When taken out of context, pretty much every MMORPG character is a superhero. Take my captain from Star Trek Online. She certainly didn't look human, but even if you ignore that she used a variety of advanced technology to accomplish her goals. She wore a light suit of armor that carried a portable shield generator, could deploy mechanical drones capable of defending and attacking, and had tools for scanning objects down to the molecular level.
None of her abilities would look out of place in the Justice League, in other words. But most of this stuff was normal within her setting of origin. Or at least normal for a highly trained Starfleet officer.
You can argue that this makes the line pretty easy to draw: Superheroes are characters with abilities that are abnormal for their setting of origin. But in the context of a superheroic MMO, that falls apart. Not only are several characters with superpowers walking around at any given moment, but some of your characters quite possibly have less power than their peers. In game terms, the guy with guns and a sword is just as effective as the guy with control over flame, but in the setting, one of them is a dynamo of incinerating wrath and one just has a concealed weapon permit.
Even then, it's still not enough. There are a few people in The Secret World who refer to the player characters as superheroes, and they're certainly more powerful than the average human, even if that human is a mage... but the game isn't a superhero game. It's a modern horror game. Your superhuman abilities are almost incidental to the experience.
This can go on down the line. Heck, I can think of a game off the top of my head in which stylized characters wage a war against evil in ridiculous costumes using superhuman abilities while traveling to other dimensions, deep space, and strange metaphysical planes. But no one would call World of Warcraft a superhero game.
Obviously games like Marvel Heroes and DC Universe Online are superhero games; they're based off of long-running superhero franchises. But there's more to making a superhero setting than simply copying an existing franchise, and there can even be confusion about what makes a superhero within the context of comics. It gets doubly difficult in a game where, by definition, a lot of other people are going to have the same power as you do, and the whole thing can't come down to writing.
In fact, it's even harder to get away with one of the major ideas of superhero comics in an MMO. In comics, heroes are often isolated and forced to overcome incredible odds to achieve victory. No matter what else is happening, there's a sense of isolation. Spider-Man can't just call the Avengers every time he's in a tight spot; I remember one issue of the comic in which he was desperately calling other heroes because he had to deal with a villain far outside of his weight class and everyone else was busy stopping other world-threatening crises.
In an MMO, you're never far from help. Even if you're in a solo area, you can always duck out and look for some help.
But there's still a distinct sense of some games being superhero MMOs, and I think a lot of that comes down to scope. I've been talking this whole time about how a superhero game is by its nature able to encompass many things from many different genres. The difference is that most games aren't capable of doing the same.
No character in TERA will ever be a mechanical prodigy creating autonomous robots, no character in The Repopulation can possibly be a wizard, and nobody in The Secret World is a survivor of a post-apocalyptic environment thrown back through time. Superhero games allow all of these things to coexist without a problem. They allow science and magic to play shoulder to shoulder, and while a given game can have narrower storytelling than this, there's always the space to expand. The world doesn't feel constrained.
This expands to characters as well. Yes, Marvel Heroes gives you heroes with pre-set limits, but it also has systems in place to let you play as any number of heroes without penalty. Champions Online lets you mix up any set of powers you want. DC Universe Online makes your choices more limited but doesn't prevent you from using any set of powers in conjunction for a specific role. You have freedom to do whatever and be whatever.
If anything, the big thing to take away is that part of what makes the difference is whether or not a game claims that it's about superheroes. There isn't just a list of "superhero traits" you can run down. It requires some individual craft.
Feedback can be left down below or sent via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, continuing on the somewhat meta theme (unless some huge news erupts), we'll chat about why we can't get a decent crafting system in a superhero game.
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.