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Why are fantasy MMOGs so popular?

Michael Zenke

Over at the Terra Nova site (a great Academic blog all about online worlds), well-respected designer and author Richard Bartle has asked a seemingly simple question: Why Fantasy?

The discussion that erupts from those two simple words is very much worth following. I'll use designer Damion Schubert's first comment on the topic as a sort of shorthand, as he quite thoroughly covers the issue:

1) It's double-coded. It has both massive geek appeal as well as large mass market awareness - go to Michael's and look at how many cross-stitches there are of unicorns and dragons.
2) It's got a heroic arc. It is typical and acceptable for players to start killing rats or orcs, and end up going toe to toe with the gods. This is a much more impressive growth path than what many games have available.
3) It's inviting. Fantasy games have a good sense of 'home' - you typically start in a tranquil village, and while you may go to scary places, there's still a sense that the good places are worth living in and fighting for. Compare to post-apocalyptic worlds, where being in the worlds for very long play periods is downright depressing.
4) Solid team-based roles. Say what you will about tank-healer-mage, but those roles are archetypically fantasy, and offer a team-based game experience where everyone is a roughly equivalent contributor. Compare to, say, Stargate, where the MMO designers have struggled with how to create an 'Archaeologist' class, where the Archaeologist's role in the TV show is to decipher one set of rocks per mission and try not to get shot.
5) It's character-driven. Fantasy tends to be about characters, whereas sci-fi tends to be about ideas. This lends itself well to MMOs, which has need for a world rich with player heros.
6) It has resonance. Players understand what's going on in a fantasy world to a greater degree, because names tend to be more familiar and easier to relate to. Don't believe me? Most people I know who played Alpha Centauri felt a strong urge to go play Civilization again afterwards. You just relate better to 'the Wheel' than 'Nanotechnofische Armorium'.

And, of course, other blogs picked up the question as well. The discussion on Tobold's site is fairly interesting, and Passively Multiplayer offers up their opinion on the query. As you can imagine, this is something that's been talked to death in the past of the mmogblogosphere, a reality that Damion notes at Zen of Design. His post is definitely something you should check out, if only to read the exchange between J. and Dr. Bartle in the comments. Jeff Freeman also lays out a historical perspective of this discussion, with plenty of new thoughts on the subject.

What do you say? Why do you like fantasy games? If you don't, why don't you?

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