Power Levels in Superhero MMOs

A column article, Mission: Professional by: Steven Savage

I've been examining how Superhero MMO's can get beyond effective mediocrity by embracing the elements of comics.  First I explored adding drama, and later making origins actually relevant.  Those two things are necessary for a 'real' comic superhero experience - and for those of you looking to do comics-related jobs, I figure exploring this gives you some ideas . . .

There's another element of the superhero experience - massively different power levels.  That work together.  Somehow.
It's the classic Superman/Batman paradox, where somehow in various teamups or conflicts they manage to be "equals" or work things out.  It's great for comic sales, but kind of hard to implement in games needing balance. Let's face it, the most likely outcome of a Superman/Batman conflict is Bruce Wayne waking up one day to discover Wayne Manor is in low earth orbit at the Batcave back on earth is filled with jellybeans.
That's the problem with varied powersets in MMOs - when it comes to PvP, bragging, teamups, vastly different power levels are hard to implement.  At the same time, it's part of the comic book feel
So how do you implement this without putting Wayne Manor in low earth orbit?  It's like Superman-type and Batman-type characters are from different games.
The solution?  In a way, you do make it different games.
Somehow in a superhero MMO you need to give people the ability to play vastly different power levels, with enough boundaries they don't mess each other up, and enough continuity to feel like they're in the same setting.  My proposals?
Idea #1: Have "tiers" of power that you unlock 
Many games already have similar mechanics - you unlock a certain class or origin or something when you've played the game enough.  It's not an unfamiliar mechanic in MMOs, so let me explore my ideas in detail:
  • Everyone starts out able to create a low-level hero.  This is your basic mutant, your early Batman, your hero who just found the mystic artifact, etc.
  • At a certain "level" you unlock the ability to jump to the "next" level of power.
  • At this level you can either create a new character that starts on the new "tier" - or have a "transition" story for your old character.  That transition would be like the many transitions in comics - the new supertechnology, the infusion of magical power, the unlocked mutation, etc.
  • The "transition" content and the "start new" content would be different - encouraging people to play both.
  • If you choose to start a new "tier" then there's content for that level of power - separate from other content to an extent . . .
  • But there may be cross-level adventures where Team Of Detective Types has to figure out some information for Team Of Large Butt-Kicking Godlikes, etc.  That way plots interact.  Done right, you might even manage to make a league of varied power types work.
  • I'd suggest about three tiers of power.
  • This would also work well in free-to-play/freemium.  Maybe people who pay for it can start with other tiers of power unlocked.
So recognize the levels of power and make them part of the game - and you have that comic-book feel done rather easily.  You may even get a few elements of classic comics surprise in, when someone doesn't realize the hero they knew as a "tier 1" has evolved to a "tier 2" and suddenly it's a bit harder to throw Wayne Manor into space . . .
Idea #2: Branchpoints
Well I've said lately Superhero MMO's need more plot so what if the power balance became part of the plots?
Consider this - at certain points in you MMO adventures your hero unlocks certain options and plot elements that affects their abilities - and the content they experience.  Maybe it's a choice of invest in new technology or build a legion of minions, or to adsorb the magical energies of some explosion and be catapulted to a new level of existence versus retain your humanity, etc.  You get the idea.
These would vary power levels - and content - that people would experience.  The power level changing becomes part of the plot - and lets you keep different power levels at different distances.  In fact there could even be power/depower/kind of power changes throughout - maybe you choose to become an outcast freak of science after your legion of scientists screws something up.
Done right this could even remove a "sense" of power levels and make it more "just one of those things" that are part of rich(er) complex plots.
Idea #3: Something for everyone
Another option?  Build a universe where there are several tiers of powers and plots but they rarely interact except certain crossover moments:
  • Maybe you have an earth-level adventure side and a giant "galactic guardians" game in the same universe.
  • Maybe parallel to the "relatively real world" are supernatural adventures of gods or godlike beings.
  • Local cities have adventures for "human-level" heroes while those on the higher tier, the alien refugees and mega-mutants have world-spanning adventures.
You get the idea.  It's not perfect, but it may also give a feeling of superpowerful differences - when these areas of content intercept - but also each is developed with some sense of separateness.
Best of all if one of these "sub-worlds" fails you always have the other . . .
So those are my ideas on how Superhero MMOs can have different levels of power we're so used to in comics.  Maybe not perfect, but a start - and certainly they'd get attention.
- Steven Savage


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