I was reading an interesting discussion on Zen of Design about how to address the public’s innate desire to play as Batman or Wolverine in the forthcoming Marvel and DC MMOs; I haven’t any contribution to make to that discussion other than the fact that if you think having some “Kekeke LOLZ” person playing as one of your nearest and dearest intellectual character properties is a good idea, you must have been snorting the Joker’s dandruff. I mean, just go on to an MMO server, any server, any game, and turn on general chat and listen for five minutes. Ok, that, that right there is going to be what it would sound like in Professor Xavier’s school for the ‘gifted':
Cyclops: “Wolverine is FAG!”
Wolverine: “I am not! I kik ur ars in PvP. QQ more Siklops you == teh lose”
Cyclops: “Ur just got overpowered regen FoM character.”
Rogue: “Hey guys, can’t we all just get along.”
Wolverine: “Show us ur boobs Rouge!”
Rogue: “Oh please.”
Cyclops: “Jean Grey has the better boobs.”
Wolverine: “NO WAI!”
Beast: “Yuh uh!”
Cyclops: “What who?”
Cyclops: “Who u reporting I not done anything.”
Jubilee: “I’m reporting you and Wolverine.”
Cyclops: “We didn’t do nothing.”
Wolverine: “Jubilee got no boobs.”
Beast: “Ha ha”
Storm: “Hey what about my boobs?”
Letting players loose on your carefully crafted IP is just going to end in tears and far too many screenshots of Wolverine and Cyclops trying to gangbang Rogue or Magneto or each other. So what to do? I’d like to see the game building a story of your character as a hero in their own right. Starting off the game as a civilian could be an interesting ploy, it allows you to build the story right from scratch and work your way through one of the most interesting parts of any hero’s story, the act of transformation. Bruce Wayne’s struggle and eventual coming to terms with the bats in the cave beneath Wayne Manor for example, which represented more than a phobia of flying rodents, but a struggle with helplessness and fear. Peter Parker’s horror and confusion at his newfound power, followed by jubilation and freedom and then regret and the oppression of responsibility. It could be argued that these moments, above all things, make these characters what they are, to themselves and to their audience. The act of discovery is beautiful in its own right, so why deny your players the chance to experience this with their own characters, and perhaps provide a unique bond between that player and their virtual alter ego.
It would beat starting the game as a low powered hero.
Officer: “Help! Infernus! There are people stuck in the bank’s vault; they’re running low on air and it’s been frozen shut by the icy Dr. Blain!”
Infernus: “Sorry officer, I’m only a low powered hero. My powers are quite limited. I can reheat that cup of coffee for you though, if you’d like.”
Officer: “I, uh… sure.”
Infernus: “Ok! It’ll take me about twenty minutes or so, but then it should be nice and steaming again. Stand back now. Infernus calls forth the inferno of Hades to do his bidding!”
<A little puff of smoke and a tiny match-like flame spring forth from the palm of his hand>
<Infernus grins sheepishly at the unimpressed policemen>
Have your players start out as civilians and have them pick the route they want to go through to become the hero of their choosing. A player could run missions at the local military facility if they wanted their hero to be the result of scientific military experiments, or perhaps they will find a military battle-suit that they steal and use for the good of mankind. Once the basic concept of the hero has been decided through pre-hero quest choices the transformation mission would be undertaken. Lord of the Rings Online has shown that the instanced, scripted mini quest is very viable as a method of storytelling, and I imagine it could work well in the super hero genre as well.
But it shouldn’t stop with the drama of the transformation, the life of a super hero is defined not just by the villains that they fight and the wrongs that they right, it’s also about the struggle with anonymity and with being misunderstood, it’s about having to leave loved ones behind or neglected, and it’s about the crushing responsibility of power over the lives of others.
It’s about human nature when faced with the unnatural.
And this is the problem that Marvel and DC have with their games; in my view their heroes are compelling because of the story surrounding them, it’s not about the flashy powers (if you think about it, most of them have a very limited range of powers), it’s about the way that they use them and the stories that result from the use and misuse of these gifts, as a normal human being comes to terms with the extraordinary and the resulting moral decisions. The problem is that the MMOs of the past have never been the greatest medium for the telling of tales where the character is concerned, oh yes there are stories, stories abound, but they are not about the character, they are about the world the character lives in, or they are about the lives of the NPCs with which the character interacts. What I’d dearly love to see in these future super hero games is a new take on MMOs, where storytelling becomes an integral part of the player’s game, such that a player becomes so involved in the story of their character, where to live the decisions, victories and failures of the character becomes so integral to their idea of a super hero that they do not care to play as that meat-headed Wolverine, because their character’s story is more compelling to them.
The super hero genre unlike any other has the ability to break the boundaries of MMO convention just as their characters break the boundaries of human endeavour, but it may well take a super human effort on the part of the developers to make it a virtual reality.