Earlier this week I visited the Guardian website, and I found this post by Aleks Krotoski.
Now I've been playing online games for many moons now and have tried many of the game offerings that are on the market and I don't argee that all MMO games are Orc and Spaceship based, many are but not all. Also I feel that the reasons for so many fantasy-based games originates in the model, the gaming industry inherited.
First let us look at the alternatives that are about on the market for people to play:
Planetside is a 'true' MMOFPS, admittedly a bit long in the tooth now, yet it doesn't use instanced maps like many of the recent games plus it's not full of orcs or spaceships (yet).
Also under SOE are Star Wars galaxies and Matrix online, again these games aren't swimming with Orcs, although elements of SWG have space combat. SOE's Everquest and Vanguard cater for the fantasy genre.
There is also the 'City of' games (heroes/villains) that are based around a comic book theme.
About to arrive on the scene is Tabula Rasa, while not everyone's cup of tea, it uses the tried and tested missions & kills = xp = levels, plus it's got guns and aliens. A break from the normal fantasy genre to Sci-fi but the underlying game structure is the same, just with a different skin.
It's apparent that many MMO games are based around the old D&D style of play. Hence it was an easier progression from turn based (paper and pencil) to real-time (mouse and keyboard) play styles. World of Warcraft captures the imagination of the old D&D players, while EVE expands on that old classic 'Elite'.
Old games become new games just with prettier graphics and newer interfaces but the basis of the games remains the same, become the best.
I believe there are 2 types of MMO game, those based around progression/levels and those that are not.
The level based games are the most common as the publishers can ensure a player is likely to remain playing for a long period, thus generating more money, because lets face it, it all comes down to money at the end of the day.
The other type of game is going to be the easiest to fit into multiple genres. As there is no progression it's not going to be something people are going to part with money to play on a subscription basis, nor is it likely to retain player interrest for a long period.
Ok, I know there are some exceptions to this grouping, like level based Guild Wars which is not subscription based, yet still retains a large player base.
Levels should be easy to start and get progressively harder the higher you rise. The top level shouldn't be too easily obtainable to keep players in a state of progression for longer.
The game developer has be careful not to make progression too taxing, making players 'grind' up the levels, can destroy any good feelings towards the game from players and they will end up swapping to another game.
On the other hand make it too easy and the top level status has less appeal when a new player can obtain max level by continued playing.
So in conclusion, until new methods of leveling are realised and tested, there is unlikely to be a massive break from the traditional methods used to retain players (leveling). Additionally the fantasy genre works exceptionally well with this format and I think that until the former changes the latter's dominance over MMO's won't budge.