Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why do superhero games fail? Part 1

A question I've pondered and dealt with for some time now deals with why superhero games don't ever seem to do really well. I'm more talking about card games or collectible games, but some parts can be applied to video games, although those generally turn out better. Now, to an extent, this can really be said for lots of collectible card games, considering there aren't very many around today that have been around for a long time (MTG, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon are the only ones that really come to mind). More specifically, I'd like to look at superhero games though, since this is supposed to be about comics and superheroes.

One of the problems comes from the varying powers of superheroes, I think. Let's look at Batman. Sure, he beats up on everybody from time to time, but mostly he deals with non-super powered people. Sure, you've got your Killer Crocs, Clayfaces and Poison Ivys, but for the most part, you have Two-Face and Joker and Calendar Man. While Batman has faced Superman and won (in Dark Knight stuff) or lost (Hush comes to mind), that he has gone up against Superman is a feat in and of itself. Sure, everybody says Batman can beat anyone with planning or whatever, but really, Superman should be able to wipe the floor with Batman. It shouldn't be a contest. Plus, what would Batman do against Doomsday or Darkseid or even Kalibak. Sure, he'd find some way maybe, but in a straight up fist fight? Please. I like Batman, but that'd be silly.

Okay, let's go away from Batman, and just go with Robin even. People say Batman can beat anyone. Nobody considers Robin could. At the same time, Robin helps Batman and is almost as effective as Batman most of the time, sometimes being better, but most of the time being slightly worse. What about Robin vs Darkseid? Would you even consider that a fair fight? Okay, so Dick has become Nightwing and now Batman, but would you have considered Nightwing vs Darkseid a fair fight?

What about now?

Even without knowing the rules to VS, you can see that Nightwing has higher numbers there, representing his higher attack and defense values. Should that be? Well, from a card game perspective, yes. Definitely yes. You need to make people from different groups able to fight each other somehow, meaning that Superman and Darkseid need to be able to fight with Batman and Nightwing in order for it to work. One way would be to make the numbers that they use pretty arbitrary, so that Nightwing can be a 6-cost character on his team, and Darkseid can have a 4-cost version of himself on his team. Just from a design perspective, if people want to play Darkseid, then Darkseid needs to be able to be available earlier in the game or else you're not using him, you're just using his minions. From a flavor perspective, if Nightwing attacks Darkseid and casually defeats him, then we have a problem.

Now, the flavor perspective is very specifically a problem for franchises where characters are at different power levels. When you want to have a game that includes Robin, Daredevil and the Prowler along with Darkseid, Superman and the Sentry, then how you do that presents a problem. Are all the Daredevil things going to only be useful against street-level thugs and what-not? Then, what about using Superman all the time? Can he only be a really high drop because he has a lot of power? I know people who would want to use Daredevil as their main character and some who would want Superman. Would the Daredevil player have the advantage early on, but when Superman comes out, he would be stopped. Or would the Superman player never get to play her Superman because Daredevil and friends without powers all come out so much earlier that Supes never sees the board?

Heroclix probably has the best representation of power levels in that Daredevil is never going to beat up Superman and so a Superman has a really high defense value and Daredevil's attack won't reach that. It also has everybody out at the beginning, and each character's point value is its own thing. The only problem is that why would you ever use the random punks and thugs or Daredevil if you could just field Superman. In fact, it's pretty much what got me to quit playing Heroclix, in that my friend who liked DC more had his Superman and Green Lantern Corps and what can the X-Men really do against that? Or Spider-Man and various clones of Spider-Man? If I wanted to really face them down, I needed to bring out Thor and Firestorm and big characters, which I didn't enjoy using as much. It makes sense from a flavor perspective, but not from a gameplay perspective.

VS did a really good job at bringing characters that were able to fight each other, in that each team's characters were given point values relative to each other, so that on the Darkseid team, Darkseid could have a lower drop with powerful characters at lesser drops because even more powerful characters are at higher drops, while the defenders of Gotham and Bludhaven, pretty much mostly ordinary people without superhuman abilities, will have Batman and Nightwing really high up in cost because they're some of the more powerful members of their team. You can have a 7-cost Dardevil on the team consisting of Marvel's street heroes and a 2-cost Silver Surfer on the team consisting of the heralds that Galactus uses, since Daredevil is pretty good at what he does on the streets and Silver Surfer can be seen to be about even, but maybe lesser at times than the other heralds. This works from a gameplay perspective, but not from a flavor perspective.

Gameplay is much more important to a game than flavor. A game that plays well is a much better game than a game that's accurate to its origins. Even with that, I think that flavor is really important thing when translating a pre-existing franchise to a game. While I enjoyed VS and think that it was one of the better card games out there, I was really annoyed sometimes when I would have the X-Men lose to Gotham City police officers, or when the Kingpin went after my Silver Surfer and won easily, without the Silver Surfer getting him back. I'm a comic fan first and a gamer second, so flavor is more important to me than some, and while I understand the importance of balanced gameplay and incorporating as many character that they could fit so everyone could use a favorite, it still bothered me. I don't think that's why VS failed, but I think that it is a main problem in dealing with superhero games in the first place.

Join me next time when I discuss other ways that superhero games don't always work.

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