The narratives in comic books are complex, dense, and filled with more story lines than your favorite soap opera. While on par with most fantasy series, are they deep enough for an entire MMO game to be built around them? If you look at games like Lord of the Rings Online or Warhammer Online and the simple answer might be a hesitant yes, but the difference between these two mediums is considerable. If you included all the characters in an entire universe like DC Universe Online there is plenty of material to work with, but could you really use individual characters or standalone stories? We're going to look at a few challenges that using specific character IP's will present followed by specific examples that could make a successful game.
All forms of fiction are character centric, but comic books in particular have a very specific focus around their heroes. Unless Jimmy Olsen requires saving, how much do we really learn about him? Secondary characters always play their roles but specifics are always revealed in bits and pieces as filler. My point is, that while youre in the world of Batman there is only him and that is our focus. In a Batman MMO game no one would want to play Alfred the Butler or random Gotham City police officer number 224. There must be an entire world of interesting character types that players could take the role of and many comic IP's don't provide that.
Would a pair of heroes be enough for an entire game?
The universe of comic books might be extensive, but focusing on a specific hero or set of heroes could also make it difficult to create enough content for tens of thousands of players. Even if you did allow people to become citizens of Gotham City or vigilantes, how big could the game really be? Sure, you could have a criminal element and plenty of places to go, but what would make this more exciting than playing City of Heroes? The IP will have to be dense enough to support such content and single name titles like Superman, Captain America, or the Hulk probably just aren't going to cut it.
Super heroes have enjoyed plenty of prosperity over the last few years with hit films like the Hulk, Spider-Man, Batman, and the third installment of the X-Men series. The characters in these films have found mass appeal with audiences all over the world, but other characters may not enjoy such acceptance. How much love is there for someone like Aquaman? It would be difficult to market the Flash no matter how good your game play is, so market wide acceptance is something which would need to be carefully considered.
A final challenge would be inconsistencies within your storyline thanks to the endless crossovers. The world of Iron Man can't exist without the rest of the Avengers, and Nick Fury interacts with dozens of other characters from Marvel. Their absence from the game would close a number of content doors and raise countless questions from savvy fans. In this sense your selection of the title would have to be in an independent universe - such as Spawn - or provide the answers when these concerns are brought up.
Now that we've examined the challenges, let's take a look at a few IP's that could actually work. Keep in mind these are just suggestions that could avoid some of the issues I mentioned above.
In the spirit of games like Wizardry 101 and the potential of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, why not have an X-Men Academy? A good portion of the game would consist of players learning about their mutant powers and taking examinations, thereby moving up in the ranks of the school. There would be training in the Danger Room, and when they've proven themselves actual missions in the real world using New York or any of a dozen other locations. The wide variety of characters in the X-Men already lends itself to a complex storyline and interactions with the likes of Wolverine and Cyclops would guarantee acceptance from a large market.
Another potential title that would lend itself well to the MMO game market is Marvel's Blade. While not as high profile as some of the other characters, the movies are well known and easily recognizable. The world of vampires and vampire hunters is also a subject untouched so far, barring a few announced projects (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). This would give players the opportunity to play on both sides of the conflict, allowing developers to reuse aspects of their content. Not only that, but think of all the interesting PvP you could build around something like this.
Would the world feel too small?
Another character on the more obscure list would be Green Lantern. I'm not suggesting that you play the Green Lantern we know and love, but players could become a member of the Green Lantern Corps. Being an interplanetary police force let's players experience being a super hero, but one of a different variety and type. With countless planets to fight crime on, the possibilities are endless, and with so little set in stone there is plenty of story that can be tinkered with. This would be another IP that would lend itself to player villains of any variety to challenge the Green Lanterns every step of the way.
Finally, staying with the crime fighting theme, we come to my last suggestion: Judge Dredd. Put aside the awful Stallone movie that you might have seen years ago and imagine a futuristic world where police are judge, jury, and executioner. The science fiction theme might be a little tricky to work with, but there is room for gunplay, fist fights, and general mayhem. Once again, let players choose to fight for good or evil and you have yourself a balanced environment with tons to do.
There is no question that finding the right IP for an MMO game is difficult, and when you narrow it down, the comic book genre it gets even trickier. It seems companies like SOE and Cryptic have the right idea by keeping their focus wide and encompassing large scale worlds. Can you think of any IPs I missed? If you do, mention it on the forums or email me.
We don't know what the future may hold, but to be honest, I wouldn't mind putting on a Green Lantern ring. It would be the pinnacle of awesome. I would know, cause I'm the Comic Book Guy.