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I don’t know what I was expecting. In some ways those of us who care about this sort of thing have in fact gotten far more than we probably deserved. Certainly more than many of us give credit. I dunno. Perhaps nothing they did would have been enough, really. It’s a very tall order. In some ways many of us still don’t really know what we want. We took what we got and were thankful, while at the same time… I dunno. I was originally going to call this blog post “Heroic Fails” but that’s way too harsh. They didn’t fail. They delivered what was promised. I have no reason to complain. I have no reason to whine, or look long in the tooth. And yet still I find myself looking at the choices we have and feeling like a kid poking at his dinner ungratefully with his fork. His mom slaved over a hot stove for hours, and he doesn’t wanna eat his peas, so he just kinda mushes them until she shouts at him to leave the table. That’s kinda what this is like. I know.

What I’m talking about are MMORPGs. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. In particular I’m focused on those that deal with the comic book super hero genre cuz that’s where I tend to gravitate. I’ve recently read that fans of World Of Warcraft are leaving that game in droves. I don’t have much of an opinion about WoW. I’ve never personally played the game. I’ve read a lot about it. Essentially it looks like Dungeons and Dragons on steroids. I enjoyed D&D as a kid, back when we used dice and our imaginations instead of a computer. By the time technology caught up with imaginations, I had already had my fill of dragons and dungeons. Still, for those who enjoyed World of Warcraft when it first came out, and still cling to it with all the expansion packs and other improvements over the years, it must still feel kinda like I feel now. No matter how much the game designers and production companies put into these games, it’s never enough is it? We the fans of these things are never quite satisfied. Or perhaps more specifically, many of us are occasionally satisfied but none of us are all satisfied at the same exact time. So from the designer’s point of view we must look like a bunch of thankless twats.

Back in 2003 I was really excited about a game that was mostly rumor back then, called City of Heroes. In this MMORPG, you would be a super hero of your own making, running around a city saving people and the world on a regular basis, fighting crime, conquering mad scientists, exploring new places, and discovering new powers. Everything about comic books of my youth boiled into a neat package. When it finally showed up in 2004, I couldn’t afford to hop on board the train at first. Finances and real life intervened, but eventually I was able to join the fun and as it turned out it was good cuz by the time I got in there most of the really bad kinks and bugs were ironed out of the early game. I heard horror stories of the early days but when I first logged in it was smooth sailing. I got several characters to the max level of 50. I had a lot of fun. Met some great people. It was nice.

A few problems though. Due to the limitations of the game engine and other resources, the game designers could only allow players to have certain kinds of “power sets” which limited how your character could progress. If you had an idea for a character that would have powers from multiple power sets, you were out of luck. You could have a character that blasted baddies from a distance but was weak in melee, or you could develop a character who could take a lot of damage close up but couldn’t hit anything beyond his own fist. As I understand it, in the World of Warcraft they had similar problems with players creating “TANK MAGES” that were like swiss army knives on the field of battle, but were considered unfun cheaters by other players and the game designers. In City of Heroes that problem was resolved by allowing either tanking or sniping character designs, but it was difficult to do both.

Also you could either have a character that used fire based powers or you could make a character that was ice-based, but if your original intent was to make a character who could do both, you were out of luck. I learned quickly that my first heroes were going to be failures in early levels no matter what I did, until I learned the restrictions built into the game. Eventually I figured out how to have fun within these confines. However, I had approached the game with characters in mind that I had imagined for years in stories I’d written for myself and friends or in dice-based RPGs of my youth, and I couldn’t adapt those ideas to the limitations of CoH’s game engine, so eventually I just started from scratch creating new ideas, but these characters had no real history with me. I was learning about what I wanted them to be like as I learned about the game itself.

The game designers were also regularly tweaking the game to make it fair to all players. This meant you couldn’t make a character that was much more powerful than other players, unless you figured out ways around the limitations, which would lead to your character archetype being “nerfed” or weakened to fall in line with fairness in a future update. This regularly caused consternation among the players.

Then there was the “role playing” problem in an online computerized MMOPRG. As it turned out, role playing meant different things for different people. I had entered the world of CoH with preconceived notions about role playing as it related to my high school and college days playing Dungeons and Dragons, DC Heroes, Champions, Shadowrun, and other dice-based RPGs. As it pertained to the online game, I thought I was supposed to only chat to other players in character. This quickly made me a laughing stock among other players who had already figured out that was stupid. Took me awhile to realize most other players were pretty much just being themselves behind the facade. And the times I’d run into people who were also “in character” I quickly got creeped out, cuz it WAS pretty stupid in practice. Like pretending to be an aardvark when everyone can clearly see you’re not.

Then there was the lack of knowledge about other people’s characters. Everyone had an opportunity to create a bio that was accessible by right clicking on each other and reading through it, but these bios had absolutely nothing to do with in game play. So after awhile it became obvious that learning about each other was immaterial. I’d read others bios sometimes out of curiosity but it was touch and go as to which ones were worth reading. Camaraderie in the game was also fleeting. I’d try to work up a rapport with other players but since everyone had what we called “alt-oholism” (meaning we all liked making multiple characters to try on different costumes and power sets) it was difficult to know if the people you’re playing with now were the same people you played with yesterday. Most of the time they weren’t, but even if they were, unless one of you happened to recognize another’s character from before, you’d both be oblivious. There were ways to keep track but they were cumbersome and who had time? I was too busy busting heads to keep a rolodex handy. There were clans called supergroups where you could socialize, but towards the end i just joined the group to get the extra costume slot and ignored them. They were rarely on when i was and when they were, our levels were too far apart to join for teams.

Also, it was impossible for the game designers to tailor the game to suit each individual player. The missions were usually generic task based sessions in predetermined maps which progressed a cookie cutter set of plots that described more about the game universe designed from scratch by the people making the game. At the beginning you’d be told about how bad things are and how this particular group of bad guys were responsible. You’d go beat up on them awhile, all the while leveling up and getting stronger and after each mission you’d be informed by some non player character controlled by a computer that your efforts have paid off and everybody’s happy and oh why don’t you go over to this other area where they can use your help and as you’re leaving here try not to notice that your efforts really haven’t changed this zone of the game at all, and other players are coming into this zone to do the same exact thing you just completed. The game universe was very fixed. Only your place in the universe was changing.

Due to copyright issues, I wasn’t allowed to “roll up” a character that was too similar to a favorite DC or Marvel or other copyright owned character from my youth. The company that made City of Heroes had no authorization for use of those characters, so they made up their own imaginary world from scratch that was obviously inspired by the comic books but in no way was it plagiarizing, and if a player was caught making a character too close to plagiarism, City of Heroes’ employees were required to “genericize” your character, or in extreme cases delete a player’s account entirely after multiple infractions. They didn’t want to get sued by Marvel or DC. Despite attempts to police this, players kept doing it anyway, and eventually Marvel’s parent company learned about this and sued City of Heroes anyway.

This was a bitter sweet thing, cuz it meant Marvel was made aware of City of Heroes and the potential, so to make a long story short, Marvel and City of Heroes settled out of court, provided the company behind CoH (called Cryptic Studios) developed a game like CoH that Marvel could opt to use. Cryptic Studios did this, and Marvel backed out of the deal for reasons that were never made clear to the general public. Cryptic didn’t want their efforts to have been wasted and there were political disagreements between Cryptic Studios and what’s currently called NCSoft anyway. So NCSoft kept City of Heroes, and Cryptic Studios took what was gonna be the Marvel game, adapting the Champions dice-based Role Playing Game of my youth after getting permission from the owners of that copyrighted property. What was originally going to be Marvel Universe Online turned into Champions Online, with a whole new game engine and a more comic book feel to the graphics and gameplay. Having maxed out multiple players in City of Heroes, and being totally uninterested in the City of Villains game content that NCSoft had been building on around that time, I jumped ship and headed over to Champions for awhile.

I still have an account with both games, but the last time i visited City of Heroes they had made so many changes to their game engine that i didn’t recognize my own characters anymore. The game was no longer as user friendly as I remembered, and the game content had grown stale. Even with the introduction of user-made content where people could make up their own missions and share them with each other? I just couldn’t feel comfortable in City of Heroes anymore. Champions Online promised a whole new world to explore with new characters and ideas. I currently have two characters maxed out and a couple others that still interest me. Although some of the problems i described above also weigh down Champions Online. For example the missions are still a little cookie cutter but there was more variety and more bells and whistles at least early on. The zones are still static, but more effort has been taken to make it appear you’re making a difference even if you can’t really. I mean the game has to be available in the condition you found it for newer players coming up behind you, but it does kind of feel you’re making a difference… okay no it’s not it’s still the same problem.

Then there’s the copyright problem again. You still can’t make Captain America or Superman. Well. You can. But you risk getting the ban hammer. I see players try to do it all the time and some get away with it by parody but some do not. Frankly it’s a badge of honor for many players to make a character as not like anything ever published as possible, but sometimes it’d be nice to pretend to be Batman or The Hulk for awhile. I make up my character ideas from whole cloth but no one else understands where I’m coming from or why i made the choices i did, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to be most of the character ideas i see. It makes teaming up a bittersweet affair sometimes, as I don’t see my character ever fraternizing with half of these other characters. It’s like watching Mickey Mouse hang with Jonah Hex or Harry Potter. Fun, yes, but difficult sometimes if that’s just not what you’re in the mood for.

Then Marvel’s competition weighed into the picture a few years ago with DC Universe Online. I’ve always been more of a DC fan than Marvel, so I was chomping at the bit to try this one. This time around the problem of copyright laws was partly resolved, cuz DC owned the DC characters and used them extensively in the game. A lot of care was put into the environment, so old diehard fans like myself could properly immerse ourselves into the fantasy worlds of Metropolis and Gotham City. This was awesome on the outset. You played a character of your own creation, but it could be inspired by a DC superhero if you so chose. You couldn’t actually be Superman, but you could be a guy who looked almost like Superman, had many of his powers, and even wore a similar costume. Or you could go off on your own creatively speaking, or you could make a character inspired by multiple character ideas. I made one villain character that was inspired by both Green Lantern and Green Arrow. That was a fun ride. In the game, you are mentored by one of the big names in the DC universe, depending on the choices you made, but you’d also get to rub elbows with your mentor’s fellow justice league (or fellow villains for the baddie’s side) and you’d be instrumental in saving the world countless times through a wide variety of plots and events.

However, this game had less of a character generation system than even City of Heroes. The power choices were limited again, and the costume options were restricted after initial character generation until you could had enough experience to afford to acquire the costume parts for mix and match costuming design. A big chunk of fun in these games isn’t so much fighting as it is making up new character ideas and looks. In all these games there’s millions of different combinations, but if you have something specific in mind your choices become very limited very quickly. Also the character progression was even more focused on ‘fairness’ so that everyone of the same level had powers and abilities that didn’t excel your peers in any real way, so even though the looks were different, how player character affected bad guys and the environment was often pretty much the same.

The stories were a bit more interesting because they involved characters with a history, which I’d read about since I was a child. However, after awhile I noticed that while dressed up a bit with smoke and mirrors, they’re still pretty much the same missions. You’re going into a predetermined map, taking out any bad guys, saving the occasional damsel in distress, beating on a boss until one of you falls, and go get your experience or other reward. Lather rinse repeat until you level again. This is known in the MMORPG community as ‘grinding.’ And it gets rather repetitive. I could tell with DCUO, the game designers were dancing just as fast as they could with their parlor tricks, but after the novelty of “ooh this is really Metropolis!” wore off, it’s still grinding.

So as i said at the start, i can’t complain. I don’t have a right to. The game designers delivered what they said they would. These are fun games. I’ve enjoyed them all immensely. I still have fond memories of City of Heroes tho I may never visit it again (its still on my hard drive if I ever change my mind). I have enjoyed Champions and continue to do so, though some days I wonder why I’m still in there. I lost interest in DCUO after taking two good guy characters and one bad guy to max level. However it’s kinda calling me back again. Maybe if I start a new character from scratch I can regain my appreciation of it.

Marvel came out with a game awhile back called Marvel Super Hero Squad Online which appears to be primarily for children, so I haven’t tried it. There is talk that they are in the final stages of Marvel Heroes, that will be a MMORPG in the Marvel Universe where you actually get to play the part of characters from the universe directly. You don’t get to make your own characters. This time you’re actually Spider-Man or Black Panther or Scarlet Witch. However, so is everybody else. Not sure how that’s gonna play out. Preliminary videos from recent conventions show that the game is based off the Diablo game engine, which kinda makes me wince a little bit. I played the first Diablo but haven’t played 2 or 3. We’ll see what happens there. I’m trying to keep an open mind but at the same time.. Gee i dunno.

I don’t think that’s the answer. I don’t think that’s the right direction to go. I don’t think the problem is just that we want to BE Superman or Spider-Man. I think the situation is something with which game designers don’t know what to do. We want to FEEL like Superman or Spider-Man. I want to create a character in a MMORPG that stands out and is remembered by his peers. I want to go in, affect the environment in a positive way that people after me will notice. I want to make my mark in the landscape. I don’t just want to be like Superman and I don’t want to just BE Superman. I want whatever character idea I bring to the table to make a difference and matter. I don’t just want the illusion that my character has fit into a predetermined cookie cutter role in a static unchanging world. I don’t know what the actual answer is, but if a game designer comes along to find out what that answer is and they fulfill it, THAT’s where everyone’s gonna gravitate next.

Maybe I want to have more than just a one paragraph blurb that tells my character’s life story. Maybe the thing is I wanna tell my character’s story from start to finish, complete with his own rogue’s gallery of villains and supporting cast and the trials he undertakes and how he overcomes them. I don’t want to just make a cookie cutter mission with X number of baddies to take down and X number of damsels to undistress. I want to show how this guy got his powers, what he did with them, and where that took him.

That may be a tall order, but not fulfilling it could ultimately be the great heroic fail of this genre of MMORPGs.

But at least they’re trying. I guess.