Awhile ago I did a series (with a guest post) on superheroes and videogames. My recent experiences with Skyrim made me further contemplate superhero video games and what they need to do (or at least take from other games). This inevitably led me to the odd and weird history of superhero MMOs.
It's no secret that Superhero games themselves have a checkered past to say the least; I've ranted about this before. But the Superhero MMOs are fascinating to me in that, frankly, they were pretty decent or at least weren't awful. I have to salute development companies (which means in most cases, Cryptic) because of their abilities.
I was there when City of Heroes first started, and it represented a smart, bare-bones, focused attempt to do a superhero game – not perfect, but precise. Champions came and reviews said what I suspected – it was "OK." DC Universe came and reviews were pretty much "it was OK."
I never even got to playing Champions Online or DCUO, though I followed their development. Nothing out there really turned me on as a comics fan and an RPG fan. They were "OK," with a few innovations scattered here and there.
I suppose we should be thankful they weren't awful – it's a testament to the talents of various development teams that they got things to work as well as they did.
So I began wondering, specifically, why can't a Superhero game take it all the way? Why can't they do for people in spandex what WoW did for armored elves? Where's the big wow-must play superhero game that takes the world by storm and makes parents call their children "our sidekicks"?
I think it's because a superhero video game is challenging enough. A superhero MMO confronts a lot of problems. Of course, I'm going to detail them so people like you can create the ultimate superhero MMO.
What is a superhero tale? We have to ask that if we're talking a Superhero MMO – and it's very revealing.
It's drama with superpowers. Superhero stories have action, but a superhero tale even with lots of action is, in many ways, more like wrestling – it's a soap opera where people get punched. A good superhero games needs plot and psychology and drama – which can be hard to program. No one wants to figure ways to add boyfriend aggro or family drama selects.
It's about diverse people. Part of the fun of superhero stories is that a lone wacked-out millionaire detective can team up with an alien and a god to fight evil. Superheroes are vastly different in power, ability, background, and mental health. That's hard to deal with when balance is important to an MMO.
It's about origins. Characters have dramatic origins that often define them – and really that's hard to work in when you make three selections and then start punching robots.
It's about puzzling things out and punching things. Superhero tales are often a mixture (varying wildly) of detective work and smackdown. Even then, the smackdown may involve some thought like finding a weakness or combining powers. MMO's, derived as they are from combat-oriented fantasy games in many cases, don't always provide that.
It's about impact. Superheroes in general have impact because of power, influence, and fame. Trying to cater to people in the MMO community means this has balance and effect issues to say the least. Who wants your criminal investigation ended because some chucklehead accidentally dropped a building on your target?
It's about different stories. Much as the characters are diverse, so are their stories – and these stories often interact. So a quest for a mystic artifact may mean characters are fighting superpowered criminal in an alternate dimension. Or a story may be a dark detective tale that just doesn't fit everyone's styles.
Now the various MMOs out there addressed some of these, more or less (I think DCUO did well by having a standard origin and different starting points). But really a majority of them haven't been tackled directly – games took the safe way out in many cases.
Safe doesn't work in the world of superheroes, and that means the games may be limiting themselves.
Is there a way to solve these issues, to deliver the mixture of characterization and hitting people with buildings? I think many can be addressed, and that's coming next . . .