Into the Super-Verse: What made Marvel Heroes so special?


This month we mark a particularly sad anniversary in the MMO space: The 10th anniversary of the launch of Marvel Heroes. By all rights, this game still should be going strong, raking in gobs of money from the Marvel IP and cross-promotions. We should’ve seen expansions, dozens of additional playable characters, and maybe even personal lairs to decorate and customize between missions.

But instead, the Gazillion fiasco meant an early end to this promising superhero online ARPG. Marvel Heroes ran from 2013 to 2017, with its first iteration a notorious mess. Yet David Brevik and company righted the ship and fashioned one of the most exciting superhero titles to ever come onto the scene. So instead of mourning its loss, I want to honor this game’s legacy by looking at what made it so special.

A new approach to superhero MMOs

When Marvel Heroes arrived on the scene, it had some strong competition. City of Heroes was still a fresh memory for MMO players, and DCUO and Champions Online were snarfing up the refugees. But Marvel Heroes quickly distinguished itself by juking to the left when everyone else went right — or more specifically, it embraced a fast-paced Diablo-style ARPG as its format instead of a traditional over-the-shoulder MMORPG.

Not only did this differentiate Marvel Heroes from the pack, it was a terrific fit for the genre. Comic books feature quick, intense fights instead of slower slugfests, and ARPGs are nothing if not fast-paced. Players got their power fantasy by being a supercharged individual who could easily plow through huge packs of bad guys. That never got old!

An appeal to player individuality

It’s strange to say that Marvel Heroes was one of the most customizable MMOs that was ever made, especially when you consider that players couldn’t make their own characters but were constrained to playing established Marvel-franchise heroes and villains. Yet that didn’t end up being as much of a restriction when it came to expressing oneself as you might’ve assumed.

There were always choices stacked on top of other choices in Marvel Heroes. Your choice of a character to play that session was only the start. You could swap out their costume (costumes were Serious Business — and a major cash cow for Gazillion), haul out a pet, select a team-up, and tinker with your build until that character played the way you liked best. With so many different characters, each with its own distinctive powerset and look, chances were good you’d find a match that worked for you — no matter who you were.

Never-ending opportunities

Ask anyone who played Marvel Heroes what there was to do in the game, and you’ll get a seemingly endless list of activities. There was never a shortage of options on any given evening. On the contrary, sometimes it seemed like there was too much to do and some pruning was needed!

I liked this because it was another way the game was tailored to the individual. You could simply play the stuff you liked the best. Sure, some parts were important for various upgrade systems (of which Marvel Heroes arguably had too many), but by and large, you just did what seemed best and most fun to you. Run the campaign with a new character? Go through some dungeons with friends? Roam the map looking for trouble? Participate in special events? It was all meant to be done often and repeatedly, so why not?

A collection mentality

“He who dies with the most toys, wins.” It’s a silly statement, but this seemed like the driving force for many players who engaged with Marvel Heroes. This title did all it could to prime the collection mentality of its fans — and boy did the fans respond.

Even though you could play and work on only a single character at a time, having more options in your roster felt great. After all, who knew what you’d be in the mood to play tomorrow? So gamers were always chasing the next character they wanted, and the one after that, and the one after that. Sure, money was a shortcut to acquiring many of these, but having a free path rewarded those who had patience and foresight. When you coupled characters with the desire to grab all of their best costume variants, that was a journey that would never end.

Expensive? Potentially so. But fun nevertheless!

Gaming the fantasy

Even though Marvel Heroes is now six years gone to us, it still feels fresh because the Marvel brand is still very prominent in our pop culture. For some players, part of the fun was seeing the latest Marvel movie and then be able to hop into the game, grab that character, and recreate the action that they just saw.

It’s why a lot of us would look forward to a new Marvel release: because we knew it would prompt Gazillion to put out that character or movie-specific costume. The transmedia synergy was heady and powerful, and it seemed like fans won on both ends – while the game was alive, anyway.

Yes, it’s bittersweet to have been a Marvel Heroes player. We got to have a blast in one of the most unique MMOs to ever hit the scene — yet we are cursed with knowing how great it was even as we can never play it again. So all we can do is reminisce, perhaps pick up an acceptable substitute, and move on.

Thanks for the good times, Marvel Heroes!

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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