|Superheroes and live service is a dreadful combination|
Yesterday, at Sony’s State of Play presentation, we got a deeper look at Suicide Squad and such thrilling features as:
- A loot system, complete with ‘gear score’ and set bonuses.
- Upgrade and crafting systems.
- A battle pass.
- Giant, glowing weak points on everything, including a tank.
- A guy whose entire shtick is boomerangs and firing an SMG over and over.
The presentation has received a pretty universally negative reaction. Partly people are just getting pretty tired of how common these kinds of mechanics are now, but there’s a more specific problem here: superheroes and live service is a fundamentally awful combination.
I get why developers go after it. You take superheroes, the biggest thing in entertainment today, and you combine them with live service mechanics, proven to have enormous potential for profit over a long period—surely that’s a chance for huge success? But after recent messes like Marvel’s Avengers and Warner Bros.’ own last effort Gotham Knights, we’re now past the point where developers need to realise there’s a conflict here that no amount of level 34 vibranium gauntlets can fix.
Take that loot grind, to start with. The default approach of games like this is to chase the Destiny model—a slow treadmill of progress based around incrementally better weapons and accessories. Indeed, the new Suicide Squad footage boasts of six different classes of guns, a variety of weapon manufacturers they can hail from and themed gear sets that unlock new modifiers, all contributing to your character’s power level via a gear score. Shots of the character menu show a grimly familiar UI festooned with numbers and stats as Harley Quinn stands there grinning with bizarre enthusiasm about her latest minigun drop.
That just simply isn’t the superhero fantasy. Superheroes do not pick up loot off bad guys they defeat and equip it for a tiny bonus to their strength. The point of superheroes is that they are super—when we meet them, they are already fully formed, with unique and interesting powers and abilities. When they increase in power, it is by great leaps, not 3% better armour penetration. Their specialness comes from within—either because of innate talents or superpowers, or because of incredible, signature gadgets they wield, often designed themselves. When they use normal guns and gear, the focus isn’t on the items themselves, but the wielder’s skill. Black Widow is deadly with a pair of pistols because she’s an elite assassin, not because she looted some really good ones off a dead Hydra agent.
(Image credit: Warner Bros.) (opens in new tab)
It is simply a different power fantasy than the rags-to-riches journey that these loot grinds are based on—going right back to the Dungeons & Dragons fighter who starts as a level 1 farmhand with a spear, and quests to one day become a level 20 knight clad in enchanted armour. It feels absurd for King Shark, the monstrous son of an underwater god, to be rifling through his drops to figure out which pistol he should switch to. The more iconic the character, the more you feel that disconnect. Marvel’s Avengers pushed this wrongness to the point of performance art with its loot, making the Incredible Hulk regularly swap out his actual bones for ones he found on the floor in order to progress.
The one joy there should be in superhero loot is getting to mix and match different armour pieces to make your own takes on the costumes, but outside of 2017’s Injustice 2, that seems to be off the table. I’m assuming it’s a licensing issue—Marvel and DC not wanting their characters to be too malleable—but whatever the reason, the rule for superheroes seems to be that gear can’t change their look. Not without buying expensive skins that prey on people’s love of iconic or obscure outfits from the films and comics, at least.