Superheroes have never been bigger than they are right now. Sure, they\’ve always had a sizable following, but over the past decades, superheroes have, in the public\’s eyes, transformed from a nerdy past time into something that absolutely everyone is crazy excited about. Therefore, from a business standpoint, they now make for a remarkably lucrative market.
This is really all thanks to movies; comic books, for whatever reason, never had much of a hope of making it mainstream. But once movies began taking these fantastic stories of heroes and villains and turning them into something more appealing to the masses, these superhero franchises began to get a lot more popular. There were plenty of movies, TV shows, and animated series based off of these comic books that helped — or harmed, in some cases — the genre\’s image, but some of the best early examples were the early Batman and Superman movies.
Around the turn of the century, several Marvel Comics properties took to the silver screen and find success. Fox\’s X-Men and Sony\’s Spiderman were both huge parts in helping the reception of such properties; they were, quite simply, fantastic movies. Both received plenty of sequels in the following years and more entries to the superhero arena continued to make appearances. Nolan\’s Batman films aided in proving that superheroes could be used in more serious titles, as well as showing that superhero films could be deemed masterpieces. On the other hand, Fantastic Four and Green Lantern were things that happened, among countless other horrible comic book movies and shows.
But it would be impossible to discuss the genre and not bring up Marvel Studios. Since the breakout success of Iron Man in 2007, they began to do the impossible: tie multiple franchises into one universe with frequent crossovers and team-ups. And then, against all odds, it worked; without a single failure, either critically or commercially (though there were a few close calls) Marvel Studios did the impossible, and in the process, superhero movies became bigger than ever. At this point, there is little in media that is quite as big as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or \”MCU\”), so naturally, other companies have tried to get in on the action. DC has begun to craft their own connected universe with Man of Steel as the starting point. Sony\’s rebooted Spiderman franchise is receiving many spin-offs and the like, and Fox\’s X-Men universe is stronger than ever. Even Fantastic Four is receiving a reboot.
The amount of superhero movies coming out in the coming years is truly ridiculous, but it\’s what the audience wants right now. It\’s what makes money. And that won\’t last forever, but it seems a sure success financially in the near future, as what used to be enjoyed primarily by a small group of people is now accepted, consumed, and enjoyed by pretty much everyone.
This phenomenon naturally is spilling out into other forms of media; just this year, we are receiving a heap of new comic book shows. We have DC\’s Arrow and, with The Flash joining the CW\’s line-up this fall, they appear to be branching out into a separate TV universe. Gotham is on the way to Fox as yet another origin story for Batman. There\’s also Marvel\’s recent attempt at bringing their MCU to the small screen, with Agents of Shield and Agent Carter. Then there\’s Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones on the way to Netflix over the next year or two, with a team-up called The Defenders coming out at the end of it, an attempt to recreate The Avengers formula for the small screen.
There is so, so much superhero/comic book content coming over just the next half decade, it\’s insane. But for now, the audience doesn\’t really mind. It\’s always been a pretty big seller, and that\’s more true now than ever before. Both movies and television are getting in on the action. Yet, for whatever reason, these franchises haven\’t really made their ways over to the gaming side of things, which got me thinking: Why not? Why have no companies yet attempted to make a combined universe within the game space? Or perhaps the significantly more important question, why is Arkham still the only truly great comic book game franchise? Let\’s cover the latter question, first.
Games have always struggled bringing these comic book heroes to life. Of course, there have been plenty of movie tie-ins over the years, and it\’s understandable why those flopped, to some extent. Such games tend to have little focus on quality; they exist to sell based on brand name, and even if the devs care about the product, they never are given the time needed to make it something special. At best, these movie video games are unimpressive, average, or flat-out bad, and it\’s quite understandable as to why.
Then there are the unique superhero games, those which are unique experiences based off of a character, a world, and their stories, but not riding the coattails off of some specific other product. These types have manifested themselves in many ways over the years. One common way was – almost exclusively on older consoles and handhelds – through 2D platformers and the like. Some of these are actually pretty good! Some classic Batman, Spiderman, and even Iron Man titles, among others, were often pretty well received and I have a certain soft spot for The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin on the Genesis.
These games don\’t quite work in the same way as a \”superhero\” game, though. This is kind of hard to explain, but these games feel more like games with comic book characters in them rather than games about superheroes. They have mechanics, a world, and a story that stemmed from their source material, but they aren\’t true superhero games. In the same way, there are some recent titles out there based off of Marvel and DC properties. Injustice: Gods Among Us; DC Universe Online/Marvel Heroes; The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy Disney Infinity playsets; Lego Marvel/Batman; etc. Most very good — great, in some cases — or promising titles, don\’t get me wrong, and these are generally these companies\’ attempts to cash in on the superhero phenomenon, but they aren\’t superhero games. They\’re games where you play as a superhero.
It\’s definitely a tough thing to explain in words, but I\’d imagine many of you know what I mean. Still; allow me to try and explain, anyways. What made the Arkham series so notable? I think it\’s because, at its core, you are Batman. Everything about the game is designed to make you, the player, be that hero. Every mechanic and level design was designed to make you feel like the Caped Crusader. Every little visual touch and conversation you hear made the world feel like a part of Gotham.
The games I listed earlier could probably have a re-skin as some random character and no one would notice the difference. MMOs are cool and all, but they don\’t quite make use of what makes those characters special. Fighters use the abilities of these characters, but it doesn\’t have the soul of the properties. Old-school platformers are great, but for the most part, replace Spiderman or Batman with a spy, switch the dialogue and art around, and no one would notice.
The Arkham games are great because they successfully make full use of the property they are using. A core appeal of gaming that other forms of media simply can\’t achieve is that they make us feel like the superheroes ourselves and, when a game puts as much focus on that feeling as the Arkham games have done, it stands out as something remarkable. Should it stand out, though? After all, in the N64/PSX era — the first opportunity for 3D superhero titles on consoles, and therefore pretty much the first opportunity for a fully immersive superhero game — there was one absolutely fantastic game. You may have heard of it: Superman 64, a master class in game design. The following generation, Aquaman: Battle For Atlantis made waves in the gaming scene, hailed by critics as \”The next Superman 64.\”
I jest. Really, when a game like this is attempted, it all comes down to the actual game quality. Even if the developers spend plenty of time making sure the player feels like the superhero in question — which, for the record, Superman 64 and Aquaman clearly did not — if it\’s no fun to play, well then, there you go: it\’s no fun to play. If the mechanics aren\’t sound, if the level design isn\’t stellar, it just doesn\’t work, no matter what may be done to make the experience feel like being a legendary hero.
Henceforth lies the problem with the original Spiderman games. As much as they do right, there are always noticeable flaws that take you out of and bring down the experience, be it the story, the combat, or the glitches. Yet interestingly, the Spiderman franchise actually has a pretty great example of superhero games done very nearly right, and it\’s quite surprisingly one of the movie tie-in entries: Spiderman 2.
One of the most critically acclaimed and fan-beloved superhero games, the title was praised for making you feel like Spiderman. It wasn\’t perfect; the flaws were numerous, from the repetitive missions to the unimpressive bosses to the bad voice acting, but it successfully set players loose upon a fully realized New York City, had a web-slinging system that really made you feel like Spidey, and had solid combat to boot. Because they let these things become the focus in the side quests and let players loose to just feel like the freakin\’ Spiderman, the game managed to overcome the flaws it had and become a fabulous superhero game nonetheless.
But so rarely do these games turn out well; rarely to the extent of Spiderman 2 and never to the extent of Arkham. Why? I think it\’s pretty simple — uncommonly does the opportunity occur for a supremely talented studio to have full creative direction over a licensed multimedia IP nor the time they need to do everything they want with it. Rocksteady was a rare case — Arkham Asylum was actually delayed, something unheard of for superhero games, but the risk payed off beautifully for WB/DC.
It is pretty uncommon to see publishers look at a game like this as something more than a simple cash grab to piggy-back off the success of an IP. When that opportunity does arise, it\’s rare that a talented enough studio is chosen to do something special with the license and even then, they might fall to a common trend in game development and just not have enough time and/or resources to fulfill their vision, which is why, even as superheroes become more and more popular, we see so few of these titles. It\’s why, instead of creating a cohesive universe of Marvel characters in gaming or at least just going for a legitimate Avengers game, Marvel instead opts to only create Avengers and Guardians toy boxes for their Disney Infinity project. It\’s why we only receive Marvel Heroes. It\’s why Activision just keeps giving us rushed Spiderman movie tie-ins. It\’s why only Lego Marvel happened.
Which, don\’t get me wrong: these are, again, very good – if not great/fantastic – games! And getting them is excellent. There\’s absolutely nothing wrong with other genres having games about these characters, and seeing talented studios use these properties in other types of games is brilliant. But they are not the same. And we know why we\’re not getting the full superhero experience. Kevin Feige, the big boss man planning out the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was asked a while back about a possible Avengers game. His response? Only if they found a talented studio to do it.
That\’s the problem. In massive triple A development, only so many studios are capable of delivering a fantastic experience encapsulating what makes these heroes so cool. Far fewer are in a position to work with a company like WB/DC or Marvel/Disney, and fewer still are willing to try or simply wanting to do so. Finding a studio capable of meshing a dozen superheroes into a single fantastic game that makes you feel like all those superheroes would be no small feat. Finding enough studios to make several fantastic, yet separate, superhero games would be equally challenging. And finding several teams to make many superhero games and then tie the many different characters together into one satisfying game would be near impossible.
Even beyond that, planning would be a nightmare. You know how challenging it must be for Marvel to make sure of continuity between all their movies from a world, character, and story standpoint? These games would have to worry about that, yet also keep gameplay mechanics consistent and tonally, it would all have to fit together. Beyond that, game development takes a long time, with scheduling that\’s far tighter than movies. Anything unexpected could occur; game delays or cancellations could easily throw everything off.
There\’s also the question of consumer interest. Would consumers really want one or two games in this universe every year? After all, movies are only twelve dollars tops and video games are sixty dollars. That is a much bigger risk. Would buyers want to spend so much money on similar superhero games so regularly? Well, the answer to the question is a resounding yes. Assassin\’s Creed games release every year and the popularity and sales has no indication of slowing down. If the games had different core mechanics, the frequency of the releases would be even less of a problem, even if they released twice a year — which is highly unlikely, anyways.
So consumers would be certainly interested; however, it would still be highly risky. Games are incredibly expensive to make and putting so many into development at the same time would be crazy. If it somehow tanks, that\’s a lot of money down the toilet and one bad game could lose a lot of consumer trust, though if there\’s one thing we learned from Assassin\’s Creed 3, it\’s that that doesn\’t really affect sales much.
Nevertheless, it seems too high an order for these companies, Marvel especially, and right now there is little possibility of a connected game universe or even many awesome games that aren\’t Batman. But that could change — nay, that should change. DC and WB are in the perfect position to start doing more. As we\’ve established, they are currently the sole creators of an absolutely mindblowingly awesome superhero game — again, the Arkham series. The gold standard for what these games can achieve has been reached and hopefully will continue to be raised by Rocksteady.
But the thing is, they laid down an extremely solid baseline for how to do Batman, and we saw another studio successfully make a title in the series: WB Montreal with Batman: Arkham Origins. Well, I say successfully. There is no small debate on that front. Origins made very few additions to the franchise, had many glitches (Wii U version aside, oddly), the world felt and looked empty, and it generally felt uninspired. I personally say Origins was pretty fantastic. I felt it was well-paced, had excellent level design, made a couple improvements to the franchise, had a great story, looked and sounded great, and importantly, still made you feel like Batman. To make a game like Arkham Origins in less than two years is no small feat.
But that\’s another topic. The point is, WB does have both a brilliant studio and a competent studio already under their belt. Add a couple more and/or expand the existing ones into multiple teams and a combined universe could absolutely happen. Have Rocksteady make a Superman game, Montreal work on Batman, and a couple other teams make Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, the Flash and/or Green Lantern, and combine them at the end with another Rocksteady title in Justice League. Given enough time and talented enough studios, I could see it happening. This is far easier said than done of course, but they\’ve got a fantastic baseline, a good reputation, and so far, talented enough teams. If anyone\’s going to make a connected universe, it\’ll be DC, although I think we\’d all settle for more awesome superhero games with different heroes than just the Dark Knight.
Superhero games are an interesting entity and it\’s very curious that we haven\’t seen the surge of superhero content yet come over to video games. Though they are now bigger than ever, we see far fewer titles than we did twenty years ago. When they do show up, it\’s usually games that use superheroes, not actual superhero games. Actual superhero games are pretty rare and the track record for such experiences is less than stellar — for obvious reasons.
Now, however, we\’re seeing some great games rise to the surface and find success. So maybe it\’s time we get the opportunity to play as more of our favorite heroes. Whether DC starts feeling ambitious, or Marvel gets serious about the medium, or both: it definitely seems that more successful titles of this type may soon be on their way.
And with that said, it\’s pretty unlikely we\’ll see a Marvel or DC connected interactive universe. But it is possible, and should it get it pulled off, we would have something incredible on our hands: the ability to become our favorite superheroes. Some may not be fans of having so many titles like this, but they could always ignore the games, and it wouldn\’t affect the industry at large in any major way. But let\’s be honest, there aren\’t a ton of people out there who wouldn\’t be thrilled to see this sort of thing happen.
After all, who doesn\’t want to be Superman?