The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem
Evolving the Superhero MMO

John Scott Tynes | 3 Sep 2009 21:00
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Cryptic Studios is taking a stab at evolving the superhero MMO with Champions Online this month, which means it's a good time for me to tell them how they're doing it all wrong. I'm sure they'll appreciate that.

Actually, for my column this month I set out to solve a Hard Problem supplied to me by a friend who used to work at Cryptic. His challenge was: How do you handle visible loot in a superhero game where the genre expectation is that your equipment is a costume, not a grab bag of armor parts you've pulled from the corpses of giant caterpillars? In other words, how can Superman wear an epic armor set?

To answer that question, I ended up designing my own epic armor set of new features: a grab bag of different ideas that resolve this Hard Problem but go well beyond it. Let's see how it sounds to you.

First off, the main tension here is the idea that once you assemble your costume during character creation in City of Heroes or Champions Online, you're pretty much done. Sure, there are a few high-profile costume pieces reserved for higher levels (like capes in City of Heroes) but the assumption is that you're a superhero, you've designed your costume, and you aren't really going to change it. That's how comic books work, right?

Well, no. In fact, superheroes in comic books do change their costumes. It doesn't happen often, and many heroes have never really made a change, but it's not unheard of. Back when I was working at a comic-book store in the 1980s, the character of Storm in The Uncanny X-Men got a complete makeover, going from your basic weather witch with a flowing cape to a punked-out, mohawked Grace Jones knockoff. There have been many other reinventions, too, often with a minor character who gets his own series and kicks things off with a costume revamp.

So, that's the first idea. Make a reinvention part of the natural progression of a superhero MMO. Place it at level thresholds (20, 40, etc.) or gate it behind an epic mission sequence. It could be accompanied by a power respec as well, but that's not the important part for this discussion.
But what do you reinvent with? An important part of epic armor is that it helps to tell you just how badass the player is merely by the act of him having that armor. So that's the second idea, and this is the one where we write a blank check for the art budget.

Take the starting inventory of costume pieces for your superhero MMO: gauntlets, boots, helmets, breastplates, and all that stuff. Now multiply it by - let's just say - three. Ow. Yeah, there's now a couple extra zeroes on that budget check. But roll with it.

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