Why Superhero MMOs have failed us

I’m disappointed in so called super hero MMOs.

It isn’t because I hate superheroes. I used to read X-Men religiously as a teenager and I bought all the Sandman comics as they came out. I love Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and my husband even made me read through his old copies of Luther Arkwright before we got married (I think he wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by not knowing the dialogue off by heart.) I have original copies of The Crow. And, big admission, I also collected all the Marvel Secret Wars comics.

But somehow all the superhero MMOs  model the dull and more tedious parts of the superhero experience, and not the things I loved.

See, the basic problem is that superhero comics are very squarely all about the main character. S/he is pasted up on the cover and takes front and centre of every story all of the time. Writers do use this as a way to discuss what it means to be a hero, and particularly what it means to be that specific hero. You may not get vast amounts of character development but when you do, it’s a major huge plot point. The story, the villains, the drama, the setbacks and how they are overcome — these things should be front and centre of the superhero experience.

Things you can do in a superhero MMO:

  • Design a cool costume and write a backstory that is largely irrelevant
  • fight random baddies
  • quest

Things you cannot do:

  • Have a dependent NPC who gets into trouble and needs to be saved a lot
  • Run a story where you start by fighting with another superhero and then team up with them (unless you pre-arrange it with another player and duel them to fake out the fighting)
  • Quests that tell personalised stories about what it means to be a superhero (note: fighting hellions in Perez Park does not count)
  • Soap Opera style supergroups.
  • Have a mentor who gets intro trouble and needs to be saved a lot.
  • Have a secret identity. Worry about whether it gets discovered. Need to balance the needs of the secret identity with the needs of the superhero persona.
  • Have a gearing up sequence (like in Iron Man)
  • Play out your backstory
  • Get captured by a supervillain and have to escape a deathtrap

If I can’t show what being superhuman means to my character then what is the point? If I can’t show the tension between the superhero role and the ‘real life’ role then all that is left is flying around (which is cool) and fighting bunches of mobs that might as well be the MMO standard pig for all they mean to me.

A MMO is more like a LARP – no player is particularly special. They’re all average Joe/Jane characters getting on with their lives. But it isn’t even a simulation of what it might be like to live in a city full of superheroes. The characters never clash over territory, never both jump into the same fight, suffer mistaken identities, and fight each other by mistake. They never get into trouble with the cops for acting like vigilantes. So even as a less personal simulation of a city full of supers, the games don’t work.

Maybe they work as small scale tactical fighting games. Maybe the fluff and costumes and travel powers is enough to keep people amused and they can tell their own stories in-between the gaps. But how is that really different from kill ten rats? It seems to me like such a wasted opportunity that CO didn’t try to do something just a bit different.

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28 thoughts on “Why Superhero MMOs have failed us

  1. Pete created such wonderful stories for his characters, point one of your list must hurt him quite a bit! :)

    Still, I do not get the point of CO/CoH either. Being Spiderman/Superman or my customized ideal super hero just does not do it for me. And what made the comics wonderful for you is lost in all MMOs so far. Even MMOs that tell stories and are heavily story and/or quest driven often fail to deliver even the depth and complexity of a very shallow soap opera.

    So it boils down to atmosphere. I think Champions Online has that! Plus these incredibly good one server and allowing duplicate names ideas. It just does not do it for me, and many other players felt the same while some were REALLY nuts and overly excited about the game! I wonder how long the freakshow will keep them entertained, I doubt the “lasting appeal”. Maybe it would be a great F2P/RMT game, like DDO?

    But I think it is a good thing that more specialized and niche MMOs for specialized target groups get created.
    The approach to make an AAA MMO that caters to raiders, casuals, pvpers, hardcore, me, grandma, my cat and players over 60 and under 12 years has disadvantages. I like my soup hot and spicy, which would kill my grandma!

    So all power to diversity. I still prefer the classic medieval or D&D fantasy settings.
    Just like some players do not like how Guild Wars works, which is probably among the best games ever created. To each his own.

  2. Other genres of MMO just aren’t as character centric as superheroes, which is why it never was a major issue for me. Fantasy games pretty much come via D&D which is a genre to itself really.

    CoH was fun and innovative in its time, limited in scope but had an interesting take on things. I just don’t understand why, given the opportunity to do things differently, there still arent’ better storytelling mechanics. No mechanic for secret identities and dependent NPCs just seems poor to me. (Especially since DNPCS were fairly significant in the champions rpg).

    And not being able to play out stories (via quests or whatever) that include some of the really basic storyarcs of any comic book hero (ie. fight another superhero and then team up, or get captured by the supervillain and have to escape) .. that’s just weird.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this, myself, and it strikes me that there is a vast realm of dynamic questing that no one’s really tapped. In a world where you can contact your quest NPCs by telephone (CoX), how much work would it take to have dynamically created NPCs defined by a few drop downs and quest choices? And taking that one step further, how hard would it be to make any given quest have selectable ‘flavors’ based on what kind of events you want to see happen?

    If you put those two things together, you start having exactly what you described. You can decide, from the quest dialogue, that hey, the reason you have to go fight semi-Nazi machine dudes is because they’ve kidnapped Tommy Truesoul, your trusty sidekick! And the quest would have been generated from a truncated distress call. Boom, done!

    Why doesn’t this happen, I wonder. I mean, yes, market forces, but why not even try it to see if the bubble can be expanded.

  4. I had a quick look at the Champions Online open beta. I didn’t want to say it at the time but it seemed horribly like WoW in Spandex. I tried to get interested but I couldn’t whip up any enthusiasm.

  5. Nice post. As for point one, you can make all the stories you want and have a wonderful background but you are right it means nothing. What gets me is that all these games are filled with thousands of other heroes at the same time. In a world with that many who cares about crime?

    And, well, CO is WoW in spandex.

    • I have noticed that lots of players in superhero games really really love writing backgrounds for their characters (there’s a huge untapped well of RP there). What that says to me is that superhero players would really really want to play out part of their character’s backstory as a prelude if they could. So why are the typical starting zones so anaemic and impersonal? Even if they just let you pick from a range of basic options for a backstory, it would be something cool to work with.

  6. I’ve been thinking similar things as well.

    As for story, it’s going to be difficult to accomplish any semblance of a story-driven MMO as long as the min/max mentality still persists in MMOs. Many players could care leas about story, or at least the story while leveling, because the the mythical “end game.”

    SWTOR promises more, and maybe they can deliver. But I think it’s going to take a major design philosophy change in order to make story telling, in any MMO, relevant again.

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  8. Have a dependent NPC who gets into trouble and needs to be saved a lot
    I was under the impression CO has a nemesis system. It may be just my shoddy memory but hey in CoH you can write your own AE story and save whomever

    Run a story where you start by fighting with another superhero and then team up with them (unless you pre-arrange it with another player and duel them to fake out the fighting)
    Ehhh…. that runs the risk of always bumping into pvptards who wont bother teaming up and instead are out to just smash you.

    Quests that tell personalised stories about what it means to be a superhero (note: fighting hellions in Perez Park does not count)
    Aforementioned AE missions

    Soap Opera style supergroups.
    I don’t understand this request

    Have a gearing up sequence (like in Iron Man)
    City of Heroes does have costume change emotes now, and with the Superscience booster pack you can change body type, going from a wee girl to a massive powered armor type.

    Play out your backstory
    Isn’t that roleplay?

    Get captured by a supervillain and have to escape a deathtrap.
    Some CoH maps have jails in them that you spawn in rather than the hospital, and the Hess TF has a great climax. That said, how often could you run into these? Either way this sounds more like a scripting issue combined with a big machine as the level boss

    As for the secret identity aspect and the mentor. I don’t think it’s very feasible to have those additions in a massively multiplayer game. Outside of roleplay anyway. People like to know who they are playing. The secret identity is more in your head than anything, especially when you have places like Paragon or Millenium city where every third warm body is a hero or a villain or generally powered to deal with them. Want to roleplay it? Change your outfit before using powers.

    A secret identity sounds more useful in a single player game with alot of interaction, they wont talk to awesome man so come back as Mr Plain and talk to them that way. MMO… the npc doesn’t care who saves them. Their lives have two states, in trouble and saved.

    Mentors too, unless it’s another player running the script, I think people are sick of annoying npc hostages that go and get themseleves killed and the mission failed within ten seconds of being freed. You’re sent to save people often, it being the same guy over and over? That’s a grind.

  9. In CO, there are civilian NPCs that are being harassed by a few mobs that you can rescue, and often times they will give you a timed quest. Also random civilian NPCs will walk up to you and give you timed quests as well.

    It’s not exactly what you are wanting, but it was a nice surprise when it happened to me the first time.

    I still don’t understand the comparisons to WoW. Yes it has a starter zone, it has levels and npc’s with ‘?’ above their heads. If that’s all it takes to be like WoW, then almost every MMO that is being made will be like WoW then.

    • You tell me? I heard it mentioned in hype but no one who has actually been playing the game has said anything much about it yet. I assume it features at higher level? (But surely you’d want your nemesis to feature all the way through?)

      • It kicks in around level 20-25… you create a Nemesis who dogs your steps, ambushes you, and then you jump into missions to defeat them and their plans. I guess they want you to get your spandex legs first before getting into all that.

    • I love the idea of the nemesis system. But I honestly want to know more about it. Does this guy whom I create do random things, or just attack me randomly? I guess to clarify, is it just a reoccuring boss fight, or does this villain fight become like a randomly generated PQ in which you have to accomplish certain things in a timeframe to beat him? (i.e. save these people while fighting off henchmen in time to get back and take him down before he kills the mayor…or something). What are the consequences for failing to ward him off?

  10. I think you hit the nail on the head. Super heroes MMOs just plain don’t work because they the concept relies on a few people being special and not everyone just being the same. Plus, the thing I’m not looking forward to about the DCU MMO is that I don’t want to play with Batman, I want to play as Batman!

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  12. I think a main part of the problem is that it is hard for me to accept a superhero needing to “level up.” I enjoyed COH and am having a lot of fun with CO so far, but I certainly recognize the limitations in the games. Really a superhero game would be the perfect setting in which to remove levelling from the equation. A game where everyone started as a full-on, badass superhero or villain and the game was all about their interactions, plots, epic battles, and some of the things you mentioned, if done well, would be a really cool game to play – I’m not sure it would technically be a MMORPG, but it would be cool.

  13. I’m neither an expert on superheroes, nor on superhero MMOs, but I’d think that part of the problem is, that pretty much every game (MMO or not) turns you into some sort of a superhero by the very simplified definition, that you’re (significantly) stronger than all the baddies you’re fighting. So, all that’s left for the supposedly superhero-MMO is to stick you in a rubber suit.

  14. For me superhero MMOs works quite well, but that is perhaps because I do not view my characters much as “superheroes”, but rather “odd characters with special abilities”.

    The Mission Architect system in City of Heroes/Villains provide some options to play out the type of stories you are talking about. But it is still very much an on rails system and there is very little dynamic options.

    I love creating story arcs in MA, but it can get frustrating trying to add more depth and not resort to walls of text that few will read – which is also not the best way to tell a story in a game.

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  17. If they had a game which was mainly solo-play, but you could have 8 player online co-op, destructible environments, good storyline (to date, marvel ultimate alliance has been my favorite storyline) and combat, then it would be the best game ever.

    Where mmos fail, is that the controls arent as cool as some combat games, and it is nice to see physics when you pummel people. And the biggest problem is that by the time you are lvl 40, if you go up against a legendary thing, youre about as usefull as you were at lvl 20. AKA by the time your level 40 you should feel like a god, which is impossible in an mmo.

    basically fuse Champions Online with GTA 4, Batman Arkham Asylum, and Red Faction Guerilla – no matter what the cost, and you will have the best game ever.

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