Massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) are more than a mere hobby to many. They are a way of life to legions of their dedicated followers, and the growth and development of this billion dollar sector is showing no signs of slowing down.
The genre has seen mixed fortunes over the past week. Guild Wars 2 arrived on the market boasting a lifetime's worth of great content minus a subscription, but fans of City of Heroes are still in mourning following the news that NCSoft is pulling the plug on the game.
With MMORPGs grabbing the headlines of late, Digital Spy has complied a list of the top five current generation games that helped shape this thriving genre.
Having launched in 2003, EVE Online pre-dates many of today's market leaders in the MMORPG genre and continues to thrive. CCP Games's science-fiction epic takes place in a vast, single-shard universe that has assumed a life of its own since the title launched.
Players pilot customised ships through a galaxy of more than 7,500 star systems, taking part in a range of activities such as piracy, mining, trading, manufacturing, exploration and combat. There's never a dull moment in the world of EVE, with grand scale alliance warfare and e-bank scandals earning it a fanbase among non-players.
EVE Online's influence will break into the console market soon enough when Dust 514 launches on the PlayStation 3. A first-person shooter set within the EVE universe, the game promises to provide some of the most innovative cross-platform gameplay ever seen.
> Read our preview of 'Dust 514'
Final Fantasy XI
Square Enix's attempt at taking Final Fantasy online earns its place on this list as one of the first MMORPGs to offer cross-platform play between consoles and PC. To say that was Final Fantasy XI's only innovation is to sell the game short. It also pioneered dual classing and the stylised realism aesthetic now commonly associated with the mighty World of Warcraft.
The game's player-run auction house was among its less successful endeavours, with users abusing it from the outset. Final Fantasy XI also suffered from balancing issues when it launched in the West, throwing players in the region into the mix with their experienced Japanese counterparts. These problems aside, few games have done more for the MMORPG genre's advancement in the console sector.
Square Enix continues to support Final Fantasy XI, with the Seekers of Adoulin expansion due for release next year, and a potential PlayStation Vita port said to be under consideration.
Although the original Guild Wars was marketed as a competitive online role-playing game, a closely associated offshoot of the MMORPG, many of the concepts it introduced had a profound effect on its parent genre.
Guild Wars proved that the subscription approach isn't the only way to operate a mainstream MMORPG, paving the way for many successors to adopt the same business model. The game also offered a refreshingly streamlined approach to levelling up and a welcome focus on team-based PvP for those who craved such contests over all else.
Thanks to Guild Wars's influence, the MMORPG now has a place in the world of competitive e-sports alongside first-person shooters and strategy titles. Its sequel Guild Wars 2 recently went live following a development cycle exceeding five years.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMORPG of blockbuster proportions, and further proof that licensed games can work well within the genre. BioWare's take on George Lucas's iconic saga is influential for several reasons, not least its record-breaking debut.
The Old Republic attracted more than one million subscribers at launch, making it the fastest-growing MMORPG in gaming history. Although it has seen a user drop of late, the decision to introduce free-to-play options will help to reverse this and keep the market leaders on their toes.
Blending tried and tested mechanics with elements from BioWare's RPG stable, the game offers a story-driven experience with enough depth and scope to please Star Wars devotees and MMORPG veterans alike. It was even handed an award by the AbleGamers Foundation for its efforts to cater for disabled players.
> Read our review of 'Star Wars: The Old Republic'
World of Warcraft
Whatever your feelings about World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment's behemoth brought the MMORPG genre to the mainstream, and for that feat alone it's worth its weight in gold.
Nine years and three major expansions later, the game is still a force to be reckoned with, and market leader in its genre by a significant margin. Subscriber numbers stand at 9.1 million if recent statistics are to be believed, and that figure is expected to reach dizzy new heights when its fourth expansion, The Mists of Pandaria, goes live this month.
The secret to World of Warcraft's success is the way its developers cherry-picked all of the best features from its genre predecessors and combined them with their own innovations, existing lore and stunning aesthetics.
World of Warcraft has ruled the MMORPG genre unopposed since it went live almost a decade ago, and with Blizzard continually building on its infrastructure, the future is bright for the world of Azeroth.
> Read our preview of 'World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria'
What are you favourite MMORPGs? Post a comment below.