Welcome To My Nightmare

OK, so where was I? Ah yes, City of Heroes. I went back over the column on Marvel Ultimate Alliance and felt like it was a bit too reviewish, so I’m going to try to avoid that here. You can go anywhere that reviews video games and get the 411 on City of Heroes (and Villains, though for the rest of the column I’ll simply call it City of Heroes or CoH).

Why do I play it? Because as much fun as it is to run around as an established comic book character, it’s twice as fun to bring your own characters to life. Part of the reason I write these columns is to continue to develop my writing, something which I put on the back burner for about 10 years after college. I feel I have to write SOMETHING every day, be it a short story idea, some bit of an idea for a board game, a character biography, etc. I’ve seen it written in a number of places by a number of successful writers: “Writers write.” If someday I should ever get the chance to write comics for a living, the act of writing itself will be a large part of the equation. City of Heroes allows me a lot of creativity, and I get a kick out of coming up with clever or funny backgrounds for my characters.

The character creation engine gets a lot of well deserved publicity. You can make almost anything you can think of with it. Seven feet tall he-men, four feet tall dwarves, women, aliens, and monsters of every size can be made with so many costume options it’s hard to imagine ever encountering another character exactly the same as yours. Running around the various city zones, your cape billowing behind you, surveying Paragon City as you patrol for ne’er-do-wells, it’s a fairly immersive experience.

There are some things I’d like to see improved upon. In the early game before you earn a travel power like super speed or flight, getting around can be a chore. There’s a train for mass transit between zones but often you’ll receive a mission that clear across the zone from where you are. Then the next mission is back where you started, and the next one after that is two zones away only to send you backtracking again to complete the mission. There are cars and trucks driving around the city but there’s no way to pull a Spidey and jump on for a free ride. The constant running back and forth is probably planned to allow you to engage random enemies on the streets as you get from mission to mission, but the constant running around just makes the levels drag on. I’d rather start at one end of town and work my way across a little more linearly. Missions could use more variety too. They all boil down to the same things: either arrest everyone in the mission or click on a target object or both. There are seldom any sort of puzzle or anything else to break up the monotony of shooting everyone and clicking a glowing object. But despite the few shortcomings, it’s a blast to experiment with the many combinations of powers in the game and discovering which archetype suits your method of playing. I personally am a big fan of Controllers, though Tankers and Defenders are growing on me. By the way, I play mostly on Infinity, Liberty and Freedom servers. Look for Solar Furnace, Final Mercy, or Siren Tempest on Infinity, Night Vox or Master Locke on Liberty and Knightmare or Samhain on Freedom, those are probably my most regularly played characters.

And what about interactive content? DC readers voted to kill off Jason Todd in the most famous example I can think of. But what if there was more regular fan input that actually gets implemented? What about a book that gives the reader a choice every issue, where you vote on a website for your desired outcome?

Let me try to tie this all together. The comic book industry could learn a lot from the video game industry. Video games give you an immersive world and instant visceral stimulation. Comics? Well, ya gotta work at it. And a lot of people today simply aren’t willing to put in the work. I talk to parents at my day job all the time who tell me their children don’t like to read. I usually recommend comics because it might not feel so daunting as a thick book with hundreds of thousands of words–so obviously I don’t recommend Bendis. I like reading novels because, like City of Heroes, I can put my own spin on things. Take the Star Wars novels for example. I read one of Timothy Zahn’s books that take place after “Return of the Jedi” and I know when I read a line of dialogue what Leia, Han or Luke sounds like. But what about Talon Karrde? I can put a prosaic description together in my head of what he looks like, and cast him in y mind to get an idea of what he sounds like. In my mind’s eye, he was Christopher Walken. I couldn’t tell you why but that’s what I imagined. Then he appeared in the Dark Horse Star Wars comics and the visual depiction wasn’t what I imagined. But hey, that’s why I don’t usually read books before I see a movie based on one. I’d hate to have a preconceived notion in my head of what Harry Potter was about before seeing the movie. But a lot of people I talk to would work the other way. They’d rather read the book before seeing the movie. I find that those people are the ones who pick the movie apart and criticize everything. My way allows me to enjoy the film on it’s own merits and flesh it out even more when I read the book. There’s always a scene or two dropped from the book anyway. So in terms of comics versus video games for pure entertainment, I think you have to work harder at letting yourself be entertained though reading than you do when the story unfolds in a video game, but both can offer hours of relatively inexpensive entertainment.

I do, however, think comics are lagging behind in terms of technology. Look back twenty years or so. Video games were Atari 2600 or maybe early Nintendo. Blocky graphics. One of my favorite games on Atari was called Adventure. You were literally a square block on a quest. Pitfall was terrific, but you were a somewhat cubically rendered Harry jumping across squared off gator heads. But then stop and think about how dynamic comics were in comparison. Jack Kirby and Dave Cockrum and Walt Simonson and Gil Kane and Neil Adams were blowing your mind with their incredible sense of style and page design. Frank Miller was coming on. Give me a Kirby captain America, a Cockrum X-Men or an Adams Batman anyday against the likes of Atari Dodge ‘Em or Nintendo’s early offerings.

But now? Videogames look damn near lifelike. Comics look…the same as they always have. Stapled pamphlets for $3 a pop. I have some weeks – most weeks actually – where I spend around $50 on 15 to 20 issues. $50 is like a video game a week. But I can play those games over and over, day after day. I can play several different sports teams, create myself as a wrestler or a gangster or a superhero, and generally make my own decisions on how the story will play out. Comics I’ll read once and file in a longbox. If they’re really good, they’ll get read again. Bt they won’t turn out any differently. The story will play out however Chris Claremont, Fabian Nicieza or Brian Bendis felt it should.

What’s the solution? Well, I don’t really know, but I know it won’t be an easy one. Consider the target audience of comic books. Children and young adults, right? Sure, in reality the largest part of the industry’s revenue probably comes from full on adults who have been reading and collecting comics since they were kids. But Marvel and DC already has us. The problem is their target audience is probably the lowest income portion of the consumer population. Kids and college age adults aren’t typically able to afford a nearly $200 per month comic habit. But they could get a game for $50 and play it for a month and dictate their own entertainment experience to some degree. How do you roll back the clock on comic pricing? Well, the truth is you probably don’t. Advertisers are only willing to spend so much. Printing costs aren’t likely to decrease and the creators themselves need to be paid. Factor in the need for any business to turn a profit and the days of $1 comics are probably long gone for good.

And there are quality considerations. Would you, the 21st Century Comic Reader, be willing to buy issues printed on lighter stock paper, or return to the dot matrix “four color” printing process instead of the Photoshopped images we get now on heavier paper? What about doing away with color altogether? Does cover stock need to be heavier gauge than the rest of the book? I’m sure some of my readers are nodding and saying , “Hell yeah! I could buy MORE books if they were cheaper, and I’d sacrifice a little quality for some more quantity.” But I suspect the majority would prefer to stay with our current general level of quality. More vibrant, photo-realistic rendering and coloring. Sturdy cover stock for protection as much as visual appeal.

And what about interactive content? DC readers voted to kill off Jason Todd in the most famous example I can think of. But what if there was more regular fan input that actually gets implemented? What about a book that gives the reader a choice every issue, where you vote on a website for your desired outcome? Every story, though written by an individual writer, would have a majority-approved outcome. These are questions the industry leaders should be asking themselves. EA’s Madden Football games sell millions of units annually. Final Fantasy and Zelda games fly off the shelves every time a sequel comes out. I don’t know any numbers but I’m sure globally multiplayer games like City of Heroes and World of Warcraft have sold millions of copies of software and maintain high subscription levels. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, none of them sell a million copies alone. The entertainment dollar in America, and I would imagine the currency available for discretionary spending on entertainment the world over, is not getting a whole lot bigger. Petroleum costs rise every year. Utility costs rise every year. Sporting events, concerts and movie tickets rise every year. Video games only seem to rise a little with each new console release, and even then they go on sale regularly and the prices drop as the games and systems get a little older. Marvel runs a sale on all X-Men and Spider-Man comics and toys approximately never. Your local comic store might run a sale, but the owner is taking a hit just to get rid of stuff in those cases. The publishers have already made their money. There’s got to be some changes with regard to the business and innovation of comics if they want to keep up with their entertainment competition.

Two weeks before PITTSBURGH COMICON!! I can’t wait! I’m also excited to see the Pirates bust those annoying Cincinnati Reds in the chops. I hope it’s dry and sunny when I get there. And I hope the guy who writes the schedules for baseball is there too so I can bust him in the chops for having all the northern and eastern teams playing at home in early April when you KNOW it’s still gonna rain and snow. It’s killing my Fantasy Baseball team when every game is postponed.

Welcome to my nightmare.

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