What makes one superhero better than another? Is it a better costume, more advanced gadgets, or sheer bravado? Does the fact Aquaman should have been beaten into a thin paste by the Submariner make either more powerful? Fortunately for us, life is much simpler in a videogame world, where progression is tied to either skill advancement or the classic "level" distinction. Sony Online Entertainment's DC-themed MMO game is currently in development and due out next year, but we still have to wonder which of the two systems it will use? Should our progress be measured in skills or is a traditional level-based mechanic more appropriate to the superhero environment?
To make a thorough analysis of this situation, we could take a look at our only mold for this genre of MMO game, City of Heroes. It's certainly not the newest kid on the block, but the only successful one in the super hero genre so far. With every skill being tied to certain levels, this system seems to work very well for CoH. This should make the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" advantage clear from a development perspective and discourage tinkering. However SOE isn't trying to make a sequel so this might be one of those core mechanics that gets altered in order to give DCU a more unique feel.
Looking at a similar product probably isn't going to help, so let's examine an obvious logical point. Measuring superheroes by "level" really isn't practical in a universe full of powerful beings. Now of course you could obviously say Superman was more powerful than Batman or Braniac more dangerous than Lex Luthor but it doesn't go any deeper. Other than a classification of raw mutant power in the Marvel universe, there aren't really any other detailed measurements of character power levels. Why should players be pigeonholed into the same stereotype? Who wants to be ranked among the Teen Titans when they could stand with the Justice League of America?
Let's put logic aside because games generally are designed for fun. The largest disadvantage the level mechanic is that it's a tired and used up system. Dating back to the foundations of roleplaying games like Dungeon's and Dragons, it has continued in hundreds of other pen and paper and videogame products. That isn't to say these are bad mechanics, but let's be a little more creative and stop working with hit points, strength, and other similar stats. Unless DCU is going to have a Mage class and require a certain Intelligence score to play, could they go outside the box?
If all this wasn't enough, a skill-based system offers a profound number of customization options not found in static leveling. Even if you look at games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2, or Warhammer Online, their systems all offer supplemental skill based options to differentiate playstyles. When players can pick and choose, this empowers them and presents the illusion of a higher level of control upon their avatar. The real question is whether to utilize a hybrid system or go for broke with something like EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies, or Pirates of the Carribean.
I know I've been Negative Nancy concerning the classic level system thus far but there are in fact some great advantages to sticking with the standard class-based structure. One of the most attractive is an easier time developing the game. Creating something around the concept of getting skills X and Y at level 10 is much easier than balancing and setting caps for a dozen skills. Not only is it easier to create but it's an easier concept for players to grasp. Players love having options available to them, however anyone who has spent twenty minutes trying to decide which Batman title to purchase can tell you sometimes there can be too many.
Finally a level system provides a concise measurement or "con" of a combat encounter. Communicating the difficulty of combat to players while providing variety has been a continual challenge to game companies the last few years. Each game has a twist with more difficult fights being heroic, elite, or boss but generally an actual number lets players know the odds of their spleen being pulled through a nostril. Honestly I don't see how SOE can get around this one as the pure skill-based games like Darkfall, Ultima Online, and EVE Online require you to either learn about different character models, displayed equipment and ship types to get a semi-accurate "con" of another player in PvP and just simply have a relative understanding of in-game NPCs in PvE.
DC Universe Online has a lot going for it including IP recognition, hefty corporate investment, and large scale marketing. At the end of the day, which system they end up using will only be a one piece of a large system but a core mechanic nonetheless. Which direction will SOE go? We'll just have to watch for more news to find out. Then again they've been known to push the envelope and try radical things in the past which means something brand new could emerge. This would make me wrong, but I'll never admit it because I'm the Comic Book Guy. What do you think about DC Universe Online and why should Aquaman have lost? Email me and I'll let you know.
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