Massively multiplayer online role-playing games have been around a while. The first generally accepted ‘true’ title in the genre was Neverwinter Nights way back in 1991 which cost players an astounding $6.00 an hour to play. Since then, MMORPGs have developed into the behemoths we know today - such as the mighty World of Warcraft - and many still use a pay-to-play subscription model, though thankfully they don’t charge on an hourly basis anymore.
One thing that puts a lot of people off MMORPGs is that they don’t want to commit to a monthly subscription, which is why many of them now don’t require monthly fees. Several titles on this list started out with paid-for services, but eventually moved to a free-to-play model that offers benefits to those who wish to continue subscribing. The criteria for getting on this top six is that the game must be, essentially, free to play. A few of these titles do charge for the base game, but don’t require any monthly subscriptions in the way something like Warcraft does.
So if you want to dip your toe into multiplayer online RPGs, or maybe you’re a lapsed subscriber who wants to return to these amazing worlds, here are the 6 best subscription-free MMORPGs you can play today.
I personally spent many, many hours exploring the enormous world of The Lord of the Rings Online. The game’s been around since 2007, and even today offers the most immersive experience of Tolkien’s world you can find.
This massive game is divided into 25 separate regions, including fan favorites such as The Shire, The Misty Mountains and The Ettenmoors - you can even explore the Mines of Moria and Isengard in the expansions. You’ll also meet characters such as Gandalf, Frodo and the rest of the fellowship in your travels. The whole thing is like a love letter to Middle Earth; if you’re a fan of the books or the movies (or both, of course) then this is definitely worth checking out.
There are plenty of your usual MMO staples here: crafting, questing, PvP, PvE, banks, healers, etc. And the fact that you can buy and decorate your own home makes you feel like you’re an integral part of Middle Earth.
The game switched to free-to-play a while ago, but anyone who wants to pay extra gets some fancy perks that’ll speed things up and allow access to more areas.
It may be a bit long in the tooth and not have the subscriber numbers it once had, but The Lord of the Rings Online is still a classic MMORPG and a must-play for any Middle Earth diehards who have yet to experience it.
The Secret World is one of those games that could be listed under the word ‘polarizing’ in the dictionary. While a great number of players praise its originality and open-ended skill system, others complain that it’s just an archaic, unambitious MMO that would have made more of an impact if it had been released in 2008 instead of 2012.
Whichever camp you fall into to, it’s impossible to deny that The Secret World’s puzzles, setting and especially its atmosphere are some of the best ever seen in MMORPGs. Any fans of horror maestro HP Lovecraft will love the many homages the game pays to the author.
TSW is quite different from the majority of other MMOs, which could be what makes it such a ‘love it or hate it’ type of game for so many people. In many ways it can sometimes feel like a single-player title, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially when you’re looking for a different kind of MMORPG experience. It’s incredibly innovative; some missions even include puzzles which require you to search the internet for a solution using an in-game browser!
The Secret World eventually moved from a pay-to-play to a buy-to-play model, meaning that you now just have to pay for the base game. Anyone wanting additional benefits such as experience buffs, monthly gifts, and store discounts still have the option of forking out for a monthly subscription.
If you value elements such as story, skill systems and uniqueness over MMO staples like PvP and crafting, then you’re likely to love The Secret World.
Despite Rift being very popular, absolutely massive, and incredibly beautiful, many detractors point to the game’s lack of originality as its downfall. It’s worth reminding these people that while innovation in games should be encouraged, a lack of originality never stopped a title from being fun or popular (the Lego games, Call of Duty, FIFA, etc, etc, etc).
Despite the perception that Rift contains nothing we haven’t seen before, it still has a massive and dedicated userbase. The game won numerous awards upon its release in 2011, including ‘Best PC Persistent World/MMO Game of the Year’ from IGN. At the time, it was also hailed as being the first MMORPG that could challenge World of Warcraft’s dominance of the genre.
Rift went free-to-play in 2013, offering an optional ‘Patron Status’ subscription service that gives players bonus buffs, improved abilities, store discounts and even expedited customer support! Moving to this free model improved desirability for the game no end. For some awesome PvP, beautiful looks, super gameplay and one of the most welcoming communities of any MMORPG, check out Rift.
In case anyone didn’t know: WildStar is going to start offering a true free-to-play model this fall. The game previously had a C.R.E.D.D system, which allowed non-subscribers to buy game time using game-world gold. Like most MMORPGs using free-to-play, anyone who continues subscribing to Wildstar after the change will receive in-game benefits.
WildStar has been called the first ‘modern’ MMORPG. The game cherry-picks the best bits from other massively multiplayer online titles, but cites World of Warcraft as its biggest influence, especially in its structure, questing and visual style. One area that is unique to the game is its very cool combat system; this places more emphasis on arcade-like skills that require manual aiming. And it has one of the best housing systems of any MMORPG.
Full of fun quests, adventures and packed with character; WildStar’s a massive, fun experience that’s worth returning to for any lapsed subscribers - once the free-to-play mode kicks in - and a great starting point for newbies.
Few MMORPGs garnered as much excitement in anticipation of its release as Star Wars: The Old Republic. Star Wars, you say? Bioware, you say? How can this possibly not be the greatest game ever made in the history of video games? The first reviews of the game seemed to suggest it really did live up to its hype; 93% in PC Gamer, 9/10 on IGN, 4/5 on Gamespy. But then something started happening, subscription numbers dropped rapidly and people started abandoning the game in droves.
Thing is, SW:ToR really is a great game, but like a really awesome rollercoaster, once you’ve experience the initial thrill a few times it starts to lose its appeal – especially when you’re paying a monthly fee for the pleasure. The game also suffered from its own ambitions; trying to stuff the equivalent of four MMORPG’s worth of story into one fully voiced MMO game was a titanic task.
But then Bioware did something sensible and SW:ToR began offering a free-to-play option, a model they probably should have adopted from the beginning. It does come with some pretty annoying caveats, though, such as reduced speed, slower leveling, and no mounts. Despite all this, it’s still an excellent MMORPG.
Sometimes, developers can try to take all the best elements from various games within a genre, mix them together, add some new stuff, and end up with total crap. Other times the mix works perfectly and you get a game like Guild Wars 2.
GW2 really does take everything that people enjoy about MMORPGs, remove the worst parts and adds it own spin on it. Take the whole social aspect of MMORPGs - playing online games with loads of other people can be great fun, but let’s face it, some people can be a-holes. By putting an emphasis on casual co-operation, ArenaNet managed to get rid of some of the unfriendly, toxic competitiveness you’ll often find in MMO games.
Guild Wars 2 is set in a persistent world that responds to players’ actions. The dynamic events it features may be a bit more scripted that the developers like to claim, but it still makes players feel like they are part of an ever-changing, living, breathing world.
The game can be incredibly complex yet is completely accessible, even to someone who’s never played an MMORPG before. It looks beautiful, has some of the best PvP in the genre, rewards exploration instead of punishing it, has multiple methods of tackling objectives, and does everything an MMO should do - only better.
In my opinion, Guild Wars 2 is still the best MMO game in the world today, subscription-free or otherwise.
What MMOs do you think deserve a spot on this list? Let me know in the comments below!