Last night, in an attempt to get some good Diablo-like action, I downloaded Marvel Heroes. My impressions are mixed, but here’s a short summary of what I think as a game designer.
First, it’s a free-to-play game that doesn’t think it’s a free-to-play game. Five characters would be a lot to choose from even in something like Torchlight, but I’ll touch on why that’s not necessarily the case in Marvel Heroes. In Marvel Heroes, you start off with a character, then get a second random (starter?) character. It’s a way to give you more characters, and it goes in line with a core game element I’ll touch on later. Unfortunately, it also fails miserably.
Last night I remarked that “Free-to-play is the new shareware.”. Now, I love shareware games, some of my favorite games still release on that model (though they’ve now switched to the demo/full game wording), and it was a major boon to the industry. However, Marvel Heroes was really restrictive. For a game that sells itself on heroes and roster familiarity, there’s not a whole lot of options to start from, and in particular the starting characters tend to be the ones who haven’t gotten a lot of love recently (except for the X-Men in the starting cast, who I don’t follow well enough to know if they’re popular or not).
Now, I’m not saying that Marvel Heroes should unlock every hero up front, nor should they necessarily change their starter roster. I can picture it quickly becoming Latest Marvel Movie Online without too much difficulty. However, I went to play Marvel Heroes with myself, my brother, and a mutual friend of ours. Our friend had already ragequit before we finished our downloads, because he got a starter character that didn’t match his playstyle, and only had that one character to go through a somewhat lengthy starting level.
And this is one of Marvel Heroes’ issues. It’s a very broad but shallow game. Not necessarily in the sense that there isn’t a lot to do, but in the idea that there’s not a whole lot of stuff that can be done with certain characters outside of playing them as they act in the comics, whether that’s shooting, punching, casting, or whatever fighting style of choice they have. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if you choose poorly, you’re going to enjoy the game less. In addition, there are five slots for equipment, and the equipment you find is locked to individual heroes. This means that a Light Jumpsuit that is grayed out is for a different character than my Daredevil’s Light Jumpsuits are. To me, this feels like there was an attempt to create false depth going on here-I can see character restrictions if gear had power-specific features, but my Light Jumpsuit with 6 defense isn’t any different from a Light Jumpsuit with 4+4 defense.
There’s an intentional attempt to force heroes into a role in Marvel Heroes, and that’s not a bad thing-most of them do occupy a specific role in the canon, such as the Thing, who can smash things well and take a lot of hurting. However, each character is forced to use a very limited selection of gear and skills that is specialized for their specific path. Logically, this isn’t a horrible thing, but the restrictiveness of the system means that if you don’t choose a starting character who meets your play style, you’ll be in a hard place.
Which leads me to the character switching. It’s an interesting concept, and I’d actually like to see it in more games, but it’s also inherently flawed in a Diablo-like. For character switching to work, you have to offer a similar interface (at least in my opinion, I’ve always hated games where you just arbitrarily control different characters in different ways). The only game I can think of that didn’t do this that I really liked the character switching in was Frontlines, an old(ish) FPS that included Shadowrun-style drone action in its brown-and-bloom-near-future shooter action. For the most part, switching characters should change your move-set, but not in such a way that it’s unfamiliar. Marvel Heroes does this part well. What Marvel Heroes fails at is that there’s a penalty for switching back to a character you haven’t used. Sure there’s the “Rested XP” system, which keeps you from progressing as quickly on a character you’ve used too much. Someone will probably correct me at some point and say it’s a “bonus”, but the difference between a bonus and a penalty when it comes to MMORPG rewards is rather slim. I don’t want to have finished playing my level 8 Daredevil and go back to play a level 1 character. I’d have to go to levels I’ve already beaten or another low-challenge area (I’m not exactly sure what Marvel Heroes does in terms of world map and such and I put a good three hours into it), so unless I unlock someone I’m interested in, I’ll just sit it out.
So how would I make Marvel Heroes? Pretty much the opposite of what the design trends as I saw were.
In terms of characters, I’d make the individual character less important. There would be a General Player Level, where basically half of the XP you earned went to all characters and a general player level pool that would unlock certain things. This would allow players to tag out characters, say, in a boss fight, to get a more advantageous or less injured hero on the field. It would also make new characters less worthless when you picked them up. I’d give more equipment slots, unlock the hero-based restrictions on (some) gear, and generally encourage building heroes who can take on multiple aspects of play. For instance, Iron Man could play a ranged combatant as easily as he could a close-quarters bruiser with a few equipment swaps (note that I didn’t get to play as him in Marvel Heroes, so I haven’t had a chance to really look at his roles in depth).
As far as acquiring characters, I’d give the player a random selection of a pool of seven out of ten starting characters, give more information at the starting character selection screen, and allow the player to choose two characters instead of just one, to let them try out different play-styles before they were forced into the game, and make heroes unlockable with in-game currency. I didn’t check the cash shop currency, but I know that the total of the “DLC” on Steam was $250, which may be inflated but seems absurdly high; I’d rather buy a $40 purchase up front and not have the free-to-play element from a design perspective, because the only reason I played Marvel Heroes was because I knew someone who had recommended it to me, and the price tag almost scared me away. Of course, my other gut feeling is to just throw out having to unlock characters altogether, and just making it a free-for-all. Sure I’d be playing Iron Man, and half of the known world would, but is that such a bad thing?
A side-effect of this character decentralized system is that you could easily make characters who had different power levels in early and end game. This isn’t necessarily a good idea, but it’d be more fun for the power-gamers, and you could make characters who did well overall for people who wanted less of a specialized experience.
In addition, the game is way too easy. Both solo and in a group, nothing really posed a threat to my Daredevil. My brother’s Thing went down to a miniboss’s attack, but he assures me it was a matter of miscalculation rather than actual damage output-he got hit five times in rapid succession. I’d fix this by adding the new gear slots in, then giving a 25% boost to all enemies. Given the power of gear as it stands, this would make the game about as difficult as it is now for people who optimized for their build, but more difficult for people who wanted a more challenging but interesting experience.
I’d sell “Issues”. I know The Secret World uses that term for its adventure packs, but let’s be honest here: You’re making a game heavily inspired by and based upon comics. Nothing is more perfect than following the comic model for a game, and letting players play classic storylines as well as new ones using their favorite characters. Basically, what I understood from Marvel Heroes is that the whole game is free, just not the characters, so it essentially looked at the MOBA business model. For a Diablo-like, this isn’t a great idea, in my opinion, for the reasons I discussed above about locking people into characters. In addition, it means that the part of the game that is perhaps the hardest to do; level and environmental design, is the part that all players get access to with their starting characters, so the goal becomes to add more characters for people to buy, leading to constant balance concerns, rather than creating new content for the game itself.
I was going to write more on the model, but I’m way longer than my normal posts, so check back next week for my article on “Free-to-Pay” games.