Some of the most successful games I've ran have been super hero games. There is just something about the genre, it's larger than life nature, that really clicks with me and lets me go wild with how I GM games. However, not all of my super hero games have been successful. In fact, while I'd say that two of my greatest campaigns as a GM were both super hero games - and teen hero games at that - one of the worst campaigns I've ever run, and one of the very few I have aborted part way through, was also a super hero game.
This brings me around to the question of what is actually needed for a good super hero game. I have one or two points I'm going to supply, but I am curious what you guys feel is needed as well. That said, I'll begin.
Players Who Want To Play Heroes
I'm saying Players in this and not the more common "characters who want to be heroes" because ultimately the character can not want to be a hero but be driven in to it. How many times has Spider-Man tried to quit because the cost of being a hero was too high? How many times has he come back out of that retirement because something inside him wouldn't let him just sit by when he had the capability of making a difference.
The thing is though, if a player wants his character to not be a hero - even if he is just "playing the character" - you start to have problems. Why? Because you as the GM then have to do heavy lifting just to get that PC to do what the game is supposed to be about doing. On the other hand, if the player wants her character to be a hero, but the character is reluctant, you can end up with a good story about this hero who just wants to live a normal life but feels compelled by responsibility to step up and do the right thing.
Going hand in hand with this though is the next point I'll add.
Characters Must Be Good At Heart
This is kind of a given but you'd be surprised how often it gets missed. Without being good at heart, even a character who is stopping crime, quickly becomes something of a villain. On the other hand, a character with a good heart will step up to be the hero even if normally they are a villain.
Batman comics is a great place to find characters like this, especially with characters like Catwoman. Catwoman is a thief, a criminal, and widely considered a supervillain. However, Catwoman is ultimately a good person at heart and so when push comes to shove she steps out and stands up against whatever the big bad is doing.
Another good example to show the difference is Superman. Superman, by default, is good at heart. He actually is a kind, caring, gentle soul and that is why he is the perfect person for the level of power that he has. His heart is, ultimately, nigh incorruptible and so he uses his power wisely and doesn't force it on others. However, DC is full of stories of Supermen who are not good at heart even if still heroes, and that leads to story arcs like the Justice Lords from the Justice League TV show, or what happens in the story line for the game Injustice: Gods Among Us.
Not Saying These Traits Have No Place
I want to clarify before opening the floor up. Having a Player not want to be a hero is fine, same with characters not having a good heart, however these are not things you want in a game about Super Heroes. If you are running a game about Super Powered individuals, then that is fine. But this is for a game about Super Heroes, and I am capitalizing the S and the H on purpuse when I say that.
So, what else do you think is needed?