Q&A: Marvel Games' Ames Kirshen
The head of the comic book publisher's new interactive division talks about its game plan.
Few companies have made as much of an impact on American pop culture as Marvel Enterprises. Its legendary Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil, and The Hulk comic books have made the Marvel name synonymous with "superhero," and the films based on them have been among the 21st century's biggest blockbusters.
With its characters also ubiquitous in toy stores and on television, the company has seen its coffers overflow with licensing dollars. Last year, Marvel saw its net licensing sales nearly double, going from $79.6 million in 2002 to $189.2 million in 2003. By comparison, Marvel's net publishing sales, i.e., the money it makes from its comics, were $64.5 million and $73.2 million, respectively.
Earlier this year, Marvel decided to focus on one of its most profitable and fastest-growing licensing operations: games. The company formed a new division, Marvel Games Group, and appointed someone with experience in games, comics, and movies to head it. That someone was Ames Kirshen.
For the past six years, Kirshen has managed game production at Warner Bros. and at the other great comic book company, DC Comics. Now, as manager of game development at Marvel, he has a full plate. Over the next two years, third-party publishers will release five Marvel-based titles: Spider-Man 2 (Activision), X-Men Legends (Activision), The Punisher (THQ), the Fantastic Four (Activision), and Iron Man (Activision).
Recently, GameSpot talked with Kirshen about how the creation of the Marvel Games Group will change the way the company handles interactive entertainment.
GameSpot: What prompted Marvel to form its own video game group?
Ames Kirshen: With the success and growth of Marvel's interactive business, they needed someone in-house who understood the industry and had the experience to creatively manage their game projects. In addition, Marvel wants to forge new relationships with publishers and developers to explore different business models for new game ventures outside of the traditional licensing model.
GS: Currently, how important are games to Marvel's business?
AK: Games are very important to Marvel. It is a growing market that immerses the audience in our characters in an interactive platform. In this way it is like comics, movies, toys and our other products in that it extends reach and brand awareness for our universe of characters. Our goal is to expand on our existing franchises and ensure Marvel's games offer a visually dynamic and unique way for the consumer to enjoy our characters, whether they are experiencing them for first time or the hundredth time. As with our other products, we want the Marvel brand to mean that this is going to be cool, fun, and high quality.
GS: Marvel has five third-party-published games slated between now and 2005. How will Marvel manage its game licensees?
AK: I work day to day with each of our games publishing and development teams in all aspects, including visuals, story, game design, etc. With the high production value of today's games, coupled with the increasing synergies between our movie productions and our game partners, maintaining the integrity of our characters and having the highest quality games has never been more important.
GS: Can we ever expect a self-published Marvel game?
AK: We have no plans to self-publish.
GS: Does Marvel have any plans on buying a development studio or building one from the ground up?
AK: We have no plans to buy a developer or to build a team internally.
GS: Most of the games you currently have scheduled are tie-ins to films. Are you planning any new games based solely on comics?
AK: Absolutely. As much as movie tie-in games are an important part of our business, maximizing game opportunities with our characters is just as important. Having said this, we cannot always rely on Hollywood to drive when we have an X-Men or Spider-Man game on the market. Activision's X-Men Legends is comic-based game, and we have at least one other game in development that is not directly tied in to a movie. We are also looking to explore opportunities with some of our characters who may not be household names at this time. We feel many of these characters have inherent value and attributes that make for compelling video games. If successful, we could see a reversal of the trends and have the game be the platform for launching those characters in other mediums, such as comics, TV, and film.
GS: You recently signed a Marvel vs. Capcom-like deal with EA to produce a fighting game, which will have Marvel characters and "new" EA heroes. Any idea who the EA heroes will be?
AK: All I can say at this point is "stay tuned."
GS: So will we get to see Wolverine fight John Madden?
AK: [Jokingly] Perhaps! Or maybe Storm versus Elise, from SSX; Blade versus DMX, from Def Jam Vendetta; and Dr. Strange versus Harry Potter, just to name a few. [Laughs]
GS: You mentioned in a recent interview that "You can expect us to look at doing a first-person shooter, an RTS, and maybe a turn-based strategy game in the coming years." What went into the decision to delve into game genres Marvel has previously eschewed?
AK: We have some of the best products out there in the traditional superhero, third-person action adventure genre. I think that it makes sense to experiment in all the types of games where our characters bring value and good gameplay. Of course, we would partner with developers that have expertise in those genres to create a product that has best-of-breed quality, plus unique features.
GS: What Marvel properties will be adapted into an FPS? Obviously, the Punisher would be the first name that comes to mind...
AK: The Punisher game--Volition is developing and THQ is publishing--is a third-person shooter. Though I don't want to tip our hand too much, there are other Marvel properties that could lend themselves very nicely to an FPS. That being said, until we have something to announce to the world, I'll leave it up to your readers' imaginations as to what those might be.
GS: What would a Marvel RTS be like? Would it feature a similar story to the Marvel Secret Wars comics of the 1980s, with a whole group of superheroes battling a legion of supervillains?
AK: That direction is a possibility, as are a ton of other "event" storylines that have graced our comic books for the past 20 years. However, coming up with something completely new and unique for a potential Marvel RTS game would be the more likely direction.
GS: Does Marvel have any plans to create a comic around a video game character? Would it be one of the new EA characters?
AK: Our deal with EA includes the development of characters in comics. This will absolutely happen. We also have a long tradition of developing comics for everything from toy lines to TV, so it would not surprise us to see more video game characters appearing in the pages of comics.
GS: What area of Marvel's operations--TV, toys, movies, games, or comics--do you see as being the strongest for the company over the next three to five years?
AK: Our business has been growing strong in every division--games being one of them.
GS: Games and movies are an increasingly big part of Marvel's business. What did you learn during your six years at Warner that you can apply to the new position at Marvel?
AK: When publishers and licensors work closely together and take advantage of the strengths and expertise each brings to the party, that's where the most successful games are spawned. In addition, as games become more epic in terms of story--with more detailed and complex visuals and the expense involved to develop a top title--having key day-to-day synergies on every level (creative, marketing, cross promotions) between a publisher and the licensor is crucial to the success of a title.
GS: What do you see as the future of Marvel Games?
AK: Continually pumping out the highest quality games possible that consumers will really enjoy and having more of our diverse library of characters represented in games going forward. I think that you will continually see some unique visual and gameplay features in future Marvel game titles as we strive to be a leading innovator in this space.
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