Flagship Studios -- Mythos
For those of us crying out in the wilderness for Blizzard's next MMO offering to be an update of their Diablo franchise, Mythos provides the best alternative. The game plays virtually identically to Diablo II, but with shinier graphics, and, of course, MMO capability built right in. There's a First Impressions post that goes into more specific detail, but what people like is its easy-to-pick-up gameplay, combined with its shiny graphics. It's so addictive, in fact, that if Flagship suddenly started charging a monthly fee for it, I'd be willing to bet at least half of its current constituents would re-up immediately.
Its future is bright, as Flagship has recently released new information relating to their upcoming zone, with no immediate end in sight. Is there something Mythos lacks? Personally, I'd like more choice in races, as 3 seems slightly limiting. An option to turn off the player chat would be more than welcome. Better customization of your character's model would be lovely, but for a satisfying casual experience, Mythos does a wonderful job.
Nexon -- Maple Story
Their website reads 'Because we can, and it's free', and that sums up this crazy little 2D title. Maple Story has nothing to do with pancakes or waffles, yet it's got a subscriber base well into the tens of millions, though they claim 72 million, to the delight, scorn, and outright incredulity of many.
They've also made partnerships with Target and Best Buy to feature their chain locations in-world, even going so far as to make those destinations part of quests. All that aside, one need only take a look at the side-scrolling, chaotic action to see why this game is so popular. It trades heavily on the predilection toward insane cuteness so prevalent in many Asian countries and on the rise here in the West. Add to that the incredibly huge store of purchasable objects that include weapons, items, outfits, etc., and you've got yourself an MMO that will eventually engulf the world. Fear it!
Three Rings -- Puzzle Pirates
Continuing in the non-3D vein, Puzzle Pirates is single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the word 'bilge'. With a graphical aesthetic reminiscent of Lego minifigs or Duplo toys, players assume control of a particular role in the operation of a seagoing vessel -- manning the bilge pump, for example, or patching up the timbers of the hull. For a game composed almost entirely of minigames, it's surprisingly addictive.
There is much much more to this title than surface exposure betrays, of course -- it's a contantly evolving, growing world that rewards persistence and cleverness, and leads us right into the next pirate-themed free MMO on our list ...
Disney -- Pirates of the Caribbean
The popularity of this really shouldn't surprise me, but then, I'm a card-carrying cynic. Any branded game experience derived from a movie or television show will immediately be met with my raised eyebrow and pursed lips. However, in this case, Disney seems to have put a good deal of thought and expertise into it to produce a fairly compelling little title.
Featuring both land- and sea-based combat, PvE and PvP (pirate versus pirate, har har), a weapon set that includes voodoo dolls, and gambling-based minigames, PotCO provides enough diversion to stand up to any of your bigger, subscription-based MMOs. And if you're a fan of the movies, you'll love the chance to run missions for Cap'n Jack himself!
NCsoft -- Dungeon Runners
DR is the casual MMO with a twist: it's goofy. There's a First Impressions for this game, but it's worth repeating here that this game plays off on conventions from both WoW and Diablo, and likely many other standards as well. How else to explain the Health Potion of the Daring Noobosaur, or the fact that the first weapons vendor you run into sounds just like Krusty the Klown?
But this level of snark doesn't mean a hands-off approach towards the community. The dev team posts regular Dev Diaries focusing on some aspect of working on DR. They also have a Facebook page where they invite players to come and leave their thoughts and ideas. But is DR fun to play? I found that it offers a quick drop-in solution to the 'must kill stuff now' itch and is reminiscent enough of WoW that fans will find an easy match.
And there you have it, 5 free MMOs that could take away your monthly fee blues, though your mileage will vary. I'm open to suggestions for a companion feature: The top 5 WORST free MMOs -- drop us a tip!