My first contact with the world of MMORPGs was Star Wars Galaxies from SOE. And although it had some major flaws, it nevertheless managed to convey a great sense of freedom, exploration and adventure. The planets were absolutely huge and in the early days before space ships and speeders were introduced going to far away locations was a major undertaking. I remember gathering a bunch of people together to make the trek to Jabba's palace out in the Dune Sea. None of us had ever been there and we only had a vague idea of where it was, pieced together from local rumours in Mos Eisley. Arming ourselves as best we could with low level blaster rifles and pistols we headed out...
As we made our way across the desert we lost a few people to attacks from the local fauna (that's why we needed a group in the first place. I'd never have survived alone!) and the journey itself probably took about an hour, but then when we suddenly saw the giant structure in the distance and with Tatoo I and II setting everyone just stopped and stared. It was a beautiful sight!
This was before the dark times... before That Other Game...
To be honest though, I've played a lot of World of Warcraft and had great fun with it, but the kind of sandbox world that was popular about ten years ago, has pretty much disappeared. MMO's these days are very "gamey" and I think that the term has gone from MMORPG to simply MMO is not only a matter of pronounciation difficulty. Honestly, how can you roleplay in WoW? I fail to see how it's even possible beyond its most shallow and meaningless form: overuse of thou and adding the letter E to the end of each and every word! Although I've never actually roleplayed in an MMO I do like when it feels like you could if you wanted to. SWG managed that and it was really cool to have all these different people eking out a living as everything from bounty hunters to clothes designers to mining tycoons!
There is one other game that manages to capture that feeling, and that is EVE Online from Icelandic developers (and publishers) CCP. EVE is a space based game where you take the role of a pilot for one of the four great factions. You get your little starter ship and then you can do... anything! The entire game is player driven and although you can take on missions from NPC agents that is just a small small part of the whole.
A newly minted Minmatar pilot in his Reaper starter ship.
You can do more or less anything you can imagine being possible in a space based game. Want to shoot some pirates? Blast away! Want to be a pirate? Here's an eye-patch for ya! Want to be a CEO of a major corporation? Just start working on your social skills. Gun for hire? Plenty of miners who need protection. Business mogul? Start researching the market fluctuations. Asteroid mining? There's always a demand for more ore! I could go on and on.
An Amarr Prophecy battlecruiser firing at my Minmatar Hurricane. I'm returning fire with an artillery barrage. Oh, and just to be clear, I'm the little dot in the distance...
And since practically all of it is player driven it feels like a real universe with real people and real consequences. If you want to be a pirate there's no NPC traders that you can go after, you need to find some poor unfortunate victim to rob! Or if you advertise your corporation (guild) as mercenaries you'll have to show your strength or no one will hire you. Or if you're in a mining corp you might want to consider hiring some mercs to protect you when you mount mining expeditions into low security sectors. etc etc.
Me hauling some ore in my Mammoth. Did I mention that EVE is also absolutely gorgeous?!
It's basically the opposite of games like WoW. Unfortunately it's the opposite when it comes to new player friendliness and learning curve as well. Although they've improved the new player experience in recent years it's still a very dense game and the sheer mass of information you need to assimilate when you start out can be staggering and I can only imagine the hordes of players who've been scared off by this. However, once you get past the inital shock the galaxy is your oyster!
I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. Hmm...
Well, if you like space, if you are reasonably patient and the opportunity to carve out your little niche, be it as a wealthy trader or a feared pirate, appeals to you then give EVE a try. There's really nothing else like it out there. You can even try it for free for two weeks!
In this trailer, called The Butterly Effect, CCP tries to show you what I've been trying to tell you in this post. Maybe they're better at it than I. Have a look: