The superhero MMO category is made up of City of Heroes / Villains, Champions Online and now DC Universe Online. Where should the next proposed contender (Super Hero Squad Online is aiming for a very different crowd), Marvel Universe Online, be looking for in terms of untapped spaces a.k.a. blue water?
To do this let’s take a look at what is out there right now and what MUO should be taking advantage of (in my opinion, of course).
Combat – Current Leader: DC Universe Online
Some will disagree with me, but DCUO has the best superhero MMO combat system. It isn’t a system that is particularly focused on superpowers – weapon combos are more important – which is a negative for me, but the overall idea of using mouselook to aim and being able to move and attack makes DCUO best-of-breed in this area. CoH/V is too slow by comparison while in ChampO you need three or four hands to be able to move and hit your attack power combos at the same time.
Another key element of superhero combat is property destruction – its a core element to the genre that things get broken when superpowered beings fight each other. CoH/V has a small element of this in certain types of missions, but overall the world items remain static. Both ChampO and DCUO allow for a lot more destruction of fixtures, with DCUO having a better handle on the “let’s play catch with a bus” physics requirements.
MUO’s opportunity is to refine DCUO’s approach further. Better targeting is a good start, as is letting superpowered characters use superpowers instead of weapons if players choose to. Property destruction should definitely be part of the game, with not only the ability to throw / blow up a lot of the environment, but texture changes to show what happens when you explode a fireball right next to the wall paper.
Crafting – Current Leader: Champions Online
A controversial choice, but my reasoning is that I prefer how ChampO ties crafting to its items through their deconstruction into components, while CoH/V keeps things much more separate. DCUO has no crafting (and investigations – the finding of fixed floating glowing orbs – don’t count).
That said, neither CoH/V or ChampO have great, involved crafting – it’s a matter of getting your components together, clicking a button and getting something spat out at you.
MUO’s opportunity is to bring superhero crafting into its own. Let players be able to chink test tubes together, wire circuits, arrange incantations, solve investigations etc in their own fun mini-games to produce items and effects. And if craftable bonuses require items and decompose through use, so much the better – it creates demand for crafting while removing resources from the economy.
Character – Current Leader: Champions Online
Champions Online offers more flexibility in character creation than either DCUO or CoH/V. This can lead to some absolute abortions of character concepts, but that’s freedom for you. CoH/V comes second, with a huge range of options, auras and appearances, while DCUO’s full character customisation potential requires players to unlock costume item through loot drops while restricting characters to one of only six power types.
However, ChampO fell down at launch by not having a lot of synergy between its different power choices. It was very easy to create an overpowered monster or a supergimp. CoH/V’s primary and secondary power options provide more structure and the gap between the ‘best’ combos and the ‘worst’ while also ensuring players will at least have some basic offensive and defensive powers in place. DCUO’s limited power selections also ensure that power differentials between characters aren’t too exaggerated either.
MUO’s opportunity is providing a fully flexible powers system. Divorcing damage and power appearance could be one way to start – both fireball and ball lightning would look different, but do the same damage with the same development points invested in them (but perhaps have a different secondary effect). Let powers create synergies within and between characters – an ice attack sets up a brawling attack with extra damage, or a telekinetic-based support character gets extra buffs in the presence of psionic blades.
(This is a very hard thing to do, but ultimately given players more control over the look and choice of their powers while also getting these different powers to work well together is probably the biggest step forward the superhero MMO could take in my opinion.)
Communication – Current Leader: City of Heroes / Villains
CoH/V’s chat system is a thing of beauty, with global chat channels, lots of options and lots of customisation for the player who wants it. ChampO’s isn’t bad, but just doesn’t work as well as CoH/V’s. DCUO has… well… let’s just say if communication options were any more lacking in DCUO, they’ve have been given a memorial service.
MUO’s opportunity is to not screw up as badly as DCUO. Seriously – copy either ChampO’s or CoH/V’s communication options and sign it off as done.
Content - Current Leader: City of Heroes / Villains
Having been around for 7 years (in April 2011) means that CoH/V has had plenty of time to build up content for players. Add on the Mission Architect (player created content system) and there is literally a never-ending supply of (quality variable) material. Not all of it is gold, of course, but CoH/V has some of the more interesting superpowered missions in the market – going off to fight your own clone was one that comes to mind.
DCUO has a very strong PvE content feature in its end-of-story-arc comic sequence, but the actual content itself can be gotten through quite quickly. Having fully voiced-over character interactions is also very engaging – having your mentor talk to you en route to a mission really adds to the experience.
ChampO has some more interesting missions in it – saving people trapped under debris, or even catching a special butterfly – but it lacks the range of CoH/V and the voiced-over content ala DCUO are few and far between. Plus some of the tongue-in-cheek references do grate on my nerves.
MUO’s opportunity is to study how to avoid DCUO’s pitfalls while taking its strengths – there’s no way to nullify CoH/V’s advantage of time, but content can’t be as thin as it was in DCUO’s launch. Teaming up with famous Marvel character to do a mission is a great thing, but if 99% of the game outside of that is in the kill 10 Ratmen and take their coats, it won’t be enough to hold player attention. Player created content is a fantastic option, but probably a bridge too far for launch.
Collectables – Current Leader: City of Heroes / Villains
CoH/V’s badge system is simple, effective and you can achieve most of them without too much grinding. The devs at Paragon Studios realised that setting collectable outcomes at the high end of ridiculous (e.g. kill 10 000 Rikti monkeys) just encourages players to come up with ways of exploiting to reduce the grind. On top of this, the majority of badges are decorative – very few give bonuses / extra powers – which makes the system optional… and all the better for that choice.
ChampO has done something similar with Perks, but pretty much every villain group gives its main collectable reward after killing 1000 of them. That’s just a bit dull. Perks award Perk Points, but those aren’t useful any more so it is completely optional as a to-do item.
DCUO has Feats which are similar to the above, except that they also award skill points that can be used to improve character abilities. This takes this collection system from ‘optional’ to ‘you are gimping yourself if you don’t do it’. I’m not a fan of that approach.
MUO’s opportunity is to implement something that players can collect as an option and to also give them a title they can use to help further customise their character.
Competition – Current Leader: DC Universe Online
When you read players saying how much fun they are having in DCUO, there is typically a mention that this fun is around their PvP experiences. This truly is where this game shines and it is also a space that has been under-represented to date. CoH/V’s PvP has been the red-headed stepchild of a red-headed stepchild, while ChampO’s power imbalances kept PvP from gaining serious traction.
This isn’t to say that DCUO’s PvP is perfect – exploits are hitting it hard, for one thing, and no test server means patches are going live without checking to see what quirks exist in them – but is a lot more active than its competitors.
MUO’s opportunity is to offer a better reason than DCUO to fight in the streets. In DCUO, there is one territory to win that gives access to a PvP item vendor. Providing greater rewards for pseudo-open world PvP (and protecting new and / or unwilling players from potential gankage) is open for improvement.
Community – Current Leader: City of Heroes / Villains
A very subjective choice, and even though I think the game is in decline, CoH/V still has a great community. In general they are friendly, helpful and can be very passionate about wanting CoH/V to succeed.
ChampO’s and DCUO’s community are both not too bad, though. Both games have their promoters and detractors on the official forums.
MUO’s opportunity is to actually start trying to develop its community a reasonable time out from launch.
MUO has the advantage of seeing how its competitors have implemented various systems, so it can pick the best bits and plan to head for the best blue water there is.
One other MUO opportunity that exists is to think about doing something different with the payment model. A lot of AAA MMOs come out charging a box cost and then $15 a month, but then fail to capture players for the long haul because players aren’t as willing as they once were to spend six months between content updates. Going buy-to-play (i.e. no sub fee once you’ve bought the box copy) plus priced extra content is definitely an option – Guild Wars shows this model can work very well as well as keeping server populations active during content droughts.
The above is only a short overview, really. There are lots of areas that could be contested between CoH/V, ChampO, DCUO and MUO. Superhero MMOs are made stronger by this competition and I’m definitely interested in seeing what Gazillion can offer in MUO… if it comes out.