Not that this is the norm. Admittedly, calling anything the "norm" in a subgenre with only three launched games to go by is a bit complicated, but that's not the point. Champions Online doesn't let you take a walk on the villain side, and Marvel Heroes will launch without the ability to play a villain now or (presumably) ever.
This seems a bit odd on some level. We like villains, we interact with villains as readers, we enjoy seeing what the villains will do. But does it diminish a game to lack the option, or does it diminish villains as a whole when you can play as one?
By and large, superheroes are reactive. Superman doesn't just burst into Lex Luthor's home and start punching the crap out of him whenever he feels like it; he waits until Luthor has done something that usually involves donning power armor, and then he smacks Luthor around for a while. The reason for this is obvious when you think about it, since Superman just assaulting a bald man in his home would make him less of a hero and more of a bully.
Supervillains, by contrast, are proactive. Doctor Doom doesn't sit around and wait for something to happen; he develops one scheme or another and then puts it into motion, which often means kidnapping several people as step one. It's kind of asymmetric and unfair, if you think about it; Doom spends weeks or months coming up with an elaborate plan, and then Richards shows up and dismantles the whole thing in a few hours.
Of course, this doesn't work terribly well with the usual structure for MMOs. Quest structures necessitate characters getting tasks from a central source, which means that most villain players wind up serving as gophers for more powerful villains and only rarely get to try to turn the tables. Instead of being Lex Luthor, you're one of the innumerable hangers-on that he's used over the years to try and get through to Superman. You're not the Joker; you're Harley Quinn.
The result is that you do appropriately villainous tasks, but you never quite feel up to the level of villain on a regular basis. You're a thug with initiative. There are exceptions here and there, but by and large you're not building an evil lair and plotting the demise of your arch-nemesis. You're one of the lower-string villains at best, forever in the thrall of someone bigger.
Is this a bad thing? Not exactly. In some ways, it actually provides the game with a bit more freedom, as villainous characters can head in a variety of directions rather than be an eternal foil. Let's note that Harley Quinn has been used in a wide variety of stories, ranging from Gotham City Sirens to Suicide Squad to her usual role as Joker's backup. In the animated series, she even paired up with Batman at one point. There's a certain degree of flexibility implied by not being the center of attention, a freedom to plot and scheme on occasion mixed with dealing with more powerful contemporaries.
Incidentally -- why haven't we seen a game that focused more on villains in a Suicide Squad/Secret Six role, boomeranging between doing at least decent deeds on occasion and being villainous? Seems like a better than usual chance to keep heroes and villains working in the same milieu.
Six weeks off for bad behavior
Of course, the question I posed this week wasn't whether or not it can be made to work, just whether or not games are made richer for having villainous options. Fundamentally, DC Universe Online is the same game on either side, and as a result, the villainous faction is mostly there to act as a PvP foil and provide a different set of ramp-up quests. Does that actually improve the game as a whole?
I'm going to go ahead and say that yes, it does because the two games that have used it have both done so to great effect.
City of Heroes started out using Villains as a way to explore different character powers and provide players with different methods for advancing in the game. A lot of those advancements eventually got ported over to heroes, but the game as a whole was enhanced when the design team had to make villains feel villainous while sticking with the game's basic structure. And the game's second expansion added a bunch more relevance to villains, with the morality system ensuring that characters could explore both sides of the faction divide.
DCUO takes advantage of the fact that the hero/villain split in DC continuities is generally more absolute, giving us a setting where even player characters take sides almost immediately. It also creates an interesting conflict for players in the form of villainous agendas. You know that your "mentors" see you as a tool to be discarded when it's convenient, but at the same time, you need their patronage to stand against the more powerful superheroes in the world. It's an interesting take on the world, and while it uses the same mechanics as hero side, the experience is rich.
And in both cases, the games make use of the fact that villains are just plain interesting. Even if game mechanics aren't up to the asymmetric relationship between heroes and villains, you still get to explore the nastier side of the equation, doing the legwork to make one horrible plot or another come together.
Heck, part of it is just mimicking the nature of superhero comics. In most comics the reader sees the villain's plan unfolding and gets to know both sides of the story. So even if we can't get that whole feeling perfectly replicated, the games with playable villains at least get the soul of it right.
As always, feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, after a month of DCUO, I've got some thoughts, just as in Champions Online before it. And the week after that I'm doing my usual "another year of the column" post, which is a bit late mostly so DCUO gets its fair due.
By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.