Pay-to-win is a sad standard in games these days, especially free-to-play ones. But, for the most part, it’s fair if the content is good enough and there are no exclusive items only purchasable by real money.
Games like Valorant and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have demonstrated a perfect model where developers can profit without giving the premium players any gameplay advantage.
Non-pay-to-win MMORPGs are even rarer than PvP games, though. Plenty of games like Black Desert Online, a competent game, have turned away players because of their rather cheesy micro-transaction practices.
But, honestly, MMORPGs tend to be fairer when they’re on community-hosted servers; micro-transactions go right out the window, and players can enjoy a game with an agreeable amount of grind/challenge.
I have compiled together a list of MMORPGs that feature no pay-to-win elements, or at the very least, are easy to overcome without a tedious grind.
1. Star Wars: Galaxies
Star Wars: Galaxies is a 3D third-person MMORPG developed by Sony Entertainment Online and released in 2003. The servers, however, shut down in 2011 to make way for Star Wars: The Old Republic, another great MMORPG that doesn’t possess pay to win mechanics.
So players looking to play this classic today will have to use one of the many community projects keeping the game alive. I’d recommend using SWG Legends as it is by far the most stable and active of them all.
Since the game is community hosted, players can expect no micro-transactions; this isn’t far from the original experience. What’s different is the overwhelming amount of quality of life changes and content re-added to the game that was left on the cutting floor by the original developers.
The game carries very complex mechanics with plenty of options for the players and very open-ended gameplay where players can choose to be a bounty hunter or a politician.
Still, the people behind SWG Legends went steps further to correct bugs and add missing content. It truly is a labor of love.
2. Lord Of The Rings Online
Lord of the Rings Online is an MMORPG developed by Turbine and released in 2007, the game is officially active, and development has changed hands with Standing Stone Games.
Although the game is not exactly free to play and does feature micro-transactions, it is entirely possible to play through all the content without spending a single dime.
Players can experience the game without hindrance to progress for four zones and quickly obtain level 30 without spending money. After that, though, players will have a choice to make, either spend money to unlock all the game’s content or grind for LP (the in-game currency) and unlock content using the currency.
Although there are also decent ways to grind LP, a dedicated player can farm up to 100 LP within three hours, so it’s completely viable to play the game not only to its completion but with all additional premium content.
3. Star Wars: The Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic is an MMORPG developed by BioWare and released in 2011. For the most part, players can enjoy the game without spending anything; however, the game features content that is needed to be paid for to experience.
Strictly, speaking the game is not pay to win but pay to play. The developers have thankfully ensured that the premium shops don’t feature any overpowered items and strictly exist for cosmetics and some items that can help players get past the grind, but that’s it.
It’s also notable that Star Wars: The Old Republic is the only ongoing Star Wars experience that allows the players to play as the Empire (bad guys) and experience the world their way. This certainly benefits the story as SWTOR features a choice-based story where the player’s choices reflect on the world around them.
The player avatar (especially leaning towards the dark side) also transforms depending on which allegiance the player has chosen.
4. Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted
Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted is an MMORPG developed by Virtrium and released in 2003. The game has many features that are a rarity even today, including allowing players to build their non-instanced community; furthermore, players can play as dragons.
Other than that, the game plays like a standard MMORPG for the most part. Players can choose from an array of races and engage in a player-driven economy by crafting and trading.
The game has three options for players looking to get into it. There’s free access in which players can only level to 15 and have only one slot for a character. Basic access takes away these restrictions and allows players to enjoy the game in its most vanilla form.
Finally, property Holder Access allows players access to a plot (which can be grinded for otherwise) along with guild ownership and some currency. Like SW: TOR, Istaria has a pay to play model rather than a pay-to-win model, and while the property holder access might seem like an advantage, it’s more of a leg up.
5. Pokemon Revolution Online
Pokemon Revolution Online is a fan-made one-person project, an MMO developed by Shane and released in 2015. The game features intrinsically complex PvE combat and three complete zones for players to explore, with the fourth on the way.
Additionally, the game allows Pokemon, item-trading between players, and a PvP ranked system that unlocks seasonal rewards. All this with a heavy social emphasis and an active community complete with a listening staff. Pokemon Revolution Online is one of the best Pokemon MMO games.
True to my experience, this game stays away from pay-to-win practices like a plague; instead, the developer has focused their efforts more on making a polished MMO experience for Pokemon fans all around the world.
6. Final Fantasy XIV
Final Fantasy XIV is another MMORPG that opts for a pay to play model rather than keeping the game wholly free or muddled with micro-transaction; it was developed by Square Enix and released in 2013.
The game features a persistent world where players are free to roam and explore the world with a player-driven economy. Combat doesn’t stray too far from its Final Fantasy roots, featuring a party-based combat system.
Players are summoned to battle according to the role they wish to fulfil; this is very helpful in the PvE battles, especially with the bosses, as it requires teamwork and strategical play to beat them.
Like LOTRO, FFXIV allows players to play the game for free till level 35, after which progression requires a monthly subscription. That’s fair, though; by level 35, players have experienced what the game has to offer and can make a good judgement call.
7. The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online is another popular MMORPG developed by ZeniMax Online Studios and released in 2014. Initially, the game was scrutinized for its mandatory monthly subscription model.
However, it all changed in 2015 with a massive update titled Tamriel Unlimited that overhauled the shops and rid the game of mandatory monthly charges; instead, players could buy the game and enjoy it indefinitely without paying in the future.
ESO features a whole lot of content and a massive world for players to traverse and explore. Additionally, players are offered many options to suit their playstyle, with over ten races and six classes for players to choose from.
ESO also features an added monthly subscription which is entirely optional, allowing players access to any future and current DLCs along with 1650 Crowns (the game’s premium currency) and even a 10% experience boost making the grind that much easier.
8. Destiny 2
Destiny 2 is a first-person MMO developed by Bungi and released in 2017. The game treads a fine line between pay to win and pay to play. The PvE aspect of the game is essentially not pay to win; instead, it’s pay to play, with some of the sections being locked behind a paywall of a monthly subscription.
The PvP, however, is an entirely different story. While the game doesn’t outright offer an advantage to premium players, they’ll have an easier time in PvP since it’s more likely they have access to some of the rarer artefacts and weaponry.
But again, I’ll reiterate, there’s nothing in Destiny 2 that players cannot achieve without paying money. But players looking for a comprehensive free experience will have to grind more, and I mean a lot more than their premium peers.
Pay to win is the poorest experience a gamer can derive from an online game (or any game for that matter). It steers away from the concept of working to become a more formidable opponent; instead, it works on instant gratification with nice visuals every time players input their credit card details.
Games like Black Desert Online and ArcheAge are apparent culprits; they offer refined gameplay and meaningful content but unfortunately choose to lock it behind microtransactions.
Thankfully, some developers put their work to a higher standard and deliver some of the best experiences without bogging it down with mandatory micro-transactions.