It's been quite a time in the MMO space, with the once unstoppable force now joined by two and it's the question everyone keeps asking. How do you boil down the differences between World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, and The Elder Scrolls Online – the big three in the category. If you've enjoyed one but you're not sure about the others, what should you expect if you give another one a go? Or if you're wondering what the buzz is all about, which one fits your vibe?

Clearly, with all the bad blood around Activision Blizzard at the same time as many have felt underwhelmed (or overwhelmed) by the design of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, there's been a lot more churn in the space since the time before WoW took root 17 years ago. So for many the big question focuses on what they might find if they switch away from WoW and head to Final Fantasy XIV or The Elder Scrolls Online.

As someone who has spent about 13 years actively in WoW on and off through its 17 (I will not test my /played count), and then spent a lot of the past year getting more seriously into both FFXIV (120+ hours) and ESO (220+ hours), I've got a few ideas on the big picture feels you'll get from playing each of these games. As much as the core loop is the same – quest through epic stories, level up and collect cool loot – what each game puts at the heart of living in their worlds makes for very different experiences over the long haul.

So here's three simple rundowns of what you'll find once you settle into each game.

World of Warcraft: style and systems

I've always played World of Warcraft because of a love for its storylines running back through to original Warcraft, enjoying the epic world shattering story moments that underpin each expansion. But the gameplay itself? Getting good at WoW is about perfecting its systems, and even if you're not trying to 'get good' the pleasure in the game is in exploring and having fun through one system or another.

As the game has evolved, each expansion brings significant tweaks and changes to how classes play, how professions work, and how the systems of the current moment need to be optimised to achieve best results for your character. Whether that's combat, crafting, or maximising your bank balance through clever use of the daily reward mechanics, there's a system to be exploited somewhere near the part of the game you love.

Over the years, expansions have featured special systems like Artifact weapons, Garrisons, and Azerite armour, with varying degrees of success or affection. But it's a hallmark of the game to feature a new system to learn and perfect as part of the current story moment an expansion brings to the game. At the end of that expansion? That system is blown up and becomes a legacy that doesn't play a role again in future. Some systems, like Garrisons, can still be gamed for small benefits, but they no longer have a significant role to play in the World of Warcraft experience.

With each class having between two and four play styles to choose from (most have three), each requiring its own equipment focus and unique skill rotations, there's so many ways you can choose to play this game. WoW is very endgame focused, with most players spending a lot of time at maximum level in PvP, dungeons and raids, hoping to find that next piece of gear on random drops that will improve their performance. The effort to perfect your skill rotations, gear level, and knowledge of dungeon and raid encounters is too much grind for some and a beloved challenge to others.

Outside murderous rampages against monsters or faction foes, there's loads of other systems to explore too. Crafting, pet battling, archaeology, collecting rare mounts, and even gaming the auction house are big hobbies for many players who aren't grinding hard on endgame. And WoW has the simplest system for changing outfits of any MMO, with every piece of gear you wear automatically added to a collection that you can make your current gear look like with just a few clicks.

You can, of course, always go back through old areas to add gear and mounts to your collection, but doing these things always feels quite separate to what the game currently wants you to focus on. While there is a scaling system for levelling alternate characters, when you're maximum level you can go lay waste to old enemies easily – which makes going back for gear and mount grinding a very comfortable, casual style of play. The game has also made levelling much faster through many updates over the years, continually making it about getting through the old content faster so you can 'catch up' to the latest.

WoW thrives on this idea that it has something for everyone, and this really is about that idea that there's deep systems lurking in all sorts of places for players to enjoy. And the WoW community has made it easier than any other game to learn how to optimise your experience with any system in the game thanks to websites like Wowhead, Icy Veins, BlizzardWatch and others. No other MMO has such a deep set of websites to find the answer to every little nuance of the game.

I mentioned 'style' at the outset too. Of the three games, WoW delivers the most stylised, art-driven world to explore. Each zone has very clear differences in colour palette and aesthetic. For some this is a huge part of why they love spending time in Azeroth – the style stands on its own.

Why play? If you love an endgame loop, running dungeons and raids on repeat as you perfect your class mechanics, WoW rewards tenacity. Or if you just want to wander a realm with the longest history and thousands of toys, mounts, and wearables, this has plenty for you.

Why not? The laser focus on endgame content makes many feel like there's mandatory daily tasks you can't miss or you'll fall behind. There's lots to enjoy outside endgame, but the game does not make you feel as rewarded for departing from the 'latest and greatest' content.

Final Fantasy XIV: one epic story experience

Personally, I was never really a big fan of the Final Fantasy series of games. I tried a few from the PS2 era and they just felt like they took too long to get to the meat of the story and the gameplay. But put that pacing into an MMO context? I've been loving it.

There's a slow build that develops characters and ideas carefully until everything starts to mean so much more than you first thought. Payoffs galore await as you go on the journey of the Main Story Quest (MSQ), featuring the biggest cutscenes you'll find in any MMO on the market when you've reached apex moments during the epic storyline. Through it all, the mechanics of the game do not demand much through the early phases of the game, allowing a slow and comfortable extension of skills over time.

Amazingly, Final Fantasy XIV doesn't even make you stop to loot your fallen foes. Items are just automatically placed in your bags. This is a small but vital shift away from other games – you don't have a constant pause in the flow of gameplay, you just keep running and completing objectives to keep the story moving.

You do have to be ready for the idea that this game demands you play it in a very linear fashion the first time through, putting trust in the developers that they will reward you with the biggest JRPG experience ever. Once you've played it through, this isn't all about endgame in the same way that WoW is. By allowing every character to tackle every job (class) and every profession in the game, there's hundreds of ways to level up alternate roles for your beloved character and invest in their excellence without feeling like the next patch will reduce the value of the work you've been putting in.

The game has a more interesting system for repetitive quests than WoW, with a far wider range of options for roaming the world and tackling spontaneous encounters, as well as lots of quests that are not part of the MSQ you can go back and tackle while levelling second (or third, or fourth) jobs for your character. Final Fantasy XIV gives you lots of reasons to keep wandering the whole world of the game, not just living in the latest hub city and repeating the same dozen daily quests again and again. And once you're outside the MSQ storyline the game has a more relaxed feeling that allows for playing while distracted – something many MMO players are looking for.

The character wardrobe system is more difficult than transmog in World of Warcraft, as you have to actively convert items you've found into 'glamours' to wear them again. But once you get a handle on it that's another of the big 'endgame' ways of spending time – people love to look good in this game, and unlike WoW you can change your standing pose for just how you stand still, plus you can assign every job on your character its own look to always feel fresh in whatever role you're currently playing. Or to just style it up when you go spend time at The Golden Saucer casino.

Why play? A story that consistently builds across five expansions and extensive game patches means you have one driving mission to take you through hundreds of hours of gameplay before you reach the endgame. That's a lot of storytelling to enjoy and its not just windowdressing for the gameplay – and when that's done, or you just need a break, there's lots of side stories, crafting professions and social options to explore.

Why not? The mandatory nature of the MSQ makes it a grind for a long time before it 'gets good'. If you're just not feeling it, and you love getting to endgame experiences, you can pay to skip – but these stories mean a lot more if you're willing to take the long road.

The Elder Scrolls Online: ideal for explorers

If the intensively focused storylines leave you feeling uncertain, The Elder Scrolls Online has a far more open approach to offer you. This game has fully embraced level scaling so that you can jump into any part of the game you like from the very outset and just roam free from level one. See a crate? Loot it. See a plant? Farm it. This really is the best MMO for anyone just wanting to explore at whatever pace they like.

There's still hundreds of hours of story content to play through here, and by engaging with stories and quests you earn precious skill points to improve key abilities – from attack types to crafting skills. Questing is also nicely broken up into serialised storylines that make it easy to start and complete a small slice of the game story in chunks that take around an hour at a time, leaving you feeling satisfied by whole cloth story moments more regularly than many other MMOs. Every encounter, every NPC, every stablehand, has a voice acted performance, making even the smallest storylines feel like an important part of the world.

For the purest of explorers, you can also acquire skill points by roaming the lands in search of Skyshards, with every three granting a further point. There's also an antiquities system that was added in a recent expansion to give further reasons to roam and explore (and find fun loot while you're out there). And the game's achievement system helps you keep track of what you have and have no completed in any given zone so you can be a completionist at whatever pace you desire.

In combat, ESO sets itself apart from WoW and FFXIV as a true action-combat system where the other two use tab-targeting. ESO feels like any Elder Scrolls experience before it, with fast and flowing fights to enjoy in open world and a range of dungeon styles for various group sizes. The new companion system also allows you to have an NPC buddy that makes it easier than ever to tackle tougher content without needing to find other players to help (or just one other player where you may have needed four in the past).

If you jump in without getting the ESO Plus subscription, be warned that you should avoid looting anything other than equipment unless you want to juggle very limited inventory for the rest of your days. This is the cleverest way the game encourages you to pay – ESO Plus gives you an unlimited crafting bag, doubled bank space and plenty of other benefits like access to every expansion without needing to buy it separately. But subscription free is subscription free, so you really can get a lot out of ESO without spending more than the cover price to get in.

Alongside the level scaling, once you've reached maximum level (50) you unlock a new Champion point system that keeps the progression going in a new way that means progression is always meaningful in whatever part of the game you choose to focus on. Champion points are a skill tree based system where you can earn thousands of points to invest across dozens of incremental improvements to your character. They're also account wide, so even a new level one character can benefit from the Champion points you've earned with your other maximum level characters.

ESO delivers a system that ensures all progress through endgame events, or simply exploring the world, deliver real ongoing benefits to your experience that last beyond any new expansion. Alongside an equipment system that has had a cap for many years, Champion points has been a great solution to the old MMO problem of superseding all your hard work the second a new expansion arrives. In that sense, everything feels rewarding in a very real way in this game. Your time feels valued, never wasted. I was skeptical of level scaling, but the experience really ensures that every part of the world is always relevant, nothing ever feels redundant or 'old', and you'll bump into other players in every corner of Tamriel.

Why play? While you need to buy the game and its expansions, there's no mandatory subscription so you can dip your toe and explore without fear (especially on a free-play weekend), and nothing is off limits the moment you enter the game. It's the best dip-in, dip-out, go deep in bursts and slow down when you like option out there.

Why not? All that voice acting makes this a game that wants you to immerse yourself. Some people like to play an MMO with one eye in the game and another on the TV, so while it offers a relaxed pace it still wants you to commit your mind to the fantasy world you're exploring.

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