Why Fantasy?

December 24, 2007 at 1:40 am (Musings) (, , , )

Shamelessly nicked from loads of people. Richard Bartle asked the denizens of Terra Nova why fantasy games are disproportionately represented amongst MMOs.


 First let’s have a picture:


That’s a lot of purple.

Let’s start by expanding the question. MMORPGs are essentially another form of RPG and those have always been dominated by fantasy titles, whether we’re talking pen and paper, single player computer games, MUDs or MMOs – any game where you are encouraged to identify with and develop a character is more likely than not to have a fantasy theme.

If we go back to the dark ages of gaming where we had polyhedral dice as RNGs, an eraser as a character editing tool and Citadel miniatures for eyecandy, nearly all of the games we played were a fantasy theme. In fact all of the big ones were. The various flavours of D&D, Rolemaster, MERP, WHFRP, Supernatural Creature: The Verbening, Palladium etc etc. Yes I know, you are old like me and you can remember Traveller, Cyberpunk and Star Wars the RPG but frankly they were the exceptions to the rule. Mostly we were concerned about our THAC0 rather than our skill ranks in Blaster Pistols.

Then we got computers. Rubbish ones by todays standards but they were full of win and awesome at the time. We played RPGs on those and they too were mostly fantasy themed – Zelda and the deluge of JRPGs, Gold Box D&D games, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Elder Scrolls, HoMM, Ultima and so on.

So why do we prefer to roleplay in a fantasy environment? Some people have said that it’s easier to script a fantasy world than a sci-fi setting. That may be true for computer games but it makes no sense at all for pen and paper games where a live GM can interpret what’s going on. It’s not even genre conditioning, decent sci-fi movies and TV series massively outnumber their fantasy counterparts. Something within us prefers to play Gandalf over Obi-Wan, we like to explore Orc filled dungeons rather than sprawling megapolis’s or the galactic wilds.

 I think it’s a perception of freedom. We like to be able to break the laws of physics, we like to have a potential that is untrammelled by ‘real world’ constraints, in a fantasy universe we can believe that a humble warrior can become the equal to the Lich King whereas in a sci fi universe we expect that a direct hit from the Lichdroid’s plasma cannon will annihilate any one regardless of heroic status. Our future frontiers are grounded in reality, we can add toys and wonder to it but, ultimately, we want it to look and feel real. Our fantasy filters are much less demanding, we can accept that magic changes the rules and thus what we expect is not informed by what we know. We are artificially creating an environment in which we will prefer one made up setting over another based on lop-sided criteria of our own design.



  1. Lee Saggers said,

    Part of me thinks its just that “tried and tested” approach.

    All of the very successfull mmo’s in my mind have been in the Fantasy genre.

    Funcom drove away alot of AO players with their horrendus launch. SWG was great until they wrecked it with welfare Jedi’s. Earth and Beyond…lol….

    EVE, I cant fault EVE with the exception of the fact its very hard to break into.

    Perhaps Stargate Worlds will have more success, or KotoR but personally im kind of tired of Star Wars Computer Game_100045

  2. Iain Compton said,

    Yes, all the successful MMOs have been fantasy ones, SF ones have come along and even the ones with a lot of money behind them (SW:G) haven’t filled expectations. Most of the SF games are closed or on life support, whilst even old fantasy games still have legs. Good studios have worked on SF games but for some reason they just haven’t ‘clicked’. EvE as usual is the exception to all the rules.

  3. Fetneh (Dimse) said,

    I believe the reason that fantasy MMO’s have has the biggest succes is that people play an online game to escape. Now it can be a harmless escape from boredom, or nagging parents, spouses or kids, or it can be the more serious escape from realety, bad things like abuse, depression ect. When escaping we dont want anything that will remind us of our real life. Its easier to pretend all is well when your Doodlebum the fairy princess killing off Nasty Orcs than if your playing a HOusewife who has to get dinner ready in time.

    I think Eve has done the opposite and snuck into real life and that way made a connection. Eve players will ( and yes I have seen it) leave a funeral to go home because a skil HAS to be changed.if you dont you might miss on a some obscure deadline you set yourself 2½ years from now.

  4. Razzy said,

    I’d have to say that there is a wider range of ways to combat in a fantasy setting. I’ll elaborate:

    In a fantasy setting, each shot from a bow or gun must be loaded then fired, which takes longer than modern or future guns due to a fantasy settings primitive technology. Projectile magic takes 1 to 3 seconds (or more) to fire and roots the caster because it takes concentration. This gives melee classes a chance to get face to face with a ranged class.

    On the other hand in a Sci-Fi (or modern) setting, ranged attacks that come from machine guns, rocket launchers, or energy rays don’t take very long at all and don’t root you in place while firing unless its a VERY large weapon (rocket launcher). Now melee classes (thugs or ninjas?) can’t get close to ranged classes without being mowed down, and if they can, the ranged classes will feel discontent with the fact that someone was shot 30+ times and is now slapping them with a baseball bat.

    There is another scenario where ranged attacks are treated the same as projectile spells, but then you’re just playing another fantasy MMO with the gnoll graphics replaced by “Agents”, and magic is called nanobots like in AO.

    Basically the current MMO combat mechanic is both not suited for Sci Fi settings and outdated. A great Sci-Fi MMO would just become a third person shooter and the only way to make melee a viable option would be to make it so powerful that it kills in one hit.

    Or it could be that most Sci-Fi MMO’s are fantasy MMO’s with post apocalyptic graphics or an FPS with a monthly payment

    OR maybe its that people drawn to Sci Fi games don’t want to farm for credits to buy a plasma rifle and wait to raid when there are First Person Shooters players can fire up and join a deathmatch, capture the flag, or some object based match without a monthly cost.

    OR it could be that good 3rd person (not turn based) fantasy games are under represented. How many good ones have you played recently? Including Zelda on my shelf are Gauntlet 7 Sorrows, God of War, Soul Reaper, Eternal Darkness, and Devil May Cry. Knowing that some or most of those are a real stretch, there isn’t really anything outside of turn based RPGs.

    OK, I’m tired and ranting far too much and found this page because i was trying to find a solution to creating combat much like twilight princess, but without using the directional controls to modify the type of sword swing, so far I have individual buttons for…nevermind got off topic, i’m going to bed this comment is already way too long.

  5. IainC said,

    There are some interesting points there Razzy, thanks for the opinions.
    Your first point about realism with regard to firing times is one of those things that can be tweaked, where gameplay and game balance trumps realism. If you want to give your plasma rifles a warm up time before the transductive phase coils are fully charged or allow archers to snap off bowshots like Legolas on a caffeine buzz then those are both valid design decisions.

    The point about there being a lack of good real time fantasy games is a good one and I will be writing a post about this later today probably – I just read the Rock Paper Shotgun interview with Vince Dwyer and I want to write up my feelings on that.

  6. Arielle said,

    I think it’s a kind of comfort zone, and the escape aspect like Fetneh mentioned. Anything that reminds people of real life in any kind of way may bother them. Freedom may also be another thing, nothing to adhere to or obey, i.e. laws of physics. Over the years people have gotten used to the fantasy presence and it becoming the “default” kind of game setting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: