Fantasy MMOs: There Can Never Be Too Many
Mike Foster wrote an opinion piece on Massively today that argues that RIFT, TERA, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Neverwinter, and the Elder Scrolls Online constitute a quorum of Massively Mulitplayer Online medieval Fantasy games that can speak for the whole genre and say that we have enough witches, wizards, knights, and paladins in modern gaming. I fundamentally disagree that there are too many games in high fantasy forests. Others can call for new settings and less cave spiders, but I think that the bunny-loving game writers are good enough to expand upon the world we already know of goblins, dwarves, elves, and orcs.
The Well-trodden World
Maybe fantasy world settings aren't that innovative. Maybe they all have parts that look the same, but each game has at least one area that's mind-blowingly different. Guild Wars has the Dragon Lair inside one grain of sand. Guild Wars 2 has the sky pirate's flying merchant zeppelin. World of Warcraft has Dalaran with its purple spires in the Crystallizing Forest. If every area of every MMO was that unique and memorable surely our fantasy worlds would be more interesting, but the locations we see in games are fantastic anyway. There are more ideas to be had. I trust designers to put their characters in places within our familiar realm that are spectacular, unique, and surprising.
Tropes Upon Tropes
I admit that many fantasy games share the same tropes. The only way I see to break those are to go to a different time in the future or the past or mix in a different genre. The future is almost as overdone with its phasers and bad spaceship physics. Not every game needs customizable drones and wormholes. The past may hold more opportunities for exploring time. Surely Native American or Chinese myths are as good as the Medieval European ones we're used to playing, but a game that builds a world out of another time has to make sure its mechanics and gameplay can support its ambitious setting. Revisiting the past may yet yield new tropes if a developer wants to go there. We've seen greatness come out of Assassin's Creed and Command and Conquer and they rewrite history magnificently. The medieval past of kings and heroes is just as good as any other.
I don't believe in the, "carbon copy fantasy garbage" that Foster proposes. There is nuance in the current crop of fantasy games and there could be even more of the good storytelling and amazing roleplaying that anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons is looking for. Some producers mix fantasy with other genres. Some developers create complexity by increasing choice in MMOs. There are a lot of ways to spice up World of Warcraft. People want to be the hero of their own story. If mechanics are good, writers are eloquent, and voice acting is compelling - I could see more successful Fantasy games existing.
Molds can always be broken. In the 1990s, Harry Potter publishers said children wouldn't read long books. Nobody understood how young adults were reading hundreds of pages. There could be a game that proves the industry that wrong about fantasy. If characters were interesting enough and settings were beautiful enough we could see some amazing results. We'll just have to wait and see if someone can prove that there is more to see in the fantasy realm past all the forests and dragons.