A few days ago a friend of mine on Facebook asked a question. It just so happens that this is something I’ve considered before and have been meaning to write for some time. Why is it that while superheroes are dominating television, movies, and comics that they seem to have such a hard time when it comes to games? Of course, when it comes to single player games, they’re actually doing really well. You’ve got the Batman Arkham series which have been one great game after another. The problem is with making them larger scale, making them MMOs.
Please keep in mind that everything stated below is purely based on my personal opinion and does not represent the views of MMOGames as a whole. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are a few people who would disagree with me entirely. I encourage anyone who disagrees to step into the comments. Fight me, bro.
I think one of the reasons is that all player characters in all games are heroes in their world. They don't go around in spandex but they are doing superheroic things, and this goes for MMOs and non-MMOs. Link in Zelda games, he’s a superhero. Your characters in WoW, superheroes. Your characters in Guild Wars 2…actually a bad example. I’m pretty convinced we’re the villains of that story. Anyway, the setting is what changes the game from a fantasy game to a superhero game and ultimately, the modern world isn't as fun to play in.
If you want to look just at online gaming... MMORPGs are a dying genre. They made the genre all about making the next WoW and when it didn't work they moved on. They're expensive to make and a massive gamble. So studios are leaning more towards games that are less of a risk.
Looking at the Superhero MMOs we've had and currently have:
City of Heroes: Financially speaking they were making money when they shut down. It wasn't a massive amount, but it kept the lights on, kept families fed, and made NCSoft money. The truth of why it shut down will almost certainly never come out but I doubt very much that it was just one thing. It also shut down right at the start of the massive rise in superhero popularity. It makes you wonder how the game would have done in the current climate.
Champions Online: Still alive and kicking. I've always had the impression that Perfect World wasn't interested in Champions and in fact, Cryptic made it because it was a pet project to show off what their engine could do (just my personal theory). They've gone on to use the same engine in Star Trek Online and Neverwinter, which are games they give a whole lot more attention to in terms of development and advertisement. Despite this, Champions does have a core dedicated audience who have stuck with the game.
DC Universe Online: I feel like this one gets forgotten a lot and I think the reason for that is that it is most successful as a console game, so traditional MMO players who would be on PC may not always consider it. Outside of MMO specific sites, the game doesn't get any attention and the game is never advertised. One way they could improve this is working out a way to tie the game into what’s currently happening in the movie/tv/comic worlds, like what Marvel Heroes did.
Marvel Heroes: Shut down late last year very suddenly. Again, this wasn't about money. They had just launched on consoles and were doing very well, the problem was that Disney pulled their license. Why did this happen? It may have had something to do with the sexual misconduct charges in the studio, but again this is one of those things where the world may never know for sure. Marvel Heroes was a great game for a certain type of gamer and it feels to me like people who would traditionally play MMORPGs weren’t that type.
The Superhero is ascendant right now but they're all the big name ones. When was the last /new/ superhero trialed on screens? Have there been any?
So while we have superheroes coming out of our ears, the question is if people want to play in those worlds or as those people.
"As those people" becomes hard, and is better off left to the single player genre... but get-it-out-the-door licensed superhero games are usually a travesty. The Arkham games for Batman are held up as fantastic, but they weren't trying to support a show or movie. Most people will greenlight a project when a show or movie is there to get the tie-in dollars.
"In those worlds" is a little easier and three out four of the games mentioned above had/have you in superheroic worlds but not as the popular characters.
Both DC and Marvel had an "MMO" out and neither were exactly setting the world on fire. Creating unique worlds like City of Heroes and Champions is a gamble and City of Heroes got in there just before/around WoW, instead of chasing the WoW mantle. Champions drew mostly from CoH fans. There's no guarantee of success but plenty of opportunities for failure.
To be perfectly honest, I'm surprised no one has taken SMITE and redone it for Marvel or DC. Did the MOBA bubble burst too quickly for this to happen? Despite the MOBA bubble bursting, I think it could have done really well and maybe it isn’t too late for the idea. Of course, in the dream version of this game, you would have Marvel vs DC because…why wouldn’t you want to see that?
I guess, ultimately the reason superheroes aren’t thriving in gaming the way it seems like they should be is a complicated mix of things. I do think that if City of Heroes was still around it could have gone into a golden age with a new player base as more and more people are drawn into the superhero genre. This ultimately could have taken the game to all new heights. Who knows, we may have even had a City of Heroes movie at some point. Ah, the things that could have been.