It’s probably fair to say that MMOs don’t have a history of remarkable cover art designs. They’ve frequently opted for a simplistic logo-only approach, which while clean and inoffensive, is highly uninspired. Their other great fault is that they all too often ignore the genre’s most obvious appeal – bringing characters of all different races and classes together to battle either monsters or each other.
Of course, these days physical game releases are mostly a thing of the past. Sure key art is still created to sell the game, but its function isn’t quite the same as the good old days of having to stand out against scores of other games on the shelves of bricks and mortar games stores.
Here are my favourites – some of which I have personal memories of, and others which I’ve only just begun to appreciate more in recent years.
10) Champions Online
This one sneaks onto the list simply by being the only box art for a superhero MMO which isn’t completely pants. City of Heroes – and its spin-off City of Villains – opted for a bland character render composition, while DC Universe Online put the focus on its cast of licensed characters (the one original creation, representing the player, is a terribly generic Flash lookalike.
Champions Online trumps them all by trading in on the comic book aesthetic. A dust-up between two derivative but colourful ‘supes in the foreground teases PvP combat, while behind them a host of other heroes zooming around an oversized robot hint at group PvE content.
I remember thinking this one was super naff and assumed it was a cheap Matrix rip-off when I saw it on shelves (which, let’s be honest, it very clearly was trying to emulate). With its skin-tight PVC outfits and over-sexualised posing it didn’t really do much to entice me into its virtual world.
Kudos however goes to the excellent tagline “You’ll never die alone!”, which goes so hard that it just about saves the whole thing.
8) Lego Universe Online
Despite arriving at a time of both peak hype for Lego games and kids’ MMOs, Lego Universe Online failed to take off. This box art kind of has it all though. You can play as a knight, a ninja, a pirate, or Doc Ock.
The foreground displays several different locations and there are even some evil minifigs. One thing I also like is the inclusion of “Massively Multiplayer Online Game” under the title and several other statements at the bottom ensuring that parents are exactly aware of what they’re buying for their children.
7) Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
On its surface, this could be a piece of art from any of Warhammer’s range of miniatures, books, or games. Look closer though and you’ll see amongst the melee every kind of race, gender and class represented.
With Age of Reckoning’s emphasis on PvP, this box art does exactly what it needs to do to appeal to fans of the franchise.
6) Final Fantasy XIV (Collector’s Edition)
Is it cheating to include a collector’s edition? It’s Yoshitaka Amano so who gives a hoot. You could just as easily swap this out for any of his other Final Fantasy XI/XIV collector’s edition artworks, but I feel as though this one, from the FFXIV base game’s collector’s edition, is the piece which could most easily stand alone. It’s also a great representation of the Warrior of Light as Hydaelyn’s chosen hero.
5) Dragon Quest X
It’s frankly absurd that Dragon Quest X – an actual mainline title in one of gaming’s biggest franchises – has never been ported over to the west. I refuse to believe that a game with such vibrant cover art – featuring character designs by Akira Toriyama – couldn’t have made an impact.
4) Phantasy Star Online
Speaking of anime-inspired MMOs, Phantasy Star Online was not only the very first console MMO but also one of the first big MMOs to be released in the west which wasn’t fantasy based.
Arriving at the height of the late-90s anime wave, and at a time when most people outside of the PC gaming hardcore had no real knowledge of online games, let alone ones which were cooperative RPGs, this game’s box art (on the Sega Dreamcast no less) carried an aura of mystique which would be hard to explain to gamers growing up today.
Ah, Vanguard. What promise ye had. Releasing at the zenith of World of Warcraft’s success, there were a lot of MMO fans clamouring for exactly the kind of game that Vanguard’s box art appeared to offer.
With EverQuest 2 having gone for a similarly stylised aesthetic to WoW, and Ultima Online and Everquest starting to get a little bit long in the tooth, there was a certain appeal in the kind of ‘serious’ high fantasy that Vanguard was rocking. Sadly, despite a literal golden land shining in the background of the cover art, there was nothing of the sort to be found in the game itself.
2) Star Wars: The Old Republic
The Old Republic’s box art was the perfect embodiment of the big-budget blockbuster that the game promised to be. Featuring an illustrative look rather than the ‘futuristic’ CG renders which had been the hallmarks of every other sci-fi MMO cover art to this point, The Old Republic felt like both a serious entry in the Star Wars franchise and a very serious contender for the MMO crown.
As it would happen this would turn out to be one of the last MMOs to get a physical release. It’s only fitting that the best would be one of the very first…
It would be hard to overstate the impact which the late Keith Parkinson’s key art for EverQuest had on the MMORPG genre.
While EverQuest’s main rival – Ultima Online – had opted for a very simplistic but classy box art, Parkinson’s boldly nerdy fantasy art was a calling card to every D&D, Tolkien, and Games Workshop fan who longed to live out their fantasies in a shared virtual world.
Parkinson would go on to illustrate Firiona Vie and her party on all the key art for EverQuest’s early expansions, and would also contribute to Vanguard’s box art. For two *ahem* quite obvious reasons, you wouldn’t be seeing fantasy art like this adorning game boxes today, but its aesthetic is still, in a way, timeless.
No other MMO cover approaches the iconic, enduring status of Parkinson’s EverQuest artwork, thus securing its place forever as the best MMO box art of all time.
Agree, disagree? Let me know your own favourite MMO cover designs down in the comments section.