It’s a weird but easily seeable dilemma these days that people obviously don’t understand what makes a hero anymore, let alone a super hero. Why do I bring this up? Because I was thinking back on the many “discussions” I’ve had on the subject and almost every time the point was brought up about what makes a heroic person, or a super heroic person, the people involved always answer by the sheer fact of how much ass they can kick or how they can shrug off the best of the best hits. Needless to say, my answer to that is pretty much, no, that’s not what makes a hero or a super hero, that is what makes a Mary Sue.
Let me try to explain this reasoning. Heroes are people that accomplish unreasonable goals that defy the odds at great personal risk to them. So, what would make someone a super hero then? Well a hero would have to be someone who could defy the odds against normal things that can happen; a super hero would be someone that defies the odds against the impossible. So let’s look at it from another stand point; a man in a subway sees a little girl fall on the tracks while there is an oncoming train. Without much thought he dives down, covers the little girl between the rail lines and shields her. His quick thinking and selfless actions make him a hero. And for the record, this really happened. The man lived, despite the odds at great personal risk to his own life to save someone else. This act makes him a hero without question.
Heroic acts can happen every day from every day people and it’s these qualities when someone steps in and protects others at personal risk to themselves that marks them as a hero. So, if that marks a hero what marks a super hero? Some would say super powers but for me that just doesn’t seem quite right. While someone with super powers can indeed do a heroic thing, that doesn’t make them defy the odds if they can’t personally risk themselves in the long run, so for a super hero the odds usually have to be steeper and the end result would cost them something they hold dear to themselves or their own ideals. This would be the mark of a super hero. This is generally what is conveyed in comics when it concerns a super hero, the risk isn't so much to themselves as it is to their lives and the people they care about or their personal ideals.
So this is the crux of the problem with a modern MMOs take on super heroes. The character (aka the hero) and player have no personal risk to themselves in the long run. So, how is this dilemma fixed? Quite simply to be able to have a super hero in a modern MMO the challenges would have to be equally super to overcome, but that is something difficult to do, because so many people have misguided belief on what really makes a super hero. So this enters the world of why the current generation and past generation of super hero games actually aren't doing so well in the eyes of the mass market. The lack of that personal challenge, that despite what some people believe, just isn't there in a game where people can shrug off hailstorms of bullets without so much as flinching.
In short, the challenges are usually just not there for a medium where being a super hero is the staple. Let’s take for instance the difference between Superman and Batman. Superman is a very iconic and popular American super hero. However, if you took him at his own merits without the personality or anything else, all he is, is a walking Mary Sue. He is immortal to practically everything with only a few plot devices even actually able to cause harm and he is nearly capable of doing tons of things, which to the point just make it impossible to realistically causing harm. What separates Superman and elevates him to a more heroic status is the fact that he has personal risk in the people he cares and loves and at times his own moral compass is challenged on what would be the best course of action and what would be the right course of action. And once in a blue moon, Superman is actually put to the test with a foe or baddie that can actually hurt him thus giving him that super heroic quality. After all, it is the risk that he takes that actually interest’s people and how he goes to stay true to who he is, not the fact that he can fly, has heat vision or can lift unbelievably heavy objects. If we were to just take him on his physical abilities alone and forget everything else, Superman would be a dull, boring character and unlikely that he would have lasted as an iconic character for the near century he has been around.
On the flip side there is Batman. Batman has done super heroic things but he is just a man. However, he is on that dangerous precipice where he is becoming an uninteresting character now. Batman has faced odds that typically would defy even super hero logic, and lately it’s boiled down to him “always being prepared” which absolutely makes no sense when you actually think about it because some of the situations he’s found himself in would have no standard for being prepared with. If you were to discuss, at length, you would find people saying he is the most relatable hero to people because he is an everyman. To which I say, bullshit. Bruce Wayne is a rich kid, with tons of money that affords him a lot of what he can do. He’s intelligent, that much is certain, but it seems that as long as he has his utility belt and “time to prepare” as any argument boils down to, he is unstoppable. This has gotten ridiculous lately with Batman because he’s become such an unstoppable force on almost every situation. His personal risk factor has diminished while his immortality status has climbed. He’s sitting on the precipice of crossing the line of hero to Mary Sue, since he seems to be prepared for everything that could potentially cross his path, and in a lot of events, he’s been prepared for the impossible to the point that some people would have to at least be able to scream bullshit in their minds. He’s distanced himself, practically, from every weak link he might actually have, and he’s pretty much become a hollow person now going through the routines if you take Batman as he is now.
So what do these points have to do with this discussion, well back on point let’s discuss a super hero game. The problem with the current and past super hero games is that the hero characters often have the character at first start out challenged, but as the game progresses the challenge does not remain constant and actually declines greatly. Some might argue that their super hero should not get hurt, or they should be invincible to everything but this doesn't make a heroic character. This makes a Mary Sue. As the game progresses, in the super hero genre, the challenges have to match or more often, exceed what the heroes (aka characters) are capable of doing. If they don’t, then they aren't heroes anymore and they've just went from being super heroes to Mary Sues. If the toughest enemy in the game, by the time you reach that point, doesn't even present a threat to the character then there is a fundamental flaw and people recognize this fact, even if subconsciously. While some think that a super hero should be an unstoppable force, again, this is not what makes a super hero.
The players have to be at a personal risk to lose some how to keep the game interesting, and there are many ways to convey this risk other than just making a really tough bad guy. Of course, if you were to listen to some conversations on this subject, people believe heroes must always win to be heroes. The answer to that is no, they don’t. There are many instances where heroes don’t always win or they come out having to compromise their very own beliefs in order to actually save or help people. These are things that are missing from the current super hero games, the personal risk to the character and reasons to drive themselves to grow and become better at what they are doing.
Basically put, if the current super hero MMOs want to actually convey being a super hero, they need to stop being bad guy beat down simulators and start actually presenting challenges that would test the resolve and metal of the players involved. While some players would say such things are dumb and don’t convey a super hero, the plain fact of the matter is they are wrong. In short this type of person thinks challenge is bad, and they think that not being able to win because they refuse to learn is terrible game design, but even that can be conveyed in comics that the heroes do not always win. It’s almost the same vein as people hating roles because people think roles don’t exist anywhere else, when they can physically be proven to exist even in the most meager of jobs and even in comics with super teams.
But, to put it simply, for a super hero game to actually garner interest past a costume creator or characters with fantastical powers syndrome, the game actually has to present something that challenges the player and thus the character to still be considered a hero. It’s easy to set up a system that allows a character to mow down a swath of bad guys, that much has been proven three times in three different MMOs, but it’s an entirely different thing to present situations that challenge the players; mentally, character physically, and objectively.
A character should not be a walking unstoppable force and called a super hero, that’s just dull. But what needs to be created for modern super hero games is other facets to convey. Take Batman Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. If you just tried to do straight up brawling in that game against swaths of gun toting foes, you would be dead quickly. The game encourages and outright demands that you actually tactically think of the situation or even just stealth past the stuff without causing a ruckus. Some of the encounters and situations even require that you just be able to figure out a puzzle within a time limit, things that mentally challenge the player instead of just physically challenging how many bullets they can soak up before their life bar hits zero. These are things that a modern super hero MMO needs to take into account. After all, which would be more risky to do, jump into a group of bad guys with your invincible character, or entering a warehouse and having the information to know that if you trip a single alarm or alert a single bad guy the hostages you came to rescue would be killed instantly. These are facets that need to be introduced into the modern super hero MMO.
In short, it's easy to make a game based solely around a bad guy smack down quota, it's harder to actually put in things that require the player to think like a hero. The former has the ability for cheap and instant gratification for a few hours, maybe a couple of days, the latter has the ability to keep interest for a lot longer and has the bigger payoff for the company in the long run. These are things developers should be thinking about in the long term.