Death of a genre: what happened to the superhero MMO?

Superman and other heroes facing off against a monster in DC Universe Online.
(Image credit: Future, DC, Daybreak Game Company)

The year is 2022. The MMORPG market - once a lively Metropolis of new IPs - looks a lot more like Gotham nowadays. It’s filled alley-to-alley by grizzled veterans, their toolbelts filled with graphical overhauls and expansion packs. Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker was so successful they had to stop selling it, and World of Warcraft fans are enjoying the new Dragonflight expansion.

While there’s a lot on offer for fans of sword and sorcery, we older players (okay, we tired millennials who still remember the screech of dial-up) knew a golden age: one filled with caped crusaders, eye beams, and body sliders. It was a time when a trinity of titans: City of Heroes, Champions Online, and DC Universe Online (DCUO) showed wonderful promises for the future of virtual crime-fighting. 

Then disaster struck: City of Heroes got the kryptonite axe, Champions Online gasped through maintenance mode for years, and DCUO – well, it’s still putting up a heroic fight with regular content updates for a diehard player base, but by now most fellow fans have fled the ship. 

Eleven years have passed since the last game of its kind, and we desperately need a new generation of heroes to don the cape. Until then I’d like to take a look at these three former titans to see if I can diagnose the sorry state of the Superhero MMORPG today. 

DC Universe Online: still swingin’

Superman and other heroes fighting the minions of Brainiac in DC Universe Online.

(Image credit: DC, Daybreak Game Company)

DC Universe Online (DCUO) is the only member of this trio that’s (officially) on the ground and running. While the game boasts a humble player count, it’s by no means a phantom zone. DCUO boasts an action-heavy combat system and still has some of the best traversal powers I’ve seen from the genre, allowing you to swoop, glide, skim, parkour, and superspeed your way through crime-infested streets. 

While the game experienced a long night of free-to-play downsides, hamstrung by paywalled PVE content and a grindfest of an endgame, Daybreak Games have changed their tactics for the better. They’ve made all forty-plus “episodes” of PVE story content completely free. There’s a lot to jump into, even if the endgame can still get a bit long-winded and grindy without pulling out your trusty bat credit card. 

The fact that it even receives steady updates - with the developers still listening to player feedback - puts it entire Justice Leagues ahead of its competition. Unfortunately, the once-popular PVP aspect of the game is now all but dead in the water, but that's not a total disaster; free-to-play mega-hit Warframe also touts competitive modes that remain largely untouched by the player base. As of 2022, DCUO boasts a player count still numbers in the hundreds of thousands, indicating that there's life in this game yet.

Champions Online: maintenance mode mayhem

A hero standing in the middle of an empty city street in Champions Online.

(Image credit: Atari, Gearbox Publishing)

Oh, Champions Online. I was there for your launch, and you burned me bad.

Champions Online promised to be a reimagining of the City of Heroes formula for the next generation. I can still recall the excitement surrounding launch day, with many City of Heroes fans worried it’d break up their old supergroups. It all seemed so promising. The first big content update, Vibora Bay, added a substantial amount to a bumpy but otherwise fun experience; new powers, a new zone, and new storylines – if the developers could keep this pace up, things were looking hopeful!

Then: a pall of indifferent, cash-shop silence. We stood patiently and scoured the horizon for signs of hope. We ignored the spluttering coughs of microtransactions, waiting in the cold for a scrap of new gameplay – and we’d be there for a while. 

The Steel Crusade update came out in 2014; a full four years after Vibora Bay and three years after the game went free-to-play. There were smaller breadcrumbs such as the alert system, but most of the game’s development went towards the in-game store. There have been other updates since, but for most of those day-one hopefuls it feels like too little, too late. Champions Online is still a decent superhero romp, but an avalanche of business mishaps robbed it of a brighter future. 

City of Heroes: a fallen paragon

A hero fighting street thugs in City of Heroes.

(Image credit: NCSoft)

Ah, City of Heroes my beloved, struck down too soon. Wildly popular back in its heyday (at least, for an MMO that wasn’t World of Warcraft), City of Heroes had a fascinating mixture of zany hijinks and dark twists in its lore. You could go back in time to punch Romans who had fused with vampiric aliens, or you could find out about the psychic children kidnapped by dictatorships to be made into super soldiers. Not to mention the apocalyptic alien invasion that apparently killed most heroes before the game’s story even starts, like a comic reboot storyline that never hit the reset button. 

Despite this, City of Heroes was killed. I say killed because even the developers were caught off-guard when developer NCSoft shut down the game in 2012. Players staged in-game protests and flooded the internet with complaints (and genuine tears), yet the unfeeling barrel of corporate decision-making would not sway. City of Heroes was gone, seemingly forever. 

Or so we thought.

Thanks to private servers and a dedicated community, now might be the best time to start playing. Some servers have even added new story content, character archetypes, and quality-of-life updates; all without the controversial cash shop of the game’s twilight years.

I need a hero!

So, what happened to the Superhero MMO? A heartbreakingly dull death of corporate mismanagement. City of Heroes was gunned down in the middle of its lifespan, Champions Online starved its players for years after its release, and DC Universe Online has only just begun to shed the skin of a limited free-to-play model, nonetheless showing its age. 

These games offered so much; character creation options that still blow many modern MMOs out of the water, fascinating and zany worlds, unique travel options, and build complexity that’s only beaten by games like Path of Exile. If I’m sounding sentimental it’s because I am, dangit.

Is there any hope? Well, there was a Marvel MMO in the works, but it was canceled. Fan projects exist such as City of Titans and Ship of Heroes, and while I’m inspired by the dedication, I don’t think they’re going to recapture that spark. Until a successor can punch through the rainclouds of development hell, all we can do is hold out for a hero. 

Freelance Writer