Wil’s got a good post up Is There Hope for a Science Fiction MMORPG?
Started a long answer there a couple of times, but punted and finally made it into a post. I’ve mused on this area before, but Wil and the commenters bring up good stuff.
Short answer: no. Not for pure SF. And not if you are looking for a “classic” MMORPG character-centric experience (intrinsic growth, progression, etc. = skills, powers, etc. versus extrinsic growth or progression = buy a bigger ship, blaster etc.). Pure SF is focused too much on the realm of the near-possible or plausible technology. As we race into the future, we are culturally tailgating pure SF. At some point we must whip into the fast lane and speed past “old” SF giving it the finger as we zip by. Pure SF seems to have a “sell by” date after which, as you point out, it becomes silly. Sillier even than this comment…
Fantasy tends to build upon those culturally resonant archetypes that live in our collective consciousness, literary history, myths, legends, movies, television and now the games we play. They almost always exist in the past or at least a “never[exists]land” and as such are never overtaken by our cultural progress. Most of these themes, archetypes, etc. have grown out of us over the last hundred thousand years or so. We bring most of these to a game even before we click play.
As Rodin mentioned, so-called Science Fantasy straddles the line. In my view, all the most-popular SF (Fiction or Fantasy, you choose) like Star Trek, Star Wars, SG, BG, etc. More closely resemble fantasy than SF.
In these, you’ll find all the character-centricity you need to make a compelling story. The setting (the technology) is incidental to the story rather than the focus. When you start throwing in goofy aliens with weird “powers” (or Chicago mobsters, or Nazis, or mutants, or ….) you are starting to get awfully close to reskinning fantasy in space. And honestly, thats not necessarily bad.
Science Fantasy succeeds where Science Fiction fails because it simply tells character-centric stories better. No one really cares whether or how I can commute to work over the crowded highways in my gyrocopter… People will care about a character that can participate in some facsimile of one or many of Polti’s 36 dramatic situations.
Too often pure SF is more about the idea and not the character, or if about the character, it has a dependency on a technological element that is both critical to the story and too susceptible to being over taken by our headlong technological rush into the future potentially rendering the dramatic heart of the story irrelevant or to quote Wil, downright silly. Its much easier to keep our disbelief suspended when we’re talking about the Force in another galaxy than to disregard what have become now-glaring factual inaccuracies (or implausibilities) in light of scientific advance. FTL travel or the gravity problem anyone?
SF that merely amplifies the everyman (pewpew) may be a great setting for a shooter, but doesn’t allow a player to be the center of his or her own story, IMHO. TR seems to be in a bit of a netherworld of both (pewpew + logos). Likewise in Eve, no matter how many skills I learn or how cool a ship I acquire, I don’t feel that identity with a character that I do in most fantasy MMOs. If you lose your top of the line ship, you can still get podkilled by a noob in a rookie ship. Doesn’t mean its not good gameplay, I just don’t feel very special. They tend to lack the transcendence that seems inherent to classic story telling.
Not that I don’t want a great SF MMORPG, but as we are always careening into the near future, I fear the cultural relevance of most SF expires before it can deeply seep into the cultural consciousness like most of the myths upon which fantasy draws.