The Hard Problem

Evolving the Superhero MMO


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.


The idea here is that for every costume piece used in character creation, you create two additional versions of it. Each version is cooler than the previous one, and in consistent ways. For example, let’s say the first version of all costume pieces is decorated with big, solid colors, your basic Shazam or Superman or Batman kinds of color schemes. Then the second version adds physical texture: leather, snakeskin, that kind of thing, like how superhero costumes tend to get treated in movie adaptations. Now those same costume pieces look more deluxe, more badass, more elaborate. The third version takes the second one and adds particle effects: glows, crackling energy, that sort of thing, so even when you’re just running through the street people notice that you’re a walking volcano of power.

Now tie these to the reinventions. You create your character with the basic pieces, which pretty much look like what City of Heroes launched with. When you hit level 20, you qualify for a Reinvention and now you unlock all of those Epic Costume visual upgrades. You can immediately preview what you’d look like if you just upgraded everything you’re wearing directly, but you can also take this opportunity to make some bigger changes if desired. Then when you hit level 40, you get one more Reinvention and now you’re lit up and glowing with power everywhere you go, again having unlocked a new set of pieces.

None of these changes would be mandatory. But hopefully they’d be cool and distinctive enough that players would welcome the opportunity.

As for the collecting aspect of epic equipment sets, these costume pieces could very well be acquired one at a time in quest after quest so you can see your virtual wardrobe getting larger every time you play. You’d still have to wait until you earned a Reinvention to use all that cool stuff, but in the meantime you can check out your collection progression and see what you’re missing.

This approach does not address the badass functionality of epic equipment sets, since your superhero costume doesn’t affect your gameplay. For that, I’d like to introduce another idea: Trophy Weapons. You know how Batman and Superman have collections of trophies from villains they’ve defeated? It’s not unusual in a comic book for a superhero to wrest a villain’s ultimate weapon away and then use it against them, or at least against the threat they’ve unleashed. So let’s run with that.

Whenever you’ve worked your way through a particular enemy set over the course of many missions and levels and you defeat the final boss, he drops a trophy weapon. This is a cool, thematically appropriate gizmo or sword or gun or whatever that proves you took down the boss. While this weapon isn’t an improvement over your super powers for normal combat, it does do massive damage to the enemy set of that boss. To use City of Heroes as an example, once you play the Clockwork missions and defeat the Clockwork King, he drops a trophy weapon that does double damage vs. Clockworks.


Your trophy weapon is your sign that you’ve mastered that enemy set. Now anytime you need to help out someone who is fighting the Clockworks, you bust out your Clockwork trophy weapon and kick major ass. Nearby heroes see you wielding that thing and are suitably impressed. It also means that you have a great way to help lower-level characters bust through tough content that you’ve already mastered. Of course, you don’t want to go around wielding this thing all the time; it should be stored in your Trophy Room, whose existence I’ll now also posit as being a really fun idea. When you need it, you use it, and the rest of the time it’s in your Trophy Room to impress visiting noobs.

Okay, that’s Reinventions, Epic Costumes, Trophy Weapons, and (briefly) Trophy Rooms. But I’m not done inflating the budget on our superhero MMO because when I started thinking about Reinventions, it occurred to me that when a superhero comic reinvents itself, it often starts over with issue #1. And then – aha!

Bingo. You see it? Superhero MMOs that use leveling have the name wrong. You shouldn’t be a Level 20 Striker. You should be an Issue 20 Striker: issues as in comic book issues. You don’t gain levels, you gain issues. Each issue is, of course, a level, but it’s also a way to think about bracketing your adventures.

Remember issue 5? That’s when you were in the sewers fighting the Scum Rats. Yeah, that was pretty sweet, but then there was issue 14 where you learned to fly. Wow, what a great issue that was!

And then there’s crossovers. When you and I team up, it’s in my issue 23 and your issue 18. Anytime we team up in a group, our progression log should note the crossover.

Supergroups work the same way. If we form a guild and start playing together regularly, our guild should have an issue number. So while in my own solo series I’m up to issue 47, in the Wrecking Crew guild we’re only on issue 6.

Once you start thinking of your progression as issue-based, rather than level-based, a lot of other possible features spill out. An auto-generated log of your character’s progression and mission completion could be archived issue by issue, and maybe even spat out to a web site where you can relive your exploits in some kind of stylized comic book visuals. Each time you level up, everyone nearby sees the cover to your new issue – an image composited of you in a heroic pose with your name in a logo (you pick the font!) and “Issue 27” in the corner. There’s a ton of fun to be had with this concept.

And then when it’s time for a Reinvention, well, you start over with issue #1.

Reinventions, then, are not just a high-level showoff mechanic. They’re what you do when you hit the level cap. You start over at issue #1, now with pre-boosted powers and your Trophy Room, and you can then blow through low-level content like it was nothing. You’re crazy powerful, you have a ton of amazing weaponry and your costume looks incredibly badass. New content exclusive to Reinvented heroes is the new endgame.

Whew. I’m going to stop there. I think this is fun stuff and while it doesn’t directly replicate the lust for epic armor in a superhero-costume context, it’s closer than what I’ve seen so far. It doesn’t look like Champions Online has done anything new in this area, which means: DC Universe Online, the ball’s in your court. SHAZAM!

John Scott Tynes played a superhero named Jonah Eternity in City of Heroes. He hated how the Circle of Thorns only spawned at night because it was never night on the server when he could play.

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