Are we too old for superheroes?

I’ll admit, I abandoned the superhero genre when I turned 13. That was the age when watching Saturday morning cartoons was no longer cool — I left an animated Batman to fight the Joker on his own, a decision which didn’t work out too well for him. Since then, I haven’t really cared much for our spandex wearing friends. Yet, there’s a certain portion of us that love the universes companies like Marvel and DC Comics have built. Movie after movie has come out, calling to our inner children, bringing back to life our love for all things superhero.

In the gaming field, City of Heroes/Villains has long reigned as the only option for fans wanting to indulge in MMOs and superheroes simultaneously. Champions Online is set to enter the fray in September however, so the fanbase will have another option to choose from. Cryptic won’t simply want to steal a portion of the CoH/V pot, though, and has a few key characteristics that may open it to the mass market.

To guarantee the growth of their subscription base, Champions Online must pull in those of us who’ve left our fandom in the past. They have a lot of strengths but even more hurdles to conquer if they hope to accomplish this task. Let’s look at what they’re facing.

The Movie Complex

The most important thing players will expect is to feel like a superhero. Not all players will have been comic book fans, so their expectations will be based almost entirely on film and television media. Can an MMO live up to the glam and sparkle of Hollywood special effects? Just as importantly, can they do so in a way that will have a lasting impact on the player’s game world?

It’s not enough to allow a player to have special powers and to beat up some bad guys. There’s a hundred other options out there for that already. They have to let players build up their reputation and notoriety. Along with that are the little things, like animations that make the player feel like they really walloped that criminal and didn’t just auto-attack their way to a little exp.

Super-hero movies may have opened up the amount of potential customers Cryptic can persuade but it has also set a high bar for the company to meet.

Sole Savior or Super Civilian?

Another issue I see is the fact that the world will be populated with other heroes.  Lorewise, I’m sure there’s a crafty way to explain this away. Realistically though, I don’t see how this won’t remove a big chunk of what it means to be a superhero. Superheroes, by and large, exist in a vacuum with their cities. In comic books, you’ll occasionally see storylines that cross and groups such as the Justice League that play out their own plots. For the most part, however, each hero plays the role of the underappreciated and sometimes suspect, lone defender.

How special is it to be a superhero when every other person you encounter is also a superhero? Doesn’t that make it, you know, not very super? You’re more of a super civilian, looking up to the “real” heroes. We call those NPCs faction leaders in other games.

Console Me

We all understand that the goal of any company releasing an MMO is to get as many subscribers as possible. A niche game sets a ceiling for itself and then works from within that framework, trying to pull new players into their nichey little corner (unless you’re Darkfall). Cryptic is posed to present their MMO to a whole second audience; an audience that’s experienced with superheroes and not with MMOs. All of the sudden, this second audience isn’t subject to that “niche” ceiling. They’ve dealt with superheroes; been there, done that. They’re subject to it because it’s an MMO.

Yet, this doesn’t seem nearly as restrictive to me. Many PC gamers will dismiss superheroes outright because they haven’t been exposed to content aimed at them. Nearly all mainstream superhero offerings are directed at children. MMOs on the other hand are being hawked by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and William Shatner. Now, apply that line of thinking to Xbox gamers. Add in a little hype and you’ve got a recipe for good Xbox sales, right out of the gate.

Now comes the iffy part. Compared to MMO players, Xbox players hold their games to a much higher standard. They want to buy a finished product and receive content heavy DLC patches after that. They’re fickle and unfamiliar with MMOs and probably abhor the monthly payment model. Here’s a likely thought for many potential Xbox players: If I’m going to pay for it every month, it’d better be damn good.

Can an MMO deliver on these? There’s no real answer to that because we haven’t had any console MMOs come out in ages. Those that have tried haven’t done well compared to their PC counterparts. Even FFXI which has been around for years still only scrapes by with Xbox functionality. If we’re being honest, the expectations of most Xbox players will probably be higher than what Cryptic can deliver on. 

If they pack enough action and polish, however, they might be able to pull it off.

Customization, It’s Not Just for Spandex

Customization is one of the strongest features of the game, except I don’t think the potential for this has really been explained well enough. One of the first things a new teacher learns is that students do best when they’re given explicit instructions. We’ve heard a lot about the amount of combinations available and some very cliché options for templates but what really appealed to me were some of the more creative possibilities, like Syp’s Urban Mage.

Let’s hear some other examples that aren’t just quirky renditions of premade characters. In this game, you don’t have to be a cut and dry, cape wearing superhero. Hell, you don’t have to be a superhero at all if you don’t want to be. You can make just about any kind of character you want. It’s a roleplayer’s dream. So far, I’ve seen very few of these creative options presented. It’s more “I’m a guy that has a robotic arm and shoots fire” type stuff. I think it could benefit and appeal to more people if they opened the door a little bit

If the rest of the game is as robust as the character creation process, we’d have a gem. If it’s not, people will feel let down and go back to the Sims.

Final Thoughts

Going back to my original question, no, I don’t think we’re too old for superheroes. I think a lot of us simply have the impression that the genre is directed at children when that’s really only a half-truth. To be honest,  I didn’t have any interest in this game before I discovered a great graphic novel called The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (of recent Coraline fame). The novel introduced me to the adult side of the superhero genre which, I assure you, is much more gritty and mature. I can now see this setting in a much different light than I did as a child, which gives this game a greater appeal than it ever had before I’d read the book.

I do think, however, the game would benefit by separating it out from cookie-cutter superhero fare. Show people why it’s not the same thing their 10-year old watches on Cartoon Network and they might feel a little bit better about buying into it. That right there is the core reason why comic books aren’t more popular with adults. Break that standard and Champions will no longer be a niche game.

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