- [The sixth in a ragged series of 'Alex Handy Sez' missives, in which the former Game Developer editor and current Gamasutra contributor riffs on something or other, focuses on his dismal predictions for the current subscription-based MMO crop.]

Last week was a brutal time for fantasy MMOs. It all began with Yahtzee's preview of Tabula Rasa, Richard Garriott's MMO magnum opus. Naturally, Mr. Zero Punctuation presented the game as being somewhat lame. But in hindsight, that's the nicest possible outcome for the title, as its in-development cohorts have been dropping like flies, lately.

Take Perpetual's Gods and Heroes. It was basically WoW, but everyone could have up to 8 pets at a time. Based on Roman and Greek mythology, it was just another fantasy game where you start out fighting skeletons, rats, and wolves with toggle-based attacks. Woop-di-do! Is it any wonder this title has been all but canceled? Just when Perpetual was about to open up its Beta to outsiders, they shelved the whole world, in favor of concentrating on the Star Trek MMO which they've gotten the license for.

Meanwhile, Electronic Arts' troubles in the MMO world continue with the halting of the Warhammer Online beta. I actually pestered the EA folks for admission into this beta so that I could write it up for a new British PC gaming magazine. But I was abruptly told that they'd get back to me each time.

I saw this game at an EA Editors' Day a year or so ago, and the thing that struck me the most about it was how much it appeared influenced by WoW. OK, it's a game about humans and orcs and elves all trying to kill each other, and the real goal is to rebuild Dark Age of Camelot in the WoW model: PvP uber alles. But if you're saddled with a license that looks so much like all the other fantasy games out there, you really can't go using symbols and gameplay ideas without modifying them just a little.

When I got my hands on this one, the first thing I saw was the orc I was controlling. The second thing I saw was a shaman-like character off in the distance, near a tent, with a yellow exclamation point over his head. When I talked to him, I got a quest, and it turned into a hollow question mark. Then I had to go talk to another guy with an exclamation point in order to complete my quest. Then, I headed outside and found.... wolves, rats, spiders, and skeletons. Sigh...

Is it really so hard to come up with good new ideas in MMOs? This is the 1983 of MMOs, it would seem: the hardcore, subscription-based MMO market is flooded with 'me-too' titles, and even the forthcoming games in the pipeline are seemingly utter crap of the same variety.

The real draw of these games is the social aspect - people play WoW with their friends. Playing alone is boring. So why can't someone take the social aspect and make it more important? Rather than just slathering EverQuest with a new coat of paint and polygons, why can't we have MMOs that are focused entirely on the social interaction and cooperation? Right now, the most we get in this reguard is the party system, and the ability to cast buffs or healing spells on one another. Sure, it's fun and it works now, but it really doesn't feel fresh in any way.

At least Blizzard realized when it began that if it kept the initial design and features somewhat sparse, it could add complexity later. That's why they have a low level cap and so few races and classes. Unlike Vanguard, a game with so many combinations of character classes and races that it's tough to figure out what the point of any of them are - and is another doomed fantasy MMO... where does the future lie for this genre?