"More innovation!" is the common rallying cry of the disgruntled MMO player. Push forward the genre, build awe-inspiring giant statues instead of sixth grade art projects, do that one magic thing that nobody can agree on to make this genre as fresh and great and interesting as it was. You know, as it was when you first got into these games, that is.
For all of the "more innovation!" speeches that I've seen, I never see the one that touches on the most irksome areas of stagnation in the industry, and that is how incredibly lame most MMO fantasy worlds are. Cut 'n' paste, mix and match elements between any two fantasy MMOs, and I guarantee you that nobody would really notice. The truth is that for all their desire to be seen as unique and special, most of these games feature a world carbon copied from each other with minor Mad Lib deviations.
Case in point: Have you ever realized just how many of these MMO worlds share almost the same name? Start with T, usually end with A, there you go. Telara. Telon. Tyria. Atreia. Taborea. It doesn't stop there, but it really should. MMO designers need to realize that fantasy is more than just D&D and Tolkien derivations and explore the unlimited scope of what the genre could be.
When I first started doing the Perfect Ten back in 2010, my second column tackled weird staples in every fantasy MMO. To tell the truth, I had a hard time stopping at just 10. It's ridiculous how all these games share the same beats, down to the Fire Zone, the holier-than-thou elves, and of course, the giant spiders. Because you can't have a fantasy MMO without some developer succumbing to the allure of plus-sized arachnids, don't you know!
It's disappointing not only to see all of the similarities between these worlds but to realize that it robs a lot of the joy out of exploring them. Once you acknowledge that it's all the same renaissance faire/medieval castle set with minor differences, nothing new is left to amaze you. And I like being amazed.
One quick side rant here: I don't know why ZeniMax seems determined to make the most generic, dull fantasy version of the Elder Scrolls seen to date, but every story of TESO that I read bores me to tears. It's a game that screams "MORE of the SAME!" with its uninspired visual design and oh-so-standard races. This is what some folks are pinning their hopes on as the future of this industry?
Part of this is our fault, not just as gamers but as consumers of fantasy fiction. "Fantasy" as a specific genre has evolved to become this rather inflexible framework that authors work within because audiences feel most comfortable with it. When we know that the Dwarves like living underground, are hardy folk, and prefer axes and hammers to swords, then we don't have to get reacquainted with them if we hop books or games. They're the same everywhere. And there's always an evil sorcerer trying to unleash an eternal evil, loads of dragons that can't wait to eat us like popcorn chicken, taverns brimming with wanna-be adventurers, a thieves guild, and a crazy witch living in a swamp who has words of advice for anyone who dares visit.
Sometimes these games can be the type of comfort food that is generally agreeable, but once in a while I would like to dine on something more substantial. I relish fantasy settings that have escaped the orbit of Tolkien and Gygax to be something new and interesting. I liked Brandon Mull's take on fantasy preserves in the modern world, Brandon Sanderson's truly inventive magical systems, George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie's unrelenting harshness, Neil Gaiman's charming creativity, China Mieville's weird fantasy worlds, Stephen King's Dark Tower genre mash-up, and Patrick Rothfuss' focus on the growth of legends. These are just a few writers who have come up with rich fantasy settings that definitely aren't the norm -- and they've become popular for it.
Perhaps it's telling that Dungeons & Dragons Online, when it went with a more exotic Eberron setting instead of the traditional Forgotten Realms, was somewhat ostracized by players for its campaign choice. D&D encompasses a wide range of campaign settings that embrace the spectrum of fantasy, but players seem comfortable in just a small sliver of that (and even DDO is twisting itself in knots to incorporate the familiar Forgotten Realms).
Of course, there are two important categories of MMO fantasy worlds: those created from scratch and those built on an existing intellectual property. Both have their pros and cons, but probably one of the biggest cons of IP-free fantasy worlds is that they tend to be bland at the core.
I know that devs probably chafe at having to work within an IP, but I firmly believe that those limitations produce better results. This is because the fantasy worlds have already been established by full-time writers who have spent years on them and have engaged in levels of world-building that no MMO dev team can match with a much more limited time budget. I bet Turbine's devs don't always like having to work within the scope of LotRO's walls, but they've done amazing stuff with it and have enjoyed the bonus of giving us a cohesive world that doesn't feel like Sonic the Hedgehog zones slapped together with no regard to how everything fits together.
With IP fantasy worlds, players get the benefit of both the original world-builder and the devs that came after. In IP-free titles, the onus is on the dev team to come up with everything. It's a mighty task that often has to be shared with other duties. I remember talking with R.A. Salvatore about his contribution to the now-defunct Project Copernicus and the insane amount of world-building he was doing to give both Reckoning and Copernicus that feeling of cohesive place. Unfortunately, most of the times it feels like this aspect of game development is rarely given such weight, and it shows in MMOs.
Ultimately, I think my feelings of dissatisfaction stem from the fact that many MMO devs, like many novelists, cannot escape the notion that fantasy equals high fantasy (magic, wizards, dragons, parallel worlds, etc.). Fantasy as a master genre has so many subgenres that it's insane: contemporary fantasy, low fantasy, prehistoric fantasy, paranormal fantasy, steampunk fantasy, hard fantasy, and so on.
I love and appreciate many modern fantasy MMOs, but if they were non-interactive novels or movies, I guarantee I'd have ditched them long before now. That isn't to say that all MMOs can be lumped into this generic bucket, however. Asheron's Call did a fantastic job when it came to developing a whole bestiary of critters that don't have much in common with tropes or the real world. Chronicles of Spellborn had an absolutely fascinating setting where players lived inside shards of a destroyed world. And Ryzom always seems to get marks in its favor for a world that's all unto itself.
Fantasy can be weird -- it should be weird. It shouldn't only be thinly veiled analogues to real-world equivalents. We should be encountering places that we want to explore because it's unlike anything we've seen before, not merely an in-game representation of a Scottish castle or Chinese garden. We should be encountering creatures that don't belong to a multi-MMO labor union (Goblins #469, represent!) but that do belong to this unique world and exist in a specific niche there.
I guess if nothing else, I wanted to say this in a Soapbox: I want my fantasy to be fantastic again. I want it to match the excitement, creativity, and wonder that I often encounter in my favorite novels, and I would love for developers to start shunning the familiar to strike out in a new direction entirely. Fantasy needs to be unlimited, not limited, and I'd think that MMOs would be a terrific place for this to be realized.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!