PvP in MMOs generally works in one of two fairly standard fashions. Either you have a non-instanced map wherein lots of people mill about and occasionally start hitting each other while competing for objectives, or you have an instanced map with two sides rushing at one another and possibly fighting for objectives. For a lot of MMOs, this model works just fine. You can argue for more variety, but the amount that's present is functional.
The problem is that virtually no superhuman conflict works this way. Even when you have a horde of villains against a group of heroes, the fight generally breaks up into several one-on-one duels between a hero and a villain. That's part of how the fight starts going south for one side or the other, with a hero or villain falling and his sparring partner moving on to help someone else.
Those aren't even the most common conflicts you see in comics. Outside of fights that are pure one-on-one affairs anyway, you generally see one person getting rushed by several opponents (either a very powerful villain or a hero swamped by adversaries). You also have heroes working their way through villainous lairs, fighting off traps and minions and so forth until they finally come face-to-face with the main villain or get captured.
A lot of these tropes are already represented in the PvE portion of superhero games, but they don't get an equivalent in the PvP side, which is content to be more standard PvP with a lick of paint. This is problematic. While it's all well and good in most games to say that PvP isn't balanced for 1v1, in superheroic games it's almost a necessity. You need it to be balanced for 1v1, 1v10, and 1-plus-facility-v10.
In other words, you need to break symmetry.
Making the mechanics
Saying this is all well and good, but it still presents some mechanical issues. The obvious one is that both PvP and PvE would need to work almost completely differently, since having a 1v1 combat system would not work well outside of PvP engagements. Without detailing specific abilities, a sort of simplified stacking buff system might work; each character builds buffs by using abilities in sequence, be they survival-based or offense-based, and with enough stacks, they can activate something big to turn the tide in a PvP match. Still, exactly how it works isn't important so long as it does work.
But how do you balance that and then let one player take on several opponents? Quite simply: You turn the lone player into a big old boss. Boost health, boost damage, and boost cooldowns until one player can effectively demolish a poorly coordinated group. Force players to work together as if they were taking down a boss, but one that requires clever strategies on the fly instead of one that follows an aggro table. If you ever wanted to simulate the feeling of being Batman or Spider-Man taking down multiple foes through cleverness and willpower, or the sense of Magneto taking on the X-Men en masse, there's no better option.
The last option already has a precedent in the form of City of Heroes' base raids, although those wound up working more as team-against-team. So make it one person against a team. The attackers fail if they are all defeated or leave without reaching an objective, the defender fails if defeated or if the objective is reached. Do you make yourself the last line of defense in your base layout? Do you focus on building a maze in the hopes that attackers will get lost, or do you keep the layout fairly reliable but more dangerous?
This has the benefit of giving characters like Arcade a place in superhero games, albeit a limited one -- people without any real superpowers but a mastery of traps and lairs. It seems wrong to not let anyone play as these villains. You might not like PvP, but this almost blurs the line between PvP and player-generated content.
So why don't we see it?
The problem with all of this asymmetrical gameplay is that it's a bear to balance. You don't get to just design a PvP game; you design and balance four or five completely different games in addition to the dozen other systems in place that are being balanced. And asymmetrical gameplay introduces whole new balance bugbears.
Still. If we can get a game that actually makes use of this sort of thing? I know I'll be buying it day one. Just FYI.
Feedback is welcome down in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, as with previous weeks. Next week, since glossing apparently left out some very important nuance, I'm going to dissect Champions Online's Lemurian controversy in a bit more detail.
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.