Assembling Marvel Super Hero Squad Online

GDC Online 2011: Cofounders of development studio The Amazing Society explain how they converted an entire comics universe to a massively multiplayer online game in just two years.


Marvel Super Hero Squad Online

Who was there: The Amazing Society cofounders creative director Jay Minn and studio manager Jason Robar appeared at the 2011 Game Developers Choice Online to deliver a postmortem on Gazillion's Marvel Super Hero Squad Online, a massively multiplayer online game made in less than two years.

Spider-Man may be going insane here, but it's cute because it's little.
Spider-Man may be going insane here, but it's cute because it's little.

What they talked about: Robar began by talking about the makeup of Seattle-based The Amazing Society. He described the team as primarily consisting of veterans, a full 85 percent of them married, and more than half with kids.

After showing a clip to get across the heart of the family-friendly take on the Marvel Comics universe, Robar said the goal was to bring the characters he grew up with to a whole new audience. Comics aren't available everywhere like they used to be, and the ones that are around often aren't suitable for kids. The goal then was for Super Hero Squad Online to serve as an introduction to the universe aimed at boys from grades one through six.

The big thing the team had to solve was "The Candy Land problem," Robar said. Any parents who have had to play the classic board game with their kids probably knows it's a terrible game, something they endure because they want to play with their children. The goal with Super Hero Squad Online was to make something parents would also like to play with their kids.

The team ran focus groups with continuous testing from kids throughout the production process, which helped keep them on track. However, once the game went live, Robar said the budget to test like that went away and the team hasn't been able to keep up with it as much as it would like.

Another problem that sprang up was the issue of letting players play as the iconic super heroes, something that other online games have often avoided. But just as kids aren't horribly upset at Halloween when someone else has the same costume, Robar said they didn't mind not being the only Thor in their world. On top of that, Minn said the players tended to swap out popular characters to play as less-known heroes of their own volition, just because they didn't want to be the same as everyone else.

Robar said the team tried to focus on creating a number of different play styles, such as solo action, cooperative play, and competitive player-versus-player. Older players leaned toward competitive multiplayer, while the youngest set stuck with single-player action.

Kids also hate to fail, Robar said. As a result, Minn said the motto of the development team was, "Let the Wookie win." There is no failure in the game, as players who die simply respawn immediately. While it can impact their rating at the end of a mission, they can always keep playing until they succeed because success is fun.

The team also focused on short missions (15 minutes, ideally) and rapid level progression for new characters. The gap between entry-level characters and maxed-out characters isn't very large, Minn said, so level-one characters and max-level characters can play together without problem.

As for how they did, Robar said the game is monetized and the target demographic was reached, which were victories for the team. However, players are burning through the content faster than the team can add it in, and the game originally launched without monetization in place. Robar also noted that once the game was monetized, there were a small number of hardcore fans that were spending as much as $500 on the freemium game.

Unfortunately, online game development doesn't end when the game ships. Minn apologized to the team for positioning the game going live as the finish line, even though Marvel consumer events like the Thor, X-Men, and Captain America movies had marketing tie-in commitments for the team for months afterward. While the rush to hit the movie release dates resulted in some critical bugs making it into the game, Robar and Minn said the post-launch support of the game was a success.

Quote: "We really actually had a Monday through Friday shop, all the way through launch."--Robar, proudly touting the work-life balance achieved during Super Hero Squad Online development to the applause of the audience.

"Trust your feelings. When Luke turned off the nav computer, management was worried."--Minn, drawing design lessons from the Star Wars trench run scene and cautioning against overreliance on metrics.

Takeaway: The Amazing Society had to scale back a number of features (including a number of playable heroes, microtransactions, and a collectible card game) in order to make their ship date, but a streamlined development process that took time to keep everyone on the team (and at Marvel) abreast of the latest developments helped the studio meet its goal of going live in two years.

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