Over the last few years, I've been wandering from MMO to MMO, looking for a permanent—or at least long-term—place to set up shop. That place used to be Azeroth, which I diligently return to with the arrival of each new expansion. There have been others, too, and I've been revisiting them as well. It's become a routine. A trip to World of Warcraft, a tour of duty in Star Trek Online, yet another alt in Star Wars: The Old Republic—all of them so familiar that I could play them with my eyes closed.
I desperately need something new.
Now more than ever, I'd really like to lose myself in another world, but the pickings are slim. The days when everyone was gunning for a piece of the MMO pie are so far behind us that even some of the genres that usurped it are on the decline. The MMO isn't dead—not with WoW continuing to rake in all these subs, or the many F2P MMOs that have weathered the storm—but it's definitely in limbo. And it's been there for years.
All the MMOs I keep returning to are great—and not just because of the mountain of fond memories I've accumulated over thousands and thousands of hours. But I probably wouldn't keep returning to Azeroth if the genre had actually moved forwards. I'm just making do, listlessly floating from one old MMO to the next, trying to find that spark again. OK, now I'm just being melodramatic, but I'm definitely sick of waiting for something to wake the genre up out of this funk.
The absence of a shiny new MMO to distract me from, well, everything, is not exactly surprising. Expensive to make, expensive to maintain, and facing intense competition from countless live service games—it's not a risk a lot of publishers are willing to make. We've seen indie studios make the attempt, but those that do actually come out tend to disappear, and usually lack the big teams and additional infrastructure—like good customer support—that a successful MMO requires.
Amazon's New World is undoubtedly the best-known upcoming MMO, but it's been repeatedly pushed back, possibly a victim of reported mismanagement, which also led to Crucible's very short life. It doesn't inspire much confidence. I wasn't all that convinced before the delays, though, because it's all very familiar. Crafting, player housing, territory-control PvP, dynamic economies and player intrigue—it's a list of all the features nearly every sandbox MMO promises. All of these things are appealing—apart from maybe crafting, which I've done enough of in this lifetime—but nothing we've seen even comes close to approaching exciting. The total absence of an identifiable personality or clear aesthetic doesn't help much, either. I'm not holding my breath.
It's been so long since a new MMO swallowed up all my time that I'm not even all that sure what I want from one anymore. Definitely—and I cannot stress this enough—not something survival adjacent. Actually, I take that back, I know exactly what I want: a good superhero MMO. DC Universe Online and Champions Online temporarily filled in the gap left by City of Heroes, but now they're old and tired, and there's nothing taking their place. How have we gone through all these Marvel movies without a good superhero MMO? The Avengers is not a good consolation prize.
While we wait for something new, here are the best MMOs you should consider playing now, whether you're into sandboxes or theme parks.
I'm also looking for a feeling, as much as an actual tangible game. I want to pack up my bags and go on an adventure where I don't know what's coming, where it's not just the old MMO routine, but isn't grasping at the survival-crafting trend either. I want to look at a screenshot and think, "Fuck, I need to be there right now." Get the hell out of here with yet another non-descript forest. MMOs have become defined by a few different formulas—your survival MMOs, your sandbox MMOs, your theme park MMOs—but all these things initially came from experiments and pushing a nascent genre in different directions. I'm ready for another experiment.
WoW has pretty much reinvented itself a few times, to the point where it now supports entirely separate vanilla severs through WoW Classic, but one of the best examples of how adaptable MMOs can be is Guild Wars. The first game had a conservative PvE campaign, but was really all about PvP, which it excelled at. You played Guild Wars to beat other players up. Or, in my case, get beaten up by other players. The sequel was no less enthusiastic about PvP, but in every other regard was a dramatic transformation into an elaborate, story-driven MMO that's still spitting out yarns. And on top of that is the exceptional weapon and skill system, which offered an entirely new way to build your character.
At this point, though, I'd really take anything. The bare minimum is that I've got some friends playing it. There's something comforting about going on Twitter and seeing all your buds posting about their progress through the same game. Otherwise, is it a new MMO? Cool, sign me up. And for all the challenges inherent in designing an MMO, and all the games that haven't been able to maintain a high enough population, there is still demonstrably a huge audience for MMOs. These people didn't all vanish over the last few years. With the launch of Shadowlands, WoW managed to get back to player numbers it hadn't enjoyed in a decade. And judging by how many people are reading articles about New World, there's a hunger for more of them.
Perhaps naively, I assumed that, shortly after everyone tired themselves out heralding the death of the genre, something would appear that would get things back on course. A Realm Reborn certainly seemed like it might, launching in 2013, after the genre's most lively period had already ended, but it ended up being more like the last big MMO launch rather than inspiration for a new wave. Now we're stuck in the past, with the most exciting MMO developments being fan studios trying to resurrect the dead classics. I'm ecstatic that some of my favourite games are being given a second life, but I don't want to be stuck looking backwards.
I guess I'll just have to keep waiting, hanging out in my old haunts, longing for a glimmer of the future. It's probably not going to come from Amazon, but I refuse to believe there isn't something out there, waiting to appear and make us sign away our lives for another thousand hours. It's just hard to keep up the faith. Especially when I'm also tiring myself out holding a torch for real-time strategy and point-and-click adventures. Look, I'm a Scot—we love an underdog.