On Being Super

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One of the epic tales of Closed Beta, over at Champions Online, was an ongoing discussion on the game's challenge level. And by ongoing discussion, I mean "impassioned argument."

Put simply -- there were certain closed beta testers who didn't like that lower level enemies were still a threat to their character... and they weren't too happy about same-level enemies being a threat either. If they got two or three levels ahead of a pack of NPC bad guys, they felt that they should essentially be invulnerable to them. If they left the keyboard for a drink, leaving their L15 character in a hazardous area, and nine L11 or L12 bad guys spawned while they were away and proceeded to beat their character into a pulp... well, they found this to be suboptimal.

And, whenever this argument raised its ugly head, the same argument came up. "I just don't feel super" they said. Each and every time.

It's a familiar complaint. I heard this dozens of times over the past five years connected with City of Heroes. "I just don't feel super" inevitably meant "I don't have the opportunity to bust out equal doses of Cool and Kickass often enough." And, there was something to be said for it -- the early opposition in the game, even though you were told they were enhancing themselves one way or another, just didn't seem like they should be that hard for a super hero -- even a young and inexperienced one -- to take down. Further, you got powers slowly, and some powers were arbitrarily spaced out (why someone needed to hit L14 to fly in a Superhero game has always been a mystery). It was showing some of its MMO roots: cool things came at higher levels. Want to ride a horse or war ram or pink elephant? You need to hit 30th level first, Toby Nightelf, and even then don't expect the horse salesman to sell you a horse if you're not in good with his race: economics be damned, horses are human technology and not just any Elf can be trusted with one!

(As a total side note, both World of Warcraft and City of Heroes have been drastically reducing the level requirements for travel options or powers -- it took quite a few years, but they finally figured out no one's that excited by jogging. But I digress.)

The problem is, and always has been, that 'Super,' the way these people mean the term, means 'Unchallenged.' For a lot of people, 'superhero' means 'unstoppable badass,' and anything that makes their character seem like less than an unstoppable badass means by definition their character is not being a superhero. From there, it's simple to see the formula reduced down to its component level:

character + defeat = nonsuper

That's what their argument really boils down to. "I lost the fight, and Wolverine never loses fights, so I'm not a superhero." "I got knocked out, and Batman never gets knocked out, so ergo I'm not being super."

Oh, in debating this point the people in question will make allowances. Sure, the archvillain at the end of the scenario can take you down -- at least every now and again -- and that's okay. Batman is sometimes knocked out by the Joker, after all. But in everyday life, there shouldn't be anything -- but anything -- that leads to you being beaten. It was perhaps made worse in early City of Heroes levels by the type of opposition you were facing, of course -- even if the Hellions use magic to beef themselves up, it's rough to be a mighty hero and have a bunch of street punks who think orange is a good color choice take you down because you bit off more than you can chew -- but the principle still applied. Superheroes didn't lose, they kicked ass.

The problem with this argument, in the end, is that it's wrong. On every level. And that's true in City of Heroes, it's true in Champions Online, and it's true in Marvel Comics. And it underscores something that every writer, developer, artist, or gamer needs to understand: Challenge is Good. There needs to be real stakes involved. Accomplishing things should take effort.

We've talked about such things before. Conflict is good, as I was wont to say in the days when I was wont to say things. When bad things happen to characters in fiction (sequential-art based or not), that set up interesting and engaging situations that became fodder for drama, comedy or both. Well, when reading about super heroes, there has to be a sense of challenge. You have to believe that Spider-Man could get shot in the head and die even if it was desperately unlikely he would. You need a sense that your heroes have to work at their goals, and that there would be consequences if they fail.

The seminal example of this, of course, was the difference between Superman and Spider-Man in the sixties. In the end, the Mort Weisinger era Superman is exactly what those guys who "just don't feel super" are gunning for -- a character who is so powerful, so indestructible that his enemies are less threats than annoyances. Sure, there was Kryptonite, and sometimes there was magic or "the rays of a red sun," but for the most part Superman was amused by the silly gangsters with their silly guns. An MMO that centered on a Lois Lane type character breaking two hundred pairs of scissors on your invulnerable hair as a requirement to level up wouldn't be fun -- it would be excruciating.

(Actually, if someone wants to create a game where you play an all powerful godlike superhero who spends all his time tricking his friends, teaching them humiliating 'lessons,' and being amused when accidents turn them into monkeys or insect people, a la Superman in the sixties... well I'd buy a copy. But the challenge of that game wouldn't be physical danger -- it'd be setting up the perfect humiliation of the pathetic love interest whose major crime is wanting to marry you. But I stray from my thesis.)

Now, Champions Online is good at giving you challenges. In particular, it doesn't reward stupidity. If you stop paying attention because everything around you is two or three levels below you, you will in fact be defeated. If you engage 30 lower level enemies and lack a decent Area of Effect attack, you will in fact lose. And sometimes, this pissed people off. "These guys are mooks! I shouldn't lose to them! Sure, I was stupid, but still -- I'm supposed to be a hero! Batman wouldn't lose to them! I just don't feel super!"

In one of these exchanges, where Batman was in fact brought up, I chimed in. For me, one of the joys of Batman -- when he was written well, at least -- was that he was constantly having to outthink his opponents. Oh sure, he was a great fighter -- but his strength came from using every advantage. He had gear in his belt designed to confuse, surprise and subdue his enemies. He used fear (and the dark) to panic them, forcing them to make mistakes. He was patient, and quiet, and took them down two or three at a time in ways that made the remaining crooks increasingly jumpy and paranoid. And yes, if he were to drop all that and charge into the middle of the room, he'd probably get beaten. Lord knows he'd been knocked out by lucky saps to the head any number of times. It's why he kept waking up in dark rooms tied to a chair with dynamite underneath it (or chained in giant hourglasses that would slowly pour sand on him until he suffocated -- Batman's enemies spend way more money on death traps then they ever take in from bank robberies. But then, Batman's enemies treat crime like performance art.)

"No way," my debate partner responded. "Batman doesn't need to do all that. He's the greatest martial artist who ever lived! He could take them all down!"

What can you do?

Amusingly, I'm reminded of The Dark Knight Returns. In one of the most famous scenes (which I'm about to entirely Spoil, so, you know. Spoiler Alert on a 1986 comic book that 97.6% of the people reading this have read dozens of times) Batman -- now old, of course -- sees the young, vicious warlord ruler of the Mutant street gang, who challenges him to one on one combat. Batman has enough pride to be pulled out of the safety of his Bat-tank and goes at him hand to hand. And the mutant leader -- younger, stronger, in better condition, and much faster -- proceeds to beat him nearly to death. He would have died right there had a fangirl not spontaneously become the new Robin and pulled him out. He had let himself be coaxed into acting stupidly, and that nearly killed him. When he had a rematch with the mutant leader, it was on his own terms, using psychological effects to prod the leader into a rage, then dropping him into a mud pit. That takes away his speed advantage, and while he's still younger, stronger and in better condition, Batman is smarter and more experienced, and utterly in command of the environment. He proceeds to take the leader apart, brutally beating him down in front of his gang, and completely breaking their morale (and leading to a number of them aping his style and eventually becoming his army).

Batman wasn't super the first time. He was stupid, and he got pounded into mush for it. Batman was super the second time, when he used strategy and tactics to accomplish his goals. And that led inexorably to Batman fighting Superman -- the last hurrah of that Pre-Crisis, all powerful, Mort Weisinger super Superman -- and beating him.

That last scene, by the way? That scene where Batman takes down Superman? That completely redefined Batman and Superman in popular culture. That took the World's Finest team of best friends and made them barely tolerate each other. And that cemented in the minds of comic fans everywhere that of course Batman would beat Superman in a fight. Duh. Before that scene, Batman was just that guy with the ropes, the car, the sidekick and the Bat Shark Repellant. We made fun of Batman in the Super Friends.

But Batman was the character who had challenge in his stories and overcame them, and in the end the indestructible man couldn't compete.

I have always liked the challenge of City of Heroes. I like that I have to pick and choose my fights and be intelligent about them. One of the key complaints about City of Heroes these days is that because the underlying A.I. is five years old and so many of us are so experienced in its nature, we've become too good at it. The challenge is less. And NCSoft is responding by allowing us to alter our difficulty with incredible granularity. If you want to solo a mission as though you had a full 8 man team on Unyielding, you can.

And I like -- I really like -- that if I run through Maniacs territory in Champions Online, even if they're a few levels below me, and I don't have my head in the game, they'll wrap chains around me, haul me off my feet, and beat me into paste. If I'm going to be a hero -- if I'm going to win -- I'm going to have to use my brain and my skills in the game to overcome the odds.

And there's nothing that makes me feel more super than that.

19 Comments

Hmm, I'm not so sure. I understand that's how a Batman or Spiderman character would work, despite the infamous "Batman can take down God" meme, but what if the player's favorite character IS Superman? Or the Hulk, or arguably Wolverine? Second, if the character does play an agility/brains based character, how well does the game actually incorporate that? Are there powers that cause the mooks to panic or flail around blindly as you pick them off one by one? Can an agility character actually leap in and out of combat effortlessly, or is it more like the auto-defense of CoX's Super Reflexes?

As for the "tough" characters, I can see a logical compromise here. Their powers mean a mook CAN'T cause damage. Instead, they drain something else, perhaps endurance or the total duration of the power. I'm not sure how that would affect leaving computer while surrounded by mooks, but in other circumstances you have to at least be careful around mooks lest you find yourself drained of powers when you face the boss or nemesis that's SUPPOSED to hurt you. If I remember right, even a recent Superman game did this. Superman didn't have a lifebar, but the city of Metropolis did.

There are powers that do indeed cause someone to flail around. And there are agility powers that allow what you're describing (though 'Acrobatics,' which is a travel power, doesn't go far enough in that direction). But my point, essentially, is that the game needs to have challenge and danger, or else it's not a game. Someone might go three or four days mowing down the opposition, but then they'd get bored and wander away. That's no way for Cryptic to pay their bills.

Joe: Even Superman started out less super than he is now. Remember "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound"? That was back before he could fly. And originally, he wasn't bulletproof, but nothing less than a "bursting shell" could penetrate his skin.

aaron--

Absolutely. And one of the major intentions of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths was to dramatically reduce Superman's power level -- specifically to increase the sense of challenge (and therefore perceived danger) in Superman's adventures.

On the subject of "tough" characters -- really, there is a means by which this can be done in the game, if that's what you really want. You can take a Defensive role and take an appropriate defensive passive power, and then you'll be much harder to kill. (A character with Invulnerable or Personal Force Field and a Defensive Role is very, very hard to kill off.) The down side is that you sacrifice some of the "kicking ass" side of the equation. You can flip to an Offensive or Balanced role on the fly, mind, but then you end up taking powers that you can't always use.

One reason I like Balanced is because it... well, balances my survivability with my damage output, so I can play a character who's really good at not dying and taking down enemies, so long as I'm careful in how I do things. It makes for a good Solo character. Until we see more grouping, I doubt we'll see many more characters in Offensive or Defensive roles. When we do see grouping, we'll see teams forming around some of the traditional positions.

Yes... but...

There is a response to your critique of the "it doesn't feel super" complaint.

It's not that a character should never be in danger, it's that when a character is in danger, the danger should be something worth the character's time.

When Captain America wades through crowds of Hydra soldiers, that isn't the fight -- that's the part of the story that shows Captain America is far too powerful for Hydra to take on all by themselves. It's when Cap meets the Red Skull, or the Hydra SuperWarBot or whatever, that the fight really begins. That's when you start to worry about whether this time Cap has met finally met his match.

This is the part that is missing from CoH. I'm not sure if it can be accurately rendered in a MMORPG, but its absence is, in my opinion, a legitimate complaint. I'm quite happy to continue playing the game (I finally reached level 50 in one of my characters, by the way. Only took me... how many years has this game been running?) but the truth is, in this game we don't play superheroes in the "classic" sense. We're essentially costumed henchmen. If you have to worry about three minions and a Lieutenant as much as you have to worry about one Boss, you're not playing Captain America. You're playing Bucky.

Or you're playing Geriatric Batman. Which is not the same thing as Batman in his prime, no matter how cool he still is...

I agree with Christopher Wright. In D&D 3, you very quickly move up in power level; what was a challenge today will in five levels be a concern only a group of ten or fifteen, and even then probably not really a challenge. A party of tenth level characters could probably go through a thousand kobolds without breaking a sweat. In a different style issue, it's easy to say that all the characters are invulnerable to normal weapons, which doesn't change the normal fight, except in adding the label (super) to all the supervillain fights, but gives them the feeling that they are supers when you toss in a scenes where the heros can just toss the scum of the street around. It's no real challenge, but there's times for simple scene setting. Or the challenge can be not beating them up, but dealing with the fact they have hostages.

Although you should be challenged, there's something to be said for occasionally having to fight a horde of mooks and that actually being terribly easy, if you use one of your SuperDuperPowas. Just to remind you that you *are* powerful. Of course, then you go up against the Big Bad Lieutenants, who can whup you if you don't pay attention...

Eric: "[Batman's] strength came from using every advantage. He had gear in his belt designed to confuse, surprise and subdue his enemies. He used fear (and the dark) to panic them, forcing them to make mistakes. He was patient, and quiet, and took them down two or three at a time in ways that made the remaining crooks increasingly jumpy and paranoid. And yes, if he were to drop all that and charge into the middle of the room, he'd probably get beaten."

You probably know this already, but the entire gameplay of the new Arkham Asylum console game is based around just this idea. One of the game designers referred to it as "Predator" gameplay.

Personally, I've been playing Mutants and Masterminds for the last few years and they have mechanics in place to make your characters "super" without being invulnerable. Their damage mechanics mean that more powerful heros or villains very well might not take damage from something lower-power whether the descriptor is that Bruce Lee perfectly rolls away from the thug's punch or that the bullet just cannot penetrate Chuck Norris's mighty stubble. You can also get levels of impervious that model the idea that items that do not go over a particular level will not hurt you no matter what (although a lucky critical hit can still ruin your day and multiple people concentrating fire on you might break through those defenses). One of the ideas they put forward for keeping the game exciting is escalation. If you can't be beat with handguns, they're going to be pulling out machine guns. If machine guns don't work, they'll eventually pick up rocket launchers. If rocket launchers won't break through your mighty stubble, they'll pick up Tesla ray guns. Or find a way to nullify your powers. Any way about it, if you're not bright, they will eventually cook your goose.

And honestly, I think that's what a lot of sandbox games are missing, a sense of escalation of power. In Oblivion, once you get the +100 Sword of Name-Taking, opposition will fall before you like chaff. Do you think that would really happen? Naw, you'd get treasure-seekers and challengers always looking to take you down. You'd be afraid to sleep because somewhere out there, someone defines "fighting fair" as making sure that they win and won't scruple against booby-trapping your bed, or paying your maid to poison your coffee. Good DMs have always done this with cocky players. If you're pillaging towns, sooner or later they're going to hire adventuring parties to take you down. If you roll through evil overlords like ninepins, one will come up who's studied your weaknesses and plays them like a piano-forte. It's a tricky thing to do via AI (and when done for a MMORPG, almost always results in cries of "h4x!" and "nerf!") but I think it's what these games need. That is, unless they really are trying to sell the "you can't lose because you're a hero" mythos.

You do realize that Oblivion was highly criticized for exactly that? As you got more powerful, the world got more powerful as well, and while you might have the +100 Sword of Name-Taking, you'll now be fighting guys in the +100 Armor of Name-Keeping. What Oblivion lacked, IMHO, was the inverse that's being talked about -- the areas you'd been through already and the guys that you can now clean the clocks of in a few seconds.

(Of course, Oblivion had a voluntary-leveling system which means you can keep your level low while all your skills go high, and thus encounter what you speak of.)

Incidentally, Guild Wars had a special-mission expansion pack that included a fight like that, though -- a swarm of level 10 guys that could be killed in a single shot (for all of them), provided you timed it right. It was an awesome moment, leading to a difficult boss fight.

:) Ah, but Oblivion's system didn't work terribly well in that respect. They did add extra levels and the occasional extra equipment, but they didn't react to your growing fame and power. That was one thing I rather liked about the Fallout games, that as you became increasingly famous / infamous, you started getting random bounty hunters and adventurers after you.

That's one of the nice immersion bits in Champions Online. When you get high enough level to unlock the Nemesis system, you don't just get an archenemy -- you get that archenemy's minions.

And they'll pop up and ambush you at the drop of a freakin' hat.

For the record, if you're actively engaging folks who are 2-3 levels below you in Champions Online, it's not hard to wipe them off the map. Really, it isn't hard to take down even con minions and villains.

You just can't ignore them.

At the same time, when you encounter a group that's five levels below you, all bets are off. They won't be able to scratch you. So, when you're L20, members of the Black Aces aren't going to be a threat.

Keep in mind, most MMOs follow a steeper D&D style advancement curve than really feels "right" in superhero play. Mutants & Masterminds gets the right idea in keeping the same curve as D20, but starting you out at level 10. That way, stuff that challenged you when you started play is still non-negligible even after loads of play. It's when you have to start at level 1 that it feels like you should be able to ignore old challenges.

I treat L1-8 in CoX as part of chargen. It's pretty easy to get a character to L8 with a single sewer run blueside, and even soloing redside it doesn't take all that long to get to L6 on Kalinda's or Burke's arcs. And you CAN stand around pretty much anywhere in Atlas Park or Mercy Island as an L8 and ignore the "wandering monsters". Sure, beating on Snakes or Hellions doesn't feel very super, but it's of a piece with selecting your costume.

Okay, but was there ever a Batman story in which he finds some thugs committing a crime, tries to stop them, gets beaten up and has to recover, then goes after them again, gets beaten up again, recovers again, gets beaten up again, then finally decides it's too much of a waste of time and goes back to attending high-society parties as Bruce Wayne?

Actually? Yes. More or less. If by 'high-society parties' you mean 'decides to let himself die from his injuries as a failure,' which I submit is the way Bruce Wayne really parties down.

You're describing the early sequences of Batman: Year One. He had all his skills, but no experience and no sense of the psychological weaponry he would ultimately bring to bear against his enemies. As a result, the people he was trying to save stabbed him and the bad guys reacted less with fear and more with bullets.

Then a bat flew through his window.

(That being said -- there is a balance issue with the Launch Day Patch, and it's clear and obvious. It is not, however, an 'I just don't feel super' issue, even if one or two people characterize it as such. It's a 'feedback suggested people were breezing too quickly through content, so we made sweeping changes to eliminate that' issue, and as they generally do when they start this process they way overcompensated. I PREDICT that within the next day or two there'll be a correction in the other direction, followed by one or two more. It was a mistake to do this on the first day of Launch -- an epic mistake, really -- but it's also the sort of thing that happens the first few weeks of MMOs.)

You're describing the early sequences of Batman: Year One. (...) Then a bat flew through his window.

What about if there was no bat? If it was just the sequence of Batman being beaten up, repeated again and again, until the last page? And what if it managed to imply, at the same time, that it's your *own* fault if you don't get to see any more of the story?

You have to remember, in most video games, defeat is a punishment. It does not make your *character* stronger. It often weakens them, in fact, making future defeats more and more likely. It does not progress the story in any way. In the worse case, it does not even help the *player* develop their skills - if it's not sufficiently clear what caused it and what the player can do to stop it happening again.

It is, in short, an annoying obstacle, not an important narrative device.

So when it happens, players don't feel like they are Batman who got beat up by thugs at the start of the story. They feel like Batman who has been outwitted by the freakin' Riddler. That is not an especially heroic frame of mind, even for Batman.

However, you're also not describing the experience of either Champions Online or City of Heroes.

Yes, Champions Online had a nerf best described as unfortunate. Even last night, I cheerfully slaughtered +1 Henchmen with an Archery character as quickly as sonic arrow could charge. It took maybe ten of them operating in concert to take me down.

City of Heroes has never made it impossible to take out henchmen at level or even above level.

If it's a situation where leaping into a large group of henchmen is resulting in your character getting defeated... well, that's called playing a video game. If you can leap willy nilly into a large group and beat them all down without a care, I suggest that the game lacks challenge and will ultimately fail as a boring game. If it's a situation where a character who was working fine in Early Start now doesn't because of the issues last night -- well, my money is still on the table that there will be resolution in the other direction.

If, on the other hand, you've been consistently beaten by two or three henchmen (or even five henchmen) near to or below your own level through the beta period and early start? I would suggest the issue is either in your playstyle or your power choices. Not all powersets solo equally.

One thing I'm certain of -- because I've actually done -- if I'm playing a Batman-inspired martial artist character in Champions Online, and I walk into a room with five groups of four henchmen spread throughout the room, and those henchmen are +1 level to me? Within four minutes there won't be a henchman awake in that room, and I won't have gone down even once. It's not because I'm a superior MMO player -- I'm not, as any PvPer who's had the good fortune of beating me into paste can attest. But I use my head when I play and it all works out pretty darn well.

Not to mention pretty darn heroically.

Argh.

You're making me want to drop CoH and move over to COL.

But...I can't afford the monthlies for two MMOs (really, I probably shouldn't even be paying the one right now) but if I drop CoH then I'll stop earning vet rewards. I'll fall behind. Waaah.

The Fifth Column is back, and beating up on Council goons all over the city....

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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