The concept of a “superhero MMO” has been tried before; games like Champions Online and City of Heroes/Villians pioneered that niche. I can’t account for the former, but I tried out the latter and found it rather lacking. DC Universe Online has quite a few points going for it, mostly in that the characters are based off of interesting and iconic comic book figures, not simply the whims of a random name generator. In all, I hope that it’s good, I’ll be interested to see how well it does.
That being said, I’d like to speak on the subject of superhero games. Not necessarily MMOs, any game out there.
The biggest problem with these kinds of games lies in the superheroes themselves. You see, superheroes are minor gods. There are exceptions, the most famous being Batman, but we’ll get back to him.
Let’s take Superman, the original caped crusader. I believe that I’ve figured out the true reason why Krypton “exploded”: the distribution of kryptonite to every man, woman, child, animal, and large plant on Earth caused the planet to dwindle down to nothing and ram into the sun. This was done, of course, to provide some way for Superman to lose his powers every issue. I swear, you’d think that they put it in the water.
But why would they do this? To create conflict, old chap. After all, the Man Of Steel has no true weaknesses outside of kryptonite, and how can you consider a villain a credible threat when Superman can literally do anything?
Of course, that’s assuming that the superhero has invincibility in his repertoire. What about the rest of them, the characters who can only run really fast, or turn into different kinds of animals?
How many times has a superhero been faced with a problem that cannot be overcome with his Standard Moves Set, only to figure out a new technique halfway though the fight? Maybe the telekinetic gets tired of throwing cars around and simply causes a clot in the enemy’s body, or she pulls a move out of nowhere, one that she was saving for whatever reason. Perhaps Beast Boy points out that he can shift into any animal, living or dead. Plastic Man could simply squeeze you to death, or shove himself down your throat. And while ripping an opponent’s heart out with your mind might not fly with the ESRB, you see what I’m saying. Almost any superpower can be used to do literally anything if it is used cleverly. Thus, the only limiting factor for these characters is not a weapon, but their own ingenuity.
Health bars: they rule our lives. So much of video games revolves around getting from point A to point B without losing all the red in that bar. But what does it mean? Well, it’s representative of how much damage you can take before calling it quits and dying/passing out/running away. Bear this in mind when I restate the question in the title: why does Superman have a health bar?
How do you kill Superman, or for that matter, any character with superhuman abilities? Superman can sleep in a hail of bullets, the Plastic Man can simply deflect the blows, Starfire can make a wall of death to protect herself. All of these characters are capable of shielding themselves from harm, which means that their physical well-being is not in danger. While I suppose the bar could represent their stamina or something along those lines, why don’t they simply flee after tiring, returning in five minutes to fight some more?
The entire idea of a superhero being vulnerable is what makes the premise of these games flawed.
Let’s come back to Batman. Yes, he has a super-suit that can defend him against almost anything. Aye, a single henchman with a rifle could shoot him in the mouth and end the whole series, but they never do. Indeed, he has a disturbing tendency to pull the perfect tool for any situation out of his Magical Hammerspace Belt without any prior knowledge of what he might face. However, he’s entirely human and that makes him a member in a very small, very special group.
One of the reasons why Arkham Asylum was so excellent lies in the fact that Batman could die. He couldn’t take more than a bullet to the skull, the pansy, and that made the action sections tense. Surviving these parts was based entirely around the skill of the player, not the superpowers of the character.
Which brings me to my final point in this extravaganza of rhetorical questions and confusing logic threads. The most successful superhero games are the ones that don’t feature superhumans at all. The only way that a superhuman can be killed, whether it’s an antagonist or protagonist, is by crippling them with artificial handicaps or their equivalent of Wonderflonium. A game must feature human characters with human weaknesses that can be exploited. Batman is fast, yes, but he’s only as fast as the person controlling him, which makes his games compelling.
In short, the character must be skill-based, not rooted in magical superpowers. Otherwise you’re cheating the player out of being a god for the sake of the game, which is unfair.
Do you know what bothered me the most about City Of Heroes? You could make a character that had guns as their one and only weapon. Yes, a person with a big rifle was considered to be on the same level as a person with pyrokinesis. Talk about handicapping! Apparently the ability to literally boil someone’s brains was exactly as effective as mundane bullets. Let’s see a comic book explain that away. Oh, does the pyrokinetic have “issues” that prevents him from using his powers in the most efficient way? How convenient.