So as you read my choices, bear in mind that these are based on my opinions from my year of gaming and from my list of favorites. It's also important to note that not all of my favorites were released this year. Some of them are downright ancient games compared to the rest of the young MMO market, but as long as they released a significant amount of content in 2011, I considered them. To me, expansions and a series of patches can equal a brand-new release. Some games release so much new content per year that they might as well have been released again.
So click past the cut to see my favorites from the market of free-to-play, indie and browser-based gaming. Be sure to leave your picks in the comments section!
Best Graphics: Eden Eternal
Runner-up: Spiral Knights
For the first award, I would like to bring attention to one of the most important aspects of MMO gaming: the graphics. While a game is not required to look a certain way to be considered a fantastic game, it doesn't hurt if your game is just about perfect-looking. To me, graphics need to be well-wounded and crisp, and they need to feel as though the developers and artists were confident in their style. The game world needs to flow and appear to be built out of all the same stuff.
This was a hard one to pick. When the dust settled, I realized that I love how Eden Eternal looks. The game, published by Aeria Games, is not just a cutesy Anime game. It feels solid, whimsical, detailed and very smooth. The greatest thing is that the game will run on lower-end PCs as well.
Best Sound: Spiral Knights
Sound design is often overlooked in MMO gaming. Sure, you can entertain players with amazing artwork or killer gameplay while featuring almost no sound, but add in brilliant effects and music and players will have a much better experince. It's not often that I run across games that make me first think of how neat the sound is, and it is often that I find games that literally have almost no sound. So when I find one that blows my ears off, I make note.
The sound in Three Rings' Spiral Knights sound design is awesome. It's not so much complicated and intricate as it is subtle and a perfect fit for the world around it. The music scores feel like an action soundtrack from an 8bit retro title, and the combat effects remind me of days spent in arcades in the mall.
Most Innovative: Die2Nite
Runner-up: Spiral Knights
Innovation can be such a rare thing these days. One look at standard MMO design is enough to make an older player like yours truly wonder if MMO gaming really does have much of a future. Then, I play a game like Motion Twin's Die2Nite. While it is barely an MMO, the potential for thousands of players is there. Each game a player joins could last only a few days, but players can survive zombie attack after zombie attack for weeks.
But it takes work. Real work and cooperation. The amazing thing about Die2Nite is that it achieves all that it does not only within a browser but mostly through text. It can be a real nail-biter of a game, too. How does it do it? By taking chances with its design, and keeping it simple. Die2Nite will invade your dreams.
Most Charming: Glitch
Runner-up: Eden Eternal and Spiral Knights
Charm seems to be a four-letter word for many designers. They often forget to make games that are attractive to people, games that put people under a spell. Charm is not easy to achieve. Developers have to have confident designs but still remain a bit mysterious. Cute is OK, but only if it is paired with a note of drama.
Glitch, by Tiny Speck, charmed the pants off me and thousands of other players. It pulls me through gaming experiences I have never had and yet reminds me of something else. What it is I am reminded of, I have no idea. Although the game does feature some mechanics we have seen before, it combines those mechanics with brilliant lore, art that looks like it comes from the underground art scene, and adorable music.
Best Browser Game: RuneScape
The browser is one of the most popular MMO platforms, yet it still somehow remains a mystery to many MMO gamers. Regardless of what any comments section might say, the browser is the true workhorse of MMO land. It pumps out content for millions of gamers spread across scores of different devices and operating systems and does it all over the world. The browser is going to be the go-to place for developers, and very soon.
RuneScape is the king of the browser. Heck, Jagex's flagship title is one of the kings of the entire MMO landscape. Not only has it been around for a decade, but it shows zero signs of stopping. Very frequent updates keep players on their toes, and browser access keeps the game accessible.
Best Smartphone Title: Pocket Legends
Runner-up: Vendetta Online
Did you really expect me to say anything else? The fact is that there is quite a large market of smartphone MMOs out there, and Spacetime Studios achieved what it did by starting out simple and working toward a simple goal: to allow players to enjoy a "real" MMO experience on a cellphone. It's helped to show people that gaming on a tiny screen is not only possible but quite enjoyable if the design is smart.
I've had the pleasure of watching Spacetime Studios expand its list of titles to attract thousands of new players. I need good games to point to when I tell people, "No, really, you can play MMOs on a smartphone!" The cash-shop design is a mix of optional fluff and much needed potions and weapons. No wonder it's been able to release update after update.
Game of the Year: RuneScape
I have to say that this was probably the hardest category to even begin to pick a winner for. I am in love with so many games and from so many different genres. That didn't make my job easier. I decided in the end to go with RuneScape for a number of reasons. First, the game is accessible through any browser. That means players who might not own a gaming rig can jump in along with me. Next, the game has more content than almost any game I can think of. I have spent months in just the beginning towns, attempting to finish off a series of achievement quests that are region-specific. The problem is that I keep getting sidetracked with holiday events, socializing, finding adventure, and learning new things to stay busy with. Lastly, the game has been around for nearly as long as I have been playing MMOs. That means that it now has layer upon layer of lore, quests, player interactions, and characters that make it feel plain epic. And yes, I absolutely adore the graphics.
If I ever get bored with MMOs, I can always go to RuneScape. If I want to spend a lazy evening crafting, I can do it in RuneScape. It I want to explore, meet new people, roleplay, grind, adventure, create my own armor and weapons, and a host of other activities, I can do that in RuneScape. A great percentage of that I can do for absolutely no money. RuneScape is practically a perfect MMO in my opinion. This year it released more content than many "AAA" MMOs, stopped bots in their tracks, and did it all relatively smoothly. That's saying a lot for a game that many gamers consider "only for kids."
Thank you for joining me in awarding these games with my seal of approval! I'm interested to see how my habits and gaming list change over the next year. Until then, what are your choices?
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!