Making a superhero game
I’m a big fan of blogs about the experience of making a video game – Tom Francis wrote a great series about the development of Gunpoint – but I can never find enough to read, so I thought I’d write one myself to do my part in the effort to clog up the internet until it finally stops working for good.
After a few short prototyping projects I wanted to make a superhero game in the vein of Superman Returns, that movie tie-in for the Xbox 360 that popped up briefly in 2006 (a highly cursed year in the games industry) before being forgotten forever.
That game was forgotten for many reasons, but I spent hours playing the free demo from Official Xbox Magazine (I was a pretty cool teenager) and there were a few things about it that I really liked.
INVINCIBOY AND THE CITY OF CARDBOARD
With one button you could hop up into the air, and then holding down another button would propel you forwards very, very fast. The world itself was a bit anodyne and empty, but the flight controls were fluid and satisfying, and the visual and sound effects did a great job conveying a sense of speed. There was a very memorable sonic boom effect if you held the button down long enough.
I might be remembering this wrong and I’m too lazy to look it up, but I think Superman himself didn’t have a health bar – the win and lose conditions were based on an abstract health bar for the city of Metropolis. I liked this idea, that the game was less about fighting and more about racing around the city trying to prevent collateral damage.
It didn’t work that well in the end, but I think that was a problem of execution rather than it being a bad idea to start with.
There was also a nice range of superpowers, like heat vision, freeze breath and yeeting heavy objects. The world wasn’t super interactive so a lot of it fell flat, but it was fun for a while and leaving big icy trails everywhere was strangely satisfying.
EA DID WHAT NINTENSHOULDN’T
The game wasn’t received well. The game world had some interesting geometry but civilians and vehicles didn’t react much to Superman’s presence. The powers were fun for a bit but the limp physics interactions didn’t make them feel particularly strong or effective. There were extended combat segments that didn’t really feel interesting or superhero-like. The lose-game condition just displayed an unconvincing message saying “Metropolis was destroyed!”.
As a guiding principle for this project, I’m deciding now (with the arrogance of someone who played the demo of a game for a week over a decade ago) that this game didn’t work because the player needed to feel a personal stake in protecting the city, and so the city needs to have a relationship with the player. It needs more personality, and it needs to react to things the player does, both immediately and in the long-term. If the player wants to keep the city in a certain state, then threats to that state will be compelling, and won’t feel like we just chucked a bunch of robots in and told you to fight them.
FROM SUPERMAN TO ACCEPTABLE-GAMEPLAY-MAN
There isn’t much to be gained by just replicating a not-so-great game from 2006, so I’d like to make something that takes the good and strips out the bad. Here’s what it will need:
- A fun flight mechanic that works similarly to Superman’s
- A city environment that’s interesting to explore and reacts to the player’s presence, both physically and visually
- A system to create and resolve ‘disturbances’ that threaten the city, but not the player
- A set of superpowers – interesting ways to change the environment around you and nullify the threats presented by disturbances
- A loose narrative frame that provides more convincing win and lose conditions than “the city was destroyed”
The biggest problem with this is scope. Superman Returns took a full studio of designers, developers and artists to make, so this is going to have to be a project of significantly smaller scale, while still providing stuff that the original game didn’t.
So, first up is a key element: flying so hard into things that you ragdoll.