Putting Drama in Superhero MMos

A column article, Mission: Professional by: Steven Savage

Last column I discussed the limits of Superhero MMOs - and their surprising triumphs.  But, I figure we shouldn't let game designers rest on their laurels, and there's a lot that needs to be done in Superhero MMOs . . .

One of the problems of implementing a Superhero MMO is implementing the parts beyond beating people up - the great, dramatic, soap opera crazy that is such a delightful part of comics.  Superman is less interesting without Lois, Peter Parker without the loss of Uncle Ben, there's Batman's continuing relationship with . . .  er, guys in tights, a woman dressed as a cat, and the butler.

These aren't easy to put into MMOs.  Really, people rely on other players to provide drama if wanted, though some of that is of the "WNT GLD?  GO TO WWW.RIPOFFSITEOBVIOUS.COM PLZ" which isn't quite what you are looking for.

In a game, it's obvious you can put in some drama code-wise (which is one reason so many RPGs now feel like datesims), and I'd say since drama is a necessary part of the superhero genre, it should be worked into the game mechanics.  It's been done - you just have to do it right.

Here's what I'd add to give superhero MMO's a super dramatic punch.

First and foremost, have damn good writing.  I've seen praise for DCUO on the little character vignettes that accompany the end of many missions.  Get real writers to help write content.  Fortunately it seems a lot of game companies get this.

The game has got to be personalized, you have to make people feel the results, be that emotional impact or game stats.  Even using a character's name or seeing his/her/its victories played on a  Jumbotron over a city square personalizes it.  Seeing nonplayer characters insult them for a mistake brings home failures - and emotional tie-ins.

Make sure whatever plots you have that the players get - and make - choices that have definite repercussions.  Consider some of the following:

  • In a team adventure, a player can sacrifice themselves to give the team an edge - but are removed from that adventure (which nicely makes players have to work together) and loses out on the benefits.
  • Give players a chance to save someone but the villain escapes - increasing fame but meaning a showdown that's sure to come (say, the villain randomly appears in an upcoming adventure).  Make it a tradeoff.
  • Allow failure - and recovery.  If you botch a mission you can choose how to recover.  This gets even more meaningful when the escaped villain from the last point shows up to ruin your day.

You have to make the NPCs come to life for people - that means good writing, good acting, and good gameplay.  It may help if characters get personalized NPCs involved in their adventures - perhaps they get to select them ("Hmmm, cute alien sidekick with healing powers or sexy reporter who gives me clues").  Oh, and be sure to have them get kidnapped, have plots, etc.

A friend who writes and translates RPGs showed me how games could implement relations as rules - something I'd liked, but hadn't always been sure of.  A good game can actually make relationships rules that affects gameplay - and thus add to the drama.

Imagine if you join a in-game team - and can select a Role on the team.  Are you the Hothead (bonuses to combat but not to support), the Leader (The team's bonuses decrease as more leaders are added), the Conscience, etc.  These roles would unlock certain options and adventures (and limit others), and maybe some "solo" missions are only available to certain types.

Or perhaps you can designate relations with other players that are rule-ified.  You can designate a rival and that opens special options for victory and failure as you compete.  You can get a Lover, and you get bonuses while working together.

This could be done terribly wrong - but done right it could be amazing.

"If you keep asking me to be your Rival I'm gonna declare you my Nemesis!"

So you play a game and you select some powers or a class or an archetype or something then go beat up criminal ninja robots.  What if we added another trait?

What if you selected a Personality?

Imagine as you game you make certain choices, this affects the character's Personality, which has in-game applications.  The Avenger get options to kill enemies that mean certain contact shun her.  The Paragon of Virtue never kills enemies, leading to special complications.

The Personality becomes a filter on the world, changing the experience, the options, the adventures.  Perhaps there's even a special high-level adventure based on personality, where the Avenger joins a secret group of vigilantes, or the Joyrider gets invited to the ultimate extra-dimensional club.

It means that even with the same powers and abilities, a different Personality means a different game, and the game has more drama and impact.

(City of heroes had some elements like this with their later expansions)

Now think of combining all of these things.  Imagine good writing in a superhero RPG where  a selected Personality gives you different options for NPC's to help you (and they may leave or arrive).  Imagine a personality dynamic for a team that plays into different game options ("If you have the Hothead personality, you get a chance for a solo adventure -at the cost of your team").

Drama?  You've got it in your Superhero MMO.

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