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Saving a Genre [Part 1] Superhero MMOs

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A Message to the Publishers: Two Simple Cures

What’s the Situation?

Superhero Massive Multiplayer Online (SHMMOS) games are few and far between as of 2019—kept afloat in a near cult-like status by only the most dedicated fans of the genre.

City of Heroes (CoH), the first real breakout on the scene and widely regarded as the superior SHMMO according to player reviews, critics, and award count (though, there are hundreds of contributing factors, so take this with a grain of salt), lasted only a little more than eight years, competing the entirety of its life with the then indomitable World of Warcraft (WoW). This void was to be filled by Champions Online (CO) in September 2009, and less than two years later, DC Universe Online (DCUO) in early 2011. Both of which, to this day, remain the only current pillars to the genre.

These grand columns, however, are starting to show cracks with age. With Champions Online being widely ignored developmentally by Cryptic Studios in respect to their other titles, and with Daybreak Game’s questionable, and much debated business model embedded into DCUO (more on this later), many are starting to wonder: are SHMMOs dying, and if so, how can we fix them?

To the Publishers

The easiest way for video games, new and old, to collect revenue is via successful advertising.

This is especially true for Kickstarter companies that usually have little to no experience with breaking into the open market. Though large publishing houses typically understand the steps necessary to start and maintain a classic marketing campaign, they fail to adjust strategies to focus their efforts on the right crowd. This is especially odd considering the television and movie entertainment industries witnessing a veritable golden age among superhero related material.

In a way, generating interest is free advertisement. One would think the video game industry would have naturally capitalized. As it did not, we now must determine why.

Bridging the Gap

Many complaints among all superhero games is the lack of personal connection between what people are seeing on screen, or in their favorite comics, and what is happening in game. Often times, developers will incorporate new canon into their products relatively quickly. One of Cryptic Studio’s other titles, Star Trek Online (STO), recently pulled off this feat by introducing Star Trek: Discovery into their active gameplay within eight months!

So where is DCUO and Champions Online, the only fully released games in the SHMMO genre, during this “golden age”?

Answer: On the wrong side.

CO has absolutely no connection with the two largest superhero factories globally in DC and Marvel Comics, respectively. Worse, the game suffers considerably less active development than Cryptic Studio’s other titles, often buzzing in the background of obscurity brought on by its critically low, and steadily declining population rate. Certainly, the lack of copyright to popular comic distributors is not a death sentence in of itself. Many indie titles, for example, see breakout success based on originality in classic genres.

But when combined with the complete disregard towards active development and meaningful content, any online based video game would start to sink. This, unfortunately, is the hard and undeniable truth for Champions Online, who, without pressure or funding from publisher Perfect Worlds, is being left to drown in meaningless microtransaction sales and temporary in-game events.

Meanwhile, a majority of DC related movies since 2011 performed relatively terrible (at least compared to their Marvel counterparts) save for the Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Wonder Woman (2017), making DCUO players hesitant to pay for the expansion episodes that corresponded to them. These cinematic failures could arguably be a contributing factor against new player growth; especially considering the eventual cash one would shell out in the current “pay as you go” system. Such a business model functions extremely well when geared toward the workforce adults that summarizes the average gamer, but does nothing for the teen and young adult age groups. These two tend to have the least amount of purchasing power, but if one considers them as a long term investment, will still generate users, public hype, and their own disposable income within a few years. As such, they represent possible diamonds in the rough, needing only an engaging game environment as time naturally moves them into the working class.

As it stands, the financial strategy of DCUO has been relatively steady—feeding off a dedicated, older fan base to maintain a sustainable gaming population. How long such an alienating operation can continue, however, is anyone’s guess. There are many merits to “pay as you go” and “active subscription” styles when compared to completely free games (community maturity, for example), but one wonders how much Daybreak Games would have profited if their fiscal design was more inviting to the young, budding superhero fan base spurred by the box office phenomenon.

Going Live

Among other “newer” underutilized marketing schemes is the use of common players.

Live streaming Twitch giants are heavily utilized with large YouTube personalities to play specific games and generate interest.  The undiscovered resource, though, lies in the often overlooked, small time hopefuls, which make up a far higher population than those generating real “click revenue.” The difference between a good marketing campaign and a great one is the use of all utilities at their disposal (big and small). More minor personalities attract a different kind of crowd than larger ones, and getting a game’s name to these particular individuals could prove to be an untapped source of revenue.

The real benefit, however, to enlisting the aid of modest content creators is the chance of acquiring a dedicated channel. This is especially true for newer titles and small development teams. Bigger personalities are typically too busy to dedicate themselves to one game or, contrarily, have already built their entire franchise through singular loyalties. Less popular individuals often have no such ties to a specific game, and are already in the right mindset to commit themselves into what they believe is worth it. Dedicated channels not only provide marginal revenue, they can also serve as a foothold for a budding in-game community, a bridge between developers and their clients, as well as a media outlet to disseminate information such as patch notes, opinion polls, events, and expansions.

In recent memory, I saw this utilized most effectively in the early days of Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile (PoE) and Digital Extremes’ Warframe.

So, there you have it. Are publishers killing themselves through neglect, polarizing business models, and antiquated marketing tactics? What top two things do you think publishers need to prioritize for their games to get out there? What did I miss? What other sources do you have that you think is interesting? I hope you’ll join me next time as I move down the chains, tackling the biggest developmental mistakes in Superhero MMOs, the lives lost along the way, and introduce the new faces replying to the veritable Bat Signal.

Thanks for reading, we hope you enjoyed the article! If you’d like to see some related content, and support Exclusively Games in the process, click on our Amazon Affiliate links listed below to find related products. – EG Staff

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  1. CasualKenski on March 13, 2019 at 12:59 am said

    I’m not really one for the technicalities of publishing a game and generating players, but I will say that I’m interested to read more on this topic.

    Now, I haven’t played in years so a lot has probably changed, but I actually really liked a lot of the concepts presented in DCUO, but unfortunately the gameplay just wasn’t there to keep me playing. The character creation was fun, the movement was pretty fun for the most part, I enjoyed the voice actors reprising their iconic roles (Namely Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker respectively). I played for a week or two at most and then just moved on to other things because it just wasn’t that fun to actually play after that.

    I think they got a lot of their ideas right and it’s possible they could have improved a lot of their ideas that went wrong, but that initial experience is what has kept me away.

    I’m not much for MMOs anymore, but I do find myself wishing for a great Superhero MMO to try out. At the time of City of Heroes I was spending all my time in WoW and although I had heard great things about it, I never even got to try it out, which is a regret of mine due to how fondly people who did play it remember it.

    • You make some great points. Ill go more into the gameplay stuff in the next part. Essentially, though, you got the general idea. The games do feel clunky and not so… “super.” In fact, DCUO is probably the most fluid of the bunch (combat wise). So if that didn’t catch your fancy… what hope would anything else?

      Thanks for the read, man. I know it was long as hell so I appreciate anyone who actually sticks with it (pt. 2 is gonna be even worse) >:)

      • CasualKenski on March 13, 2019 at 3:34 am said

        I’m actually going to give it another shot so I can give a fresh take on it.

        Again, it’s been years. I played it maybe a year after it came out, so it a lot of what I remember is muddled by time

        Also, thanks for posting it! I haven’t thought about it lately so it’s interesting to read about for me, and as such the length of the article doesn’t matter so much in my point of view.

        • You could also wait for the three in development that are planning for 2019 launches. Or do both and compare. Either way, be sure to shoot me up with any fresh observations I fail to mention!

    • Unkn0wn_289 on March 14, 2019 at 9:42 pm said

      I love the idea of there a fully fledge open world mmo where you can create your distinct heroes and not having any drawbacks or pay walls

  2. COH gave birth to my first super hero character, who I will not name for right now, I’m going to really surprise everybody with it.

    But it did so when they decided to nerf defensive powers in the game, and he just didn’t feel like the super hero he once was, dodging, weaving and cleaving through everything.

    Champions Online, well, lets just say I only liked one character out of that – a telekinetic. Great powerset – she was truly powerful.

    But I couldn’t play DC Universe Online. I was part of the Beta – and there was still huge collision errors in the modelling, when I received the ‘Beta is closing down and in 7 days, we’re going live email.’ I refused to buy it and play it, because I thought, wow, just wow, a bunch of people are being told, Christmas, what’s that – get back to work and fix the 1000s of bugs I saw in it!

    I don’t know if they’ve improved, or even care. It was one of the first nails in the coffin for my feelings towards AAA game publishing.

    • How companies treat the public is making more and more of an impact on the overall success of a game every day. Back before social media and the countless news outlets, a company could very quietly screw over tons of players without anyone the wiser. Even if they did so publicly, players often didn’t have much in the way of options than to continue playing anyway.

      But now, we have hundreds of options for many many genres. So you can’t get by with the minimum anymore… but SHMMOs are different. There aren’t a ton of options and people have pretty much already broken off into their own camps out of blind loyalty. It creates an environment where companies don’t really feel like they need to try anymore.

  3. Dreadjaws on March 14, 2019 at 6:13 am said

    I’m a regular Champions Online player (as in, I play for a few weeks and leave for a few more, rinse and repeat). I never got to play City of Heroes, but I did try DCUO and couldn’t really get into it. The graphics are superior to CO, but I found the combat less engaging and worse, the customization was abysmal in comparison, when in CO it’s easily the most compelling part.

    And yes, I’m extremely frustrated by the fact that CO is basically running on fumes. Granted, its ease of mainteinance is probably the only reason it’s still around, but when the only really new things players have to look up to every few months are lootboxes that’s a problem. Yeah, new costume pieces keep showing up in events, but few of them are inspired. New areas? No. New powers? Keep dreaming. New customization options? Forget about it.

    They also got rid of monthly subs for whatever reason, which causes a whole lot of problems that cannot be properly explained without a detailed exposition about how the game works. At least they seem to have fixed the several-years-old crashing problem, which for all I know might have been done by accident.

    I still really like the game, though. I spend more time creating new characters than playing with them, but that’s major part of the fun for me.

    • Of course, after turning in the article, CO comes out with a new archetype right? -_- But I’ll stick with the idea that one addition an active game does not make.

      And you’re absolutely right about the customization thing. Character connection… or rather, the bridging of the gap between your fantasy idea to the game, is probably the biggest turning point to these kind of games. All of that starts with the creation screen. Check out the reveal of City of Titans character creator and tell me what you think!

      • Dreadjaws on March 14, 2019 at 7:56 pm said

        Well, the new archetype isn’t really that big of a deal, considering it’s from an existing powerset. I doubt many people are excited about it.

        I did see the City of Titans creator and it looks fantastic. But until I see that game being actually released I won’t believe it. It’s not the first game that looks promising and ends up in limbo.

  4. The only SHMMO I’ve tried is DCUO (I played it briefly when it first came out, and recently went back and have been trying it again now that it’s out as a free to play PS4 port). The game is fairly old at this point, so the graphics don’t hold up well- it’s still certainly playable, but is not likely to attract more than the nostalgia crowd just because it still looks and feels like an 8-10 year-old game, and many more current offerings have far better graphics and such.

    I suspect CO is in a similar boat. Honestly, I don’t think any of these SHMMOs really quite hit them mark- and I think it may be because of the game system being used. Bioware hit something that worked really well when they translated 3rd Ed, AD&D into their Neverwinter Nights franchise, so I think until a system that really translates well to MMO format, the genre probably isn’t going to advance.

    (I had a blast playing Villains and Vigilantes back in the pen and paper days since it was easy to get a campaign started up, but the system was a little lax. There was another we tried that we had a really good campaign with, but I don’t remember if it was champions or not)

    • I never liked the idea of power sets. It felt far too limited than anything the pen/paper could emulate. But I have an idea for that which might be covered later…

      The graphics are indeed dated, but with all the popularity of indie games with old style graphics, it’s hard to judge how important graphic quality really is. I’d say it’s game dependent, and in something like this… I’d prefer a Borderlands 2 comic style look into the whole thing, but that’s just me.

  5. In an era of live-service games that trip over themselves to be another Destiny (when they should aim to be the next Warframe, but that’s another topic), it somehow never got to their skulls that maybe, juuuuuust maybe, there’s a huge gap in superhero MMO genre? DCUO and CO are perfectly fine, but its about time for another one, more up to todays standards. It opens up a door for a plethora of predatory practices we’ve known and loved from current AAA titles, but if done correctly we might have another big thing.
    It doesn’t even need to be Marvel or DCU. In fact, it’s better if it’s original- that way players will have more agency, instead of playing as sidekicks to the big guys (that was one of the annoying parts of DCUO).

    • That’s a really good point. And you’re right. The games are a bit dated. Luckily, there are more coming down the pipeline that I’ll be mentioning in part two.
      I would actually want to see either an independent world, or a Dark Horse comic based game. Unfortunately that usually includes many separate stories rather everyone sharing one, but I’m sure they could make it work. The heroes wouldn’t get in the way of players… because they wouldn’t want anything to do with you. Their “heroes” are just like that.

  6. There are some hopeful torch bearers on the horizon.

    City of Titans and Ship of Heroes.

    City of Titans was successfully Kickstarted a few years ago with a working Character Creation program to be released 2018/2019 (it’s delayed). Most of the staff have been working on it in their free time and I believe it’s starting to transition over to a full time staff.

    I don’t know much about Ship of Heroes but the premise looks very interesting.

    I would love to see a follow up article with an interview with some of the devs of these games.

    I really miss Coh/CoV. There is nothing right now on the market that even comes close to scratching my Brute gameplay itch.

    • Unfortunately I didn’t do any interviews 🙁

      I never really considered that as part of my job description… plus I don’t like bothering people. That would be a great idea for some of the interview guys in the forums. Maybe pass it along. I’d definitely give it a listen (obviously).

      There are other articles around the internet with some questions and quotes from the developers, though. Worth the quick search!

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