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.