Like any major project, a videogame is only as good as the people behind it. Great storytellers, artists, and experienced gamers are needed to blend together varying elements to create an exciting experience we all can enjoy. Traditionally this talent has mostly been sealed into tight little individually vacuum-sealed baggies with few crossovers into other industries. In recent times, however, we are on the threshold of two geek genres finally merging. As big names from comic book backgrounds are lending their talent to a number of MMO games, we all clutch our special edition X-Men #1's with anticipation.
The list of names that have joined the MMO revolution is a cross-section of the entire comic book industry, from artists to writers. Jim Lee for example, is known for creating the second X-Men series and working on DC titles such as Superman and Batman. He now takes his experience to SOE to head up the creation of DC Universe Online. Todd McFarlane, the creator of memorable characters such as Venom and Spawn, is now helping 38 Studios on their upcoming game called Copernicus. John Layman, who worked on Wildstorm comics and the very popular Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness, spends his time working with Cryptic Studios on the upcoming Champions Online. The list continues with Ale Garza, Carlos D'Anda and many, many more that are working on numerous projects across the globe. What kind of differences will we see from people with a comic book background? A few of them might surprise you.
These battles will be epic!
In a comic, the story is absolutely crucial in bringing an adventure to life. Whether it's the complexity of a time paradox in the Age of Apocalypse or the simplicity of Spiderman finally marrying Mary Jane Watson, a great deal of thought goes into the plot. Videogames stories have traditionally been created by video game writers, where story is important but always played second fiddle to gameplay. This is no longer the case with producers and writers having learned the value of deep stories from their days with comics. I doubt this means we'll see epic story arcs like Marvel's Civil War, but it's safe to say they'll be much tighter than what has been put in recent games.
Another important aspect rarely discussed in game production is art style, and if you doubt me, try and remember the last art director interview you read. Videogames are very visual in nature, but comic books depend so heavily on art that we can expect a great attention to detail. More vibrant colors and radical designs might be in our future, even going beyond the world of City of Heroes. This isn't to say you will see "POW!" and "BLAM" above your characters head during a fight, but it will be noticeable. You can't expect people who drew Batman and Spawn to be satisfied with the textures of World of Warcraft or the realistic beauty of Age of Conan can you? Look for a step away from the norm with folks like McFarlane and Lee calling some of the shots.
The art can only make the game look better, but a games layout or level design is the backbone of any MMO game. A poorly designed level at best can irritate or turn off a player, preventing them from returning to an area. The worst case scenario can create anger, complaints, and ruin an entire game for some people. In this respect, people who have worked on videogames and comic books will have the same objectives, to make the game fun. Comic stories are widely known for going over the top so the environments in games like Champions and DC Universe Online should follow suit. Who wouldn't want to participate in an epic struggle in the Luthorcorp headquarters, or Darkseid's spaceship?
Story will have a role.
One final piece of the puzzle that comic industry talent will certainly impact is that of combat. Traditional MMO games have us equipped with swords and hurling fireballs and fighting epic battles against dragons and demons. The adventures these comic book folks have created feature punching people through buildings and creating cataclysmic brawls like what we see between Spiderman and Venom. While the overall combat mechanics will likely be a variation of what we see in other games, it's easy to imagine cars being thrown around and energy beams destroying large sections of asphalt in Metropolis. Superheroes are never satisfied with the mediocre or trite, we can expect that their creators aren't either.
The talent of the comic book world shouldnt be questioned, and their presence in MMO companies will affect various facets of design. Story, art, level design, and combat are just a few examples, but you can be sure other areas such as sound and animation will be included. The complete impact remains to be seen as all these projects are still in development, but the next few years will bring some interesting changes to MMO games. I would know, I'm the Comic Book Guy. Think I'm wrong? Care to debate which Superman is the best? Drop me an email.