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Origin-Ality in Superhero MMOs

A column article, Mission: Professional by: Steven Savage

Last week I looked at how superhero MMOs could program in character interactions and drama without too much effort.  Now I'm going to look at the most forgotten (or glossed over) part of superherodom in the MMO scene.

The origin.

Pretty much superhero games are 1) put together a character, 2) run a tutorial, 3) welcome to the world.  DCU online did try and create a common origin for characters due to the machinations of Braniac and Lex Luthor (who still won't admit their love), but it was the same origin.

No, if you want the superhero feel, you've got to have the origin be part of the game.

What is Batman without his dead parents and his drive?  What is Thor without Asgard?  What is Booster Gold without the world's least secure museum?  Nothing - no drama, no plots, nothing personal.

(As you'll note, that's one of my continuing themes on improving MMOs - making them personal).

So how do we work origins into superhero MMOs beyond filling in a text box or giving everyone a hit with the Same Origin Stamp?

Why, I'm glad you asked:

Dropdowns Abound:
It really wouldn't take much to have a few selections for a character's origins to let them pick a background.  A few dropdowns/sliders/etc. would let people get a basic profile together, even if they might sound like a single's ad "He's a mutant from a family of mutants who enjoys stalking the night and fighting the extra-dimensional forces of D.A.R.K. Fall."

Different Tutorials:
A simple way to do this is give a few possible origins (I'd say 5-7) that give people different tutorial levels.  Imagine a choice of Vigilante (start with your first mission on the streets), Mutant Discovery (outrun an anti-mutant group), Creation of Science (woah, what happened to this lab?), and so on.  These origins will at least give your players a different feel for the characters, and can have some impact on the game later.

Make Origins Matter:
Now you've got a feel for origins, be it some choices or a tutorial, or both.  Now make them matter in the game.

These choices should have impact in game rules.  Just a few thoughts:

  • If your character has a kind of vigilante origin/motivation they might get bonuses to fighting certain kinds of criminals ("Fists: +5 versus Scums and Lowlives")
  • If your character is some Mutant On The Run (really, can we get over that comics-wise?), then they might get extra skills to blending/socializing ("The third eye?  Totally for a Halloween party.  In December.") or some secret contacts.
  • If a character is a kind of Freak of Science they may get skills that let them negotiate with similar horrific monstrosities - and thus avoid combat, unlock extra options, or get a temporary ally. "(You're from Tank 12?  I'm from Tank 11?  Do you know Thuadarius?")


The choices should have real in-game impact so you feel them for the duration of your play with the character.

Into The Plot:
The origin choices should also bring up special plots into the game:

  • Your character was a creation of science?  Perhaps at a certain level there's a mission where their creators may come back for them.
  • Your character had a traumatic event that led them to becoming a vigilante?  Maybe you have a subplot where their secret identity is at risk.  Perhaps in astral adventures their trauma attracts certain astral nasties.
  • Your character is a mutant?  Then . . . well generic angst and hate plots could get thrown in but I'd hope for something more.
  • Your character is an inventor?  Someone might steal their technology and need to be taken down.  For extra fun, said rogue tech-thief should appear as an enemy for some other teams/gamers just to mess with people.

It doesn't take much - a few special options, new enemies, a plot twist - to make the origins more personal.  Best of all if you randomize a few factors people won't know what to expect, which ups the fun . . .

Talk About It:
When characters are encountering NPCs, origin issues (depending on what they are) may come up.  Someone expresses mistrust of a mutant.  Another notes they approve of your midnight escapades punching crooks.  A third turns out to have a serious thing for inventors that look suspiciously like Robert Downey Junior.

A few comments here and there lets people live the story - by having it connected to the story they created.

Working origins into Superhero MMO's isn't hard at all, and would have a lot of payoff  - because it would feel more like a comic book.  That's pretty much the goal.

- Steven Savage
 

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