I am going to sail dangerously close to the dread topic “Why So Much Fantasy?” when it comes to MMORPGs.
That was not really my purpose when I started thinking about this, but somehow I ended up there.
As I see it, one of the key requirements for an MMORPG is a viable, believable, independent role for the individual. Every individual.
Essentially, the game must support chaos.
It must support a mass of players running around and doing whatever they feel like and it must be believable.
Well, reasonably believable.
It just so happens that fantasy supports chaos very well. In World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online, and the like, chaos reigns, and it feels good. People do what they want to do. They group up, join guilds, or run around solo as they choose, doing quests if they want, bypassing the ones they don’t like, and generally being themselves within the world.
The fantasy genre views the world as chaotic and even stepping outside of the castle walls is something of a risk.
The problem is that as we move towards the modern age, chaos becomes less tolerable.
To get out there in a modern setting and, well, kill in the wholesale quantities that you do in Norrath or Azeroth, you pretty much have to join the military. Really, even crime isn’t going to get you there. Your typical mass murderer can’t hold a candle to somebody who played WoW up to level 5.
And once you join the military, you lose either chaos or believability, which means you lose the essence of your MMORPG.
I have never played World War II Online and I probably never will. It is probably a wonderful game, but to be true to the era, you cannot let players run around willy-nilly doing what they want. Yet, to have a viable game, you have to let players do just that. You cannot enforce military discipline and expect people to pay to play. So WWII Online holds no appeal for me and can never hold any appeal for me. I cannot abide the chaos in that context, yet I have no desire to submit to martial discipline in my game play.
Tabula Rasa lost me a bit there as well. The game is built around the war against the Bane, and you are a trooper therein. But if you don’t want to follow orders, well… your character does not advance I suppose… but nobody stands you up against the wall and has you shot for disobeying orders in the face of the enemy.
And so it is, the chaos of the middle ages, the lawlessness that made life “short, brutish, and nasty,” the very thing which we built modern society to protect us from, is that which makes an MMORPG play fun.
And so extending the MMORPG genre to the present and into the future, the future where one can imagine the rule of law strengthened and the homogenization of society and culture increased, proves a challenge. You have to put players some place beyond the iron grip of society. You have to recapture that chaos in a modern setting.
Auto Assault went post-apocalyptic to create freedom of action for the individual; society fell so that you could blow things up at will.
The Matrix Online chose the red pill, the pill that showed you that what you believe is an illusion and that chaos in that context is okay.
EVE Online put you out in space run by capitalism in the extreme, where chaos is just another market opportunity!
So, added on to all of the past discussion, I see one of the reasons for the prevalence of fantasy in MMORPGs is that fantasy does not require the creation of a context where chaos is acceptable. Fantasy is full of trolls, orcs, and dragons. Chaos is the default, and you jumping into the fray to fight it (or stir it up) is, as far as high concepts go, a slam dunk.
Fantasy represents the past from which we escaped, the “good ol’ days” which only look good in hindsight.
Science fiction is the future. The future is supposed to be a better place. After all, if the future isn’t going to be better, why would we go there? (Yeah, like we have a choice, but still.)
So to make a science fiction based MMORPG, a team not only has to come up with the premise, but has to set up what amounts to a layer of extraction from our expectations of the future to allow chaos to run free.
Basically, fantasy gets chaos for free. Science fiction has to work for it.