The MMO industry has long established a majority rule for fantasy. Role-playing games are what started this whole business, and so fantasy is the comfort zone, the cozy chair that many of us pull up to at the end of a long day. In recent years, however, the industry has taken a turn down niche streets, little suburbs away from the fantasy metropolis. Science fiction was a natural progression (visit any bookstore and see the lack of distinction between the two genres in fiction), but we've now turned to first- and third-person shooters set from crime-ridden cities to apocalyptic wastelands and sending superheroes off in spandex.
Even all of these samples mentioned above are still expected extensions of the MMO industry because of their familiarity to other gamers. They are genres common in PC and console gaming; stories and methods of game play common to the industry as a whole. It isn't a surprise that gamers interested in fantasy or sci-fi may also have their superhero crush; or that action based gamers love the intensity of a shooter even in a more massive setting. The industry is now slowly creeping its tendrils out to even smaller sub-genres among gamers, seeking to answer the question: “What else can be made into an MMO?”
One of the more prominent “new markets” for MMOs is historical simulators. These are games focused on highlighting and reenacting historical battles, usually of the World War eras, and typically involve vehicular combat. Tanks (World of Tanks), ships (Navyfield) and airplanes (Heroes in the Sky) are the character of choice in these games, and character improvement focuses on tricking out your Sherman and adding guns to your Flying Fortress. It's only a matter of time before either may add the dreaded “underwater level” and throw submarines into the mix. These games seem to pull their punches, however, in avoiding too much faction allegiance and warfare; they also spend too much time focusing on one vehicle. Combine vehicle choices, give players multiple options and allow true player controlled land, sea, and air combat combined together on the same battlefield.
Arcade games, too, are coming to life in the massive online industry. Shmups (Shoot 'em Ups) are a classic style of video game hailing back to the arcades of yore, and Valkyrie Sky tries to meld online gaming with bullet hells. There are, of course, the brawlers as well: Dungeon Fighter Online, Mini Fighter, and Grand Chase just to name a few. These aim to recreate the side-scrolling, punch-kicking, button-mashing, joystick-jerking goodness of games like Kung-Fu Master, Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Golden Axe. If you don't have a controller to hook up for these, your keyboard will hate you.
Sports are also making headway. There's basketball (FreeStyle Street Basketball), baseball (MLB Dugout Heroes), golf (Shot Online and Pangya), snowboarding (Project Powder), tennis (Fantasy Tennis), and football (Quick Hit Football), with soccer (FIFA Online) to soon be added to the mix. Racers, too, are starting to make their way to the online world; thankfully, they're growing up from Racing Star: Come On Baby to Need For Speed World. Many of these games are perfect for casual players: while the players who put in hours every day are rewarded, it's easy for people who just want to game once in a while to pick up where they left off and play a few games to satisfy the urge.
Reaching for the final stretch are the “true” simulators. Included in this small sub-genre are two games (or at least, were two). CitiesXL strove to be a massively multi-player city simulator, where players could build their cities, and then interconnect them through online means for trade. This didn't end up succeeding nearly as well as CitiesXL had hoped; only a few months after their launch, Monte Cristo turtled CitiesXL back into its single-player shell and shut down the multi-player portion (thought it kept its online portal). But where CitiesXL failed, the business simulator game Business Tycoon Online has thrived. Since opening in the West – after already posing major success in terms of player numbers in the East - the game has opened several new servers. Although it seems “managing a business” falls right into the line of boredom for some and Facebook-fodder for others, BTO has done a relatively decent job at making an MMO of something generally mundane.
Things get weirder than that, however. Take Husky Express, for example (a game I may secretly want to make its way West). Husky Express has players manage their dogs from breeding, raising puppies, and training to establishing a perfect gangline for sled racing. If you think raising animals is odd for an MMO, don't be surprised – kids have been raising horses for a few years in Horse Isle (without the breeding aspect). The East has a similar game called Alicia, which does allow for horse breeding and is fully 3D. Speaking of breeding, there are sex MMOs out there too – games like 3Feel, Utherverse, Red Light Social Center. Put the two together and you get Furcadia (which, admittedly, is not all about yiffing, but certainly acts as a hub for it).
And that's just what's already out there. What of the market lies yet untapped?
One type of game I'm missing from the MMO genre (besides horror themed; there's awfully few of those and none are great) is the platformer. Yep, you heard me right: I want to see 2D and 3D double-jumping to just barely miss that platform that's surrounded by a spike pit. Allow me a flashback: a few years ago, when World of Warcraft still smelled like vanilla, a few of my family members decided they'd like to play with me. In Wailing Caverns, my mom plopped like a rock from the yet-to-be extended jump not once, not twice, but thrice; in Blackfathom Deeps, the curses flew on Vent as various family members failed consistently at the little platforming puzzle just past the entrance. I want to hear the swears and indignation as players fail over and over again at making that stupid little jump, even aware that I'll be one of them.
Even a rail shooter, like House of the Dead could find itself an interesting MMO. Strategy RPGs could lend themselves to an underused concept as well. Revisit the 3D brawlers like the Dynasty/Samurai Warriors series. Drop in a true survival horror game, where staying alive, rather than killing, is the goal. These might have some major development issues behind them, sure, but the result, if done well, would be refreshing.
Why can't our popular genre's of gaming extend to an MMO format, then? Wouldn't Katamari Damacy grant itself an amusing (albeit impractical) MMO? Therein lies the main problem for most companies: practicality. However, as recent releases have shown, more and more companies are willing to take a risk and present something outside the norm. With time, and continued thought and development, I'm sure more exploration could be had into the world of MMO gaming, and the players would benefit most from it.