Into the Super-verse: Is there any hope left for the future of superhero MMOs?

    
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When we got the news in May that EG7 and Daybreak had canned its in-development Marvel MMORPG, I didn’t have much of a reaction. Probably few of us did. Aside from knowing that the studio was doing something Marvel related with Jack Emmert in charge, we had precious little information about the game itself. And when you don’t know much about a thing, it’s hard to feel one way or the other when that thing is no longer a thing, if┬áthat makes sense.

But when an artist on the project posted screenshots of the character creator, something went off in my head that triggered both alarms and a crushing wave of disappointment. It wasn’t that the screens communicated the most Awesome Game Ever. I kind of liked the personality and vibrancy on display, but I’d have to see a whole lot more of the MMO to form an opinion or expectations. It’s just that these screens sank home the fact that this was a very real superhero MMORPG — and it’s never going to be delivered to us.

People who know me know that I’m generally upbeat, particularly with the future of gaming. I like looking forward to the future and getting excited about projects on the way. That’s a whole lot more enjoyable than cultivating a cynical, once-bitten-twice-shy attitude. I say that because you need some context when I tell you that I have a sinking feeling in my gut about the future of the superhero MMO genre as a whole.

Seriously, the prospects right now are looking pretty thin. Marvel Heroes and Super Hero Squad Online were knocked out years ago. KingsIsle’s Hero101 was never finished. Champions is on life support, DCUO is doing fine-but-not-as-great-as-it-once-was, Marvel’s Avengers flatlined a while back, and even City of Heroes’ rogue servers aren’t making the big waves they were even two years prior.

I don’t feel — and correct me if you disagree — that there’s one superhero MMO on the market right now that we can point to and say, “There. That’s the standard. That’s the one everyone’s playing.” Gamers are scattered among these titles or absent from this genre entirely.

So if the current state doesn’t offer a flag-waving standard, then we turn our attention to the future. But what’s there? We’ve been following a trio of indie City of Heroes spiritual successors for years now, and it’s pretty skimpy pickings. Two of the titles, Valiance Online and City of Titans, have been dithering about for the better part of a decade, and there’s no reason to assume that they won’t go on doing the same until the cows come home. It simply doesn’t feel like those teams have the budget or staff to bring those across the finish line.

This leaves us with Ship of Heroes, our only hope right now for an MMO future. Now, to give credit where it’s due, this team certainly has the passion to get the job done. It’s been running tests, including a recent housing beta, and I think there’s a good shot we could see this within a couple of years. I am rooting hard that this will not only meet but exceed expectations to be a solid, fun indie title. I know I want to play the end result.

That said, it’s an awful big burden to put on the shoulders of a game that is, after all, indie. It’s got a small budget and a team that doesn’t have a deep MMORPG pedigree to it. Unlike DC, Marvel, or even Champions, it has no recognizable IP that will help Ship of Heroes become more visible. It’s going to have to do a whole lot of marketing via word-of-mouth, which means that the game has to impress players enough so that they’ll want to evangelize it.

So while I don’t have a lot of faith in Daybreak producing games these days, I can honestly say that I would have felt a lot more optimistic about the superhero MMO future if we had at least one experienced studio producing a title tied to a well-known IP alongside a scrappy indie outfit.

There are, of course, plenty of unknown factors that could change this situation. There could be other unknown superhero MMOs in the works or ones that will be greenlit in coming years. The continued prominence of Marvel and DC movies and TV shows could continue to stoke the hunger of audiences wanting to roleplay as their own costumed crusader.

But as it stands right now, the field is far more desolate than I would prefer it to be, and that robs me of my natural inclination to hope for the future.

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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