Today I'm taking you to the hypothetical parallel universe called "what if?". This universe is exactly like ours, only that Blizzard in 2004 didn't release World of Warcraft, but released World of Starcraft (WoS) instead. But having been made by exactly the same people, this hypothetical World of Starcraft plays *exactly* like World of Warcraft in our universe. Instead of mages with firebolts, WoS has a blaster class with laser bolts. Melee classes swing lightsabers instead of metal weapons. WoW's gryphon flight paths in WoS become hovercraft flight paths. And so on. All the differences between WoW and WoS are purely cosmetical, all the numbers behind it are exactly the same. So would this hypothetical World of Starcraft have been as successful as World of Warcraft? Or would the fact that it is SciFi instead of fantasy have mattered? Does genre matter?
Historically SciFi MMOs haven't had as much success as fantasy MMOs. But maybe that was an accident of history. World of Warcraft is simply a better game than Star Wars Galaxies, people don't just play WoW because it has elves and orcs and SWG doesn't. In the series of "Diablo"-like action RPGs, which is somewhat related to MMOs, the last big hit was Titan Quest, and the next big hit will be Hellgate London. Neither of those has elves and orcs: Titan Quest is pseudo-historical, playing in a mythical version of the antique, just like Gods & Heroes will. Hellgate London plays in a post-apocalyptic London underground, in a genre which I'd call SciFi horror. Titan Quest sold quite well, and judging by the hype, so will Hellgate London. So if action RPGs don't need fantasy to succeed, maybe MMORPGs don't need it either.
The opportunity, which at the same time is the challenge, is that certain game features go together better with certain genres. For example melee combat goes well with fantasy and pre-19th century historical, while ranged combat goes well with SciFi and modern historical. Ship-to-ship combat probably wouldn't do much for World of Warcraft, but is essential for Pirates of the Burning Sea, or space SciFi like EVE Online. And as soon as you have ships in a game, you can introduce trading, buying goods cheap at one end of the world, and transporting them to the other end, where they sell for more. The heroes travelling with a group of minions of Gods & Heroes fits well into the mythical antique genre, although it would have been possible in other genres as well. But I couldn't imagine solo combat being a central feature in a World War II genre game.
I would go so far as to say that we *need* MMORPGs of other genres if we want to see major innovation of features. Developers making yet another fantasy MMORPG have a tendancy to stick to what they know that it works, and not dare to move too far away from the established state of the art. Sure, WoW's quest system is great. But did you notice that since then there hasn't been a single major MMORPG developed which didn't have quest givers with floating symbols over their head? Yes, that works, but this isn't the only possible way to tell a story in a MMORPG, and sometimes it appears that developers have just stopped thinking about whether there aren't any better ways. So if one day some game company develops a major SciFi MMORPG, we have a better chance of stories and missions reaching you by the cool holo communication device of your space ship, and not by you having to get quests by flying close to an NPC space ship with a golden exclamation mark floating over it.
Fantasy is the archetypical geek genre. But as MMORPGs move into the mainstream, that should open them up to other genres. I don't know about you, but I played cowboys and indians in the garden as a kid, not elves and orcs. And if we look at other kind of computer games, we see other genres dominating there. There are far more World War II RTS games than fantasy RTS games. And fantasy is barely represented in tactical or first-person shooter games. Rockstar never released Grand Theft Horse Chariot. Fantasy has become rare in point-and-click adventures. There is no reason for fantasy being the only viable choice for MMORPGs. All we need is a couple of really good games of other genres. I just hope we don't need to wait for the real World of Starcraft to get there, because that might still take many years.