Q&A: Decrypting the Marvel 360 MMOG deal

Ames Kirshen, Frank Pape, and Jack Emmert unmask the three-way Microsoft-Marvel-Cryptic deal that will yield the first massively multiplayer game created specifically for the Xbox 360 and Vista.

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In February, Sony Online Entertainment announced it was making a massively multiplayer online role-playing game based on the DC Comics universe for PCs and "next-generation consoles." Though no specific platform was mentioned, given SOE's involvement, it was pretty clear that the console in question would be the PlayStation 3.

The move was a response to Microsoft's July 2005 announcement that it was making an Xbox 360 superhero MMORPG based on the library of DC's archnemesis, Marvel Comics. Today, the game was given a title, Marvel Universe Online, and was officially unveiled as the first original massively multiplayer game created for the Xbox 360 and Windows Vista. It will also let players on both platforms interact in the same gameworld.

Even more newsworthy is Marvel Universe Online's developer, Cryptic Studios. Besides being the developer of NCsoft's successful City of Heroes and City of Villains massively multiplayer online role-playing games, the shop was the defendant in a 2004 lawsuit leveled by none other than Marvel Comics. Apparently Marvel believed that some of the player-created characters were direct copies of such iconic characters as the Incredible Hulk and Wolverine, and sued Cryptic and NCsoft for copyright infringement.

In March 2005, a judge threw out most of the charges in the lawsuit. Eighteen months later, Marvel and Cryptic haven't just buried the hatchet--they're now enthusiastic partners in making Marvel Universe Online. (NCsoft has issued a statement saying it expects to continue to work with Cryptic on City of Heroes and City of Villains.) GameSpot sat down with Cryptic Studios' creative director, Jack Emmert, and Marvel Entertainment's vice president of Interactive, Ames Kirshen--as well as Microsoft Game Studios' senior director of business development, Frank Pape--to discuss the development of this sure-to-be-important game.

GameSpot: So what's up? I hear you have something to tell our readers.

Frank Pape: What if we said we're going to start creating cloning machines? Would that be exciting?

GS: Uh, yeah, that would be.

FP: We've got something better than that. We're announcing today a fantastic partnership with Cryptic Studios and Marvel to create the Marvel MMO. It will be on Xbox 360 and on Windows and will feature cross-platform seamless simultaneous play, which we believe is unprecedented.

GS: So it'll be the same people on the PC as on the 360?

FP: Absolutely, playing at the same time, which we think is tremendous--a unique and compelling feature for folks to play the game. When we looked at this in the past, we signed with Marvel about a year ago, and we made that announcement at Comi-Con. That was a very exciting announcement, and over the time since then we chased after the fantastically successful Cryptic Studios and ending up signing with them. And some of the things I'll say about this: For us when we look at this space, the Marvel intellectual property is the strongest--one of the strongest properties you can find in the world. It's universally recognizable. We think that it transcends boundaries across the two platforms. We think that it's internationally recognizable. Obviously there's been tremendous success in the last decade with the movies from Marvel. You'd be hard pressed to find anybody that didn't know or have a favorite character in the Marvel universe.

Cryptic with their great pedigree, their great track record on the City of Heroes franchise--it was the perfect partner. We have access to all the characters in the history and lore of the Marvel universe to put into this game. So we're super excited. I mean this is, for an MMO player and for folks on the console that want to play an MMO and bringing in a new audience, it's as compelling a statement as we can make.

GS: Now I presume, the game is going to let you create your own heroes. My question is, how are the characters from the Marvel universe going to interact with those newly created characters?

Jack Emmert: Don't presume anything right now. We are dedicated to creating the ultimate Marvel experience online, and we'll do whatever it takes to fulfill that. Whether you can play as a character or create your own--right now, we're not announcing anything.

GS: So when did the actual talk between Cryptic and Marvel start?

FP: Ever since we signed with Marvel, we wanted to work with Cryptic. These things take time. What is exciting about having Microsoft in the partnership is not just the technology that allows live cross-platform play, but to have the resources to build out a fantastic MMO experience and maintain it over five, six, seven years and beyond. There's not a lot of publishers out there that actually have the resources to do it. So for us, we were looking for the long term. We knew who the best partner was right from the get-go. Again, it takes time to hammer out all the little details. So we were looking at them right away, and lucky for us we ended up signing them a couple of months back, and we're making that announcement today.

GS: That's great. So correct me if I'm wrong, but this is the first original MMOG created just for the 360 and the PC, yes?

FP: Yes.

GS: Can you go into details about which Marvel characters are going to be in the game?

JE: What I can talk about is the fact that we have access to the entire Marvel universe. So from 1940 on, the characters, the storylines, the places, the people--it's all at our disposal, and believe me we're going to mine it for all it's worth.

GS: So it will be a contemporary setting? You're not going to do kind of a Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich sort of thing?

FP: It's contemporary. We're working side-by-side with the people at Marvel to ensure that the game is going to represent Marvel.

JE: I just want to add to that, in the past, obviously, with a lot of our games the game is based on the more singular characters. With Ultimate Spider-Man obviously we worked with Brian Michael Bendis, and we've had creators work on games before. This is really the first time that we have had a day-to-day integration with the Microsoft Game Studios and Cryptic. We're really plugged into the machine of Marvel and working with the Cryptic folks, fleshing out what they're doing for years to come so that the game is as relevant when it's released as it is when it was going on in the comics. If the consumer is buying the comic books and is keeping up with whatever storyline or storylines are going on at that time, that will be reflected in the game. So it will be a contemporary, synergistic collaboration going on between the three companies.

GS: So the storyline in the game will cross over into comics?

JE: Yeah. Obviously the nature of an MMO, the player is creating the stories and is formulating the world. So we're not just aping stories directly from the comic books. But the events that have happened in and around the continuity of the comic books will be reflected in the games.

GS: Will we see events in the game incorporated into comics?

Ames Kirshen: Our president of publishing, Dan Buckley, and our editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, are so jazzed and excited about this project. We've gotten these guys access to these editorial resources that they have that you know, it's certainly within the realm of possibility that the two mediums could influence each other, and we could see some real synergies between the books and the game once we release.

GS: Will we see anything like that with forthcoming films based on Marvel-based movies? I know Iron Man's coming out with John Favreau directing.

AK: That's right.

GS: So will we see any interplay between events for Marvel-based films, or is that a whole separate entity?

AK: No, that's separate because this is really a Marvel universe game, and the feature films that we have are really based on singular families or properties. Obviously, a lot of those properties are licensed by other game publishers. So we're really separating church and state in terms of those games and these universe games.

GS: Now, you mentioned Ultimate Spider-Man. Will the visual style of this game be the cel-shaded, comic-book style of like Ultimate Spider-Man?

FP: We're not really talking about the style yet. You're going to have to wait and see as we start releasing assets over time.

GS: OK.

AK: The world of the MMO will be grounded in the core Marvel universe, not the Ultimate universe, and Jack and his team are working on some really revolutionary techniques and visual styles that we'll reveal to the world at a later date.

GS: What's the release time frame on this?

FP: We aren't just talking specifically about release dates as of yet.

GS: I'm just wondering, because I know Sony is working on a DC Comics MMOG.

FP: They are?

GS: Yeah.

FP: Really! That's news. [Laughs] Like they said, we're not announcing a date right now. As we get closer in development to have a meaningful announcement and start to be able to show off assets and stuff, we'll let that information out.

AK: I do have to say that much like next month, when Ultimate Alliance releases the week after Justice League Heroes, it would be rather interesting if we both came out in the same window of time.

GS: Can you give us any idea what kind of content will be released on Xbox Live Marketplace for this game?

JE: Well, we can't talk specifically about anything, but certainly we're excited at all the opportunities that the Microsoft Marketplace offers to us.

AK: From the Marvel perspective, that is a big reason why we decided to go first-party with this MMOG. Obviously in the past, all of our licensed games have been done by third-party publishers--Activision, EA, THQ, Vivendi--that are platform agnostic. But when we first started sitting down with Microsoft in Hamburg two years ago, they really kind of let us in behind the curtain and showed us what they're going to be doing with 360, with Live and Marketplace. That was a big reason why Marvel felt comfortable going first-party with the MMO, and I think, given where they are with the platform now, we're all pretty pleased that we made that decision.

FP: Adding to what Ames said, for us we have the resources to bring to bear on it. Live is obviously the dominant online console platform today. And Windows Live is going to have seamless integration with Xbox Live. Obviously we've seen it and lived it over here, and Marketplace obviously offers tremendous opportunity. We've been very supportive of content for our other games--Project Gotham Racing 3 and lots of the other games you'll see out there, and individual transactions and stuff. So, you can imagine that we're looking at it from those perspectives and have the resources to do something that's really going to grab a hold of the audience and just--and never let them go and make them completely immersed.

GS: Right. Just to confirm, the PC version is going to be Vista only, right?

FP: Yes.

GS: OK. As far as subscription goes, I assume it's just going to be a flat pricing model?

FP: It's going to be a million dollars a year! No, we haven't determined what the model will be yet. We're going to make sure that that the pricing model that we use, and how we have consumers end up paying for the game, is consistent with what we've done in the past and consistent with what the marketplace will accept. So we're not announcing anything right now, but you know, understand that we are trying to attract as many consumers as we can on both platforms.

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