done with a careful understanding of its history and place within the greater world. That kind of love for the source material just isn't found in MMOs based on other media. If you've ever read any of the books and felt that ache to exist in Middle-Earth, The Lord of the Rings Online is a journey worth taking.
The Elder Scrolls Online
Release Date: April 4, 2014
Developer: Zenimax Online Studios
Payment Model: Buy-to-play with DLC
It took The Elder Scrolls Online over a year to finally find its legs, but now that it has it's quickly 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 bravely opened up never before seen countries like the high elf kingdom of Summerset and, soon, 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.
If that's not your cup of tea, you can also design your own house, participate in chaotic three-way PVP, or explore the world in any direction you please. Thanks to the One Tamriel update, you level-scaling now let's you approach even endgame zones at any level, giving you more freedom over your journey.
MMOs for PvP
Questing and raiding are fun, but there's nothing quite like defeating another player in a contest of pure skill. PvP in MMOs is a time-honored tradition that remains a pursuit for those with the iron will to master the mechanics of a game. These MMOs honor that devotion by employing awesome combat systems that go above and beyond the basics, offering competitive-minded players a rewarding place to test their mettle. Whether you're planning sieges on enemy fortifications or looking to spar in a one-on-one duel, these MMOs will satisfy that bloodlust. RIP, Warhammer Online.
Guild Wars 2
Release Date: August 28. 2012
Payment Model: Buy-to-play with DLC
When it comes to player-versus-player combat, few MMOs can ever aspire to do it better than Guild Wars 2. For those wanting a more traditional experience, structured PvP lets you fight in team deathmatch and objective-based modes in that focus on skill and coordination. And then there's the world versus world mode, where different servers come together to wage war across sprawling maps with hundreds of players at once. Participating in sieges and large-scale battles is the kind of fantastical fulfillment you dreamed of as a kid, and you won't need to grind for a hundred hours before you can participate either.
The heart of what makes Guild Wars 2 fun to play is all in its action combat, which emphasizes dodging and movement instead of memorizing complex skill rotations. You'll weave in and out of range of your opponents while unleashing flashy abilities—of which there are many to choose from. Each class is quite flexible in how you want to play, giving theorycrafters enough material to chisel away at their perfect build. With the launch of the new expansion, Path of Fire, there's no denying that PvP took a hit from various balancing problems, but ArenaNet is already making adjustments that will hopefully continue to keep Guild Wars 2 at the top of the dogpile.
Release Date: November 20, 2012
Developer: Daybreak Game Company
Payment Model: Free-to-play
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.