The space MMO is no new development. The (arguably) first MMORTS, Mankind, is set in space. DarkSpace and EVE Online have been around for a very long time. Earth & Beyond, before it was unceremoniously shut down, was one of the better space MMOs. Anarchy Online is set in a sci-fi atmosphere that smacks of space travel. The reason why it is rapidly becoming the setting of choice is more than just a rejection of traditional MMO settings, but also a rejection of traditional MMO mechanics.
World of Warcraft is an incredibly polished MMO. It took the format set by its predecessors and turned an industry on its head. It has more market share than any other MMO, and is often considered the shining example of the genre as a whole. So much so, in fact, that for a lot of gamers, they can only compare other MMOs to WoW to gain any sort of context. But it doesn't push the boundaries at all in terms of design. The big thing Blizzard did was apply their polished, spit-shine finish to every aspect of the game. But when players want change from the norm, they don't turn to WoW.
EVE Online has been going fairly strong for around 5 years now, and there's a pretty good reason. It's basically an MMO version of Elite, a very old single-player game. The economy, way space is handled, how factions interact, and other such things are completely different from World of Warcraft, and the players like it that way. Instead of raiding Onyxia, players perform surgical strikes on space stations. Instead of gaining experience to level up, they train skills. it's a very different environment.
DarkSpace is another space-based MMO, and while there are similarities to EVE, it's also wildly different. DarkSpace is more RTS oriented, with focus on taking, holding, and upgrading planets. Combat is far simpler, and most easily compared to Starfleet Command. You gain ranks in individual skills not by training or gaining a level, but by performing the skill enough to gain a rank. And it has both a persistent universe as well as a regular multiplayer server for those trying to rank up, which adds to the longevity.
Mankind is yet another, but it plays more like an artificially-lengthened RTS. While you start off in a builder ship that partakes in much of the same things that EVE does (trade runs, NPC hunting, mining, etc), your real goal is to find a planet with enough space for you to really set up a colony and (hopefully) begin dominating another player or group of players. It's part of the MMORTS group I mentioned last week, and while fun, certainly isn't for everybody.
Earth & Beyond is probably the safest space MMO of the ones I mentioned, but even it takes the traditional fantasy system and turns it around. E&B took the fantasy-style of play, where a player earns levels and experience by doing tasks, and applies it to an Elite-like system. It was incredibly fun, and had an easy to learn faction system very similar to Freelancer. It's a shame it was canceled.
I realize this has pretty much been a list, but I promise here's where I get to my point. The point here is all of these MMOs took a setting with infinite capacity for cliche and turned it around, crafting excellent universes and compelling gameplay experiences. They weren't refinements, they were revolutions. Here's hoping Star Trek Online and Stargate Worlds turn out like their other, less-licensed brethren do.
Each week James Murff writes Under The Hood, a deeper look at MMO game mechanics and how they affect players, games, and the industry