I have been playing a lot of the video game City of Villains recently. Its not nearly as popular as its counterpart game City of Heroes. Before it launched it was widely assumed that the opposite would be true; City of Villains would be the hit and City of Heroes would become a ghost town.
It should be that way. The new game made improvements to the AI, character design, and gameplay. Nevertheless, despite a decent launch players eventually migrated back to City of Heroes in droves. The biggest complaint seemed to be that the villains on City of Villains simply didn't seem to be very villainous.
I believe this is true. Rather than traditional supervillains, characters in City of Villains seemed more like "Tragically Hip Antiheroes" (TM). Of course, City of Tragically Hip Antiheroes (COTHAH), doesn't roll off the tongue the way City of Villains does.
So I started to think of what could be done to make the villains in City of Villains more like traditional comic book villains and realized it was tough. The biggest problem is that supervillains are proactive while superheroes are reactive. Villains are the ones always hatching plots, pursuing their dreams, and trying to change the world. On the other hand, superheroes tend to wait for things to happen, whether it is a new supervillain plot, a natural disaster, or even a simple mugging.
In fact, whenever a superhero crosses the line and attempts to use their vast powers to make the world a better place, it almost always turns out bad. When Firestorm attempted to end hunger in Africa by making a desert into a virtual Eden (Firestorm #77-79), he merely managed to spark a land war in an already volatile area. Similarly, the story of well meaning superheroes becoming dictators has played out in books like Squadron Supreme, Kingdom Come, and countless others. In essence, whenever a superhero takes a proactive stance in mainstream comics, he becomes the villain of the piece.
Taken to its logical conclusion, being proactive about changing the world is one of the defining attributes of the comic book villain. Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, and Magneto don't simply sit around and wait for things to happen. They make things happen.
So does this mean that a great supervillain MMORPG is impossible? Maybe it is. The trick is that the proactive nature of supervillains means they are actually content creators, rather than content consumers. Villains need to be able to create their own storylines. This is not something that MMORPGs do well. Frankly, this may be an area where pen and paper games beat out MMORPGs for the foreseeable future.