How To Make A Great Superhero Game

Being a huge comic book and superhero fan I’m a sucker for any type of superhero game. However, despite my blind devotion to the superhero genre even I, wonder why they aren’t more great superhero video games like the Batman Arkham series. This got me thinking as to what would make a great superhero game. After looking at the notable successes and failures in the genre, I thought about what developers should consider when making superhero games and have come up with some ideas which may help them create the next, great superhero game.

Drop the Movie and TV tie-ins

'Kraven has word with Spider-man about his run of mediocre tie-ins.'
‘Kraven has word with Spider-man about his run of mediocre tie-ins.’

Whilst there are a few notable exceptions such as Spider-man 2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, most superhero movie or TV tie-ins are mediocre at best and plain broken at worse. That’s not to say that some of these games showed promise during development however too often the final game lacks the overall quality of a truly great game. Even I have enjoyed a certain guilty pleasure over playing tie-ins such as Green Lantern: The Rise of the Manhunters, however I always walk away feeling disappointed at the missed opportunities.

This isn’t necessarily always the fault of the developers as they are often under pressure to deliver a game within a limited time scale; often to coincide with the theatrical release of the movie it’s based on. You only have to look at some of the great games over the last few years to see that most of them have been delayed to give developers extra time to polish them. Even Batman Arkham Knight was delayed and the original Batman Arkham Asylum was itself delayed by a few months.

As well as allowing developers the time they need to create a great game, moving away from movie and TV tie-ins allow developers to be more creative with the license. Rather than stick to the plot of a movie (or at least keep tenuous links to it), developers can create their own stories drawing on years of comic book stories. This has been partly why the Arkham games have been successful as they have forged their own stories that are crammed to the rafters with Easter eggs for life long comic book fans. Moving away from movie tie-ins in many ways allows developers the freedom to build the games they want, both in terms of story and game design. Surely knowing you don’t have to cram in that chase sequence or epic set piece from the movie, allows developers to create their own gameplay mechanics.

Move away from the ‘Big 3’

'I'm Batman. I have a great video game series. What do you two have?''
‘I’m Batman. I have a great video game series. What do you two have?”

By far the most common superhero games are understandably based on the three most popular, Batman, Superman and Spider-man. However, I believe the next truly great superhero game must come from other comic books stars, as these heroes have either already had success or are inherently not suited to video games.

After years of terrible games Batman has finally found fruit with the Arkham series and needs no re-invention. Also, Spider-man has had some decent success with a variety of open-world games over the past decade or so. Despite some of the fun I’ve had swinging freely through New York as everyone’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-man, there’s only so many times you can repeat the same formula of thwarting petty crimes and chasing villains through New York’s skyline.

On the other hand, despite being arguably the most recognisable superhero, Superman has probably had some of the worse superhero games ever. Video games too often either nuke Superman’s powers or have problems translating them to video games especially his ability to fly. The underlying problem is that Superman is practically indestructible and has almost unlimited power, translating this into the rules and constraints of the video game world just isn’t viable. The game based on Superman Returns tried to combat this by having the health of Metropolis presented instead but in practice this was merely just another health bar.

The Green Lantern series provides a whole universe ripe for exploring.
The Green Lantern series provides a whole universe ripe for exploring.

Therefore, I think the next truly great superhero game will have to come from other heroes of comic books. One comic book series I feel is ripe to produce a truly great game is the X-Men series. The X-Men universe has enough depth to stand on it’s own and there are plenty of great stories to draw from. A great game based on the X-Men series could easily re-create the depth of lore found in the Arkham games and establish a story all of it’s own. In regards to other series that have a depth to their universe to stand on their own, I would also argue that the Green Lantern universe would also be another great series to explore. With battles between the different light corps, there’s a whole wealth of universe building and storytelling to explore in the Green Lantern universe. It would just have to distance itself as much as possible from the incredibly disappointing movie.

Tackle Different Genres

'Press square to pummel.'
‘Press square to pummel.’

However, just merely presenting a well told story with a deep and rich lore from the comic books is not enough to make a good game, it needs to play great too. Unfortunately, many superhero video games have resorted to Streets of Rage like brawlers, where you repeatedly bash buttons to take down wave upon wave of enemies. There may be the odd platforming section or character progression system where you unlock more abilities, but a lot of your cut and dry superhero games follow this formula.

Therefore, the next great video game series needs to experiment a bit more with genre. the Arkham series did this extremely well drawing elements from stealth games, third person brawlers and open world games to develop it’s own unique style. Many would even argue that it’s combat system is one of the best in gaming as it’s deceptively simple yet incredibly deep. However, superhero games could look to other genres too. For example, it’s easy to imagine an X-Com like game based on the X-Men series. You could have a vast team of mutants to choose from as you go out on missions to defend the globe. Then you could go back to Xavier’s Academy and upgrade your team, research new abilities or maybe even use Cerebro to discover new mutants.

'Is it too difficult to imagine this squad as a team of X-Men?'
‘Is it too difficult to imagine this squad as a team of X-Men?’

A Green Lantern game could maybe adopt a Mass Effect approach, after all they are both sci-fi operas in their own right. You could explore the universe building your Green Lantern Corps as you tackle various threats from other Corps in third person, squad based action. Maybe it could incorporate role playing elements by creating and improving your own light constructs. These are just a few examples but I’m sure if developers looked to the wider games industry and took a few more risks they could create truly great superhero games.

However, how likely this is to happen is uncertain as we still see plenty of mediocre superhero games. We still see these games because despite their mediocrity or missed opportunities they continue to sell well as just playing as a well-established hero is enough for some. I know I have at times been guilty of this by getting far too much enjoyment out of games that aren’t great. If these games are still successful why would developers and publishers be willing to take risks? However, now with the Rocksteady likely finished with the Arkham series maybe they could broader their horizons to other superheros or maybe it will take a new developer to set their heart set on creating the next great superhero game.

Do you wish there were more great superhero games? What superheroes do you think would be ripe for truly great games? Is there a certain type of game you wished for, for your favourite superhero? Let me know in the comments below.

One thought on “How To Make A Great Superhero Game

  • November 24, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    a superman game can work. it’s just that devs go about all so wrong. there has to be a clark kent element to the game. although still being able retain all super abilities just used differently when clark

    somebody would have to take grand theft auto v, mass effect, and batman arkham and mash it together. it could definitely work out.

    ive already have a well played and imagined superman game in my head. i would give my thoughts about it for free if it gave an opportunity to play it.


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