Superheroes are incredibly popular right now. This year at the cinema we’ve been already been treated to Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and we still have Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, and Doctor Strange to come. That’s a lot of superhero carnage and that’s before you take into account the numerous television shows that are now offering similar super-powered action on the small screen. So with superheroes being so popular right now, why are we not getting a bevy of superhero games on our consoles?
Xbox One launched over two years ago and so far the selection of superhero games is pretty sparse. We have the rather poor The Amazing Spiderman 2, the remaster of Deadpool, 3 LEGO games (LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, and LEGO Marvel’s Avengers), and Batman: Arkham Knight. With the exception of the LEGO games, which people tend to love or hate but either way are more about LEGO than superheroes, the only decent superhero game is Batman: Arkham Knight. Moving forward, its not like there are lots of superhero games in the development pipeline either. While I am really looking forward to getting some superhero kicks in Crackdown 3, there are still no (known) games in development based on a major DC or Marvel property.
I think that part of the reason this is the case is that both consumers and developers have been burned by numerous rushed movie tie-ins. Badly licensed games have been with us for years, through the 80’s, 90’s, 2000’s, and they still rear their ugly head today. There are several reasons why these games tend to be poor, but the main ones are the lack of time and budget. Movie tie-in games, as the name suggests, are released to get publicity and good-will from the film that they are based on. This means that the games are made on a very tight release schedule, and to reap the benefits of the tie-in, they have to hit that release window; whatever shape the game is in. What’s more is that it’s very rare that these games have AAA budgets. In general, these games are made by smaller or newer studios and a large percentage of the budget is put towards the licence of the property. I’m not suggesting that these developers can’t make a good game, or don’t want to, just that they are severely restricted in the creation of this type of licensed project.
This leads to one of the issues I can see with creating a really top-notch superhero game, which is that developers are worried about the budget that would be required. With superheroes being so prevalent in the public consciousness at the moment, the cost of licensing a character is probably more than it has ever been. What’s more is that most of these games are created as open-world adventure games, which are among the most expensive types of game to develop. I believe the most successful superhero franchise of recent times is a great example of how to develop these games. The Batman: Arkham series is the only true success in the superhero genre of the last generation. The first game in the series, Batman: Arkham Asylum showed great ambition but the developers (Rocksteady Studios) didn’t push it too far. While the game is by no means short, it doesn’t have the massive sprawling world that most open-world games have, or that later entries in the series would go on to have. Once the first game proved to be a hit, the studio was able to go ahead and make a more ambitious game in Batman: Arkham City, which was bigger in scale and featured a larger open-world playing area. I can’t help but think that if they had tried to create something akin to ‘Grand Theft Auto: Gotham’ on their first attempt they may not have been anywhere near as successful.
One of the other lessons that I feel can be learned from the Arkham series is that they stayed true to the original character rather than forcing that character into a game. At the end of the day Batman is a detective who, once he has solved a crime/problem, promptly lays a beating on the people responsible; and this is exactly how the games play. Quite how this would work for other superheroes, I have no idea, but this is why I’m writing about these games and not developing them. What I do know is that for superhero games to be both a critical and financial success, they have to stay true to the original characters. We don’t just want a game where you fly/swing/move through a bland open-world to just pick-up/deliver an item or wipeout the same group of enemies again-and-again-and-again. Give us something new, something creative, something we haven’t seen before and if it’s a good game, it will be successful.
I really thought after the success of Rocksteady’s Arkham series that by this point we would be getting an influx of quality superhero games, but that hasn’t been the case. With the extra power of the new consoles, game designers should be able to achieve anything they can think of. The popularity of the Marvel and DC movies, as well as the numerous new television shows, demonstrate the appetite for superhero content. If publishers can back their developers with the necessary resources and creative freedom, I firmly believe that we can have a string of great superhero games.