Where Are All the Superhero Video Games?

(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in!)

Superheroes have conquered movie theaters. Five of the top ten grossing films of 2014 (6 if you count The LEGO Movie, 7 if you expand to the top 11) were superhero movies. Combined those movies brought in over $3.75 billion at the global box office. They’re also in the process of taking over television as “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Gotham” all gained renewal orders very early into their seasons. So with two of the biggest forms of media doing a Scrooge McDuck-like dive into money with superheroes, where are all of the triple A superhero video games?

It’s not that there are zero superhero video games out there, just that they’re so few and far between with varying degrees of both quality and an intended audience. 2014 saw LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham on the DC side selling 2.47 million units with an average 73 on Metacritic and Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes moving 2.35 million units and an average 72 rating. Two all-encompassing titles, both appealing to a family friendly audience, but they failed to make a splash akin to LittleBigPlanet3, Mario Kart 8, or even the console ports of Minecraft. The year before saw LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, which sold over 6.75 million units with an average 81 rating, but also Deadpool, which sold just over 700k units and managed a 62 rating. 2013 also brought Batman: Arkham Origins which sold 4.7 million units, which is still a lot but considerably down from “Arkham City,” which sold over 10.5 million. They’ve both had their fair share of embarrassments too, with Marvel’s Avengers: Battle for Earth selling less than 100k copies in 2012 and Gotham City Imposters that same year for which there is seemingly no data on sales available (and has even transitioned into a free-to-play game on PC with no online support for consoles).

The average rounds out to one or two triple A titles from either Marvel or DC each year, which isn’t a terrible ratio, but with so few making it to market each year, why aren’t they so high in quality they’re vying for Game of the Year? Rather than put time and money into a big video game, the two would rather put money in cheap iOS games or FTP online titles, and, perhaps this is me being a curmudgeon, but these types of games are not interesting in the slightest. I understand there’s clearly a market for mobile games that can be made cheaply, but I can guarantee putting time and money into a product that delivers on the level that Batman: Arkham City did will bring in garbage trucks of money, and Marvel knows this.

“The Avengers game will come when we have the right partner, that has the right vision, that has the time to develop a strong, competitive triple-A title and wants to do it right,” Marvel Entertainment’s vice president of production for games, TQ Jefferson, told IGN last year. “It has to hit our three pillars: Fun and engaging gameplay, true to the characters, compelling story. Without hitting those notes, we shouldn’t do it. Gamers, they know better. They’re not going to flock to something that’s sub-par.”

This sounds very familiar to Marvel Studios’ own problem they had not to long ago when they wouldn’t commit to a female-led film, despite consistent fan outcry. I get not wanting to jump the gun on a less-than-stellar product since this philosophy lead to so many terrible superhero games, but there are tons of developers out there that would definitely be eager to take on The Avengers, or rather ANY Mavel property. It doesn’t even have to be a bigger studio to deliver a golden egg. Do you know what Rocksteady Studios developed before Batman: Arkham Asylum? Urban Chaos: Riot Response, a first person shooter that sold about 80k copies worldwide.

This year will bring us Batman: Arkham Knight. By comparison, we’re getting three major superhero movies and with six superhero shows currently in production and even more on the way. Rocksteady studios is hoping fans will call Batman: Arkham Knight “The Ultimate Batman simulator,” and there is no reason we can’t have something like that for all of the major superheroes. “LEGO”-style games are clearly a good option, since they’re big commercials for the LEGO sets themselves, but “Arkham City” outsold LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes nearly 2 to 1. Players are hungry for challenging games with smart storytelling and immersive gameplay. I’m not going to play a “Temple Run” clone on my phone, or a browser-based MOBA with PlayStation 2 era graphics, but I’ll gladly drop $60 for an Iron Man game with the same level of craft as The Last of Us or Grand Theft Auto V. There’s a market for this stuff, and while it’s admirable that Marvel is waiting to find the right partner in development, it’s high time something was done.