Into the Super-verse: What superhero MMOs offer that other games don’t


When I was in high school, the Console Wars were heating up between SEGA and Nintendo. I’m afraid to report that many of my friends did not survive their tours of duty in those 16-bit countries. But what I do remember is how SEGA came up with a rather brilliant (if now pretty laughable) campaign around the phrase “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.”

Clever portmanteaus aside, the campaign worked because we love comparing products and feeling superior with our favored choice. Implied in that phrase was the suggestion that the Genesis offered something you couldn’t get from its biggest rival (i.e. “blast processing,” whatever that was). And implied in the title of today’s column is the suggestion that superhero MMORPGs have a unique value and can offer an experience you can’t find elsewhere.

That may be overstating it somewhat, but I have long since thought that there is a special and deep niche that superhero online games fill in such a way that satisfies a craving that can’t be met in other titles. What do games like Ship of Heroes and Champions Online offer that sets them apart from the rest of the MMO crowd in a real and noticeable way? I have four answers to that I’d like to explore today.

Offering #1: The chance to play as your favorite caped crusader

Between comics, TV, video games, and movies, our society’s hunger for superhero adventures have been met (and then some) over the past few decades. Everyone knows who Superman and Batman is, and even the most ardent non-geek out there probably has a favorite Avenger.

It’s a common childhood fantasy to imagine one as a particular superhero, usually one that offers the most personal connection or appealing lifestyle. Feel angry inside all of the time? You and the Hulk might be best friends. Dig Batman’s riches, intellect, and style? Who hasn’t practiced their best Dark Knight voice while prowling the streets after dark?

It makes sense that there’s a contingent of superhero MMO players that rush to slip into the role of a popular character, even if that doesn’t set them apart. Getting to graduate from imagining what it’d be like to rock the town as Iron Man, Wonder Woman, or Captain Marvel to actually inhabiting those roles — even as imitators — is a powerful lure indeed.

In my time playing City of Heroes, I stopped being surprised when I’d see yet another clone of a trademarked character from the comics. I was never incensed, because I realized that this person was happy to finally be that character and have fun fulfilling that lifelong fantasy. This was, of course, the entire selling point of Marvel Heroes, a strategy that I thought was brilliant right until Gazillion ran the game into the ground.

Offering #2: With great personal expression comes great puns

And for everyone who is a Captain America or Green Lantern clone in MMOs, there are even more folks who take great delight in creating a perfectly fitting persona that is as personal as it is original.

Everyone knows that superhero MMOs tend to have a much superior character creation system (at least in visuals) as the look of an avatar is just as — if not more — important than the class and powers that also define them. There are some pretty robust fantasy and sci-fi MMO character creators out there, but in the sheer flexibility of what you can do with them, they can’t start to compete with what you find in superhero games.

When I look at the six or so faces available to my World of Warcraft character and then drown myself in City of Heroes’ creator options, I feel that studios like Blizzard missed an opportunity to feed players’ desires to stand out and express themselves through visual design. It’s why every upcoming superhero MMO is making a Big Deal out of advertising its character creator as being worthy of what came before in that same space.

Offering #3: Cross-genre playtime

While superheroes are often seen as their own genre, in truth they also bleed over into, well, every other genre out there. From western to horror, fantasy to urban detectives, barbarians to intergalactics, there is no genre not welcome in the landscape of superhero MMOs.

That opens these games up to an unprecedented level of freedom for both the developers and players. Sure, there needs to be some semblance of world cohesion, but that’s far more stretchy and flexible than you’d find elsewhere. Battle on the moon as a Sailor Moon lookalike? Travel back in time to match wits with Jack the Ripper? Wrangle a T-Rex and ride it into the White House to save the president? There’s pretty much no scenario that’s off the table.

It’s also why superhero MMO communities aren’t that concerned with other players “breaking mah immersion.” If pretty much anything can go, then your weird getup isn’t going to yank me out of my world any more than mine will yours.

Offering #4: An untidy and unbound world

Outside of place-stuff-anywhere sandboxes, MMOs tend to be very tidy places that places limits upon your movement and interactions. You’ll slowly explore through a world (which holds an appeal in itself) and do quests and be amazing in your own right, but you won’t really break stuff or break the laws of physics.

When it comes to superhero MMOs, the standard rules of play are thrown out alongside genre restrictions. Travel powers turn the larger landscape of the world into the most fun playground ever, with characters flying, bouncing, speeding, and web-slinging about. We don’t whine and argue a lot about flight in these games, by the way. And encounters with enemies tend to result in explosions, huge light shows, and bodies flying every which ways. Environment destruction varies from game to game, but it’s pretty much there for all of these games.

What I’m getting at here isn’t an argument from superiority but rather an attempt to express how radically different superhero MMOs feel and function from other online games. It’s why I’m fascinated with them and am never quite satisfied until I have a good one to fill that niche. And the good news is that there are more choices right now in 2020 to get this fix than we’ve ever had before in the MMO genre.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.
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