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Dec 17, 2007



Because everyone has read Lord of the Rings, because everyone played Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s and 80s.... and because of both of those, all the various shards of fantasy share a common heritage. They all have orcs, elves and stunted guys with beards. You can go from EverQuest to WoW and all places inbetween, including most of the Asian MMOs, and you get pretty much the same world with the same rules. Sci-fi isn't quite as homogeneous or as identifiable.


Because fairy-tales have been a part of everybody since early childhood and it as if going back in time to TimeSpace, when/where everything was simple, safe and still miraculous.

Let's be honest - game-like virtual worlds are mostly simplified alternative versions of real-life and hence their popularity.


Not a simple answer at all...

some ideas
A. All media companies are highly risk averse and gravitate toward formula, given the risk inherent in creative IP businesses.

B. Game developers typically focus on 'core' players, regardless of any business case for this. These are the players that bring the most expectations, have largely the same media exposure to draw from, etc. Game developers ARE these players, and they serve these players. These players can be influential as early adopters, and are a growing group in our culture. Attracting other, non-core players may just be a byproduct of good execution, marketing, and business environment.

... (continued - anti-spam filter prevents a long post apparently)


C. Definitely Tolkien. Very identifiable! The depth of this work, as measured by the scholarship put into it, far exceeds what your average game or novel writer could come up with in a lifetime. That depth means the world and themes presented in the book feel familiar and carry weight, and that helped breed generations of Tolkien fans. For those who miss the thematic similarity to outside works (primarily Western), there's 50-70 years of time Tolkien fans have been making countless derivative works, and the availability of those works in modern culture mean those themes are nonetheless familiar. It's a sort of worldwide echo chamber of fantasy expectations.

D. There’s something special about the unexplained, the ambiguity of ‘magic’ (despite any formal structures of ‘mana’ that games apply) that is more attractive than an identically functioning, fully explained scientific counterpart. Maybe it’s a lower barrier to entry – you don’t have to be a super geek to know the particulars of how things work, just that they do. Maybe it’s inherent in our view of play, or of the world – the 'magic circle' may be called the 'magic circle' for a reason! Fantasy seems to me to inspire child-like wonder and curiosity because of this unknown component. Reality and science fiction may inspire wonder and curiosity, but perhaps not in exactly the same way.

To put these all together, maybe it goes something like – More people seek a low barrier to entry and/or a child-like wonder and curiosity. They rule out science fiction and reality, and move to fantasy. They see what is out there in fantasy, and see Tolkien derivatives. They seem familiar so they buy and play them. Companies see these purchasing habits, and keep the pipeline full. Repeat over multiple generations.


Which virtual worlds we talk about? Sure fantasy dominates WoW but there is a lot of space based VW's too. Second life has its fantasy parts, but hardly we can say they are majority.
Fantasy gave start to pen and paper RPG's and that is an important fact to consider here. But, with time passing, percent of fantasy in VW's is falling.


I dislike Tolkien but i love Fantasy

I find Fantasy is better then sci fi, as it doesn't have to explain as much, it is simply magic

Which does make sci fi harder to design for, since plausible answers are needed


Other potential reasons...

1) Fantasy worlds may offer fewer challenges for the infrastructure. High-tech (Scifi, or even our own level) worlds offer the potential use of technology to *increase* the access of the individual to the physical environment. Modern communications, ranged weapons, modern optics and sensors - these are all things which would be 'expected' in a high-tech virtual world and which dramatically increase the load on the underlying tech of the simulation. If your user can use modern telescopes and sensors, suddenly the volume of virtual space each clients needs access to and updates on grows dramatically. If combat is involved, ranged weapons mean much lower tolerances for lag and view distance limitations without breaking the illusion. WoW, for example, allows distance vision (telescopes) but they function by showing the user only the the terrain once past their 'normal' view distance, since the terrain data is local and uncoordinated.

2) Fantasy tends to offer itself to more abstracted and less complex modeling. While this isn't a rule, 'lower tech' items can be represented more easily using fewer vertices, or textures rather than polygons. Higher-tech items, in order to retain believability, can significantly increase the amount of detail required.

Neither are 'rules' but rather trends, I think.


- There is a built-in dual coding in the fantasy worlds that can be hard to design into sci-fi worlds. They can appeal to people regardless of age, gender or "hardcore-ness".

- Fantasy has an easier time when it comes to unexplained phenomena. It is fine to leave things completely unexplained there wheras in most other genres it's not.

- The cultural resonance with fantasy worlds is so much more than with sci-fi worlds as we westerners all grew up with fantasy stories.


I think there are some other considerations about the use of fantasy as the setting for VWs. One that comes to mind right away is variety. While the same can be said of sci-fi, fantasy can give multiple species of avatars as well as classes. In a combat-centric game (like WoW) you can have casters, melee, and ranged combat. For any close to reality VW it would be hard to get anything but gun combat for the player to swallow. Sci-fi has beat this problem, in fact Star Wars did it very well. The force is basically magic and a light saber is a close combat weapon. However, fantasy is much more malleable in my opinion.

Also I think it comes down to player quests, it is easy in fantasy to say I need 10 rat livers for a potion go get them for me. While there are again ways to adapt this sort of quest to non-fantasy I would think it much easier for fantasy because developers have the fall back answer of magic. The magic circle of a fantasy game can always be mended by "magic". Why does that character get a skill to fly or raise the dead? Easy, magic.

As VWs mature fantasy will lose most of its market share because already I feel it is becoming stale and developers are looking for new world settings to express.


Perhaps sci-fi technology would not be as conducive to the non-combat grind? Fantasy worlds are generally low tech (if magical), so it is more realistic for fantasy characters to spend time harvesting resources and crafting items by hand than for sci-fi characters, who we would expect to just push a button on the replicator machine.


dandellion Kimban>Which virtual worlds we talk about? Sure fantasy dominates WoW but there is a lot of space based VW's too.

Not as many as there are Fantasy ones. Take a look at http://mmogdata.voig.com/, it has a nice pie chart that shows around 70% of the virtual worlds covered are Fantasy. It was a similar story in the textual days, except because of Stock MUD Syndrome we had even more Fantasy than SF.



Because swords are cooler than lasers.


Nick Punt>All media companies are highly risk averse and gravitate toward formula, given the risk inherent in creative IP businesses.

In the 1980s, people wrote their own textual worlds for fun, and at first they didn't all go with Fantasy. Fewer than half did, in fact (see a list in my Indie MMO GDC talk). So you could be right, in that when there's risk involved businesses will go with the proven concept.

However, as I mentioned in my post above to dandellion Kimban, this state of affairs was not permanent. By the early 1990s, Fantasy ruled. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it's because the Fantasy worlds got more players.

>Game developers typically focus on 'core' players, regardless of any business case for this.
>Game developers ARE these players, and they serve these players.

This is the argument that says designer design what they themselves want to play. It doesn't apply for the very top-end designers (who get their fun from designing, not from playing), but yes, it does apply to far too many of the people who actually get to design virtual worlds. Even if it didn't, there are likely to be so many other people on the team who are out-and-out players that the pressure to give them what they expect could be overwhelming.

>Definitely Tolkien. Very identifiable! The depth of this work, as measured by the scholarship put into it, far exceeds what your average game or novel writer could come up with in a lifetime.

But there are other vast, deep, self-consistent worlds of magic and mystique that could have been drawn on, not just Tolkien. The 1001 Nights is very well known, for example, and has more magic in it. Myths from Ancient Greece are also well-known, and are packed full with the kind of things that could make a wonderfully rich and exciting virtual world. Why, then, does Tolkien have such influence? And why is it still inspirational when Fantasy virtual worlds have fireballs and Tolkien's books don't?



I will absolutely agree with the idea that it has to do with risk assessment but I will add to that myth familiarity.

First, extract the gold farming population. After this has been done I believe the population numbers favor residence of the western world.

Whether you are from Europe or the U.S. and Canada we all share a mythos history. We all have a connection to Arthur, Merlin, and the knights of the round table. Many fairytales are connected to that common mythos. The familiarity with this mythos: the myth of freedom from oppression and right to live for that which is just and true are closely connected to Arthurian myth.

It is true that the Arthur myth is derived from another and that precedent has even deeper more distant origins but the Arthur myth is closest in conceptual proximity. It is a fantasy comfort zone.

Sci-Fi represents future, beyond Arthur... though Arthur can be projected into it. the past, fictional or otherwise, is easier to connect to because we have a feeling of knowing it.

Sci-Fi is too real, it is too connected to the here and now. It is too complicated (or has the illusion of complication due to the high tech environment). It reminds us of “RL”. Who wants to live RL in a MMORPG? Escape into fantasy is much easier to achieve than escape into a emulation of RL. Fireballs are very not reality. Blasterfire is very much like RL gunfire.

A fictional past, with that feeling of familiarity, is easier to ad-lib on a RP stage. A fictional future is not so familiar. The future is ever changing while that past is relatively static, estimatable... again, familiar.

This supplements “the pitch” of a game project. trying to describe a fantasy realm is far more simple in comparison to describing a future realm.


Judging by the preceding responses, A better question to find the answer here might be 'Why Tolkien?'



Because it's easier to believe that melee combat matters in a fantasy world than a scifi world.


Great question, despite all the times it's been asked. That in itself shows that the answers aren't satisfying enough.

Here's my $0.02 on it- the two main reasons are 1) the romance of traditional fantasy and 2) the public's expectations.

By romance I mean the tradition of stories that are emotional, adventurous, imaginative, feature heroes and villians, are idealistic, and they usually have "happy" endings. (I don't mean love, hearts and flowers and the like...not that kind of romance.)

And I think that developers' risk aversion plays to the fact that the masses like what they know, or something close to it, anyway. It takes a lot to move people to something very new (the hype around Will Wright's forthcoming "Spore" will help that new idea work, I'm betting.)

But look at the evidence. As Richard Bartle said, the strong majority of people playing VW games are playing fantasy games. Attempts to do other genres have not (YET) succeeded well. I bet they will, though, once the public gets used to new ideas/genres. Many attempts have been made to bust open new territory, from vampire genre to superheroes to sci-fi to pirates to classical mythos. Whether you count dollars or player-hours, none stack up to the fantasy games. Richard "Lord British" Garriot's new "Tabula Rasa" is a big ($20 million) attempt to stake out new territory with some new ideas.

But here's another thought. WoW, the big gorilla of MMOs, is an exception, I'd argue. I say this because it's such a damned well-designed game. So it skews the data heavily in the fantasy direction, for this discussion's purposes. -Yes, it's a fantasy game, so doesn't that count? Well, I'd say the data sample isn't really solid until we get a non-fantasy game that is as well-designed as WoW.


I think it really is mostly Tolkien via his influence on Dungeons&Dragons. The vast majority of these games use a system that is only thinly disguised D&D (levels, classes, hp, etc.). I think that really can explain most of it.


It is a good question. I think it's less Tolkien than , as other commenters have said, Dungeons & Dragons - which may sound like splitting hairs, but really WoW and its ilk are much closer to D&D in its assumptions and genre elements (right down to green, pig-like orcs) than to Tolkien. (Also, the original makers of D&D, fearing lawsuits from the Tolkien estate, swore up and down they were more influenced by other sword & sorcery literature than Lord Of The Rings.)

Which begs the question, why was Fantasy (and a very specific D&D-esque kind of fantasy at that) the predominant genre of pen-and-paper roleplaying games?

I have a rather specific historical answer to that question, which has to do with American politics during Vietnam. I've been working up to it in a series of blog posts on tabletop RPG history but as a teaser let me say that (unlike the Napoleonic wargaming D&D grew out of) fantasy and Tolkien in particular had a unique ability to bridge the gap between college-age gamers on both sides of the hawk-dove divide in those years.


If you look at the source material, sci-fi is more likely to have everyman or even anti-heroes (star wars excepted), while fantasy tends to have the humble commoner/farmboy who in reality is something special. They are placed in a sudden environment of danger where through trials and tribulations they become a hero, often having the unique key to defeating the huge evil in the land.

I think this is key, it speaks to the child in us, the desire to be special. Fantasy is more easily matched to this wish fulfillment. While it is possible to do this in sci-fi it is not the standard meme that it is in fantasy.

Personally I prefer sci-fi :)


My earlier response was a bit glib and I apologize. I was rushing off to lunch and had visions of pasta in my head.

Orson Scott Card wrote in How To Write Speculative Fiction and Fantasy, "If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it's science fiction. If it's set in a universe that doesn't follow our rules, it's fantasy."

Later he adds, "If it's science fiction, and you signal this to the reader, then you have saved yourself enormous amounts of effort, because your reader will assume that all the known laws of nature apply, except where the story indicates an exception. With fantasy, however, anything is possible."

It seems, according to Card, that writing sci-Fi is more difficult because there are more rules to follow. However in fantasy, you can make the rules up as you go.

If games are a narrative tool, then making a game in the fantasy genre would easier than making a game in the sci-fi genre.


I think that the appeal of fantasy has an enormous amount to do with the metaphor of magic - and is not necessarily popular because *someone* doesn't have a realistic physics engine. Sci-fi depends, unlike real technology, on the reader/player having an understanding of why or how something new in the world works in order for its action/impact to be believable. And I say "new" because no one quibbles about the unlikelihood of Luke's X-wing entering the atmosphere at a safe angle given its design, because an X-wing is basically a car and we understand that cars move. But in a sci-fi VW, if you were to send players to get xorphic acid for their ray gun, then you better have modeled in a top-loading vial on the ray gun for this acid to go into or have some other suitable excuse. This is especially true in books, tbh, but I think that the same scrutiny applies to VWs.

Magic, on the other hand, is largely what ppl use to explain technology to themselves. I think that ppl in general actually understand magic in a way that they don't understand technology. Magic is about the end result, technology is about the process. And in a virtual world you often just want your players to accept the parameters you've laid down because, well, you need them to get past your fiction and get into the gameplay. Or get deeply into the fiction if there is no gameplay.

So if your players are focused on the process of the world and not on its end result, then they are less likely to be immersed, and less likely to stick around.


Geography: In a fantasy setting, you're free to create any size and shape landmasses you like and constrict movement in a myriad of ways. In a 'realistic' RPG, people expect to be moving around something that looks like earth in ways that they would expect to get around on earth. It's much harder to get people to believe they're in New York City or LA than it is to get them to believe they're in Yghdragawhatever.


@John: True and not true about locations. Notice how reality-based the landscapes in fantasy MMOs are, mostly. You're right, if a city is supposed to be NYC, it will suck if it doesn't look a lot like players' conceptions of NYC. But if you make Orgrimmar, no one can say "that's so not Org" with much authority. But out in the countryside, designers usually seem to go to great lengths to make things have a ring of familiarity to them: rock formations show dirt here and none there implying erosion, vegetation grows up around bodies of water and in lowlands, etc.

Not being a professional MMO designer, I can only guess that while some sense of fantasy is desirable, too much would alientate many players.

True for any genre, I think. While some people would enjoy having a globular ooze creature as an avatar, most want something that they can relate to a bit, whether it's a wookie, a pirate, or an elf. Same for the terrain, I'm thinking; some mix of the exotic and the familiar.


I think the answer is actually quite simple: It’s the genre that requires the least input, in regards of creativity, in order to produce the max. output, in regards of players/monetary income.

I’m not saying that virtual worlds set in Fantasy are monotonous, but in the end of the day you don’t really have to invent much yourself. You’ve got almost 50 years of classic RPGs and 5 000 years of human history to get your material from. Simply put, if you need an innovative element in your game, the only thing you have to do is get yourself a book on mythology and pick out the parts you liked about it. Tolkien has done it a century ago; modern game designers are still doing it now.

The only other real alternative is Sci-Fi, which also has a good base of conventions behind it, e.g. plasma-rifles, energy shields and so forth, (which are due to their young age, nowhere as sophisticated as those of the fantasy genre). It does however lack the enormous fan-base and the world-continuity (i.e. if I’m a rich businessman living on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, why can’t I just get on a spaceship and fly to some other planet?) that is typical for the fantasy genre.


Richard, I've noticed the same holds true in the science fiction/fantasy section of book stores as well. There seems to be more fantasy books than science fiction books. I read somewhere an editor of one of the big monthly science fiction/fantasy magazines complained about receiving so few submissions that were hard science fiction.

I guess if science fiction seems harder to write, and fantasy is more popular anyway, any game developer wishing to cash in the big bucks will go fantasy.


I've always liked to believe that it's because fantasy fiction is so organic. How the elves talk to the trees a.s.o. Even with space-science fiction there is a lot of focus on the connection and communication with the earth or elements or whatever. It's all so organic. Computers and technology have never really been organic or even beautiful (at least not in the eye of the regular beholder).
I only think it's a transitional phase, though. I don't think that fantasy will be dominant in 20 years time - I'm not sure what will be, but I think it's just a transitional period where we're learning to adjust to thinking of virtual worlds or computer games as organic entities. Just looking at how new media art is embracing technology with nature or other organic materials - very much symbolises the cultural change of looking at technology. It's not a dark, cold, sterile place - it's a warm, embracing and beautiful place.
Gorr - I feel like a complete idiot saying this - but I genuinely believe it to be true. Or have I completely lost my mind now?


Isn't Tolkien basically the guy who crystalizes centuries of Western European mythos into something digestible, i.e. Arthur (arguably derivative from the Welsh Mabinogian), Beowulf, etc.? He does it around WWII and it sticks for a world ready for escapism, becoming the de facto mythic source.

And once the ball starts rolling, there's a pretty heavy force of path dependency at work, right?

BTW, I might turn this around and ask the guy who created the first MUD: why semi-Tolkienesque magic in *your* game? Why wasn't it based on Greek myth or Star Trek or Riverworld?


Note: I've done presentations on this exact topic in the past. Linkies:


Abbreviated version:

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'.

I do think there are too many fantasy games. Still, I would dispute anyone who said it is because game developers are all lazy or stupid. The truth is, a TON of non-fantasy MMOs get started and/or into development, but the fantasy MMOs are the ones that actually get out the door and/or find any measure of success. Examples: Earth and Beyond, Auto Assault, Matrix, Motor City Online. And those are the ones that shipped.


But there are other vast, deep, self-consistent worlds of magic and mystique that could have been drawn on, not just Tolkien. The 1001 Nights is very well known, for example, and has more magic in it. Myths from Ancient Greece are also well-known, and are packed full with the kind of things that could make a wonderfully rich and exciting virtual world. Why, then, does Tolkien have such influence? And why is it still inspirational when Fantasy virtual worlds have fireballs and Tolkien's books don't?

The other thing about fantasy is that it is broad and inclusive. I remember when two different companies announced Viking-themed MMOs shortly after Everquest's initial success. I knew they would fail - their games would seem narrow to any EQ player, who could traipse up to EQ's viking-themed areas anytime they wanted to. Similarly, WoW has arabian-inspired zones, mayan-inspired zones, and even zones inspired by American Indian architecture and/or mythology.


I think the real reason why fantasy works so well as a genre for MMOs has nothing to do with familiarity or heroic potantial. It's because of two reasons.

First, a fantasy background places equal emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, ranged combat, healing, and buffs and debuffs. The genre places an equal emphasis on swords, arrows and spells, allowing for easy development of balanced classes.

Second, everything your character does in a fantasy setting, from fighting to crafting to casting spells, is organically based on your character's skill. If you want to do something, you have to learn how to do it. This allows characters to start off as newbies in everything and progress in different classes at approximately equal speeds. After ten days of training at swordfighting, you're going to be about as powerful as a wizard after ten days of fireball-practicing.

This is sort of silly applied to a modern setting where getting shot three or four times should pretty much mean you're dead regardless of who does the shooting.


Why Fantasy?

I like the answer Terry Pratchett said in his DiscWorld: HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN.


The power of characters in fantasy settings are, for the most part, internal and singular; I am a hero because of what I am and what I do. Sci-fi (and many real, historical settings) often rely on technology that requires many external and societal-level inputs.

Of course a hero isn't a hero by himself; but he often has just one or two or a few significant others; Arthur has Merlin, Frodo has Gandalf, Beowulf has... a big sword. Much of the adventure and training in fantasy is self-involved or has to do with, again, individuals or small groups. You can't, though, pilot a spaceship without companies that make spaceship parts, train people in how to fly spaceships, provide "gas," etc. etc.

In an industrial society, the role of the individual is subsumed by the goals of the masses. If you want to be a Level 10 Cosmoblotz, you need to have 5-9 years exeperience as a Level 9 Cosmoblotz (or equivalent), and be promoted/hired by a Level 11 Cosmoblotz. You can't just figger it out for yourself in the woods from a tome.

What's interesting, though... is how we're moving, in terms of some tech, into the realm of mash-ups, where the ability to create tools is less important than the ability to use them or merge them in some manner. Hacking is kind of a real-life analog (ahem) version of a thief/rogue. But the inherent activities -- typing -- of a hacker aren't really sexy from a game-play standpoint.

A sci-fi world in which you can take inherent pieces/parts of an available buffet of tools and combine them interestingly (nano anyone?) might provide a more palatable heroic experience. But until such time as a lone boy, lost in the city and bereft of family and clan, can begin to learn the Mysterious Ways without (minimum) a 2-year associates degree... Fantasy trumps sci-fi because I can kick ass on my own.


I think it's something that Eddo Stern once suggested: the production of effects in a computerized environment feels and behaves more like magic that like technology. For some reason, simulating a sci-fi technology effect (such as a beam weapon, teleportation, etc) feels more like implementing "science" on top of an implementation of "magic" implemented technologically.

The mastery of a game-system resembles, structurally, the mastery of a closed, symbolically driven magic system that it does the emergent and open development of knowledge in a scientific episteme, as well.

The effect is to make the fantastic feel more native to computer-based world-building than the technological speculative is.


It's interesting to me that it seems to be a very Fantasy or Sci-Fi divide. Nobody even seems to be considering horror, or modern action, or Westerns (or whatever). I don't think it's impossible to design and implement games based in these genres. It is down to a lack of skill or imagination on the part of the designers? A lack of acceptance of non-SciFi/Fantasy themed MMOs from gamers? A desire from publishers in wanting to just see "WOW Beaters"? I don't know, but it's a bit disappointing.

I am very interested in how Pirates of the Burning Seas does, as that is trying to do something a bit different.


I agree with Linn Søvig that a large part of the appeal of fantasy is the organic, natural environment. Perhaps people play fantasy MMORPGs in part to compensate for the interaction with the natural world that is lacking in modern society?

Here is an except (minus some context) from Tree and Leaf, an essay that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about fairy tales and fantasy and how they fit into modern society (it can be found in The Tolkien Reader):

"'The rawness and ugliness of modern European life'--that real life whose contact we should welcome--"is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment.' (here Tolkien is quoting an essay by Christopher Dawson regarding the general silliness of Victorian clothing) The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant's bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) 'in a very real sense' a great deal more real. Why should we not escape from or condemn the 'grim Assyrian' absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories? They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction. These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway station. But from them it is as a rule very hard to gather what men in such a world-town will do. They may abandon the 'full Victorian panoply' for loose garments (with zip-fasteners), but will use this freedom mainly, it would appear, in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed. To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists hardly reach farther than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is indeed an age of 'improved means to deteriorated ends.' It is part of the essential malady of such days--producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery--that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty. In Faerie one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare (for the evil of the ogre wills it so), but one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose-- an inn, a hostel, for travelers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king--that is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was not--unless it was built before our time."


I was actually working on this theory before I came across this question. Many studies have shown that we have a preprogrammed response to certain stimulus. Human beings have inherited biological fears to spiders and snakes and other natural threats. We are more likely to have an extreme phobia to snakes, than to automobiles. I am no expert, but I have been doing research to investigate whether there may be a way to appeal to this innate set of motivations. When exploring motivation I found that humans have more universal reaction to organic stimulus. Fantasy has a much more biological or natural feel than Sci-Fi. But this is just a result of the goals of the genres. A Fantasy universe is usually a story of creation and exploring what the world is capable of, while Sci-Fi is often a confrontational story of survival and the mere creation of the universe is often centered around destroying convention and taking the person out of a comfortable and natural environment. Fantasy tends to only challenge our sense of reality, and let us explore what is possible in the absence of traditional boundaries. Sci-Fi is a more direct challenge of our self and how we can overcome even more extreme boundaries. The fantasy mindset ranks a persons success by their fame, or infamy, due to accomplishment or social networking. It provides a place for the socializer and politician to sit and enjoy the game. This group of players form the backbone of a virtual world. The socializers and the killers are the players that keep paying even after reaching 'end game'. The more socializers you have, the more killers you have. The Sci-Fi setting is one for the loner. Your success is often dependent on not getting caught and keeping your identity hidden. There is no real area for the socializer. The explorer will bore after exploring and the achiever is not known across the land for his achievements. Without constantly expanding content to keep up with the explorers, there is no anchor for the game. Killers enjoy this environment, but without ample prey, they will get bored as well. While none of this is universally true about either genre, in general it describes the advantages of fantasy versus the challenges of Sci-Fi.

Oh, and to Mr. Bartle, I have appreciated your work tremendously.


Dmitri>BTW, I might turn this around and ask the guy who created the first MUD: why semi-Tolkienesque magic in *your* game? Why wasn't it based on Greek myth or Star Trek or Riverworld?

I didn't base MUD on Tolkien. There isn't an orc or an elf in there, and the dwarfs are dwarfs, not dwarves. I wanted a world that everyone knew and understood, that was open-ended, that had mystery and mystique, that was known and unknown, that gave a strong sense of place, that was consistent, that had its own identity. I considered a number of possibilities, but went with what best reflected what I wanted to say: it was fundamentally Northern English, anachronistic, and joyous. I used tropes that were straight out of the folk story tradition of my part of the world, because they gave me the symbols that I wanted to create with.

This wasn't a genre with which I was unfamiliar, either. I (and initially two of my friends) had previously designed a board game called Wizards and Heroes, which had gone through several iterations. It was pre-D&D, so when D&D came out I D&Dised it; it wasn't a success, and the next iteration I deD&Dised it (except I kept the priest class, which allowed for more balanced 3-player games). The original character of the game, which it retained, was at times evocative of Conan, 1001 Nights and Greek myth, and from it I gained a strong idea of the match between the personality of the game world and that of the designer. Thus, when it came to MUD, I sought something that felt right. An author seeks an authorial voice; a virtual world designer seeks an authorial world.

I do usually say that The Lord of the Rings was a big influence on MUD, not because of what it had in it but because of its world design: it showed what was possible. It's the scope of it that was inspiring, not the genre or the components. For those, I'd probably have to give more credit to the children's worlds of Enid Blyton and Rupert the Bear, which I fear won't mean a great deal to most readers of Terra Nova! My mother used to make up fairy stories for my brother and I when we were young, too, which really opened up a sense of wonder.

Hmm, gamer dad and fairytale-writing mother; I was doomed from the start...



If you switch Fantasy for Olympic Games, "Napoleonic warfare or Roman Empire you import all these things to the scope which must be developed or the context will suffer deadly consequences.

If you make a Fantasy game and feel like you lack time for Death Magic you can remove it without losing your context.


Damion Schubert>Note: I've done presentations on this exact topic in the past.

Darn, and you did what was going to be my follow-up question about what else would work, too!

>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.

Why does it have that appeal, though? And is someone who likes unicorns and dragons (mainly for their symbolism) really likely to feel engaged by a sword and sorcery world?

>It's inviting. Fantasy games have a good sense of 'home'

This is a good property to have, but it's not restricted to Fantasy. Setting a virtual world in Victorian London or Musketeers Paris would also give you it, for example. Even a generation starship setting would work. I agree, though, that it naturally inviting.

>Compare to post-apocalyptic worlds

Yes, I get so many emails from people creating these worlds... Basically, they'd be better off writing a novel (and for some of them, the exposition is novel-length!).

[Splitting to avoid triggering anti-spam software]



>Solid team-based roles. Say what you will about tank-healer-mage, but those roles are archetypically fantasy

But are they? How many Fantasy novels feature parties that have this kind of identifiable role in them? They work for gameplay, but are they a Fantasy trope in the general sense? And again, there are plenty of other genres that have these team-based roles.

>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.

Typical NPC...

>It's character-driven.

Yes, this is important. As with your story arc point, a lot of this is related to personal development, which I feel in my Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is why people play virtual worlds in the first place.

>The truth is, a TON of non-fantasy MMOs get started and/or into development, but the fantasy MMOs are the ones that actually get out the door and/or find any measure of success.

So it could be that the supply is there, but the demand isn't?



All the online game worlds are fantasy worlds. Explicitly labeling your world as “Fantasy” just makes it easier to design.

Pirates of the Burning Sea has a pretty good sailing and cannon simulation at its core. Even so, they had to resort to a fantasy “open sea” which lets you zip across the Caribbean in minutes. Some aspects of reality just don’t make for a good game space. Every major game world implements that ultimate human fantasy, cheap and easy resurrection.

Lots of thoughtful comment here. I particularly liked Andy’s analysis of the personal reliance element in fantasy as opposed to tech.


Using the word ‘fantasy’ seems to be triggering the Typepad spam filter. I wonder what that says about this word’s role in our modern world.


Of course, it's Tolkein. That is the power of popular culture, accelerated through an increasingly connected world.

You could also ask, why are some of the most successful motion picture characters 50 and 75 years old? Superman, Batman: 1930s. Spiderman, X-Men, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Iron Man: 1960s.

Why Dracula?
Why Sherlock Holmes?
Why Flash Gordon?


Why [do unicorns and dragon cross-stitch sets] have that appeal, though? And is someone who likes unicorns and dragons (mainly for their symbolism) really likely to feel engaged by a sword and sorcery world?

I think that, for that particular audience, it's because those things have a sense of Wonder to them. But that's a good question. My more salient point is that there are a lot of people who dismiss Fantasy as being solely owned by geeks in their parents basements. Looking at a list of the 15 top grossing films of all time, you'll find: 3 LotR films, 4 Harry Potter films and Shrek 2. Fantasy DOMINATES the all-time box office. It's got a broader reach than anyone gives it credit for.


So it could be that the supply is there, but the demand isn't?

I don't -necessarily- think that's the case. I think it's more accurate to say that most alternative genres fail because the dev teams can't figure out how to build them, or try too hard to make a 'fantasy-like' game in their new genre. As examples, both Auto Assault and Earth and Beyond created designs that were described by players as 'Everquest in Space/in Cars'. I think this ended up pissing off people who were the true expected hardcore market for a space MMO or a demolition derby MMO.


... The suspension of disbelief inherent in a Fantasy genre where we're told "magic exists" makes it all so much easier. ...


Of course, and that makes fantasy games easier to design and present to the wide audience. I mean -- hey, it's fantasy, how do you know how a creature looks like? Since it's not real, the developers can do whatever they want with it, don't they.

Sci-fi genre could be a good replacement, I guess, but they still have to stick with realism to some point. And, for a fact, the media is full of sci-fi nowadays, people simply want to be knight and fight the badass dragon who kidnapped the cute princess. :)


Another true but sad reason is that the "common" memes of Fa+tasy( elves, dragons, etc) are due to the age of their sourced material- fair use. And that most Science Fiction, and most modern fiction is still "owned" by its creators and thus the ability to "utilize" the material in an MMO game is limited to those who rightfully license the material.

The iconography of "Middle Earths" go back for centuries, the iconongraphy of most science fiction, less than 100 years.

Science Fiction also by it's rules of definition - science as a base for fictional story telling- is "harder" to create in terms of "a consistant world and world rules" that playworlds so required to be fixed in the limited scope of most MMOs or any game for that matter.


Posting as a complete lay-person the presence of gaming greats - I read a bit so know the names...

Fantasy works for me on all levels, be it games, books or movies. As much as I've loved Tolkien, I can't attribute the desire to him, as I didn't read the books until very late in life. As many have mentioned, the fantasy story arc tends to be a more personal journey which happens in an organic way - what I can call forth from within or learn as a character. The magic is an extension of self, as the sword can be, in a way that guns and lasers can't.

As an adult I prefer fantasy and commonly joke, I get enough reality in my daily life. I don't need it in my sources of diversion. I'd be willing to try a sci-fi MMO if there was strong RP value and internal character growth. If not it's all pew-pew and I'm must not interested.


Damion>their games would seem narrow to any EQ player, who could traipse up to EQ's viking-themed areas anytime they wanted to.

Of course, there's an attendant danger of losing depth by trying to cover everything. It's like these "Europe in 21 days" coach tours people go on - you only get a sample of a place, you don't get a feel for it. I don't personally think Vikings works all that well as subject matter because they lack variety; what most people know of them is limited and often wrong (eg. no horned helmets).


PS: I did try to post this yesterday but got bitten by the anti-spam monster. Let's see if this remix works...



>Similarly, WoW has arabian-inspired zones [etc.]

So if I like jungle zones, I can spend all my time in jungle zones? If I dislike dark, brooding places I can spend all my time not in dark, brooding places? A virtual world that tries to be everything to everybody will inevitably disappoint at times. This is why niche worlds are still in with a chance.



Hellinar>All the online game worlds are fantasy worlds.

I guess I should have asked "Why Sword & Sorcery", which is the paerticular brand of Fantasy they tend to exhibit.



I think there are two major reasons:

1. Marketing departments think that people want Tolkien-esque fantasy games. And, apparently, people do, because they keep paying for them.

2. Fantasy genres are easier to design and create simply because many of the systems have been done in the past. It's a matter of solving known problems: combat, crafting, spells, equipment, leveling... these have been explored by designers thoroughly. It's pretty easy to just come up with some variations on those ancestral design elements. This is also a reason there's resistance to non-combat games--it's not easy to create entirely new game mechanics which have no precedents!


I'll go along with something that Angel mentioned and put it in my own words: fantasy is the best form of attractive escapism of any genre out there. It is farthest from the conventional day-to-day that we experience while still exploring a space that is perceived as upbeat and positive. I've often wondered if the reality that is being introduced into the graphics and the systems isn't in fact working against the games.

Other factors are certainly the myths and legends that are associated with the medieval setting. King Arthur, Saint George, knights and ladies and so on. Pile on all the fantasy stuff and you've got lots of positive feelings about swords and sorcery.

Look at science fiction and you don't get the same popular treatment. There are plenty of pessimistic futures depicted by science fiction authors and 'futurists'. Science fiction remains in the realm of the realistic, and that can be unpleasant. Perhaps that's why CCP chose a science fiction setting.

Horror and westerns were mentioned. Horror clearly doesn't have positive feelings associated with it, and westerns are mundane, limiting their potential for getting carried away with flashy graphics - something that computers are quite good at.


I was just going to chip in and mention that I think it's easier to do character progression that's identifiable to people when you're doing it with swords and magic rather than guns. I don't think Star Wars would have worked at all if Luke's quest had really involved training up in blaster skills to defeat the evil gun-toting father and emperor, because we don't really perceive guns as requiring skill to use.

Are we ever really shown a montage of the hero going away to train up with a glock, or AK? About as close as you get is the Wild West.


Users have created many different environments in Second Life. A few of these have been Swords and Sorcery themed, but they are much in the minority. I would have said that the dominant theme is a slightly sleazy alternate-Universe present-day. It tends to be much more like the world of Snow Crash (or Blade Runner, or Neuromancer) than Lord of the Rings.

If fantasy is what most users want, why isn't this reflected in the User Generated Content?

I suppose we might be seeing some path-dependence here. Snow Crash was clearly a big influence on Linden Lab, and the user generated content may be following their lead. But still, the relative absence of fantasy is striking.


The only fantasy bias is in the minds of people who play too many fantasy games, and never look around.

City of Heroes/Villains, Eve Online, Second Life (the Snow Crash MMO, essentially), Asheron's Call, Tabula Rasa, Star Wars Galaxies, Myst Online: Uru Live, Matrix Online, and so on are all science fiction. Star Trek's always been a difficult license to work with in any medium, but eventually Paramount will quit being obstructive and it'll be the 800lb gorilla of science fiction MMOs.

WoW and Everquest have done well, and been widely imitated by risk-averse publishers, but that's just a coincidence of who was first to market and marketing.


I forgot to mention:

Pirates of the Carribean Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea (and Puzzle Pirates!) are not Tolkien fantasy (POTBS is pseudo-historical, PotCO is a horror genre, if somewhat kid-friendly).

Toontown is modern-era, with technological enemies and vaudeville-gag-throwing heroes.

And that's not even looking at the casual MMOs: What is Club Penguin? It's modern era, just with penguins instead of people. Habbo Hotel, Cyworld, and most others like that are modern.



Asheron's call is a sci-fi game? That's news to my 4-school mage ;) I assume you meant Anarchy Online since that's not on your list.


I know it, I know it!
It's because we can't imagine anything besides Fantasy and Sci-Fi. There aren't even movies with different genres.


@JuJUtsu: Yeah, oops, I did mean Anarchy Online.

There.com and The Sims Online also have variant modern eras. That seems to be the most common setting for social environments.

Phantasy Star Online/Universe is SF with psionics and bio-engineered "monsters".

While Furcadia has furries and magic and vampires, it's certainly not anything Tolkien-like.

A Tale in the Desert is historical.


Bonedead is right... in a way. VW offers the mainstream the ability to live in their fav movies and literature. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are pop-culture pulp-genres which are defined by their environments rather than the story-arc. Makes them easier to adapt to VWs than other movie genres.

Why fantasy over sci-fi? Partially because the hollywoodesque action aspect of sci-fi is easier to do well as FPS. Thus you don't only compete with WOW, but also with all those other games, and your sci-fi VW is going to suck compared to a FPS.

Another issue is that community is more at the core of fantasy than sci-fi. Thus there are relatively few single-user fantasy games that can sustain the "feeling of fantasy". Not so with sci-fi, it doesn't require the world.

(The argument that people aren't willing to live in harsh environments doesn't seem right. Proof: FPS. People don't join games with the expectation that they are going to live in them, that happens when they find out that they spend way too much time in them. And by that time the environment doesn't appear harsh anyway as you get used to it.)


Andy Havens>But until such time as a lone boy, lost in the city and bereft of family and clan, can begin to learn the Mysterious Ways without (minimum) a 2-year associates degree... Fantasy trumps sci-fi because I can kick ass on my own.

I agree that this is an important part of what Fantasy gives that other genres don't: that sense of self that comes from growing empowerment to be your own person among others. Science fiction is "about" ideas; westerns are "about" the loner; Greek myth is "about" power; non-game worlds are "about" the community. For some people, those are fine things for a virtual worlds to be about, but more are attracted to the worlds where they can become and be heroes than the ones where they can't. As Damion noted earlier, Fantasy is character-driven.

Other genres that can deliver the same thing are then up against all the other factors people have mentioned in this thread. However, it doesn't matter how much wonder, optimism, iconography, ease-of-implementation and romance a virtual world has, if it's not about the character then it's not about the player. Only if it's about the player can an individual truly feel part of the virtual world.



everquest- IP aquisistion by "game developers"= $0
star wars galaxies= IP aquisistion by Sony before any game development= $20 million

btw star wars is certainly fantasy, not science fiction ..but was created with millions of dollars of creative time before it ever reached Sonys hands.But its an original "fantasy world" that required new ideas and designs and visions to become a "world" that could be used for entertainment.

but my point again is about money, originality, ownership of ideas and the lack of depth in the AAA "games industries" desire or ability to grow as a whole. Nothing new:-)

fantasy "memes" for games are the easiest and cheapest to create in an industry that is still "tech" driven, and not "creatively story, idea or vision" driven. But as an industry that now "require" deatiled visuals now as the production expectations have been escalated by 3d cards and such, Centuries old "dragons" and "costume" types are still the easiest to pass muster in a "producers" creative meeting:).

unless its a IP that sold 1 billion in movie or comics, lol .and then the purse comes out to go beyond "fantasy" for a expensive MMO project..lol

The future of MMOS genres? maybe look 3 places - each one providing the fodder one after the other for the next 20 years....
1st-look right into Second Life....where the tech has first left the GDC building:)- many genres,many MMO experiences and memes.

2nd- YouTube --- where the tech has unleashed the mass stupidity we all seem to live on. A tech- "video"- unleashed...lol

3rd- finally look to the "fiction shelves" at Borders..:)- where "quasi edited" ideas are easier to produce than a film, or immersive digital product,some call it "writing" lol
but it does represent the mass "buying" habits- and choices of the mass in product and themes used for entertainment for a few centuries.

just some food for thought



I blame two things myself, marketing and a "positive feedback loop" of "success breds success".

It's a lot easier to sell an idea when it's "Everquest/WoW but with this cool twist" than it is to try to get peoples wallet...er...minds around "The fight against the Evil Overlord vieing for galactic domination" (with all the trimmings that that would entail). "Magic" is a known "winner" system used by "winner" games, nanotech is a bit of mystery used by "niche" games.

Theres a lot more to it than just that, but the degree of "sellability" and risk aversion drive the system in particular directions (just look at all the XYZ 2/3/4/5 sequils in single player games to see the risk aversion in effect and the MMO sphere isn't exempt from it, specially with the budgets required to make a AAA one).


A quick ^F shows one instance of the word 'gender' on this thread. (Ima lazy reader)

I think fantasy works well because its something that both genders can share.

Now, I'm not saying girls don't dig space. Theres a fair few on EVE that love being space pirates or whatever. But the gender balance on the game is atrocious, although interestingly not by avatar. Most of the players , maybe up to 90% are men. (But theres close to parity of avatars. Which is *really* interesting to me. I have a female alt, and I player as a female, a sort of mother-hen to her band of newbies).

But there are , I'm told , plenty of women who play WOW, as in "real honest to goodness girl" , not just alt.

Why is this?

I suspect its because as children, boys and girls shared these fantasy worlds, even if in different roles. Most of our favorite fantasy stories had to have at least one dashing young prince, and an elegant and beautiful princess. And while the main heros of tolkien where not female, there where wise powerful and elegant female characters that littered the narrative, and I'm sure many of these characters captured many a young lass's imaginations. So WOW is something that automatically gains at least some of the 50% of potential gamers that might be a bit alienated by space violence. Which is a shame, since most of the lads on EVE adore the more well known female gamers in eve.

I guess I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. pew pew


I'd like to suggest a few more practical reasons:
*fantasy characters are better affordances, you can see them from afar due to their range of size shape colour etc, on seeing them you have a good idea of their intentions, strengths and weaknesses, where they feel comfortable
*there is a subtle morality/physignonomy relationship (another affordance)
*they typically wander for quests ie aren't boringly domesticated
*typically fantasies are post-apocalyptic, there is hidden past knowledge artifacts and building so one doesn't have to work out complex ways for people to build and inhabit the setting. *Interaction is limited to moving catapults, it seldom extends to actually creating culturally complex and relevant settings.
*The question of why fantasy is really why a massive metagenre (Pirates of the Caribbean is mostly fantasy, and fantasy stories often include normal people)so it answers itself, why swords and sorcery i think is more interaction-based. Sorcery is typically point and click (easy), should be more memory and calmness based (requires more complex interfaces, interaction, and perhaps biofeedback, while swordplay if done properly should be more expressive of an individual character (how patient or rash, how close, how they maximise their physical features to wield a sword, how fit they are)..there is also an introvert-extrovert spectrum created which allows people more choice. Oblivion also played on this distinction by designing the academy of magicians as a caricature of university lecturers.
*so in short I don't think it is so much a question of genre (fantasy is not a clear genre) but at least partially a matter of interface and interfaction. Which is also why scifi typically is less 'cinematic' than fantasy; things can only get worse, the main character does not interact in complex and interesting ways, and general affordances are usurped (and the symbolic and mythical ones no longer exist). Hence sci-fi is harder to work out, not as interactively interesting, full of text-based information, little character development, and typically based on paranoia rather than person to person communication.


I've placed most of my rambling commentary regarding this out of harm's way on my own blog.

Most of it regards Richard's Indie MMO GDC talk (or rather, the slides he linked to here), which incidentally I thoroughly enjoyed seeing, so thanks for making them, making them available, and posting that link.

I also have a quick-draw comment on this:

And is someone who likes unicorns and dragons (mainly for their symbolism) really likely to feel engaged by a sword and sorcery world?

Probably, yes, for the symbolic vocabulary of the place (of which unicorns and dragons are a part).

Or, even if their interest lies strictly in unicorns and dragons, and nothing else from the same symbolic language, then because that's the world in which unicorns and dragons live.

On a side note: I think the language has changed a bit since I was a wee lad. The "Swords & Sorcery" of my children's generation is... different.

'Lot of Japanese influence in it, these days.

Might be something interesting to think about in that regard. The genre itself may have expanded and diversified, even if the diversity of genres being exploited has narrowed.

'Course, it might also not so much expanded and diversified as just changed.


There are a lot of comments here so I'll keep it simple.

1. That's where the money is.
2. The effects for fantasy games are relatively cheap to create. If you were interested in producing movie like effects then you'd probably be working for a company that isn't making MMOs, such as Valve.

3. Fantasy has a cache built around it that people are invested in and that people are more familiar with than its sci-fi or real world counterparts. I know what a fireball does, but for all I know a Taychion replacement beam could rend someone limb from limb or heal them-- there's less investment to get into fantasy for most people since fantasy is laughably mundane.

Why was Magic the gathering more popular than the Star Wars CCG? No idea really, it just was.

4. The question is a false premise, the number of moderately successful MMOs with a fantasy setting not based on pre-existing intellectual property is smaller than those that are not fantasy based, near as I can tell. The fact that a large number of companies make mmo failures in order to replicate WoW's success is not indicative of fantasy dominance. If you look at the bar that you have conveniently placed on the left side of your page, you should really be asking, "Why games that appeal to children between the ages of 8 and 14?"

5. That leaves us with games based on intellectual property, which for whatever reason tend to be slightly more successful than those that aren't. Maybe because they have better marketing arms behind them, maybe because they're guaranteed to link up people with a common interest, or any number of reasons that are more or less only tangentially related to the fact that it's a fantasy setting.


Richard Bartle: I don't personally think Vikings works all that well as subject matter because they lack variety; what most people know of them is limited and often wrong (eg. no horned helmets).

I disagree with them lacking variety. If you go for an semi-authentic world then it could provide all kinds of variety. It would however be incredibly politically incorrect...

As in... men doing magic being accused of being homosexuals and sentenced to death. The same for men wearing women's cloths (and vice versa). Could make for interesting PvP mechanics though...

It would be a great roleplaying environment for people doing BSDM, wanting to play slaves...


I could have sworn that Ragnarok Online was inspired via a comic inspired itself by Norse (Viking) mythology, and that the game is played by around 25 million..

Vikings (which then meant pirates not the Norse) did not just raid Northern Europe, they settled in the mediterranean, brought to Northern Europe dragonhead symbolism (purportedly from the Sythians around 5th C),rediscovered and settled in Greenland and North America, gave Russia its name (debatedly), and served in the Varangian guard (Byzantium) as mercenaries.

And even today there are still stories of blue eyed people around the Caspian and in Turkey. Oh and they conquered Sicily and Naples. I think it is fair to say their lives had a touch of excitement, they traded with, settled, fought, extended and explored most of the known world. Can we add as Viking inventions, democracy, the keel, soap (in Europe), a sun stone (http://www.physorg.com/news91798327.html), pizza and the telescope?

Perhaps Richard blames them for introducing the UK to a national census based taxation system :)


Yup, Erik!

I spent a couple of weeks this year trying to figure out if a norse-based virtual world was feasible. I've read that the norwegian government does fund pre-production of games (like they fund norwegian movies) that take up norwegian culture, so it isn't far fetched either. The core idea would be to have it semi-authentic and fun, and then provide pop-ups with authentic information, photos, facts etc that players can look at to learn more about the real vikings and their lives.

The challenge will be to have it authentic enough for viking-fans to appreciate it (they would form a solid base for a community and probably put in a lot of effort as volunteers.) and still keep it fun. That's not a small challenge, though...

Some challenges:

1. You cannot have vikings without slaves. Getting enough players to play slaves would be difficult... and well, prisoners of war would be slaves. I suspect they would object to that... ;-) Sure, one can make a half-assed attempt and let most slaves be muffled NPCs.

2. What to do with valhalla... It's a one-way trip. You shouldn't be able to go back, and the way there would be death. I guess you could have some very original mechanics here. One solution would be to let the dead stay with the Gods and have fun there, then trickle down XP to other characters that are still alive. People of your house, for instance. Or let the achievements of the dead influence the Gods who might in turn assist the living with lightning etc.

3. You cannot have a proper viking game without differentiating between men and women. That would be plain silly. Not a big challenge, I think most players would appreciate that. Actually.

You also don't have to stick to the most well-known. You could bring in other old tales from the geographic areas that vikings either lived in or visited as Erik points out. And a lot of the things we know about that time and their mythology is very fuzzy, so you can spin a lot around what is known without compromising the original universe they lived in.

A Viking MMO could be done, and done well, but if you can't do it well, then maybe it isn't worth doing at all...


Erik/Ola: What about a Norse game that included elements of reality (for the historically inclined) and myth?


Andy, I think a realistic Norse game designed as a proper roleplaying game could be lots of fun for enthusiasts, but you can't be too realistic given the repetitive and pointless hardships that would imply. (repetitive, pointless, hardships... the grind? Oh, the irony.)

The myths were perceived as real in their time, so I think including the myths would be proper, even in a "realistic" cultural simulation. Don't you agree?

If the historically inclined can LARP it (and they do), then they certainly can VWRP/OARP/MMORP it too... ;-)


Ola/Andy I do agree.
The big questions would be:
--is it to be educational?
--can it be counterfactual?
-how much playtime must it provide to be a successful VWRP/OARP/MMORP?
-->there are quite a few Norse museums/cult organizations that could be approached, I believe there are also full scale virtual and real reconstructions of Viking buildings, for example, that could be employed, augmented avatars in the Norse open air museums, navigable virtual viking ships on giant maps of the world (I recall a cult 3D demo that could have been taken further). I was asked (last decade!) to be part of these projects by a tourism academic who wanted to set up viking cruise tours with the Centre for Regional and Tourism Research, Bornholm--not sure what happened there. He had another interesting project-to think up how to use acres of abandonded Russian (even nuclear) submarines for tourism. He showed me pictures of them, wallowing in the docks..I digress..back to Vikings.

As to details:
-thralls (slaves) were allowed to work for themselves (grind!) to buy their own freedom. Or their (gradual) freedom could be bought by others.
-Valhalla was an eternal arena where warriors are continually restored after battle, perhaps after a particularly glorious sortie the gods allowed them to visit Middle Earth to create a child who carries on their lineage?
-Providing enough interesting roles for female characters would be an interesting challenge.
-Would be great to try to virtually recreate sunstones (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6338535.stm) but what game engine could simulate the polarization in realtime and online?

Back to fantasy, the Hobbit and LOTR is so full of Norse mythology, a better question could be would fantasy be so popular if the Norse influence never existed?
Ref: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3760/is_200207/ai_n9115801/pg_1
NB they seem to imply Beowulf is English (in a way, yes) but it was actually written about the Norse (Geats, Danes).
NB2 there is also the controversy over Viking involvement in a transcontinental slave trade.
I am by no means an expert in that issue but it could certainly create some fiery gameplay debate amongst players!




-thralls (slaves) were allowed to work for themselves (grind!) to buy their own freedom. Or their (gradual) freedom could be bought by others.

Not so sure about that. Though, it might vary over time and from place to place. Even after Christianity the owner was in his right to kill a slave, but if he didn't make it public knowledge within a day he would be considered a murderer. I guess they assumed that the social stigma would be sufficient to ensure a "reasonable death". The owner probably had the right to sexually exploit unmarried slaves... The slave could be released by his owner if he so choosed, but he would still not be a free man. He would be labeled as "released", not free, and so would his children. Only the third generation would be considered free, and thus be given the rights of a citizen... At least according to some of the laws. Though, you might argue that it was better to be a slave with a good owner than to starve to death during winter, which probably was the alternative in certain parts of Norway. It is quite obvious to me that the lives of slaves could be so harsh and different from those that were free that society needed to establish near unsurpassable borders between free and non-free, to justify it. Three generations, what a border. A game could probably deviate from this though... ;-)


Oh, when I come to think of it. I believe norwegian telecom had some kind of educational norse 3D virtual world project going. For school children. I've seen papers on it somewhere...

And, Erik, yes I think the main problem is to choose between educational and counter-factual... If you choose the latter it would have to be so fantastic and unreal that you communicate that this is supposed to be "wrong".

If I made it educational, then I think perhaps I would go with 2D, not 3D. The way it is now, 3D graphics are expensive to develop, and looks dated in 2 years. With 2D you can go for a truly artistic style which is based upon authentic ornaments and the graphics won't look dated... (well, it might, but it'll be 1000 years out of date which is a good thing ;-)

In the end it is probably a lot easier to create a fun game that focus on the norse-universe in the more abstract sense. E.g. captures their belief systems, use symbols correctly etc. Then provide the educational material in a more traditional manner. True to the spirit rather than true to their lives.


I used this quote in another thread, but thought it would fit better here. This is from Guy Gavriel Kay, assistant to Christopher Tolkien in the editing of The Silmarillion and author of some of the best recent fantasy literature.

"Fantasy fiction occupies an uneasy niche these days. Certain forms of it - the sort the Sunday Times once memorably called 'saga puddings' - sell volume after volume ... after volume. These works, hugely successful as they are, have a downside: they shape the perception of a genre.

Fantasy is usually seen as escapist fiction and that is most often meant as a criticism. Fantasy readers escape from the responsibility of reality, the allegation goes, hiding from the real world amid dragons and magic, broadswords and broads with swords.

Fantasy has the capacity to be as important and as thought-provoking as any other form of literature we have. Indeed, in some ways, the journeys and motifs of classic fantasy can come closer to mirroring the inner journey of the human spirit than almost anything else. The patterns of myth, folklore, archetype and fairy tale embedded in such works are time-honored and immensely powerful, and fantasy can tap more directly into these ancient wells than just about anything else: they are the core elements of the genre."

Only a small percentage of fantasy novels reach the level of literature as most are just fun escapes or fire side pastimes. Does this also apply to the current state of Fantasy MMOs? Is this what's missing to let us take the next step into something more moving and immersive?


Ola: Of course, even a perfectly realistic Norse sim would have to involve religion from the point of view of the effects it has on individuals, groups and the society (and its relationships with other cultures). What I meant, was that the game could allow for mythological activities that are part of the game; players playing gods, etc.


Andy: Ah, well... I don't think it would be a great idea to have regular players play Odin, Thor etc. Gods are Gods because they are out of reach? The moment I know Peter Smith is playing Odin and is enacting stuff that isn't covered by the mythology... Wouldn't the immersion break? He'd become Peter Smith dressed up as Odin.

I suppose you could create a fantasy MMO which was inspired by the mythology, like sacrificing parts of your body in return for powers... But, I dislike the idea that players can change the mythology. I doubt enthusiasts would enjoy it. The actions of Gods ought to be a team effort, carefully orchestrated, IMO.


Slaves also won their freedom by fighting off invaders so I think we should agree to disagree.
Also, Odin and Loki often appeared in human form, leaving others with the question, "were they..?"


"Why was Magic the gathering more popular than the Star Wars CCG? No idea really, it just was."

*COugh* *cough* *cOUgh* What?? Hope you were being sarcastic.


Why Fantasy? Here's my 2 cents:

1. Mass market appeal. Successful franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek, Narnia, etc. popularized fantasy in the public mind's eye. Sci-fi isn't nearly as popular as Fantasy right now. It's therefore logical that MMO investors/developers tend to prefer the Fantasy setting in hopes of capturing a larger audience.

2. Ease of content creation. Fantasy is little more than amalgation of history and myth. Both are abundant, varied, and copyright-free. The developers just need to take the existing material and mix-and-match it in any way they like to create a (somewhat) original Fantasy world. Considering the great number of peoples on Earth with their own distinct history and mythology, the combinations are nearly limitless.

Put simply, Fantasy is the world's biggest free content development library that draws on the combined experience and imagination of all the peoples of the world across all of history. It comprises art, architecture, dress, social order, warfare, religion, fiction, and much, much more.

It should be noted that many MMOs (WoW most notably) rely heavily on large amounts of varied content to retain customers for an extended period of time. In a sense, players consume the content over time by experiencing it. When the content runs out, players leave. It is therefore paramount for the survival of such an MMO to have LOTS of content and keep adding more. Fantasy is the easiest way of doing it. Done the Tolkienesque theme already? Throw in some Greek, Japanese, or African stuff or any combination thereof. It's easy, and you don't have to struggle to invent much, if anything, new.

Contrast this with some other settings:

Sci-fi: Limitless content possibilities, but you either have to invent it all yourself or use unexciting generics (laser pew-pew some implausible cyber-organic meat factory reject monstrocity in a Martian strip mine... yawn). Your other option is to pay for intellectual property use rights, as most existing non-generic content is copyrighted. If you do pay for licenses, you still can't mix and match freely. Jedi vs. Aliens? I don't think so. How many distinct alien lifeform designs can you imagine? How many are not copyrighted? By contrast, how many Fantasy monsters can you think of? I bet it's a lot more, and and they are all free to use.

Historical/Modern: The content is strictly limited by reality checks. No intellectual propery issues.

Superhero: Some intellectual property issues and canon restrictions. Other than that, faitly rich content possibilities.

3. Magic. Magic is the ultimate suspension of disbelief mechanism. And games (that are by their nature heavily abstracted) require a lot of suspension of disbelief. Why is this skeleton walking around without the benefit of any apparent motor mechanism? Magic! How is it possible for a humble parish priest to bring my battered corpse back to life... again and again? Magic! Why is this sword glowing, and why is it 100x times more effective for killing enemies than another sword? Magic! What is the justification for balls of fire manifesting out of nothing and striking my enemeis? Magic!

All other setting besides Fantasy require you either to explain any implausible phenomena via semi-plausible fiction (I fell into a vat of radioactive stuff and the cell mutation gave me super-powers!), stick to quasi-realistic gameplay (Zulu warrior's spear hits you in the stomach. you die. Play another solder Y/N?), or leave the game's abstractions unexplained in an unstatisfactory manner (I got blown to pieces by an artillery shell, but the squad medic patched me right up!).

4. Familiarity and market dominance. Evereybody knows what they are getting. The most successful MMOs to date are Fantasy-themed (WoW most notably). Investors want to invest in what has proven to be successful. Developers are beholden to investors and have a ready Fantasy MMO template to work with. Gamers have enjoyed Everquest and bought the (quite similar) World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings. They would buy WoW#2 in a snap. Basically, Fantasy MMOs, as represented by WoW, are the dogma, the staple, the box. Everyone is making them because everyone is playing them... and vice versa.


I would wander into behavioral science to give a partial answer to this one.

I would argue that in modernized countries where fantasy is the popular genre of choice over Sci-fi it is because actual society and daily habits have moved away from the physical. Oftentimes a person will spend their entire day at their desk and the only physically tangible result is a paper report that you printed off the computer (and most of the time you don't even hold it). A large majority of the people in the United States are overweight, under-exercised, and spend most of their day inside.

To this kind of person, the very physical and raw nature of fantasy appeals. Swinging a giant sword or running into combat with hundreds of other warriors is very physical and very direct. The person has an immediate and decernable impact on the world around them (Who dies, who lives).

Sci-Fi does not hold this appeal because of the way it is constructed. A lot of the sci-fi material is cerebral - not physical. Knowledge of computers, correct use of firmarms, etc. Even shooting a gun is somewhat removed from actually killing someone in consumerist minds. You just point and pull the trigger.

So you could boil my argument down to - as people become more physically inactive - the physicality of the fantasy setting will become more appealing.


Fantasy is universal.

Born from mythology, myth, folklore, and legend– the modern day fantasy setting provides the most basic environment that can be universally shared (and understood) throughout most cultures, languages, and nationalities on the planet. Outside of mathematics, I believe that the “fantasy world” offers the next best unifying language, set of rules, and basic experiences that can be understood almost intuitively by all players. Even within different age groups.

Last but not least, Fantasy, at its very heart is simple.

SciFi/Future/Outer Space

Future Technology isn’t universal. Whether you use a transporter, lasers, proton torpedoes, nanotech, or even warp engines in this setting – they all have to be explained and taught.

Understanding technology, human evolution, the universe, and any other modernistic theme in general…. Require a certain level of education, and cooperation, from the consumer at the very beginning, just to get started.

Tired of Fantasy?

Try a historical time period instead. Create a Western World (American West), or re-create the age of enlightenment with 1700’s technology – Ships of the Line, Cannon, Basic Chemistry and Math.

Games based in the future – technology games – will never be mass market, at least not any time soon.


>> 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.

There is an element of individuality in fantasy mmorpgs that is less apparent in Science Fiction. Great heroes learnt at the feet of mysterious hermits and wielded wargear no less in fame (swords forged by three-fingered smiths, quenched in the undying heat of demon ichor, etc).

Somehow the appeal of being another faceless redshirt, one among the thousands wielding generic blasters made in their millions by automated factories does not quite strike the fancy.


"Sci-fi has beat this problem, in fact Star Wars did it very well."

Star Wars is very definitely not Science Fiction. Fantasy in futuristic clothing maybe . . .

My two cents on the overall topic:
Standard fantasy is medieval technology + magic.

The medieval technology provides familiarity, so players know how the game will work. Why is a greatsword better than a short sword? Well obviously it's a hell of a lot heavier, so does more damage etc. Why is a laser rifle better than a phaser? Uhhh.

The magic provides the fantasy (without some sort of power fantasy fulfilment the current crop of MMOs would fall flat), additional wish fulfilment and good justification for some of the mechanics that smooth out the gameplay (fast healing, movement and the like).

Incidentally, has anyone seen a Sci-fi MMO that had a compelling, well-themed melee component at the core of its gameplay?


In books and role playing games, the 'dark urban fantasy' subgenre is producing a world setting that seems to be approaching the popularity of the elves/dwarves/pseudo medieval sword fighting style of fantasy of D&D that is the standard MMO setting based on a combination of sword&sorcery with epic Tolkien derived style.

This would be the modern day level alternative world setting, with vampires, werewolves, were-other-animals, and whatever other supernatural types the author puts in (fairies, ghosts, sidhe style elves, demons, etc). Pretty much anything you would've found in a White Wolf 'world of darkness' game, it seems like.

Computer games attempted in this setting haven't done well, though.


My two cents on the overall topic:
Require a certain level of education, and cooperation, from the consumer at the very beginning, just to get started.http://www.wowgolds.us


Incidentally, has anyone seen a Sci-fi MMO that had a compelling, well-themed melee component at the core of its gameplay?

Some of the melee items in AO were well-themed and compelling as in "funny"...


It's odd when people on different planets somehow find themselves staring through their telescopes right into each other's telescope.

David Brin is on his blog asking

(scroll down a bit to it)

Still, if the signs are valid (e.g. the surge in feudal fantasy), then we may be in big, big trouble

'Course that alone isn't enough of a coincidence to start believing in the supernatural... but just to be sure you TNs realize it's YOU he is talking to, there's this:

Following the above section, in the same post:


Any of you out there good at a little quick, online research? I need an estimate of the approximate market size - both gross and net - for the following industries:

* Social networking sites

* Virtual/ avatar worlds

* Business "meetingware"

* Networked online games

Bet if you could give him a hand with that, you might be able to spy on his thoughts for a minute, too.


I suspect that it has more to do with realising a sci-fi setting that all it's users would appreciate than for any other reason. In broad terms 'fantasy' can be fairly generic - an elf is an elf, an orc is an orc. It's quite an imaginative leap between LotR and, say, Discworld, but there are enough points of similarity for people to understand what they're involved in. But to create a credible sci-fi world would require real effort. Space-opera, cyberpunk, post-apocalypse? Do you brand your creation by using a recognised setting (the universes of Dune, Known Space or the Culture rather than Star Wars which seems to have no obviously defined limits) or borrow from all sources and hope no one sues? I play WoW, but know nothing about the original game nor its sequels, however I'm comfortable with the game world and am 'familiar' with its content.

If a non-Star Wars sci-fi game (using interface mechanics such as those of WoW) offered a universe to explore I'd sign up immediately. Myself I wouldn't mind exploring Known Space or the Culture, but a whole new universe would appeal just as much.


Tolkien or Brothers Grimm or german folktales is a matter of going back through influences and through many instances of Whys. I think this strongly points towards something in our brains that just makes us like Fantasy.

My suspicion is: our brains go through earlier cultural states as we grow to adults, just as our body goes through evolutionary states in the uterus.

I think that in a critical state of conciousness and when our flavour develops, we are in a moment that we already try to understand the world around us and are so to speak in a kind of »natural religion« state of mind where magic and ghosts starts to exist. Maybe that's the reason Fairytales work so well in our childhoods, as they match with the state of mind we are in.

This may teach us something before scientific knowledge about e.g. why there is Thunder kicks in. When it's the case that fantasy is the first flavour our brain tastes, this would probably stick lifelong.

Another model which may work well with this could be C.G. Jungs Archetypes.

Natural belief is mostly a kind of exaggerating objections. Humans with their strenght and weakness projected to a higher scale so that they can be gods (or heroes?). Or snakes exaggerated so that they can be dragons. Somewhere in that corner. The suspected motive is that it helped humans to get a sort of control over the things they don't know or understand.

Also look at »Name it and you Control it« Scheme in tales and magic (e.g. Rumpelstiltskin)


It's all about the busty wenches. Space hos are just too in your face. Or blue.


Sorry for the double post!

But I also like to add that people with beards naturally gravitate to characters who are also bearded. For the bearded majority of boys and girls who play MMOs that means fantasy.

Beards are much rarer in space. I don't know why but Richard I think the beard discrepencies in Fantasy/Space MMOs is key to the answer.

I mean, I know it is.

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