['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the brewing MMOG fight between Marvel, DC, and City of Heroes.]

Like God of War's Ares, World of Warcraft is an unmistakable figure on the horizon. The rest of the Massive industry seems, for the most part, to be milling about in an unfocused manner at the feet of this genre giant. Last week at X06 we had the first real sign that, while the market is currently disoriented, it won't always be this way. The announcement of the Marvel/Cryptic/Microsoft alliance, and the possibilities of the Marvel Universe Online (MUO), sets the stage for a very interesting niche showdown. Sometime in the next few years, we'll be seeing a three way battle over the superhero Massive market ... and it's almost certain that one of the contenders will lose. Today I'm going to discuss the three contenders in the battle, give you a sense of the odds for and against each game, and describe why I think this particular tussle is a great sign for the MMOG player.

[Click through for more.]

Tickets, Tickets Please

First off, let's meet the fighters.

The battle for the reigning superhero MMOG begins with the only challenger already in the ring: NCSoft's City of Heroes (CoH). At one point not too long ago I probably would have described the game as Cryptic's City of Heroes', but times have changed. Even as far back as April, Creative Director Jack Emmert had publicly stepped back from the Lead Designer role. Matt Miller, CoH's current lead designer, laid out plans for the game in a letter to the community. If you read between the lines, the future seems clear. "We have a full team of programmers, artists, designers, and producers devoted to creating and maintaining the best experience in the 'City of' world of games. This team is, and will remain completely separate from other teams working on other games at Cryptic." CoH will be a Cryptic game in name only. With about 1% of the marketshare sewn up in their superhero game, NCSoft would be crazy to just let it drown. So, they'll keep the lights on, even as Cryptic moves on to other things. For the immediate future, at least, CoH players have nothing to worry about.

The DC Universe MMOG, currently in the works at Sony Online Entertainment, was announced as part of the sale of The Matrix Online. Considering how well TMO is doing, SOE is obviously putting a lot of faith in the success of a DC Universe title. All things considered, they're probably right to see the game as an almost sure hit. Aside from the obvious star power of characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, they've got veteran comics man Jim Lee as Creative Director. Best known for his work on Batman: Hush, he's sure to bring a lot of first-hand world experience and 'DC reality' to the project. The best I could find as regards a release date was December of 2007. As that was on IGN, and we know almost no details about the game at this point, it's really anyone's guess as to when it will actually come out. My money is on early to mid 2008.

Undoubtedly a result of the settlement of Marvel's suit against Cryptic, the unlikely MicroMarvelCryptic alliance has only just made their intentions public. The suit was settled last December, so that's the earliest this game began development. The creators have as much as said it's still very much in the planning stages. The only thing we know for sure about the game is that it's going to be coming out of Jack Emmert's brain, and will feature pretty much every piece of content from the Marvel Universe you can imagine. My wild guess as to when this game will come out? Mid to late 2008 ... something of a rush to ensure they can compete with the DC Universe product.

Can't Enjoy the Fight Without a Program

So, now that we know who is involved, what are their odds?

City of Heroes, at first glance, is the true wild card here. On the one hand, it is well established. By the time either one of its competitors launches, it will have been in the hearts and minds of Massive gamers for at least three years. The live team already has content planned out until the end of 2007, meaning that enthusiasts are going to have plenty to sink their teeth into between now and then. They've done a great job of keeping the game's technology current, with City of Villains being one of the few titles that actually supports the PhysX card. It also looks beautiful, and planned technology upgrades should keep the game looking current even after the era of Vista games begins. On the other hand, they're not DC or Marvel. As much as people may like the Paragon City mythos, we've been reading about Spidey and Supes for decades now. Compare Statesman with Captain America or Superman in a room of comic readers, and you're going to disappoint any expectant CoH fans. In the long term, though, brand identity may not even be the biggest roadblock in CoH's path. Unless there are plans in the works I'm unaware of, City of Heroes/Villains will be the only one of the three to lack compliance with the next-gen consoles. The PS3 and 360 are huge forces in the gaming industry. Not being a part of that action could, ultimately, prove to be CoH's kryptonite.

From a brand perspective, it's hard to argue with the assets that DC brings to a party. I've always been more of a Marvel man myself, but c'mon ... Batman? Holding the keys to the baddest-ass of all the badass superheroes is great; DC happens to have an entire League of interesting characters to just waiting to have their day in the Massive sun. Likewise, Sony Online is a proven quantity in the world of Massively Multiplayer games. Like it or not, Everquest was the western Massive game for many years. They've learned a thing or two since 1999. They know what it takes to design, test, and most importantly run a Massive title, and with Sony's backing they've got all the money they need to do it.

The key here is what will the gameplay be like? If it's ultimately City of Heroes with Batman and Superman, players are going to feel cheated. As a licensed game, how far can the development team take in-game events? How far can players go to change the world around them? Will we be able to play villains at all, or is this going to be a good-guy only club? How will the named characters fit in? Will we get to fight alongside Superman? Can we join the Justice League? Can I be Batman's next ward? If the answers to at least a few of these questions are not 'yes', they've got problems before a single Beta tester enters the gameworld. What's the point of playing a DC game if you don't get to meet Superman?

From a cynical perspective, I also have to wonder: are we going to get EQ SOE here ... or are we going to get SWG SOE? Are the makers of the DC Universe game going to be the player-oriented, considerate designers who have honed Everquest into a precision instrument? Or are we going to get the folks who took one of the two most powerful sci-fi licenses in American meda and flushed it down the toilet?

All these gameplay and corporate questions go double for MUO. Jack Emmert has said they've been given 'full' access to the Marvel Universe. They used the word 'awe' to describe their feelings at the amount of the amount of information they've been given. Cryptic was included in this year's storyline planning session, and the plan is to keep them upraised of world-changing events as they happen. So, at the very least, the Marvel title is going to have an interesting backdrop against which to play. They have also made comments that indicate the PC game and the 360 game will not have the exact same gameplay. Different experiences on the console and PC would go a long way towards pleasing players; PC gamers won't be able to complain they are struggling with 'sluggish console controls', and console players won't whine about the unfairness of mouselook in PVP. As we've heard nothing similar out of SOE one can assume the PS3 version will simply be a port of the PC game.

Above all, Cryptic seems to be a highly capable company. CoH's gameplay has flaws, to be sure, but that game is rock solid dependable, gorgeous to play, and it has some of the most 'balanced' gameplay you can point to in today's market. As long as Jack doesn't try to pull off a Spider-man costume at any industry events, I think they're the perfect choice to make this game.

Again, though, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. What will gameplay be like? Considering the number of trademark powers in the world, how close to trademarked characters can players approach? IE: Can I be a wall-crawler? How about eye beams? Umm ... fireworks? Marvel also has the reputation among comic fans of being somewhat more angsty and 'teenagery'. Assuming for the moment that they're using the non-Ultimate version of the Marvel Universe (because that opens up a whole 'nother kettle of fish), how 'edgy' are they going to make the world? On the design side, despite Cryptic's obvious skill, their previous experience may actually be something of a downside for some gamers. City of Heroes, as good as I personally think it is, has its fervent detractors. For some people, no matter how different the game actually is, MUO is just going to be 'City of Heroes with The Hulk'. Cryptic and Emmert are going to have to take pains to make sure Marvel Universe Online is different 'enough' from CoH to calm the worries of anxious fanbois. It's a dangerous fence to walk, and I don't envy them.

Before we move on to the broader picture, there's a larger fight on the horizon that may intrude on this little masked mashup. With both licensed games committed to a different next-generation console, the ultimate fate of these two games also rests with prevailing consumer opinion. At the beginning of October, 2006, Sony looks to be in a tough spot. Microsoft is moving from success to success, and the Japanese powerhouse is struggling just to catch up. A year from now, though, who knows what the market will look like? Once the launch window jitters are ironed out and everyone can buy Sony's hardware, things may look very different. Sony has proven their dominance of the console industry for two generations running, Microsoft has a year's head start ... and then there's that Wii thing in the corner. That particular battle is outside of the scope of this article. Just the same, someday that fight will impact this one, and it's worth keeping it in mind.

A Rillllly Great Shew

So why is this corporate dogfight good for Massive gamers? Well, first and foremost it gets even more of our comic-nerd cousins interested in the genre. Any of them that haven't already tried City of Heroes will now be looking forward to a title based on their comic universe of choice. They may try out CoH, they may wait until the license games are released; either way there are going to be a lot of Massive-related conversations going on at local comic shops in the months ahead. More players in the marketplace is a good thing for everyone in the food chain, so that attention is much appreciated.

As the battle heats up, these machinations are likely to draw some attention from the non-gaming press. Despite the overall media ignorance on things both Massive and comics related, your average reporter is likely going to have heard of Superman. Having something besides pole-dancing Night Elves to talk about on the nightly news is a big step up for popular media coverage; again, any new blood the market can hold would seem to be a good thing.

The real reason this fight is promising, though, is that it is our first real niche fight since WoW hit the market. None of these games are going to try to unseat World of Warcraft. They're going for a totally different niche in the marketplace. As details begin to emerge about the license games, and players move back to CoH as a result of hero-related MMOG coverage, positive buzz about a non-fantasy niche in the MMOG market will work its way into the brains of venture capitalists, managers, and producers. With other powerhouse titles outside of the leather loincloth genre on the way (such as Tabula Rasa), this tussle may be the turning point in the industry's tiresome attitude towards setting.

Change, then, is ultimately what this fight represents. New players in the Massive space have announced themselves. Perhaps for the first time in a long while, jaded gamers can look up from the ruddy glow of Molten Core and see a light on the horizon. There will be flames on message boards, debates about design choices, and analyzing of screenshots. Most important of all, there will once again be passion in the eyes of Massive gamers tired of companies promising 'Everquest ... but different!'. In the end, what every Massive gamer wants is not a hot elf chick. It isn't phat loots or cybering, guild drama or farmed gold. Massive gamers want to have fun. They want to feel powerful, like they have real choices to make and an impact on the virtual world around them. They want to feel like they're part of a community. And, of course, they want to wear cool costumes.

However this fight turns out, in the end I fervently hope that it is the players who ultimately win. Until next time, true believer.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]