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What MMORPG should I play? I've played an embarrassing number of PC-based video games over my lifetime, and still do. (Ah, it feels good to get that off my chest.) But I've tended toward single-player games. My biggest exception: I've spent waaaay too much time on Left4Dead (and Quake 3 back in the day). I love L4D because of the way it is engineered toward collaboration; you can't win unless you support your team. It's actually quite beautiful. Especially if you like killing the moral equivalent of zombies.

But for research purposes, I want to get experience in other multi-player online games that are more typical of the genre. I don't like grinding, and badges and achievements really don't do anything for me. For some reason, World of Warcraft didn't grab me.

So, if I want to play a massively multi-player game on my PC both to get a better sense of them (which means it has to be somewhat typical of the genre) and to have fun, what do you recommend?
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I've heard that The Old Republic is a good experience (but not a long term play like WoW), and that the Secret World does some really interesting things with the genre, but some of the combat mechanics are a bit dated. Rift is also another excellent, very polished fantasy MMORPG with some interesting character development and gameplay mechanics.

You might want to investigate multiple Free 2 Play titles that have established communities and not-too-obvious micro-transaction payments. I can recommend Fallen Earth and Runes of Magic. FE is a little rough around the edges, but has an amazing crafting system. Runes of Magic has a solid player community and has been around for several years.
 
Ha haaahhh... I was going to recommend the one MMO I've ever found compelling, but evidently is has been taken off line. Sigh.
 
I played Rift for several months, coming off a long jaunt on WoW. The only reason I left Rift was I was tired of the genre, but the game itself had wonderful graphics, great writing and like +Michael Pate said, a solid, dedicated community.
 
I'm playing Lord of the Rings Online. I've dipped in and out of it for a few years now and pleased to say that it still keeps my interest plus it is regularly updated and expanded.

Plus plenty of solo quests which as I always worry that I'm letting the side down in fellowship quests! :-) 
 
WoW is up for an expansion, I'm hearing good things about Rift (the people playing mostly, like Tabula Rasa) and SWToR is crashing and burning. Might cancel my membership there, and playing WoW is just meh, what we do (6 years for me). Global Agenda is free to play on Steam if you like sci-fi. At the end of the day, you are at the mercy of the devs. 
 
Looking at what you said “don't like grinding, and badges”etc, I would wait for the release of Guild Wars 2 in less than a month.
http://www.guildwars2.com

The current MMO industry is “dying” (they all lose players) at the exception of “Eve online” which is pretty niche and has a strong learning curve.

I tend to compare the MMO industry to “Web2.0”  which became so popular because of
1) “Social” feature  (anyone can interact and be useful to anyone) 
2) “Write” feature (anyone can write something persistent without being a developer).

Currently the MMO market don’t have either 1) or 2) for players and is seven years late on what people now take for granted in the online world.

To be more precise,
1)  progression is still vertical-stats-gear based and strongly divide players depending on how “time rich” they are and not on their skill or social abilities. These MMOs can only be social for “time rich” equivalent players.
2) Players actions have no impact on the persistent shared world (so no “write feature” either) mobs and bosses respawn endlessly, landscape don’t change.

The good news is that as the industry is bleeding, some studios are beginning to take the risk to evolve rather than copy WoW (which will always be profitable thanks to nostalgia and few other factors).

I find Guild Wars 2 interesting because the game don’t divide players: it is “Social proof” in the sense it has an horizontal progression system and a world wide stats scaling (all zones will always stay relevant and grant XP/rewards whatever the player level, group play is rewarded, PvP opponents will never be overpowered in comparison to another one, gear is mainly aesthetic, it is skill and social based).

There’s also a little bit of “write” in the “World versus World” feature which is a huge battle zone between three servers for two weeks with various objectives. I would say Guild Wars 2 is a MMO 1.5 (in comparison to MMO 1.0 we are still stuck in). Hopefully Minecraft will inspire real “write” features in MMO soon pushing to MMO 2.0.

Guild Wars2 is not perfect too. It currently don’t have the polish of WoW, I’m not a fan of the ingame painty art style and battles are a little noisy (difficult to distinguish different spells in groups). That said I’m sure it will have a strong impact on the industry even if it stays niche. 

If you like FPS a lot of interesting horizontal progression MMO are coming too like PlanetSide2 and Firefall.

All in all I expect the MMO market to hugely increase in the coming years once current developers (or more likely new developers) take care of 1 and 2.

A video (a little hyped) but which gives some reasons why Guild Wars 2 is different in its design:
Guild Wars 2 - Top 10 Reasons to be Interested
 
“ I'm put off by games with complex trees and lots of spells.“

I like complexe games but I agree with you. It’s like game developers never heard of “The paradox of choice: why less is more”. The worst is when you are presented with lots of choices in game without informations to actually make these choices (and the game designers make sure to make you pay for the respec so that you’ll learn to use google next time).

That said Rift highlight now an optimal path in trees (just click where it’s glowing) but there are still too many redundant spells to my taste and cluttered bars.
Blizzard acknowledge the problem and get rid of traditional trees in favor of personal gameplay choices (I like that).
WoW Mists of Pandaria Beta - Paiid | New Talent Changes in WoW MoP - Blizzcon 2011
Guild Wars 2 have a minimal set of skills you can use at one time based on the weapon you use (and you can switch weapon in fight if you want so).
http://wiki.guildwars2.com/wiki/Skill_bar
 
I want to get experience in other multi-player online games that are more typical of the genre <--- World of Warcraft, then. Surprised you haven't played just for a single session, as a cultural share experience.
 
WoW changed a lot to accommodate for casual players having less time and the upcoming expansion (MoP-Mist of Pandaria, 25th Sept.) add different game styles (Pokemon-style collect pets and turn based pets battles, new PvP options, world bosses,etc...). If you decide to try it again ask a US player to send you a free "scroll of resurrection", it will give you a boost to level 80 for one of your character so you can easily check end-game (85) and be ready for MoP.  
http://us.battle.net/support/en/article/scroll-of-resurrection-faq

If you like myths and legends of the real world you may be interested by the new "The Secret World"
The Secret World - Launch Trailer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_World
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