Why is it so hard to find good superhero games? Why is it that for every bright spot like 2003’s Hulk or the more recent Batman outings, we get about seven mediocre movie tie-ins and a few truly abysmal titles, like the infamous Superman 64 and that atrocious Catwoman game.
Superheroes seem like the perfect subject matter for videogames. Think about it – the entire genre focuses on larger than life characters with special powers, suited to sci-fi or other “genre” fiction, the bread and butter of about 80% of AAA titles. Why, that sounds like a game designer’s dream. Not to mention the fact that there’s a huge crossover audience between folks who like to watch superhero flicks and read comics and people who like to get their game on (read: the ever-so-fickle male 18-35 demographic).
We’ve done a bit of sleuthing to find the biggest constants in strained superhero game-making relations – as well as ways developers can overpower them.
Slave to the license
Licensed games aren’t quite the slow motion car wreck that they used to be, in the movie tie-in schlock “heyday”, but a license can still be a mixed bag. The biggest problem with superhero games is that they tend to be tied in to another media release – typically a big summer movie, and quality doesn’t always flow from the rushed production schedules associated with those kinds of deadlines.
Often, these games are treated like forgettable marketing material, and not given the kind of respect publishers have for other IP.
The solution: better planning, good communication, and inspiration from those who have done it right.
A movie tie-in game doesn’t need to be crappy, and several studios have proven that. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (specifically the Uncaged Edition) actually fared way better (critically speaking) than the film it was based on, and Spider-Man 2 still stands as perhaps the best example of a superhero tie-in done right, even if it was way back on the “last-gen” consoles.
Judging from these two examples, it seems the winning formula consists of smart mechanics and solid development track records. Here we have gameplay built around the titular heroes’ specific powers, instead of two mediocre action games with licensed likenesses pasted in. We also have two solid developers at work: Treyarch on Spider-Man and Raven on Wolverine, who knew what they were doing.
This is certainly not to say that only well-established houses should be given the chance to do justice by supernatural justice-seekers. Just that publishers shouldn’t simply farm out a sexy license to devs with poor track records.
This is a problem that pops up in nearly every game with a supernatural hero: you are playing as a total badass, yet the obstacles that befall mere mortals stop you in your tracks. Bullets or other weapons flying around the scene that would never hurt, say, Superman, can bring you to your golden knees. On the other hand, being crazily overpowered without interesting challenges that are worthy of your god-like time make for a boring experience.
The solution: build your game around your hero, and present challenges that make sense.
When the hero at the core of the game has super powers, the game surrounding him/her still needs to be interesting and challenging. Yes, you should feel like a total badass, but not at the expense of good gameplay and good game “flow”.
The 2003 surprise hit Hulk is a good example of intelligently designing around a core idea: Hulk gets mad, and he destroys things. The entire game is intelligently built around that idea – and the obstacles that you face are appropriate for Bruce Banner’s alter ego.
Using this sort of logic, imagine how cool a good Catwoman game could be, with a mix of appropriate stealth elements and perhaps some interesting mechanics tied to a loot system. Think about how a Daredevil game could right the wrongs of the awful flick with some sort of echolation-based fighting. Build a game specifically around your spandex-clad badass, and you won’t go wrong.
Far too many superhero games are lame, boring, or otherwise mediocre takes on over-used gameplay conceits. How many third person action games do we need with a brawny badass traversing the same palette-swapped corridors for hours? How many brawlers and shameless God of War clones does the caped-crusader landscape really need?
The solution: branch out with genres and mechanics that are consistent with your fiction.
I’m not necessarily calling for more superhero powered kart racing games (actually, scratch that, it would be a great idea!), but branching into new gameplay styles that make sense for your hero will bring some much-needed spice.
The Arkham series did this beautifully. Arkham Asylum presented aspects of all of Batman’s skills – detective work, gadget wielding, powers of observation, and of course, brawling – and worked them into a satisfying mix. Arkham City did it all over again, adding the richness of an open world to the equation.
As we did with the above issue, it’s easy to imagine how genre bending (and blending) could lend itself to great gameplay based on specific heroes’ skills. Hey – maybe someone will make an awesome kart racing game with the X-Men one day. The possibilities are endless when you are dealing with comics and larger-than-life characters – so lets see some of that magic happen!
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja from Boston.