City of Heroes kicked off the MMO superhero genre back in 2004. For several years it's led the field, due to being the only superhero MMO out there, but now direct competition is appearing. Cryptic Studios, the original developers of CoX, recently sent their own title Champions Online into Closed Beta. Sony's DC Universe Online, which at one point had gone so quiet that people wondered if it was still being made, has recently produced gameplay footage, stacks of art and a detailed analysis of how the game will work.
So what's with all the cape games? Although the superhero genre has been a steady burner outside of the MMO context, it's not the most obvious kind of world to set an MMO in, and designers trying to adapt comic-book themes and events to MMO gameplay face some pretty stiff challenges. We're going to walk through all three games, explain the differences, and try to answer that question.
It's obvious that superheroes are back in the public eye again, with a slew of recent successes from the X-Men movies via the Hulk and Superman Returns to Iron Man and The Dark Knight, proving that these modern myths really are evergreen; Watchmen is just around the corner, and the buzz is already building for the Avengers movie.
It would be facile to link superhero movies' success to a sense of global turmoil and crisis, especially when reassurance and comfort aren't exactly the point any more. You can point out that Superman began by fighting the evils arising from the Great Depression, but since then, the superhero archetype has been reworked and reinvented so many times that the genre has its own life, and doesn't necessarily say anything about the real world.
What you can see very easily is that superheroes are much closer to us ordinary folks, in terms of the world they inhabit and the lives they lead, than the sword and spell wielding heroes of fantasy. In the simplest analysis, superheroes are us, with amazing powers. From a MMO point of view, that makes cape games much more of a wish fulfilment scenario. You really can have a crime-fighting alter ego.
Plenty of kids grow up secretly wanting to be Batman, and there's obvious appeal in the big-name characters. But it's not like you need a recognized IP to make a superhero MMO. Of the three main players, only DC Universe Online includes big-name heroes like Batman and Superman. City of Heroes made its own mythology from the ground up, inventing new characters of recognizable types, while Champions Online takes its setting and characters from a pen-and-paper RPG. Although it's one of the best and most enduring games of its kind, it's not what you'd call well known outside gaming circles. As MMO players will know, the project that ultimately became Champions Online had its roots in an earlier Cryptic Studio project, Marvel Universe Online, canned due to a perceived 'inability to compete'.
So it's not all about the IP, and it's not all about the characters. It's about the different experience players get when logging into a superhero MMO and the approach the player takes to the game's challenges. Originally, the idea of making a superhero genre MMO didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense; how exactly would you translate an Everquest-style approach into a capes-and-powers setting? How can heroes be 'player versus environment' when they're supposed to be protecting the world around them?
City of Heroes proved that it could be done, and in so doing, carried across many of the older traditions from MMOs. Instead of forests full of boars, goblins and giant wasps, the environment was a cityscape populated with criminals waiting to be beaten up, divided into various zones by huge energy walls. The game's ultimate encounter was a 'raid' in the old recognizable style, against a huge amoebic blob.
Despite these legacy features, the suspension of disbelief they require and the old-style feel they can bring to the game, the MMO's still going strong and Brian Clayton recently referred to 'huge plans, plans that go over the next five to ten years, for the City of Heroes franchise.' Matt Miller believes competition can only help: 'having competition pushes us to look at our own game and see how we can improve City of Heroes and stay competitive. You're going to see a lot more features that we thought we'd never be able implement over the next year or so.'
It's significant that these old-fashioned features are exactly what DC Universe Online seems to be reacting against with statements like 'We don't have demon crack dealers on one corner and robots from the future across the street, evil cultists on the top of the buildings summoning up things from a cauldron.' The DC game looks to have a radically different approach, providing a plausible city in which dynamically generated events rather than static mob population are the rule. You won't get to be Superman, but you will get called upon to help him out.
Champions Online puts the focus firmly on to individual character customization, a lesson some members of the development team will surely have learned from their time working on City of Heroes. The ability to create your own character exactly how you want him, with considerable freedom to pick powers and make a costume - even down to the ability to create your own arch-enemy - all speaks directly to a major factor in the appeal of superhero MMOs. Coming up with the character is as much fun as playing the character - sometimes more.
Mechanically, a superhero MMO has to deliver a recognizable superhero experience, and that means being able to cope with what super-characters will want to do: flying, for example, a sine qua non of the genre. That not only means combat in three dimensions, it means having to build a world in which there's as much interesting scenery above ground level as there is down on the earth. Even the attempt to model superhero combat brings differences from regular MMO play. There aren't that many MMOs in which characters can PvP in the air.
Fantasy and SF heroes also tend to be much more limited in who they can be. You're a mage, you're a tank, you're a rogue, you're a priest. You have a role in the game world's society and in the context of an adventuring team. But superheroes don't need to fit in; they stand out by their very nature, outlandishly costumed aberrations that paradoxically serve to keep society stable.
That's part of why we maladjusted souls love them. Superheroes are freaks. They can be outsiders from an alien planet, mutants gifted with weird abilities, ordinary people transformed in lab accidents. But they're still freaks. They're not normal. And when you have a genre in which the characters are all supposed to be intrinsically bizarre, and yet embraced by the world (or taken seriously by it in the case of villains) there's little limit to the kind of characters you can think up.
Just about any concept you can think of can be the basis for a superhero character. Take your concept, put the word 'man' after it (or 'woman' or 'lad' or 'girl' or similar pronoun of your choice) and chances are you've come up with a viable character. You'll probably even have ideas for a costume. This is why City of Heroes has so many character slots per server on each account, and why they've recently started selling optional additional slots. The players are eagerly buying them up.
So, in our view, that's why all the capes. Because players want to explore worlds that are pleasantly similar to our own, just with superpowers; because it's now been proven that you can make a superhero MMO that works; and because superhero games allow for more freedom, variety and creativity in character concepts than just about any other genre out there.