Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 writers tell tales

GDC Austin 2009: Activision's latest was based on the existing Civil War storyline, but Vicarious Visions' writers still had plenty of work to do.

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Who Was There: Vicarious Visions' Evan Skolnick and Jonathan Mintz, respectively, the lead writer and narrative designer on Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2

Skolnick and Mintz had to ensure heroes sounded like themselves, regardless of whose side they were on in the game's story.

What They Talked About: Skolnick kicked the session off by explaining the differences among various types of writers. He likened the short story writer to a sprinter, the novelist to a marathon runner, and the movie writer to a relay runner. As for the game writer? That's more like riding a bull. As he put it, the game wants to be a game, and the writer just tries to hang on.

Mintz underscored the scope of the writing assignment for Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, which condensed the year-long Marvel Comics Civil War crossover into a game with 15,000 lines of dialogue (8,000 of them provided in voice-over) and 55 minutes of cutscenes.

Although the story was based on Civil War, Sklonick said the team started by looking at what worked well in the original Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. The writer said the epic scope of the tale in the original extended the play time, and there was plenty of fan service at every turn, with a wide variety of characters and details pulled from the Marvel universe.

For Ultimate Alliance 2, Mintz said the focus was on bringing the tone of the project up to date with what was going on in Marvel Comics. That meant the story had to have shades of gray, as the Civil War storyline had heroes divided over a political issue of superhero registration with arguments to be made on both sides. Other focal points were to use a more grounded world with more realistic dialogue.

The writing was a significant challenge for the game, as Mintz noted that players could create their own teams from the game's roster and make those characters come down on either side of the argument. That meant dialogue needed to be created for every character in the game. And because players could choose to come down on either side of the superhero registration debate, the writers needed dialogue that sounded natural for every character regardless of which stance the players had picked.

As if the Civil War storyline wasn't large enough in scale, Mintz and Skolnick said they decided to include a previous Marvel crossover, Secret War, as essentially an introductory act to the game. As Mintz explained, that helped transition players of the first Marvel Ultimate Alliance from the black-and-white, good-versus-evil tone of the original game (and superhero comics in general) to the more conflicted version of Civil War.

The development team also needed to make compromises when adapting the story for the sake of gameplay. For one, Hulk and Thor play major roles in the game, though they spent the Civil War series on the sidelines. Another problem came up with the decision to build the game from scratch. That meant the developers wouldn't have time to create as large a roster of heroes and villains as they wanted. Fortunately, the storyline of the game allowed them to use and reuse characters as both allies and enemies as heroes switch allegiances throughout the story.

Skolnick went back to the goal of making the characters sound like themselves when they talk. The developers eventually organized player characters into about eight different personality types, with an aggressive, defensive, and passive option for each dialogue tree. Characters with a particularly unique flavor to their dialogue, like Hulk, may have been the only character to use that, and non-player characters' responses were tailored to work with each of the attitudes, rather than the characters addressing them or the specific lines being delivered.

The task was further complicated by having to integrate the writing process with the rest of the game's development. For example, Skolnick and Mintz had to work with the game's mission designer at every step of the way to see what was needed in terms of voice-over and then constantly revisit that as the developers changed and refined the mission's gameplay. The pair even had to do a bit of bug testing, playing through the game to check problems that ordinary QA might miss, like Wolverine being given the "realist" dialogue options instead of the "renegade" ones.

Quote: "That was a dark moment."--Skolnick, talking about having the producer of the game and company CEO wearing masks of Iron Man and other game characters for a table reading of the script.

Takeaway: Skolnick and Mintz' session was as much about the logistics of having a lead writer and a narrative designer onsite with the development team as it was about the challenges of writing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. While the pair said the model ultimately worked, they underscored the need to have the writing team incorporated and in communication with the development team at every step of the process.

Discussion

23 comments
ShadowPhoenix82
ShadowPhoenix82

Coolyfett, I was with you until you put your opinion at the end of your comment, therefor doing the exact same thing as the reviewers. They aren't hurting the game. They're giving it word of mouth which, without it, people might not otherwise look into the game and form opinions for themselves. Award shows are not hurting any industry either, since they're not telling you what you should play or listen to. I'd say they really are just about giving awards to the artists that, by numerical calculation, most people seem to enjoy. And the artists deserve that applause for their creation. It's really not a conspiracy. Just an opinion. And my opinion is that this game does seem very much worth looking into. Nice work on the writing, guys.

HumanoMexicano
HumanoMexicano

EmporioLove SAME HERE. I might get this for the wii so I could play with the mutants! (Just kiddin getting it for the 360 I love the HD/360 controller we need DLC chars for this game MAGNETO)

EmporioLove
EmporioLove

great game BUT i dont know half of the roster! I'm so used to only X-Men characters!!!!!

Coolyfett
Coolyfett

I am not a zombie man, my brain works for itself, everyone know how much time and effort are put into Ultimate Alliance games. Not gonna let some lame as power hungry reviewer control what i know I am already going to do. People don't understand how these review guys actually hurt gaming more than they help it. Its just like all these award shows whether it be music or movie people try to control the thoughts and acts of the common man, by telling people what they should and should not buy. Don't be a donkey people. Get this game. peace

HumanoMexicano
HumanoMexicano

WTF last gen consoles GET CYCLOPS and PSYLOCKE the fffffffffffffffffff

WTFitsPauL
WTFitsPauL

Good Writing Comes With Good Voice Acting.

Darkmoone1
Darkmoone1

I think this games gonna get underrated. Just a feeling....

DFBTG
DFBTG

@ParisSun Wait, wait, I can see all those other games, but from one MGS game to the next the gameplay is far from 'recycle[d]'. Having just played through the essentials collection and MGS4, I can tell that they are not the same thing with only minor tweaks (like Gears of War...or pretty much any shooter franchise). And I think the knocking down UA2 comes more from the fact that it's more of the same button mashing than more of the same 'excellence'. If something's 'broken' it's expected to be fixed, not repeated. You all know the saying for the converse. Great, interesting, and helpful read this was though. I've entertained thoughts about being a game writer myself. But, well, we'll have to see where life takes me. Although honestly it sounds like writing a novel would be easier (granted I am already well into that).

Ovirew
Ovirew

It sounds like they really paid attention to the story in this game, so I am pleased to hear about all of the painstaking work that went into writing all of these different lines of dialogue for the characters. I'm pretty excited about this game, I might even venture down to Gamestop to pick it up, since I still have money on my card.

chapan17
chapan17

Believe me, the rating is fair, although i would have given it an 8.... because its a lot of button smashing. However i sersiouly love the game, finished it once already about to play as anti-reg now, and the game is amazingly fun. So get it and dont get influenced by the review

NuKkU
NuKkU

man i want MUA2 bad!!!! lol

Jamesp2005
Jamesp2005

So a 7.5 rating is enough for you to not get a game you've been wanting?

Shadeofgood
Shadeofgood

What bothers me about it is for some strange reason I could not find a review on this game for nothing until later on today. I was able to find reviews on Batman Arkham Asylum way before it came out. I plan on buying Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and there is already a review for that. Sure Coolyfett, go ahead and buy it, but $60 a pop does add up. I like to be cautious because when games do come out with low reviews, they tend to drop down in price faster vs a great game which could save me more money.

ParisSun
ParisSun

Good point Blackwings17: I have noticed this as well. MGS, Halo, CoD, GeoW and many other games recycle the same, admittedly high quality gameplay, over and over. They never take point hits for this. Madden should be rated a 2.0 for ripping off the fans. Fans of MAU1 are going to really like this game.

Coolyfett
Coolyfett

Go ahead and cancel the order, me and my brother will just pick it up. ha ha

BLACKWINGS17
BLACKWINGS17

Fans of Halo, GTA, Madden, and Call Of Duty have been playin' the same recycled gameplay for years without end - yet these sites worship all of these games and score them as the greatest games ever manufactured. The same gameplay as the previous game is the reason most sites docked it on the score - the same sites that still continue to play the other recycled games with no complaints. Funny . . . but not really.

Shadeofgood
Shadeofgood

Yeah I see it now, makes me wanna cancel my pre-order.

liveforever89
liveforever89

Shadeofgood, Did you even bother to check? Gamespot gave it a 7.5 . . .