Feature Article

Making Games At Marvel: An Interview About Spoilers, VR, And Storytelling

An interview with Marvel Games's Jay Ong where we try (unsuccessfully) to get him to spill all of his Marvel secrets.

2017 is already a big year for Marvel. This weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened in theaters. On the TV side, teasers for the Inhumans show started to come out. And of course, on games, we have had Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Heroes Omega's beta, and a full slate of mobile titles.

With so much happening in the wide-reaching world of Marvel, we sat down with Jay Ong, the senior vice president of games and innovation at Marvel, to discuss the studio's role in game creation, the future of VR, and the secretive world of game codenames.

GameSpot: From your position at Marvel Games, how much insight do you have into the broader Marvel world? Like, how closely do the different teams work together? Marvel creates these expansive story universes, and you don't want to spoil anything by letting details leak too early, but you also have to share content across different groups.

Jay Ong: We have great relationships with all the different business units that create that new IP. On the film side, TV, animation, comics--there's quite a bit of coordination and communication. We don't want to spoil things for the other businesses--that's off limits--but in terms of drawing inspiration from and helping contribute to one another, it's actually designed to feed both ways. So, some of what we're creating feeds into the other parts of the business, including on the comic side and things like that.

We have to be careful in terms of avoiding spoilers, like you said, but there's still a lot of coordination.

Jay Ong
Jay Ong

Do you see Marvel Games as more of a support unit, or does it also stand alone in the creation of the Marvel canon?

We're absolutely stand alone. When I started at Marvel, there was this chance to reboot the business; to start from scratch. One of the key pillars we strived for was to use our games as a driver of the brand, certainly, and as a creator of original IP. So we strive very hard to make sure our games have really cool storylines that are wholly original.

Our executive creative director, he's from the comic book side of the business, and he's an incredible storyteller. He understands how the sauce is made, so to speak, and he collaborates with our partners to make sure that the stories are interesting, original, authentically Marvel, and unique to our games. That's on the story side.

You know, Spider-man's costume in the [2017 Spider-Man] game, for instance, is original, right? It's neither the theatrical costume nor is it from the comic books. The white spider design is totally original. We've come a long way. I think we used to be a support unit; now we're big, not as big as theatrical or TV, but we're growing.

Of course, not announcing anything, but with TV as an example: They're able to take a lot of liberties and create their own characters, create their own stories. Do you think games can get to the point where you get to tell your own wholly original stories?

Yes. And really, we're already doing that to some degree. For brand new characters, we've worked with some of our partners, and we've already done that, and you can see that in our work with Kabam. And all of our games have original stories. Now if we're talking about brand new universe and something that's never been seen before from the ground up, that day'll come...possibly. It's hard to say [laughs].

Marvel works with a wide variety of developers like Kabam, Square Enix. How do you decide who those partners are going to be? Do they come to you or do you reach out to studios you love?

It works both ways. We're not fixated on any particular methodology, but as far as picking who to work with, it's actually pretty straightforward. We look for a few things; first and foremost we look for talent. We have incredible ambition about what kind of games we want to do, and the equation's very simple. You need a super-talented team to create these unforgettable games.

Spider-man's new video game costume.
Spider-man's new video game costume.

The second thing we look for is: "Do they have passion for our IP?" Talent without passion is just going to go through the motions. So they need passion for our IP. Then after that we look for an investment, in terms of how much time, talent, and assets they're going to devote to creating this thing. Do they share our ambition for doing something truly grand? Lastly is the timing; does the timing work? Sometimes the teams are busy on something else. The stars, to some extent, have to align properly.

As far as how the process works, we do reach out to certain teams that we want to work with, because we think that the talent level would be an incredibe fit for some of the things we want do. And we also get developers asking us. Sometimes it's as simple as meeting each other at DICE or GDC and just saying, "Hi. How're you doing?" And then it goes from there.

Thinking about Marvel games historically, for a long time we've gotten a lot of very action-focused titles. It's kind of like early comic books. The medium has matured, and now we see stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy going into the adventure game realm. But do you think there's a place for all the different kinds of Marvel comics to live in a video game? Or are there some that might only really work for theatrical or for TV, or some that can only be comics?

There are so many different types of games, right? We're looking at not just console and mobile, but VR, as well. The possibilities are practically without limits, so I don't see any limitations. I would say, in some ways, games are more flexible than film or TV in terms of being able to tell amazingly different stories. Some games might be more story driven, such as Telltale, others more action driven like you mentioned earlier. There's an opportunity there to do some pretty crazy things.

I would say, in some ways, games are more flexible than film or TV in terms of being able to tell amazingly different stories.

Of course, none of your titles are announced as specifically for virtual reality, but thinking about that tech from a Marvel Games perspectives, do you think VR has potential?

Absolutely. In fact, we did a deep dive in looking at the space towards the end of last year, and it offers some pretty incredible opportunities, in terms of delivering really cool experiences. We can't say anything yet, but believe me, we're not shying away from it.

When do you think we're going to hear more about these things? Will it be around E3, or later?

[Long pause]. Soon. [laughs] There are absolutely things in the works, but we're just not quite ready to announce them yet.

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What is the Marvel Games ethos? It's an interesting system that you guys have, and it's similar to Disney itself. They used to create games through in-house studios, and they've also shifted toward a partner-focused structure.

The way we've constructed our business is around partnerships and licensing, to use the technical terms, but we see ourselves as creative collaborators. With each of our partners we work in creative collaboration, on one side, in terms of helping them maximize use of our IP. On the other side, on a macro level, we're curators of a portfolio. It's our job to think about what our fans want. What would delight them? What would make them think about and be able to experience this the way we talked about it? And how can we deliver this portfolio of games to them, making sure each game is different enough from the others, and that they all provide very satisfying experiences without too much overlap?

Those are the main two chunks of our job. One is curation of this portfolio and assembling this package together over time. And these things take a long time; we announced some of our current projects two years ago, and there are many announcements to come. But that's part of our job: putting the portfolio together. And obviously all the deals and all the partnerships.

Once the deals are done, then the creative process begins, and it's very collaborative. [Insomniac Games CEO] Ted Price is amazing. His team's amazing. They happen to be 10 minutes away from us, believe it or not, just by pure happenstance. So we're over in their offices all the time. They ask us to come because we collaborate on things like storylines, and character selection, and art style, and all sorts of things that it takes to put together amazing games.

And the definition of what defines a game continues to change and grow. Mobile gamers don't always consider themselves gamers, even if they spend hours everyday playing. And a lot of Disney theme park attractions are games. go to like Disneyland, and those are games. But that's a completely different team, right? The Imagineers that create those attractions and rides at Disney, even though they're not necessarily "game designers" in the exact same way, do you work with them to craft those Marvel-themed experiences?

There's actually a separate team at Marvel whose job it is to do exactly that. They're the rides and attractions team, and they're right down the hallway from me. They work with an Imagineering team on things like the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride that opened up at Disneyland. The teams worked very closely together on it in terms of, "Here's our IP and here's how to maximize it."

I could give you a hint. All of our games' code names are named after food items.

It's somewhat similar to what we do, but on the theme park and rides side. Once in a while they'll ask us for assistance, if it's something that's very gaming-focused, and we're happy to help, but it's something that that other team drives.

Are you ever afraid of accidentally slipping something out that you're not supposed to, like when talking with friends or maybe after having too too many drinks?

It's always a danger, right, and that's why I have PR sitting around for interviews. She'll probably throw her phone at me if I start to say something I shouldn't. [laughs]

But a lot of times, internally, we use code names. So if something accidentally does slip out, it wouldn't make sense to anyone anyway. And for all the TV shows, all the movies, we use code names. Even our games, within our team, we use code names.

Can you tell us any of the code names for stuff that's already come out?



I could give you a hint. All of our games' code names are named after food items. Different snack food items. It's just funny that they're this common theme. I used to work at Blizzard and the code names there were named after mythological creatures, but we were like, "You know, we don't want something too grandiose. We want to keep it simple." We all like to eat, and so literally every single game I saw on the screen has a code name that's related to food in some way.

We know a lot about the movie plans for the next few years, but what else can we look forward to on the games side?

It's going to be exciting here. Absolutely expect some announcements in VR, that's something we're really excited about. I think our fans are going to go crazy. The things we're doing there are absolutely amazing.

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We see VR in the same way we see the other platforms in terms of if you want to do something, you need to do something truly amazing. One of the things about our team, and we talked about our team ethos earlier, is that we have almost irrational ambition. It's true. When I first started at Marvel, going back to 2014, the things we were dreaming about back then were almost crazy. We wanted to do these amazing console games, we wanted to do these amazing chart topping mobile games; it was irrational and crazy, but we dreamed and it actually worked because the IP is really strong. And we got lucky with a few things happening the right way at the right time.

In VR, we have that same ambition. We think if we do something there, it shouldn't be just for the novelty of it. It should be something that defines the platform, that defines the experience. Certainly we're looking to build when Spider-man comes out, it'll be one of the best games on the platform, and when Avengers comes out, it'll be one of the best games on those platforms. We think our efforts in VR will be the same thing.

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