Story Driven MMORPGs
As a big fan of JRPGs like the Final Fantasy and Tales series, It's disappointing to see most MMORPGs put little to no effort in developing their story or lore. I think gameplay should always be the #1 focus for MMOs, as anyone looking for a good story can always read a book or play a single player RPG, but it's always refreshing to see MMORPGs with good stories. Well designed story driven MMORPGs make the leveling process feel much quicker and more enjoyable. It turns something tedious into a genuinely fun experience. From my experience Western MMORPG developers tend to focus more on lore than Eastern developers, but the list below includes games from both the East and West. The list below is presented in no particular order.
Best Story Driven MMORPGs
Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR)
It shouldn't be surprising to see Bioware's epic Star Wars MMORPG make it on this list, as Bioware is world renowned for developing RPGs with in-depth storylines. Star Wars the Old Republic cost a whopping ~$150-$200 million to develop according to industry experts, making it the most expensive MMORPG ever developed. The game's story is set 300 years after the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games and thousands of years before the Star Wars movies. Each of the game's starting classes have their own multi-act story arc that feels more like a traditional Bioware RPG than an MMO. With over 200,000 lines of recorded dialogue and an incredible emphasis on story, Star Wars: The Old Republic is sure to delight Star Wars fans or just about anyone looking for an MMO with a great story. The game went free to play on November 15, 2012 too, so if you haven't played it yet, definitely give it a go!
Despite not having nearly as much voiced over story content as Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft is still an incredible MMORPG with story driven gameplay. The game features thousands of well written quests with witty dialogue and troves of lore for those willing to explore the game. Even before WoW launched back in November, 2004, Blizzard Entertainment had a reputation in the industry for developing high quality games rich in story and World of Warcraft is no exception. It's been over 10 years since WoW launched and Blizzard keeps releasing new expansions and updates rich with lore.
The Final Fantasy franchise is personally one of my favorites when it comes to JRPGs and Final Fantasy XIV does not disappoint. Final Fantasy XIV is the second MMORPG from the franchise and features beautiful graphics and a great story. The game is set in the world of Eorzea where everyone is controlled by immortal beings called Primals. Player characters however are born with the power of Echo, which prevents Primal influence over them. The game's world is rich in lore and many of smaller side quests feel surprisingly rewarding. Despite launching with some serious hiccups back in September, 2010, Final Fantasy 14 is a game that most Final Fantasy fans will surely enjoy. In fact, many fans have praised the game's story as being better than many of the console games.
Cryptic Studio's Dungeons and Dragons themed MMORPG Neverwinter is a surprisingly immersive MMORPG that not only features an excellent story set in the Forgotten Realms universe of D&D, but also has a unique user created story system. Players can create their own adventures through the game's Foundry system and from my experience with Neverwinter, some of the player made content in the Foundry is equal to, if not better, than the content written by the developers. The game's main story is set in the sprawling city of Neverwinter, but the game has players exploring iconic locations such as Icewind Dale and interacting with iconic characters like Minsc and Boo from the Baldur's Gate games. I personally played Neverwinter quite a bit since launch and enjoyed both the main storyline as well as the player created content.
Much like the first game, Guild Wars 2 from NCSoft's ArenaNet features a compelling story. The game is set in the fantasy world of Tyria, 250 years after the events of the first game and features story driven gameplay that's actually responsive to player decisions and actions. One of the game's more interesting story driven mechanics is its dynamic questing system where quests aren't always readily available in one spot and must instead be found elsewhere in-game. Anyone looking for an extremely polished MMORPG with an excellent story should definitely give Guild Wars 2 a shot.
Developed and published by Turbone, Dungeons & Dragons Online features a rich story set in the worlds of Eberron and Forgotten Realms. The core gameplay is loosely based on the D&D 3.5 rules and in traditional D&D fashion, much of the game is narrated by an omnipotent narrator. Much of the game centers around the city of Stormreach on the continent of Xen'drik. Dungeons & Dragons Online originally launched on February 28, 2006 as a subscription based MMORPG, but later relaunched as a free to play game on September 9, 2009.
Similar to Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online launched as a pay to play game but later went free to play with an optional subscription. Lord of the Rings Online is set in J.R.R Tolkien's Middle Earth and features many iconic characters from the Lord of the Rings universe such as Frodo, Gandalf, Legolas, and more. The game's story-driven quests are called "Epic Quests" and are incredibly well written. Despite the game's age (2007 release), Fans of Tolkien's work will find a lot to like in The Lord of the Rings Online.
Star Trek Online (STO) is a sci-fi themed MMORPG developed by Crytpic Studios and published by Arc Games. It's set in the Star Trek universe in the year 2409, 30 years after the alliance between the Federation and Klingon Empire crumbled and the two groups are back at war. Similar to Neverwinter, Star Trek Online features a foundry system where players can create their own storylines and missions, which ensures there's always something to do in STO. Fans of the Star Trek franchise will find a lot to like in Star Trek Online, especially since the game is filled with hardcore trekkies.
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)
The first MMORPG from the Elder Scrolls franchise is set in the content of Tamriel ~1,000 years before the events of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game was in development for 7 years before finally launching in 2014. The game received mixed reviews on release, but after dropping its subscription, things began to look up. Fans of the Elder Scrolls series will find a lot to like in ESO, and even though it's not entirely story-driven like the single player RPGs, The Elder Scrolls Online still delivers an experience similar to its offline cousins.
The Secret World is an MMORPG like no other. Developed by Funcom, the game is set in a modern day real world style environment, with players taking on the roles of heroes that fight against the forces of evil. The good vs evil narrative is fairly generic, but the environments in The Secret World are anything but generic. The game features real world areas like New York and Seoul, but also has fictional locations. The entire game is very much story driven and plays more like a good RPG with a compelling story than an MMORPG. The game originally launched as a subscription based game but is now simply buy to play. The Secret World features a unique storyline in a compelling real world environment. Definitely worth a look.