Super hero themed games have yet to fully blossom in the MMO market, even with the moderate success of NCsoft's City of Heroes. Whether the market is underdeveloped or niche depends on who you ask, but at least two contenders to the super hero crown - DC Universe Online and Champions Online -are betting that popularity of comic books combined with the average video game playing demographic will be a volatile mixture. Recent movie blockbusters, such as the Dark Knight and Iron Man, have brought this genre to a popularity level unseen in decades and could open up a whole new audience to MMOs.
Armed with all this support what could possibly go wrong? Every geek dreams of standing atop a tall building with their cloak blowing in the breeze, waiting for evil to make it's next move. Giving players such a feeling, in a world full of other superheroes, is a challenge both games will face over the coming months.
A Champion Among Men
Just mentioning the Champions RPG will put many old time gamers into pen and paper nostalgia and remind them that they need to remove the inch of dust on their still cherished source book. While it didnt have the long term popularity of Dungeons and Dragons, the Champions RPG was generally well received and enjoyed by fans all over the world. It's hard to forget that the Cryptic Studios developers were the creators of the only superhero MMOG to date, City of Heroes. Originally being published by the 2K power house, they've recently wound up in the hands of Atari, and Jack Emmert has voiced nothing but enthusiasm over the change.
Champions Online has a significant advantage almost never seen in game development, an established rule set that works well as a video game system couple with absolutely tons of lore. Wizards of the Coast has only recently made D&D more video game friendly, but the HERO System has had video gaming potential since its very inception. Cryptic has already admitted to heavily borrowing from the HERO System core concepts of character and power customization, and with 30 roleplaying game supplements on the market there are plenty of level design ideas available. With all that at their fingertips it leaves more time to focus on the fun factor that gamers see ignored so frequently. As a bonus, this also promises to spawn countless sourcebook quoting threads on their official forums, while will provide hours and hours of entertainment.
But what about playing as villains? While little mention has been made of players actually being able to take control of a villain, an interview (link) late last year stated they were examining the option of letting you play a nemesis in certain scenarios. After being spoiled by City of Villains, the bar has been set and many players are going to want to switch things up by becoming evil. I think this feature is going to be in heavy demand and expanded beyond just a few random encounters. If not, this will give DC Universe the upper hand in at least one major mechanic.
Supermans, Batmans, Green Arrows, Oh my!
Our other contender for the super hero throne is DC Universe Online, an MMOG that will put players in an established comic book world that could (and should!) include Metropolis and Gotham City. In development by Sony Online Entertainment since early 2007, it was officially announced just recently, although it had been openly discussed as a sidebar in a number of interviews and presentations. No company has the MMOG development experience of SOE, which game portfolio includes EverQuest, EverQuest II, Star Wars Galaxies and more. That said, the SOE name has also been attached to many controversial decisions. While this could create an awkward situation for people who swear they will never buy another SOE product it seems unlikely that those few gamers that actually stick to the decision will affect overall sales.
For years, DC Comics was the most recognized comic brand in existence and even now is in a deadlock with Marvel for popularity bragging rights. Hit shows and movies like Smallville, Superman Returns, both Batman movies and serious talks of a Green Lantern movie will insure that this game is easily visible on the pop culture radar. On top of that, two of the biggest names in comic books, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns, have also put their reputations behind the project, and only 38 Studios R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane can compare with those two.
With such powerful brand recognition, it's almost guaranteed that DC Universe will sell boxes. What true comic geek would pass up the opportunity to help Batman or Superman with a mission? If this is successfully transitioned to both consoles (the Xbox 360 too Sony!) and released at the same time as the PC version, it could make a killing.
Another major advantage SOE has is that DC Universe is planning to implement playable villains. As we all know, Evil always triumphs, because good is dumb. Truer words have never been spoken to many of us. Sometimes, just to switch things up, we like to play as the bad guy. No, I don't want to go kill kittens or mug old ladies, but why can't I rob a bank or dump nuclear waste in the bay? [Editors Note: Thus killing any kitten that drinks the water. Har har.] This certainly will stretch their development team and less focus will be on heroes, but as long as they provide a complete system, it will take off.
An Epic Battle
So who is going to win between these two titans? For starters, the consumer will definitely come out on top because they'll have something besides City of Heroes/Villains to play. It's important to remember that both of these games are still being developed, so a lot can change in just six months.
From what we know at this point, I'd personally have to give an edge to DC Universe Online. While I have no doubt Cryptic Studios is going to provide a quality product, DCUO's incredibly strong IP mixed with a large stack of corporate cash equals advantages that the Champions Online folks don't have.
Of course, Champions Online is scheduled to release far in advance of DCUO, so by the time the SOE product hits store shelves, Champions may have already secured its place in MMO legends. The folks at Cryptic certainly know how to make a super hero game, if City of Heroes is any indication.
Whoever comes out on top, just know that I will be following this battle till the bitter end. Because, after all, I am The Comic Book Guy.
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