Over at Intellectuals-R-Us, Richard Bartle posed a very simple question:
why is Fantasy the predominant genre of game-like virtual worlds?
There is a good discussion going on in the responses, but I didn’t come across the answer I believe as to why fantasy-based virtual-world-like games (see what I did there?) remain so popular despite some forum veterans railing on how tired they claim to be of the genre.
Ultimately, it’s all about the romance. (Queue Fabio riding in on horseback.)
Without question, sci-fi, steampunk, and other genres can be cool and fun. But I believe the key reason fantasy makes a generally more palatable tableau for MMOs is that these games are based on the romantic notion that you, the player, are the hero. And there is something inherently appealing about learning to use a sword or cast a spell that other genres lack.
Guns just aren’t as romantic. Aside from the Old West (where weapons were unreliable and inaccurate at best), guns don’t feel as personal or involved as toe-to-toe swordsmanship. Any jackass can pick up a gun and kill someone from a distance; you read it in the papers every day. Abstract that out to laser pistols and you have the same effect. (Before gun advocates send me hate mail, of course there is skill involved in being a great marksman. But in general, it’s easier for a novice to kill a bunch of people with a gun than it is with a sword.)
Swords and spells require skill to defeat an opponent. You’re looking danger in the eye and rising up to defeat your foe, whether swinging your weapon or harnessing arcane knowledge. You can be that one person from humble beginnings who rises up to make a difference.
Modern warfare is all about huge groups of people executing sets of orders. Heroic tales of classic fantasy center upon the individual, whether that’s Frodo or Odysseus or King Arthur.
It’s not that other genres can’t provide these same feelings, of course. Comic book games like City of Heroes have an obvious potential to carry across these same themes. But I do think that many of the non-fantasy MMOs to date have gone out of their way to be different, and being different for different’s sake runs the risk of leaving your game rudderless in a sea of conflicting possibilities.
Complain about the genre being overdone if you will, but there is something inherent to classic fantasy that resonates with a huge audience. You can go in whatever direction you want, but in the MMO space you ignore those archetypal heroic themes at your peril.
The genre is never more important than the individual player.