Ask Massively: Choice paralysis and the perfect MMO

With thanks to Jef and MJ for the SWG pic
Welcome back to Ask Massively! Today's readers don't want much. They just want to know all the things about all the games and then be told what to play. To wit, reader Lord Baron Xooper wrote in with the following request:
Hello, Massively people! I need your help; I have nowhere else to turn. I need a new MMO. I'm tired of World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 and Champions Online. I'm curious whether you could help me find a sandbox MMO with a heavy RPing community. Thank you! Love, Lord Baron Xooper
No pressure or anything, yeah? Thing is, Xoops wasn't the only one with this question. We get it a lot. Maybe once a week.

For example, a reader named Kia recently asked, "Do you guys know of a site that isn't so much MMO news but centered around helping people decide how to pick an MMO for them?" And a Massively fan named Tim penned a story that probably sounds familiar to a lot of you:
I spent all weekend trying to find a game that has a huge world and a point to just sitting under a tree enjoying the scenery. Originally, Anarchy Online had this. Good gameplay, and a big world to explore. In fact, you could just explore and find something that didn't even have a purpose. It was there simply because it belonged. What I found in my search were PvP-centric games and "action MMOs" that feel like playing Mortal Kombat Online. So, Massively crew, I'm looking for a new home for my wife and me. Something that has it all, like the old days, not just an MMORPG that's all meat and no potatoes. Have I just become an MMO snob?
It's super flattering to be asked what to play, but I suspect we won't suggest to you anything you haven't already considered and rejected, nor would MetaMMO, the site I think Kia is looking for (no affiliation with Massively, just something we've mentioned on the podcast). If you're a true newbie to MMOs, then yes, we might be able to help you help yourself with game advice (and welcome aboard, by the way!).

But Xoops and Kia and Tim don't sound like newbies to me; they sound like MMO vagabonds. Yeah, we've got a lot of those here at Massively. And if we can't find the perfect game for ourselves, how can we find the perfect game for you?

It seems strange to think that the kind of game we're looking for might not even exist anymore, not unless you're willing to play a low-budget indie like Darkfall or an antique like Asheron's Call. There are so many games out there that we can sometimes get lost in the spectacle and never give new ones the same chance we gave the old ones. We become paralyzed by our breadth of choice and hold back our commitment to new games.

But Tim is right -- most modern MMOs have been made to suit the World of Warcraft generation, with realistic, trimmed-back feature sets and a focus on combat over all else. That's a fine style of game, one I enjoy myself, but it doesn't scratch all my itches. A game can be a great game without being a home, but it doesn't make you a snob, Tim, to still crave a game that is more.

The truth is, what you're looking for isn't out there, and it's not because you're blinded by nostalgia or your first love or any of that dismissive nonsense. It's because you aren't being catered to in the industry right now. The types of sandboxes you're dreaming about just weren't being made in the last few years; until quite recently, the word sandbox was skillfully avoided by developers and sneered at by mainstreamers. It's become popular to the point of overuse now, but it will be a few years before the new wave of sandboxes launches -- and they still might not be what we/you want.

But that doesn't mean you can't find bits and pieces of what you seek right now inside the games that exist. Xooper, to you I suggest EverQuest II or Star Trek Online. Neither is a pure sandbox, but both have sandbox elements like personal spaces and crafting and heavy roleplaying communities without the griefing mentality you'll find in PvP-centered second-gen sandboxes. Tim, to you I recommend Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars 2, and EVE Online, all of which cater to an explorer's sensibilities without necessarily making twitch combat the majority of your gameplay.

None of these games is perfect, but each could provide you a nice snack while you wait for the WildStars and ArcheAges and EverQuest Nexts of our near future. Don't be discouraged and paralyzed into forgetting to have fun right now. I remember once, long ago, thinking that nothing could ever top Ultima Online for me... and then Star Wars Galaxies launched and proved me wrong. I know a game will feel like a true home again for me someday just like SWG did, but that's not going to stop me from renting cool apartments until I find a place worth the mortgage.

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is there no edit button? Should "monoclegate" be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every Thursday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at ask@massively.com. Just ask!

This article was originally published on Massively.