Marvel Goes MMO– but will it work?

The last time we saw Marvel Comics and game developer Cryptic Studios in the same sentence, the former was suing the latter, on the fairly dubious grounds that Cryptic’s popular, caped crimefighter-themed City of Heroes MMO supposedly encouraged copyright infringement. (Since its subscribers could create characters similar to Captain America, the Hulk, and other titans in the Marvel pantheon.)

But IP lawsuits are so 2004, and after an undisclosed settlement agreement last year, the latest news is win-win for both companies, announced just last week: Cryptic will be the developer for Marvel Universe Online, an upcoming MMO for Vista and Xbox 360 that’ll incorporate characters, settings, and storylines from their vast comic library.

At first glance, the project’s success seems like a sure bet. With a huge, generation-spanning readership, and several blockbuster movie spinoffs, including Spider-Man and X-Men, how could an online game version fail?

Trouble is, it can. In fact, I’d be very skeptical, because the track record for MMOs based on non-game IP is pretty dicey. Star Wars Galaxies performed moderately well at first, with a few hundred thousand subscribers at peak– but before its 2003 launch, experts predicted it could be the first US-based MMO to break the one million subscriber mark. (And does anyone even remember Matrix Online, let alone play it?) The fundamental stumbling block seems to be a mismatch of medium and desire.

If you love the heroes of a film or comic franchise, then you probably want to be them, or at least interact with them on a regular basis. But doing that’s simply not feasible in an online game played simultaneously by several thousands of people– especially if you’re trying to capture both an audience of hardcore gamers who enjoy roleplaying in the game’s universe for long stretches of time, and more casual players who just want a quick, action-oriented experience.

Sony Online Entertainment learned this the hard way with Star Wars Galaxies, and a game based on Marvel comics is sure to endure similar (insurmountable?) challenges. Can you create a superhero game where everyone wants to be Wolverine, but no one wants to be Wolverine’s apprentice claw sharpener?

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