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

    
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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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Covynant001
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Covynant001

I never enjoyed Superhero MMORPGs, and couldn’t fathom why others did.

This article did a great job describing what set them apart, all factors I’m not much interested in such as character creation, I often just push the randomize button until my avatar looks good enough.

As for mixing genres, I’m mostly against it, a superhero showing up in a western setting, or most any past timr except maybe the age of dinosaurs is just a total no go for me.

I know Wonder Woman makes it sort of work, but it still stretches right to my limit of credibility.

Oh well, everyone has their preferences, mine involve firing large mini guns in a post apocalyptic setting

😁

Techno Wizard
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Techno Wizard

They can offer spandex tights and underwear over clothes. Not that I’m into that. It’s just part of the superhero costume, ok?

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PanagiotisLial1

Super Hero games tend to be a bit out of the box for the abilities they got compared to the traditional mmos and rpgs. You usually see more variety on them.

On another note: Marvel Heroes is still missed

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NeoWolf

For me they offer a FAR greater platform to express your individual creativity when it comes to your avatars.
The character creators for SUPERs MMO’s tend to offer way more options than any fantasy games so the possibilities of what you can create and how much you can put your personal stamp on it are so very much greater than other genres.

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h4

I share much of these sentiments about the superhero game setting. The large degree of freedom in their character creators, and the separation of looks from powerset are probably standout features. However, I don’t pine for a new superhero mmo. Instead, I have to ask, where are the singleplayer superhero games that allow for custom character & powerset?

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Crowe

I think there are quite a few singleplayer games. Oh they may not be the typical “caped crusader” type. Think something more like Control. Because they’re only singleplayer, they come and go more quickly though.

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h4

I didn’t know about Control, but I am aware of games like this. Prototype also falls into this category of having superhero type powers without being caped crusader. But what I am looking for is the character creator that MMO superhero games have, only in a singleplayer. As far as I know this does not exist.

Well, other than Freedom Force (2002). Hoping for something newer I guess.

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Crowe

Gotcha. Yeah, in depth character creation in a single-player game is pretty rare. In a multi-player game it’s much more common as the devs are (usually) attempting to entice players to continue playing… and maybe roll up an alt and experience the game all over again. (usually in an attempt to keep the players interested and actively playing so their subs and/or cash shops can continue generating revenue) Less so in a single-player game as they are usually making their money up front and that’s it. With obvious DLC exceptions, of course. Personally, it’s pretty rare that I buy DLC and only look at single-player expansions if they are really amazing.

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Witches

My favourite thing is how your looks are detached from your abilities, want to be a tiny thing in robes and be a tank? Knock yourself (and mostly others) out.

You look just like the incredible Hulk you must be the tank, what? You’re the healer? But, but… you’re not wearing robes and you don’t have a staff, you can’t be the healer.

Someone was complaining in the CO forums about how stupid it was to heal with fire, because healing with magic makes so much more sense, right?

People often complain about games being easier combat wise, but in SH games you can make unplayable chars because you just pick the coolest looking powers that don’t really work well together and are not viable at endgame, but you still have lots of fun trying (and failing) to make it work.

While not technically a SH game, the original TSW (before levels and fixed classes) was similar, it gave you lots of freedom to create something unique.

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IronSalamander8 .

Interesting points Eliot! I’m not actually very big into super heroes and haven’t seen any of the recent movies but one can’t deny the games have a certain appeal.

Funnily enough, while CoX is still my favorite MMO to date, I got it on a whim. I was enjoying EQ but I found that it had so much downtime I wanted to try something else. I had seen a review of the game in PC Gamer but didn’t think much of it. Then, on a trip to Best Buy (a trip I haven’t made in years), I saw it and thought; ‘why not?’

The character customization alone blew me away and being able to make my own character actually my own in so many ways was so appealing. The fact that they made a setting that I find dull (modern city barring the special later zones and some of the door missions) come to life for me got me hooked. Part of why I was into the game so much is that it kept me sane when times were very dire. When it was cancelled, despite it still having an obviously healthy playerbase, I wasn’t playing it as much as my heyday, and had in fact begin playing a lot of SWTOR, but it still felt like losing an old friend. Glad we can play it again, even if I’m not playing that much right now, and was happy to donate. The loss of CoX is always why I KSed City of Titans those many years ago.

Didn’t play a lot of the Marvel game as I prefer to make my own characters rather than play ones that already exist, and CO has always felt like a missed opportunity with the greater power customization options over CoX, but the rest of the game always felt like a step down. I did get one character to the 40 cap in CO and have a ton of alts, but it never grabbed me like CoX did. DCUO was such a massive letdown I cancelled the pre-order. Looked great, the voices were brilliant, but the rest left me flat, especially how poor the customization in that game was compared to CoX and CO.

I’m hoping 2020 will see at least one of these new games come out and scratch that itch. They need to do more than pay homage to CoX with better graphics though, they need to modernize aspects as well. Playing CoX from scratch again made me remember that even though I love it, it can be a slog at lower levels, especially after more modern games make such things faster and smoother than CoX’s low level experience can be.

Super heroes have a certain appeal as you aptly indicate in this article Eliot and any new MMOs in this vein need to get it right. Whether paying a homage tom your all time favorite comic book character or making your own, the games have got to give the players a lot of options at creation and let us feel ‘super’ when playing.

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Ken from Chicago

Superhero mmos let you have superpowers in a contemporary setting. Not only do you get to have superpowers or be a superhero (no, the two are *not* synonymous; there is a distinction) but do so in a world that resembles your own.

Not only are the vast majority of mmos, fantasy mmos, but are also set centuries in the past. How many fantasy mmos are set in a contemporaneous times–besides SECRET WORLD?

Also, yes, superheroes tend to include fantasy, scifi, contemporaneous even horror settings–simultaneously.

Play what you want when you want however you want to look.