We Fly Spitfires has posted up a list of reasons why comic book MMOs don’t work in his opinion. Sharpened by years of arguing these points on various superhero MMO sites, let’s cover them off.
I Want To Be Batman
This is a pretty old chestnut – the idea that it only worth being a superhero if you one of the main, big ones. In short, you don’t want to be A superhero among many, you want to be THE superhero who stands alone and above all others. However, this is a failure of imagination for a couple of reasons: 1) it firmly links superheroes to the extremely limited IPs that release comics (DC and Marvel) and is a bit like thinking you can’t release a space game without ‘Wars’ or ‘Trek’ in the title, 2) ignores the fact that there is no true single Batman, but instead multiple versions that fit writers or certain games (i.e. the Batman of Batman: Arkham Asylum isn’t the Batman of Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu or the Batman of the “The Dark Knight” movie) and 3) ignores the issue of “I want to be …” exists in any other MMO with an IP, given how many people wanted to be Luke Skywalker, Jean Luc Picard or Aragon in other MMOs that are out.
In a MMO, you play your own character and build their story. This story can be limited to “got to max lvl ding gratz” or can be a 3000 page epic of love, betrayal and spandex, but it is their own story.
Finally, with the news that the Super Hero Squad MMO is going to let players be the actual IP characters, there will be a test case for how letting players be Batman Moon Knight rather than an original character actually works in a MMO.
The Jedi Problem or The Syndrome Paradox
The often quoted line made by Syndrome in “The Incredibles” is “When everyone is super, no-one will be.” People who repeat this comment often miss the point that Syndrome mistakenly thought it was the powers that make the hero, rather than it being their actions. How can you feel super in a city full of superheroes? Easy, you act like it.
Also, both City of Heroes / Villains and Champions Online have lots of NPC ‘normals’ wandering around who aren’t superpowered and often require saving. So, although the city is full of superheroes, there is still a sense of perspective about the differences in power levels. Plus all of those heroes lined up in a costume contest don’t exactly behave like heroes if they all ignore the mugging going on around the corner.
Lack of Loot vs. The Clothes Maketh The Man-Thing
Superheroes, it is said, don’t collect loot. MMOs need loot to enhance your character and change their appearance. Ergo, superhero MMOs don’t work in this area.
Here’s the thing: both ChampO and CoH/V have split the ‘character customisation’ and the ‘in-game reward’ feature to a large extent. Given how important costumes are to superheroes, it doesn’t make sense to limit them entirely to loot drops like in other MMOs. A character in either game can be customised more than can be found in pretty much any other MMO title and that is before you start playing with them. Other MMOs end up with all characters looking the same because the players of a particular class are all looking for the same function and that requires the same armour / weapon combo. Superhero MMOs expects characters to look and play differently because comic books are filled with a wide variety of appearances and powers.
Also, CoH/V’s very elegant enhancement system works very well as an in-game reward system. It doesn’t work quite so well in ChampO because of the huge rate of item drop and the lack of explanation of what the items do, but as a title is also fairly loot-light.
As for not superheroes not changing their costume, Batman pretty much has a suit for every occasion. It’s changed to match both time and the conditions he was fighting crime in.
Action Gameplay Isn’t For MMOs
One thing I’ve noticed is the more ‘action-y’ a MMO is, the less it seems to appeal to the traditional MMO crowd. Players ask for it, but tend to shy away from such titles when released given that as the action gets faster, ping speeds and personal reaction time become increasingly more important. MMO players typically want lots of special powers which require lots of buttons to press; this doesn’t work well in fast paced games.
No solutions here. Perhaps action gameplay won’t work in MMOs unless players are willing to give up some of their hotkeys.
The secondary point WFS makes is about powers. No game title anywhere is going to be able to create a system where every power seen in comics can be recreated, but a lot can be – both CoH/V and ChampO do this pretty well. Some sort of power balance has to be enforced to make the game fun – unlike comics, there aren’t any writers to make up the gap between ridiculous power differentials – but superhero MMOs can get most of the way their in terms of the mechanics.
We Can All Save The World, And Do So At 2pm Every Tuesday
Superhero MMOs suffer the same limitations as every other MMO – namely a static world the player can’t ever hope to change. This is for good reason, because if you let players change the world you end up with the darkest corners of Second Life. Instead, most MMOs offer story lines that only impact the character. Both CoH/V and ChampO use instances to provide more protected story experiences, which is where the narrative often directs players to do comic-esque things like fight off an alien invasion or defeat a monster of incredible power.
It isn’t meta-narrative changing, but it is character-narrative changing stuff. Ultimately it is up to the title to help make the player feel ‘heroic’ – saving people trapped under rubble, rescuing hostages and the like – but it is certainly possible to do.
It is only ever a comic book fan who would see the brutal and traumatising death of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of their young son as a “good” thing!