Today, Massively's staff honors the best of the best (and the worst of the worst) for the year 2013. Every writer was permitted a vote in each category with an anything-goes nomination process. No MMO, company, or headline was off the table, as long as it met the criteria. Can WildStar make it to three years in a row at the top of our "most anticipated" pile, or did its delay dampen our enthusiasm? Can SOE repeat its win for best studio? Which MMO is most likely to flop next year? And just what constituted the biggest MMO screw-up of the last 12 months?
Enjoy our picks for the best MMOs, expansions, studios, stories, and innovations of 2013... and our most-anticipated for 2014 and beyond.
Best New MMO of 2013: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Runners-up: Tie between Neverwinter and Defiance
Jasmine: Final Fantasy XIV, hands down. This game managed to achieve something I thought was impossible: Square-Enix took a game that I considered the worst MMO I've ever played and turned it into something that keeps me logging in every chance I get.
Eliot: If you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have said Final Fantasy XIV without reservation. Now don't get me wrong; everything good about the original version is brought to the forefront, and everything negative has either been removed or minimized. But the 2.1 update and the housing fiasco have driven home the idea that we're not out of the woods and that we're just looking at an era of bold new mistakes. If these issues get fixed, then I have high hopes for the future; if not, it'll be a shocking example of a stunning turnaround followed by a shameful crash.
Best Expansion or Update of 2013: Guild Wars 2's Super Adventure Box
Runners-up: Tie between EVE Online's Odyssey, EVE Online's Rubicon, and Star Trek Online's
Legacy of Romulus
Richie: Guild Wars 2's Super Adventure Box patch stands out in such a profound way because many players thought it was nothing more than an April Fools' Joke. The official website was updated with amazing images from an 8-bit world accompanied by a hilarious, cheesy, '80s-style commercial. When I logged into the game and realized that SAB was really in the game, my jaw hit my desk. There were three full levels of this 8-bit world complete with secrets, puzzles, boss battles, original music score, and custom sound effects -- a full platforming adventure game neatly tucked inside of my MMO.
Brendan: I've written a fair bit on why I love this year's Odyssey and Rubicon expansions, but Rubicon's personal deployable structures push it just over the edge. The Mobile Depot has made long-term exploration a really feasible career by allowing tech 3 ships to refit anywhere in deep space, and Ghost Sites have added some extra reward for those scouring deep space. The change to warp acceleration has also fixed the disparity between small and large ships and enabled real hit-and-run style warfare again.
Best Non-Traditional MMO or Pseudo-MMO of 2013: Path of Exile
Other nominees: Hearthstone, Dota 2, Cube World, Defiance, MUSH
Matt: Path of Exile gets my vote for this one. The folks at Grinding Gear Games have taken the time-honored action-RPG formula popularized by Diablo and twisted it up into an experience that feels both fresh and familiar. Eschewing traditional classes and progression in favor of an almost inconceivably huge skill tree and allowing players to customize their ability loadouts through interchangeable gems are just two of the unique spins Path of Exile brings to the table, and with its variety of leagues and competitions, there's something here for the entire casual-hardcore spectrum.
Justin: Hearthstone. If just about everyone's in beta, does it count? I say it counts. Blizzard's got a cash cow hit on its hands, and the combination of World of Warcraft and Magic-lite is simply inspired. Plus, it's pretty fun.
Most Underrated MMO of 2013: Neverwinter
Larry: Neverwinter launched with a wide audience and the hopes of being a full-fledged Dungeons and Dragons MMO. But alas, that's not what Cryptic had in mind for the game, and gamers didn't appreciate Neverwinter for what it was: a fun game that you spend a few minutes to a couple of hours playing to unwind from the daily stress. When I revisited the game, I was actually surprised at how much fun I had. I don't have to stress about rotations or builds or the standard MMO worries. I simply log in, pound through a couple of dungeons, then carry on with my day.
Tina: I think a lot of people boxed Neverwinter under the "more of the same" category without giving it a chance. The traditional charm is updated nicely through the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons freshness.
Jef: Defiance isn't setting the world on fire or anything, but I enjoyed my time in it, and I keep it installed in case I want some sci-fi shooter action with questing and a purpose.
Most Anticipated for 2014 and Beyond: EverQuest Next
Other nominees: EverQuest Next Landmark, ArcheAge, Destiny, Pathfinder Online, TUG, The Elder Scrolls Online
Brendan: There are some great MMOs on the horizon, but the one I'm looking forward to the most is EverQuest Next. I'm an absolute sucker for sandboxes, and the idea of a fantasy sandbox with a voxel-based and completely destructible world has me absolutely excited! The huge financial success of Minecraft has inspired a deluge of voxel-based games in recent years, but no game has yet done the feature justice. EQ Next promises to be as far from those blocky worlds as possible while retaining much of the same sandbox gameplay.
Bree: The day I learned Star Wars Galaxies was closing, Smed reassured a teary-eyed me that SOE was working on an even bigger and better sandbox. That sandbox turned out to be EverQuest Next. I'm banking on SOE's ability to parlay everything it learned from SWG -- especially the mistakes -- into EQN. There are other good sandboxes on the horizon, absolutely, but nothing as likely to thrive as Next.
Justin: Innovative sandboxes or massive fanbase followings aside, I'm rooting for Carbine to pull off a wacky sci-fi themepark in WildStar. I almost hope it doesn't launch super-big so that it can grow from word-of-mouth instead of developer hype.
Richie: I'm looking forward to WildStar. Ever since I quit World of Warcraft, a part of me has missed having a few nights each week as scheduled hangouts with my friends. I'm itching to raid again, and it looks as if WildStar will have the best endgame features of the 2014 MMO crop.
Most Likely to "Flop" in 2014: The Elder Scrolls Online
Runner-up: DUST 514
Anatoli: "Flop" is a really loaded term when it comes to MMO. I don't think ESO will make much of a splash. I doubt it'll fail as a game or as a venture, but I predict that a lot of people will decide that it did when it doesn't set the whole world on fire.
Bree: I think ESO will launch just fine and collect a lot of box and sub fees initially, but long-term, it's in trouble. MMORPG fans are sick of story-driven single-player themepark MMOs, console fans will be mystified by subs and a three-way PvP endgame, and Elder Scrolls fans will wander back to the lore and mods of their solo sandboxes. I'm truly not sure for whom the game is intended, and I say that as a TES fanatic.
Matthew: I'm not really a fan of The Elder Scrolls series, so maybe I'm biased, but I can't see the online version having the success of the single-player installments.
MJ: If I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say ESO. It feels as if there is a dark shadow of "can't meet expectations" hanging over it.
Best Studio in 2013: Sony Online Entertainment
Runner-up: Trion Worlds
Honorable Mention: Tiny Speck
Beau: SOE continues to churn out games, but the studio does so on its own terms. Love it or hate it, you can't deny that SOE has done many, many things that have changed the course of MMOs.
Mike: SOE seems like the studio that has the best hold on what the market wants. It keeps releasing engaging new content for its existing properties, and EverQuest Next looks like the first fantasy MMO to actually try anything new since Ultima Online. SOE also has a solid reputation for making big promises and failing to deliver, but I'd say it had a very good year. No question all eyes are on EQN in the coming years.
Toli: Glitch's shutdown last year was downright tragic, but Tiny Speck has made every effort to keep the spirit and community alive, going so far as to release the game's assets into the public domain just recently. That's preposterous, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Biggest Story of 2013: The reveal of EverQuest Next and Landmark
Runners-up: Tie between Star Citizen's Kickstarter success and Final Fantasy XIV's relaunch
MJ: EverQuest Next Landmark grabs this one because the game came literally out of nowhere! There was not a single whisper, hint, leak or anything to suggest there was a second game on SOE's horizon. In this industry, that's simply unheard of.
Tina: EverQuest Next. Everyone just went nuts, and for good reason!
Matthew: EverQuest Next. Since the announcement, it seems as if the whole future of the industry is colored by comparisons to our new savior. I'm not going to disagree. I'll go out on a limb so far as to say I suspect Blizzard went back to the drawing board on Titan because of EQN.
Jef: Star Citizen. You may not want to play it, and you may be tired of the Chris Roberts hero-worship, but you can't deny the impact that it's had and continues to have on the way games are made.
Biggest Disappointment of 2013: DUST 514
Other nominees: Defiance, Warhammer's sunset, the Kickstarter craze, Age of Wushu, Neverwinter, uninspired MMO design, traditional subscription models, no EverQuest Next at SOE Live, the gloom and doom surrounding World of Darkness, and Guild Wars 2's living story.
Jef: DUST 514. I might be beating a dead horse here, but console-only plus same-old-shooter-gameplay equals meh. And CCP hyping the crap out of the EVE Online connection wasn't particularly wise since there really isn't one.
Mike: This may be a cop-out, but I'm pinning this on the entire MMO genre. The year was ruled by countless re-treads of familiar fantasy worlds and a lot of uninspired work from developers that should really know better (Trion, I'm looking at you). With the line between MMO and non-MMO getting blurrier by the minute, MMO developers need to get their acts together if they're hoping to stay competitive. And they need stop asking for handouts via Kickstarter.
Eliot: Kickstarter. We've had a lot of funding drives for games, some successful, some not, with nearly every single one of them promising the same basic gameplay philosophies, none of which has been backed up by actual finished MMOs. At least one of those studios has gone back to the well and asked for more money from Kickstarter backers, and I don't imagine it will be the first. It's not a trend I'm happy to see, and one that I've already written about at length. There's some great stuff on Kickstarter, but this year's glut was unpleasant.
Biggest Blunder of 2013: Subscription models for Elder Scrolls Online and WildStar
Other nominees: Console MMOs, Everything ESO does, LucasArts' closure, Blizzard's lore sexism, Star Wars: The Old Republic's space combat, FFXIV's launch woes, CCP's World of Darkness layoffs, Guild Wars 2's horrifying PR campaigns, and Diablo III's auction house fiasco.
[Update: We talk more about this award and the rationale behind it in December 26th's Ask Massively.]
Eliot: WildStar's business model at least seems to be taken from a book written by someone with the vaguest knowledge of industry trends, but ESO's seems to have been designed with the assumption that every other game that went free-to-play after launch (also known as "pretty much every game that has launched within the past four years") was a worse game than ESO will be. Can we please stop pretending that you can launch with a subscription now?
Mike: I think, in the long term, putting a subscription fee on The Elder Scrolls Online will turn out to be a pretty bad idea. Bethesda will make piles of cash before it's forced to shift to free-to-play, but I'm not sure what the price will be in terms of loyalty to the brand. If fans feel burned or taken advantage of, the Elder Scrolls franchise will suffer. A subscription fee essentially says, "You'll quit World of Warcraft/EVE Online/Final Fantasy XIV for this," and that's exceptionally bold from a studio that's never made an MMO.
Tina: I honestly don't see how CCP can keep its commitment to complete World of Darkness while continually cutting the team. We need to see some solid results in 2014 to prove otherwise.
Biggest Innovation or Trend of 2013: The return of sandbox gameplay
Runner-up: Defiance's transmedia synergy
Other nominees: Oculus Rift, Guild Wars 2's cadence, streaming games, blurring genre lines, actiony MMOs, voxels, and Warhammer's sunset.
Toli: I like that trends are swinging back toward a variety of gameplay features this year. Voxels! Sandboxy things! I turn around and suddenly MMOs are launching with housing again! Holy smokes!
Matt: I'm happy to see more studios tapping into the sandbox market. From heavy-hitters like EverQuest Next and Star Citizen to less-hyped titles like Pathfinder Online, the sandbox genre is gaining a lot of traction.
Larry: Defiance was a disappointment as a game, but as a product it broke the mold. I really enjoyed the tie-in launch of a television series with an MMO. I don't think other games need to copy this model exactly, but I do think that tie-ins, crossovers, and multi-media launches add value to a product. And I also believe that outside-the-box thinking needs to be encouraged in MMOs, even if it does ultimately flop.
Justin: Oculus Rift: Could VR come back to be an actual future for MMOs? It's a possibility, and what teases we're seeing this year have whet my desire to try it out for real.
Shawn: Closing Warhammer Online. I mean, the game was kinda fun at first, but can we stop with that exact formula now? Thanks. (I'm already putting my vote in for 2015's Biggest Trend to be "the end of voxel-based online games.")
Most Improved in 2013: Final Fantasy XIV
Runners-up: Tie between Star Wars: The Old Republic and RuneScape 3
Jasmine: Final Fantasy XIV. It improved so much from 1.0 to 2.0 that it plays like an almost entirely different game. I don't think you can get much more improved than that.
Beau: RuneScape 3 brought so much to the older game that it really is a different game. It's always been dynamic and felt like a living world, but this relaunch made it that much better.
Those are our picks. Howsabout yours?