Massively Overthinking: The best MMOs of the decade

Paws for impact.

A few years back, we did a cheeky Massively Overthinking about our five favorite MMORPGs of all time. It was quite a potent list from a large segment of our team and readers, that’s for sure. But it was also primarily games made before 2010. And that should give you some pause.

For this week’s Overthinking, I thought we’d try to drill it down a bit more specifically, especially since we’ve just closed out a decade. What would you say are the very best MMORPGs of the last 10 years specifically? Not just games alive in the last decade, but games actually launched since 2010. What are the best MMOs of the last decade?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Man, this is tough. My first instinct was to say Elder Scrolls Online or (if it counts) relaunched Final Fantasy XIV, as both had weak starts and became industry darlings, which is hard to do in general let alone in the MMO field.

But personally? I may get flak for this, but I’m going to say Project Gorgon. It’s creative, inventive, it’s several levels of humorous, and even if you don’t stick with it, you won’t forget it. It’s really what we need more of in this industry, and if the graphics had been more appealing, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it became something like EVE, being a gamer’s game that could attract mainstream media attention but through creativity instead of e-thuggery. We got some good MMOs this past decade, but Project Gorgon was the only one that really made me go, “Wow, there’s still some fresh ideas we can explore.”

Andy McAdams: Obviously the only logical choice here is Star Citizen! All right, I couldn’t even type that without cackling at myself. Obviously, I kid. Now if there were an Overthinking about games that raised the most money whilst not actually delivering a product – that’d be a different story!

For my first choice, The Secret World was a phenomenal game. I love it, from the long ARG before it to the setting to the gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, it had (has?) its problems, but in terms of one of the best games (let alone MMOs I’ve played over the last decade), TSW was it. In all honesty, I think the story was better than FFXIV’s story. I definitely think the setting was more interesting on the whole than FFXIV. It is the one and only game I have ever purchased a lifetime subscription for. That didn’t really work out well in my favor, I know but it doesn’t change the fact that when I bought the Grandmaster package I was all in.

My second choice is probably also going to be deeply uncomfortable for some: WildStar. This is another game that I was crazy hyped for in the beginning. That was before they switched all their marketing toward the “elite raiderz or gtfo scrub” mentality that was ultimately their downfall. But the costume and dying system was awesome; the housing won our Best Housing for years. Combat was fun, dynamic and a nice blend between action and tab targetting. The factions were entertaining and unique, and the vaguely Firefly setting won me over. Like TSW, the game had its problems; the Path system was underwhelming compared to what it could have been, the graphics weren’t everyone’s cup of tea (but I didn’t mind), and class selection was pretty limited. But the biggest problem was that Carbine was so convinced that elite raiderz were the way to go that even when that approach was obviously failing, the studio doubled and quadrupled down. By the time the team started to pivot, public opinion was set, and while it was a much different game by the time it sunsetted, most people never gave it a second chance, and it never quite was able to shake their elitist initial impressions.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I think I’ll eventually include the Elder Scrolls Online in this list, but it still seems too new (even though it’s in its fifth year) to be considered “best.” A little more longevity might convince me, but I think the removal of level requirements and the advent of mega-servers are the best things to happen to MMOs in recent memory.

I like LOTRO for the familiar open world, the leisurely paced questing interlaced with some epic moments, and the ability to weave the main story in and out of… well, the main LOTR story. But LOTRO launched in 2007 and doesn’t quite qualify here.

I like Guild Wars 2 for some innovative landscape questing (filling up those hearts nearly made me into a completionist!) and the large, chaotic world boss events.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m actually pretty gratified that there really were quite a lot of good MMORPGs that came out in the last 10 years. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me; there was definitely another strong peak wedged in there that a lot of people forget about! Let me do my top three:

Guild Wars 2 – I mentioned to Eliot today that the 2011-2012 period was brutal for me as it wiped out four MMOs I played, several of which were my core games. I sometimes think that if GW2 hadn’t launched into the middle of all those devastating sunsets and fed me more rope, I might have said oh to hell with this and left MMOs forever. Obviously, I’m glad I didn’t. GW2 is gorgeous, it’s buttery smooth, and it scales relatively well for casuals and hardcores, with gobs of free content. In spite of its many (many [many]) self-inflicted wounds, I still think Guild Wars 2 is one of the best MMOs of all time, so certainly it caps my decadal list.

Elder Scrolls OnlineESO was a trainwreck when it launched, and it makes this list primarily for what it’s done in the last few years, with a respectable content cadence and nostalgia throwbacks and housing. Oh, and did I mention it’s gorgeous and borrows heavily from non-linear sandbox play without forcing a gankbox? I like basically everything about it but its combat, and if we saw a bunch of ESO copycats in the next decade, I would not be sorry at all.

SWTOR – Yeah, I’m going there with my wildcard pick. SWTOR launched as a spectacular MMORPG. It was fun. It was shiny. It was packed full of storytelling. I just don’t think it had the money and dev-power to live up to its post-launch potential, and so it’s judged by what it is today and not what it was when it won MMORPG of the year. That’s a shame. But I remember.

There should probably be more on there. FFXIV deserves a spot for being the comeback kid of the decade at the very least. Glitch – and I’m not the only person mentioning it I bet – is a personal favorite of mine too. Black Desert would be the newest thing on my list; it continues to earn my respect for its pure sandbox elements and Pearl Abyss’ determination to make MMORPGs with no dilution, plus it’s basically ArcheAge But Better. And WildStar… oh, WildStar. I’d say you never reached your potential, but your housing alone was worth a sub.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): Black Desert Online! Hands down. It upsets the status quo. Nobody’s sure whether it’s a sandbox or theme park, an MMO or single-player game, pay-to-win or pay-for-convenience. But regardless, it’s certainly different from any other game. It’s hard to categorize this game because it follows its own rules and somehow just keeps getting better. The community comes off as toxic to the outsider, but with a thick skin, players can find the community’s underlying charm. I love how simply saying the name incites strong emotions all around. Some people fault it because it doesn’t fit their definition of an MMO, but anyone who gives it a chance can see that even a well-traveled MMO enthusiast will have trouble putting it in any predetermined category. Maybe because it’s its own category.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’ll definitely hop on The Secret World bandwagon here, mostly because there have been few other MMOs that have tried to replicate what it did with regards to some of its missions and especially with its story and setting. I despite the game’s combat and further hate its skill wheel, but those otherwise deal-breaking things were enough to suffer through because Investigation Missions are some of the smartest things I’ve ever seen done and the universe was so engrossing. Unfortunately, those hurdles became too much for me to bear, and Secret World Legends’ streamlining didn’t really make things any more engaging in terms of combat. Seriously, out of all the things that other MMOs copypasta from other titles, why can’t someone rip off Investigation Missions?

Final Fantasy XIV is an obvious choice out of me because it’s my home MMO, but also because of its phoenix-like rise from the ashes. Honestly, that feels like a given.

I’m actually going to give a nod of love to Star Citizen as well. I’m allowed to squint suspiciously at this game’s not-very-good monetization scheme and worry about its bloated development scope as well as enjoy what’s being added with every major update. There’s just the right amount of promise and engagement that I still keep peeking back and playing, and the community in-game that I’ve personally experienced has been extremely welcoming and (for lack of a better term) well-adjusted. I’m sure it’s a fool’s hope to want this thing to push forward, but I’ll take hope over vitriolic cynicism any day of the year.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I think that Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online are obvious picks for this list. Guild Wars 2 has one of the best hybrids of action and tab target combat I’ve ever played, and a graphical style that continues to look more impressive than much newer, higher budget games. Elder Scrolls Online, while it had a rocky start, has been remarkably consistent in improving itself and featuring some of the best stories in the genre. I’m going to add Star Wars: The Old Republic here as well, because, while it has fizzled in recent years and struggled to find and keep its audience, it was really ambitious, and it delivered. Its launch content continues to be some of my favorite stories in the Star Wars universe, movies included.

There are some games that I think objectively belong on this list even though I don’t personally enjoy them. Final Fantasy XIV and Black Desert spring to mind. I don’t have much to say about them other than they do a great job at what they do, even if they’re not for me.

Finally, I’m going to throw WildStar in there, because some of my fondest MMO memories are in WildStar. It was horribly mismanaged, but it had so much potential. I’m still mourning what could have been with this game. Kudos to NCsoft for keeping the game running long after the writing was on the wall for its demise, but I often daydream about what a different team, either of professionals or fans, could do with this game if NCsoft would sell it. I’m not holding my breath, but I can dream.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): All right, cool, best of the decade. This is a no-pressure question, right? It’s honestly the sort of thing you could keep noting and expanding as much as you want, since “best” is inherently a subjective and ambiguous term, so I’ve made the entirely arbitrary decision to block this out to about five. And there are still candidates I’m going to have to leave off!

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Oh, gosh, this one sure did turn out to spend a lot of time flailing in unproductive ways. The fact of the matter is that it’s really easy to look at how things ended and kind of dismiss SWTOR out of hand; I don’t think anyone would argue that the game is still the picture of health right now. But the game was a big-budget MMO genuinely trying to do very new things that, in many ways, echo the original design document for what Tabula Rasa was meant to be. It was a story-focused MMO with lots of shared spaces, and while the game’s overall development wound up shunting a lot more toward “story-focused single-player game with big endgame raiding,” that doesn’t change the fact that it really did make that push hard and more than made back its budget. It ain’t perfect, but it’s a big boy.

The Elder Scrolls Online – The only reason that this game isn’t thought of as the picture of a glow-up is because there’s another title with that credit. Let’s not mince words, ESO was dire when it launched. It was a lot of half-baked ideas, and if you asked me which totally new game launched in a better state that year… well, it wouldn’t be ESO. But the designers learned. They knuckled down. They put the work in. At this point, ESO is a game I actively like, and that’s coming from someone who still has a profound antipathy toward the franchise it’s a part of. It feels like a fun adventure with lots of options and a solid ongoing development. If SWTOR is “a big budget can launch and succeed,” ESO is “you can launch weak and improve over time.”

Star Trek Online – Yeah, I’m allowed to have some just silly fandom on here, but I think STO is also pretty significant because here’s a game that might not do a perfect job of emulating its source material, but… it comes damn close. It does the best job it can with an alarmingly short development cycle, and it’s a game made with tons of love and a very ad-hoc structure. Really, it feels the closest any subsequent game has to the wild abandon of City of Heroes in terms of grouping… and it’s in a world I love with a studio that just keeps on trucking no matter what. Absolutely huge.

Guild Wars 2 – It almost always slips my mind that this game launched in 2012; there’s a timeless cadence to GW2 at its best moments, I think. If the original Guild Wars was defined by the Searing, Guild Wars 2 feels defined by the pre-searing, a world and a game style that emphasizes not goals but paths. One of my big regrets is how badly ArenaNet has proven itself to be at living up to that initial set of design principles or the goals set down when the game first launched, but maybe that’s inevitable. Maybe even Guild Wars 2 couldn’t live up to what it wanted to be, but I still feel like if there’s a single game that the decade spent living in response to, it was those first few moments of stepping back into Tyria.

Final Fantasy XIVFFXIV breaks every rule. You can’t turn around and clean up a messy game, right? Clearly you can. You can’t hit it big with a subscription-and-expansion MMO now, right? Clearly you can. You can’t do progression content with in-depth crafting? You can’t have housing that progression players care about? You can’t make MMO players care about stories? Clearly you can. If anything, FFXIV is a refutation to every “truism” about new MMOs you could imagine. It turns out you can do all of these things… you just have to be really good at them. It’s a bracing and amazing success story a decade out from the initial launch and eight years on from the relaunch, and I’m over here looking forward to what I know will happen this year and next year.

(And before you ask where Black Desert Online, RIFT, Blade & Soul, Albion Online, and Glitch are? I said I was limiting it to five.)

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): No doubt that The Secret World should top this list. It may not be the most popular or successful MMORPG that came out last decade, but it is — in my esteemed opinion — superb. I’ve never seen another game quite like it, mixing genres, conspiracy theories, horror settings, incredibly inventive quests, memorable characters, great voice acting, and an overarching mythos that I desperately want to see completed.

Other games I should mention are the vastly improved Star Trek Online, my beloved RIFT, and the late great WildStar, all of which have tender places in my heart. It was a tremendous decade in many ways, although it is disheartening to me that all of these came out in the first half of the decade. We need some new winners, and stat!

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): When you look at the list of games by release date, you will see that 2013 was the last year there was a big flurry of releases. I am not saying that those were all good releases, but there were a lot of them. Every year since seems to have fewer new games to jump into. But the 2010s weren’t a total bust either. Behold! My list!

TERA was the first of the big action MMORPGs in this decade. My son and his now-ex-wife bought it for me, and I played it off and on for quite a while. I have recently reinstalled it. What can I say? I love those Popori.

Blade & Soul was one of the better-looking games of its time. It also had pretty decent combat. It’s still not too bad looking.

Guild Wars 2 is the best you can get without buying in. It is holding up well and has plenty of life left in it.

The Secret World is on my list for its unique setting and premise, and for its fanbase. It is a solid offering.

Final Fantasy XIV is one of the biggest games going. It is one of the few games that can even begin to justify its subscription model. It’s that good. I really enjoyed it the last time I played. (I will probably drop back in to stay when I get a better day job. It’s worth the subscription, but not enough for me to cram it into my budget.)

The Elder Scrolls Online is another big title. It is also one of the games I currently play. It’s alive and well, and a reasonable choice for anyone looking for a game to start. The population is good, the graphics are good enough, and there’s plenty of content.

Black Desert Online is my favorite. It’s beautiful, it’s got awesome character customization and combat, and there are a ton of different things you can do in it. I am completely biased on this one, though, since it is the one that I have played the most of in the last couple of years.

WildStar almost made my list because I adored it (Chua forever!), but I stuck to games that are still running. Consider that my postscript

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Since I am not a barometer of the gaming industry, I can only answer for me. And for me, the best MMOs of this decade are The Secret World, Landmark, Final Fantasy XIV, and The Elder Scrolls Online.

While small, TSW and Landmark were both innovative and just plain amazing! When you think of wanting innovative ideas, these two delivered in spades. I think I’ve talked at length about why in my columns, so I will just say that having the ability to play successfully without resorting to combat is a massive plus. And no, I don’t mean just crafting professions. I mean sabotage and investigation missions, massive builds and player-created content. I think the story and atmosphere in TSW were so spot on and no one has done it as well, and Landmark had the best tools for expressing creativity. The loss of these is a travesty.

FFXIV and ESO both get the distinction because the studios owned up to their mistakes and reinvented their games after they fell flat after launch. And those reinvented games significantly improved to become the great games that they are today. Games that continue to do very well. I may not play either much, but that doesn’t diminish their status as great games.

Tyler Edwards: No one who knows me should be surprised that the first thing that comes to mind for me is The Secret World. It wasn’t perfect, but it was about as close to perfect as a game is likely to get, at least for me. It was so refreshing to have fans of story and questing not be treated as second class citizens for once, and while it may have had issues with content droughts, the content that did get added was always second to none in quality. What really amuses me is that even though it embraced being a “single player MMO” wholeheartedly, it still handled social content better than most any other game on the market. The way the community pulled together for golem fights and the Rider event was always a joy to behold, and it’s one of the few times in my MMO career I’ve actually enjoyed being part of an online community.

ESO is also up there. It’s never quite clicked for me the way it feels like it should on paper, but few other games are as consistently good. It may rarely blow me away, but it almost never truly disappoints, either, and the way it handles level scaling and the open world should be a blueprint for the whole industry.

Landmark was a personal favorite, and I’m quite sad it’s gone. It was amazing how easy it was to make such incredible things. The general logic is that if you let people create their own content, most of it will be crap, but almost every single build I ever visited in Landmark impressed me in some way. It’s a shame the community at large could never get over their grudge over the cancellation of EverQuest Next to give Landmark an honest chance. If more people had been willing to approach it with open minds, it could have been a real hit, I think.

While it is deeply flawed, I also believe Guild Wars 2 deserves a mention. It’s suffered from grave mismanagement pretty much from the start, but the bones of a great game are there, and even if it didn’t last, for a short time it was a game I truly loved.

Similarly, SWTOR deserves some credit. It also has its problems, but underneath the issues there is some of the best story-telling in the genre.

It’s poll time! Here’s a list compiled from Justin’s MMO Timeline. I didn’t think it would be so many. It’s… a lot. You get three votes. Choose wisely!

What was the best MMO of the 2010-2019 decade?

  • Age of Wushu (0%, 4 Votes)
  • Albion Online (1%, 9 Votes)
  • Allods Online (0%, 3 Votes)
  • ArcheAge (2%, 22 Votes)
  • Astellia (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Black Desert (5%, 59 Votes)
  • Blade and Soul (1%, 9 Votes)
  • Bless Online (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Boundless (0%, 2 Votes)
  • Caravan Stories (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Closers (0%, 0 Votes)
  • DCUO (0%, 3 Votes)
  • Defiance or Defiance 2050 (0%, 2 Votes)
  • Destiny or Destiny 2 (1%, 19 Votes)
  • Dragon's Prophet (0%, 1 Votes)
  • DUST 514 (0%, 3 Votes)
  • Earthrise (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Elder Scrolls Online (13%, 169 Votes)
  • Elite Dangerous (1%, 11 Votes)
  • Final Fantasy XIV (17%, 217 Votes)
  • Firefall (0%, 4 Votes)
  • Glitch (0%, 5 Votes)
  • Global Agenda (0%, 2 Votes)
  • Guild Wars 2 (20%, 257 Votes)
  • Kritika Online (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Landmark (0%, 5 Votes)
  • Legends of Aria (0%, 1 Votes)
  • LEGO Universe (0%, 1 Votes)
  • MapleStory 2 (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Marvel Heroes (2%, 22 Votes)
  • Mechwarrior Online (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Neverwinter (1%, 8 Votes)
  • No Man's Sky (1%, 7 Votes)
  • OrbusVR (0%, 4 Votes)
  • Otherland (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Path of Exile (2%, 20 Votes)
  • Perpetuum Online (0%, 6 Votes)
  • Pirate101 (0%, 2 Votes)
  • PlanetSide 2 (1%, 8 Votes)
  • Project Gorgon (2%, 27 Votes)
  • Riders of Icarus (0%, 0 Votes)
  • RIFT (3%, 33 Votes)
  • Sea of Thieves (1%, 9 Votes)
  • Shroud of the Avatar (1%, 11 Votes)
  • Skyforge (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Soulworker Online (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Star Citizen (1%, 12 Votes)
  • Star Trek Online (2%, 24 Votes)
  • SWTOR (7%, 92 Votes)
  • TERA (1%, 12 Votes)
  • The Division or Division 2 (1%, 7 Votes)
  • The Secret World or Secret World Legends (7%, 91 Votes)
  • Tree of Life (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Tree of Savior (0%, 2 Votes)
  • Trove (0%, 2 Votes)
  • Vindictus (1%, 7 Votes)
  • Wakfu (0%, 3 Votes)
  • WildStar (4%, 48 Votes)
  • Wizardry Online (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Worlds Adrift (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Xsyon (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 864

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Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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