Remember back when the MMORPG industry really started? There was not a single non fantasy MMORPG out of the original big three: Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron’s Call. They each provided the user a different experience with varying graphics, different skill sets and ways to improve your character, unique enemies, but they were all part of the same general fantasy theme. At first glance it doesn’t seem that we have made much headway into the non fantasy MMORPG. As MMOs have gone mainstream we haven’t seen much of a change. World of Warcraft, Aion, and Guild Wars top the sales charts and all of them are a descendent of traditional swords and sorcery. But judging by Google’s popular search queries people are looking for something different.
One of the reasons fantasy settings are so prevalent in the online world is because traditional, popular RPGs such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Breath of Fire have all succeeded in that setting. In addition, many of the gamers that enjoy these video games also read fantasy novels so it’s simply a setting that many people are familiar and comfortable with. When the genre was first being fleshed out it made sense to stick with what would have the best success rate. Now that there are over a hundred MMO titles available, why does it seem like non fantasy MMORPGs are still outnumbered by a singular setting?
Over a decade since The Realm and Meridian 59 started the concept of a graphical online MUD we do not see a single mainstream, alternative MMO setting amongst the top five. It’s not that non fantasy games aren’t releasing but it’s rare to see a big budget or big name studio take on such a product. The big money almost always goes to what works based on risk/return.
That’s why the two biggest of NCSoft’s (one of the bigger industry publishers) current games are easy concepts to jump into like Aion and Guild Wars. When they ventured into other unique settings like Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa they got burned because they weren’t high quality enough games to warrant a separation from players’ ideal fantasy worlds. If that leaves mainly independent developers to produce something truly unique then they will face the problems of not having enough resources. That doesn’t mean a good game is impossible though.
While non fantasy MMORPG games aren’t as much in the mainstream there are still plenty that are well produced, fun to play, fully featured, and sometimes even free. One of the best is a science fiction, space opera by the name of Eve Online. There is a subscription fee attached that gives you monthly updates and access to an entire universe where you can pilot dozens of different ships. But even space and science fiction is more closely akin to fantasy.