I saw this thread and read it and was shocked nobody mentioned Ryzom. I played Ryzom for a few years, back then it was called the Saga of Ryzom. Recently the game had a server merge and is still going strong from what I've read. I've been thinking of going back and doing the unlimited free trial with a level cap of 125, highest level is 250, and that is 250 on skills and there are over 160 skills to advance in this game. The game has had bad management in the past and basically no publicity. It was released in 2004 right about the same time WoW came out.
I loved the game from the start; an open free world sandbox, excellent crafting features, outstanding skill customization, classless character skill progression, and a mature active roleplaying community, and one of the most advance AI I've ever seen in any game.
The story revolves around a green planet where four different homin races try to coexist, under the watchful eye of the two superpowers - the eerie and magical Kamis capable of taking various appearances, and the mysterious anthropoid beings that wield technology unknown to hominkind called the Karavan. These beings all live on the planet Atys, a perilous planet made of a giant tree, sometimes refer to ass the giant root ball. The story-line is very interesting if you follow it.
The world is absolutely beautiful, the fauna and flora is alive, and reacts friendly or can attack you. Animals even attack and hunt each other, there are herbivores and carnivore critters all over the planet. The biggest foe are the Kitins, giant insectoid beings that have become the most reviled enemies of hominkind. These insects live underground int he areas known as the Prime Roots (think movie avatar and glowing planet Pandora) which is the most abundant place with materials needed for rebuilding. These creatures are very intelligent, the worker kitins will not attack you, but the patroling kitins, or the guards will try and kill you on sight, and they are social so they always bring friends (think movie Starship Troopers).
Recently the game had a major Kitin War, a swarming of Kitins attacked major cities and destroyed pretty much everything homins had build since the last Kitin War, and now seven years later everyone is starting to rebuild again. Even the high level players are in need of equipment from what I hear. ALL the best equipment in game is made by the players so there is no raiding for gear, and there are no dungeons and no constant flow of quests for you to do. In this game you only have to do quests once. The rest of the time you spend it teaming with friends and leveling your skills, collecting materials for crafting and upgrading armor and equipment, or selling on the market. There are outpost which guilds PvP for to collect materials that can only be produced with outposts for superior crafting materials. And there are animal bosses in all corners of the world that you kill to get superior materials for crafting. Every creature in the game is quarter and skin and these drops are used for crafting materials.
There several Kitin lairs that only the most brave and stupid dare enter because the level of insects inside the lairs required an entire server to fight. There is range weapons (guns) in this game, they are the most powerful weapons in game, but required alot of ammo crafting and ingenuity to master. The combat animation is nothing to rave about, and the level of grind required can become tedious and boring to some players. There is no handholding in this game, but there is a helpful community and making friends is easy. My advice think of Ryzom as a new kind of game you've never played before and don't compare it to the games you've already played but simply learn to play at your own pace. Once you enter the world you will either like or hate it.
The free trial is unlimited, you can play and try everything up-to level 125. You can do it all with one character and you can change skills on the spot to fit any team. There is no game shop for this game. And subscriptions are something like $10 a month. I recommend trying it if you haven't already and make your own evaluation.