Feature Article

Marvel's Avengers Devs On Strengthening The Game The Right Way

Crystal Dynamics' head of studio and Marvel's Avengers' executive producer discuss the effort to improve the game and its future.

Marvel's Avengers should have been the biggest success story of 2020. Given the incredible popularity of the MCU and Marvel's iconic characters as a whole, some would say the game should have been a slam dunk. And yet, it stumbled out of the gate in August of last year and has been struggling to pick up momentum since.

The circumstances that have contributed to this are numerous, not the least of which is tougher working dynamics as a result of working from home. Content updates have been meager and quality-of-life changes have been slow to make their way into the game. All this, on its own, has frustrated the dedicated sections of the community, and caused others to abandon the game. What has compounded this, however, has been a lack of transparency and communication.

That is something that developer Crystal Dynamics has acknowledged itself and pledged to change. And it has already taken a stride forward in doing so by detailing its roadmap for the game. What players of Marvel's Avengers can expect for the coming months has been laid out fully--some with timeframes for their launch, others with more vague "as soon as it's possible" timing.

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Prior to the Square Enix showcase where Crystal Dynamics detailed the roadmap, GameSpot spoke to studio head Scott Amos and executive producer Morgan Gray about the game's changes, the concerns the community holds, and their vision for its future.

One of the big things that players have asked for is endgame content. Looking at everything that you've shown and the roadmap, what amongst that constitutes that endgame content to you? And when, on that timeline, do you feel will be the moment where we people will feel comfortable in saying, "We've got good endgame content."

Scott Amos: That's a great question because for us, Omega Level Threats are certainly endgame content, having your own customizable HARM room, you can make that feel certainly like endgame content, in that context. Looking at the stuff we're adding, even with the Tachyon Anomalies that we're going to broaden their power range would give you a great reason to go back and say, "What's it like with four Hulks? What's it like with four Iron Mans?” and be able to try things different, and you can do multiple heroes on any of the content once that event happens--they're not just two Tachyons, they're literally once that event happens you can have four heroes in anything that you play. So we believe this is exactly what [we mean when] we say we're changing, how we make and what we make--ll of this stuff starts to gear us up towards that high-end, as you say, late-game content for people that are maxed out. Omega Level Threats are the biggest one for us that we've put like, "This is the stuff for people to come back and be able to try it."

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Now you get to play an Omega Level Threat--once it gets out there--with four Hulks at the same time. We're like, "Oh my God, okay, now we can test that to make sure it's right before it gets out there,” but it's worth it. It's that stuff that we look at it and say, "All of these pieces, we're designing explicitly for those people who played since September or people who keep coming back and saying, “What am I doing next? Where am I going?" New stories are great, cinematics having some extra expansion on that universe, but all this stuff, including like even The Cosmic Cube with Monica, making it a Villain Sector that actually scales to that higher power level means that is content you can go back and play and replay since we're focusing on upgrading the gear so that it has that meaning, saying, "This is a custom event that you want to go and fight at a certain time to get custom resources from fighting." That to us is when you wanna go back and play again and again, and replay it to harvest the best stuff. That's the spring, summer, and beyond like, that's this next roadmap for us saying, "Yeah, we hear you. This is what we need to do to get those long-term players engaged, keep them engaged."

So from your perspective, it's a case of building up to that instead of having this one big moment where it's like, "Here it all is.” You're kind of laying the foundation block by block piece by piece. You're working your way up to giving people that experience. Is that fair to say?

That is fair to say. I mean, from our side, we would love to have gotten all this to you today. We play this stuff every day. That's why we wanted to show it, instead of just saying it in a static image, you've seen it now. This stuff is real. People were playing it and we're saying as fast as we can get it done and tuned and ready, it's yours to have. And really, it is a good statement [to say] we didn't release it all at one moment. Like, “Here's everything, good luck.” It is building the blocks and putting it in place. And that's partly our learnings from how we launched in September and saying, "Oh my God, like we gotta get these other things." Because if you have a shaky foundation, it's terrible. So being able to build up to where we are now, with our extra platforms coming [with] PS5 and Xbox Series S|X, now we feel like we have a stable base with all these things in there that we can build on top of.

The tricky thing for you guys is you have a plan and it is focused on creating a stable foundation, strengthening it, and then building on top of it. But from the audience perspective the way it launched, which by your own account you've said wasn't that stable, it leaves them in a deficit where for months and months now they have felt starved of that content and, playing devil's advocate, what they're going to see here is a roadmap for the future which will look like crumbs when they want a meal. How do you address the fears they won't feel satisfied?

Amos: I think we have both though. And I think that's the fun. We're having six heroes now, seven with Kate now, eight with Clint we still have a bunch of people that have looked at these heroes, but they haven't gone back and dug into some of the other alternate heroes. And that has always been from the beginning, like, "Hey, you've got all these different heroes to play, let's make sure we give you reasons to go and enjoy them. Let's make sure there's a better path for why they should feel powerful, how to experiment with them in the different content types you get to play with them.” And even the example with Black Widow, focusing on the Red Room event saying, "Let's make sure to showcase a hero, say, 'Hey, there's something cool here that it's worth your time to go play,' and actually get people into that." Like, okay, I'll go take a look at this Black Widow thing and then like, "Oh my God, there's a whole bunch of character and game in here that I may not have touched."

And there's folks who've done that, they have just mainlined one or two of the heroes. And so for us, it's the Avengers, right? We love the fact that you have your hero that you want to max out and there is stuff you can go and do. And this is all about us pivoting to giving them those things and those excuses, including the progression stuff, looking at it from a hero max cap and saying, "Yep, there'll be a hero level cap increase." That'll come in the Wakanda timeframe, but looking at it right now, we want to make sure that there's a reason for you to take your mainline hero and continue playing them because there's new things you can do and unlock and customize inside of that hero, that kind of over-the-top max progression that when people get their hands on it, they're gonna be like, "Okay, this is good. This is something for me to do."

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You say a meal, I say that we've had a mainline story. We've got tons of war zones. We've seen people that haven't even finished the Scientist Supreme mission. That is the first major thing to do after when you go into Avenger's Initiative, after assemble is done. That is a massive mission that unlocks tons of new content on the war table. If you haven't played that, there's content you're just missing that you haven't even seen. How do I get to a vault and how do I start these faction missions? Oh my God, we got to be better at educating folks like, "There's the stuff you're missing that active players right now haven't even found." I think there is more content there than they know, because they got stuck in a badly communicated wrap from us. Like, "Okay. We finished that. I can not pay attention to that mission." No, if you go do that mission, it opened up worlds of stuff to go and hunt. How do you unlock a vault? What does a vault even mean?

So when Adam talked about communication and PR and we talked about being transparent, that is also part of our problem. That there's stuff I had mentioned the other day to Adam. Like there's things in the game right now that we didn't do a good job of broadcasting. Like if you use quick match and you use a random hero, you'll get a 10% XP boost. We've never publicized that. We've never mentioned that to players in the game. Like, dude, how stupid do we have to be, like, “Wait, this is a good thing that we need to broadcast.” And so it's just the transparency level and being able to say, there are things for people right now who want to engage in high-end content and actually challenge themselves and what they can do to challenge themselves, to feel like it's worth their time. That's something that Morgan, myself, Adam, we've talked about a lot of, how do we change the weekly communications and make sure that people know, wait, there's things. You're just, you're just not seeing, because we didn't communicate it well enough in game. Right.

The thing with the community is they look for these big staples in these kinds of games, and one of them being the raid, for example. Everyone's waiting for a raid, and we had [streamer Fran Mirabella] accidentally trip and fall into one. I guess the question from everyone is going to be like, when is that stuff just going to be there and available to them? Speaking to that communication, people found it, and it seems like from your side it's been like just act like it didn't exist. No one's really talked about it.

Morgan Gray: To be quickly just jumping in on this one in particular, just because this is really near and dear to the development team, we've used different imprecise public language, but we like to say, the first high-end or hardcore content for the most skilled, the most diligent player crafters and teams is the Omegas. We actually don't particularly want to call that a raid, because we have ambitions that far exceed what the Omegas want for the highest of high-ends. But we see that we're both building up to that in terms of the community, and we're building up to it in terms of the designs and the things that we want there.

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Clearly whenever someone uses “high-end content,” the synonym is raid. It's like Kleenex for tissue. It's just going to go hand-in-hand. But our first stop with the Omegas was like, let's create the first challenging content that demanded multiplayer, that demanded some competency of player skill with the character, that demanded smart builds. But we actually don't want to call that the raid, because our ambitions for where we want to go for coordinated high-end content go far and above. Again, the question is, well, what are those ambitions and when? That is not to be answered today, but I did just want to put that out there.

Part of it is our stepping stone progress of trying to serve content across all the bands, because we have players with committed mains that have hit max, they want high-end content. Some of those players with committed mains are trying other heroes for their style, so that's exciting. We have people coming on board. So we're really trying to work on content that's hitting players at all aspects of their life, their ecosystem or their evolution from the beginning to the end, and trying to make sure we're scratching all those itches as much as possible simultaneously.

This one's near and dear to my heart, which is the Omegas are the first thing we're saying you have to be really good at the game and committed, but I feel we do them a disservice in the community by calling them a raid, because our ambitions are much higher in terms of what is the highest of hardcore content. I can tell you, the players have not found that, because it has not existed in a downloadable form or pirateable form yet to be discovered.

Okay. So it requires some rethinking, the traditional labels for that kind of stuff requires some readjustment from the community.

Gray: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Yeah. It's just calling your current hardest-core content a raid is probably not the most accurate thing, given where some people have reached. These raids that are now legendary in people's minds in terms of commitment, ask, complications, understanding, and all this stuff that comes in. We have some big ambitions as we get down the roadmap to how we want to leverage our most extreme content.

Okay. One of the things that you guys talked about multiple times, and I want to get a better grasp of, is working on making sure players feel powerful. So the best way I can ask the question is to present what I struggle with, which I have a maxed out Kamala, I have a maxed out Hulk, and then I jump into a mission and I'm still kind of pounding on enemies that Hulk should eviscerate in seconds. Is that something you're addressing, or do you mean the power levels are being addressed in different ways?

Gray: Sure. Yeah. So there's several things that play, I guess, if it's okay I can answer your question in multiple parts. I guess the first thing to touch on is, our first goal for empowering heroes is to make sure at boot, first time you're playing, that we're doing better tunings to hit that heroic fantasy. We feel like we're slightly too stingy for the broadest hope, and we're trying to make sure that just by default, your relationship to the enemies in terms of damage output or whatever is a little bit more in your favor. And then as you purchase more skills and whatever, clearly you power up. When it comes to, at what point does your hero wipe the floor with enemies? It does get a little complicated, right, because we have mission types at scale to you, and we have missions that come above you. So for every mission that comes above you, you're still going to be fighting enemies that, even though they're enemies you've seen before, are going to be statistically better than you.

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For missions that scale to you, which I'm hoping isn't your default case, but I'm taking that it might be, that's one of those things where I think the use of gear and the perks and the attributes come into play. Because some people also, you've probably seen online, have done the “watch me melt a boss in three hits.” So some people have found where we have found that. I think to Scott's point, in terms of how the game self-promotes, build efficiencies, use of gear, and certain content types to more streamline your characters, is not doing its best job. We're even talking about how we do that with the community directly, from our own words, but just making the game make that clear, I think we can do a better job to show the ways in which you hit that obscene power. Because a high level Hulk, a high hero level with all the skills unlocked and a high power level should be fundamentally wiping the floor with a lot of the basic enemies more often than not.

In the end of the day, balance is in the eye of the beholder. So I don't want to say that we have gotten all the balance solved, but we definitely hear two sides of the coin. Those that are saying, "I want to beat face better than I have," and then those that are like, "Check it out, Reddit. Two square buttons and a triangle, done. Where's my challenge?" That's just to put it in context, is where we're looking at. And then there's other things too, I guess, that come into play, whether it's online matchmaking or whatever, which type of mission and the power level.

But any time we're hearing feedback that people say, "I'm committing time and my character doesn't feel like a superhero." I mean, to be blunt, that's the kind of sh-t that's like, hit the red button, stop everything, this is a problem to solve, because our game is about being superheroes and feeling heroic and beating the enemy, but also feeling rewarded and having a rewarding challenge. We're always going to want to make sure we get that balance absolutely right. So we pay attention to that, both with comments, but actual analytics every day of the week. We're trying to make sure people are feeling heroic.

Lastly, free to play, is it happening or not?

Amos: We have no announcements today.


tamz

Tamoor Hussain

Tamoor Hussain is the Managing Editor of GameSpot, he has been covering the video game industry for a really long time, having worked in news, features, reviews, video, and more. He loves Bloodborne and other From Software titles, is partial to the stealth genre, and can hold his own in fighting games too. Fear the Old Blood.

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