Q&A: Sega's new Marvel portfolio

What do Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and The Mighty Thor have in common with Sonic the Hedgehog? They're all being turned into games by Sega. Scott Steinberg explains how.

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Last November, Sega shocked many by announcing it was taking over the game license for the classic Iron Man comic books from longtime rights holder Activision. The timing of the deal was no coincidence. Swingers star and Elf director Jon Favreau is helming a big-screen version of Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr., that will be released in May 2008.

The month after Iron Man hits theaters, the Incredible Hulk will also smash down cineplex doors. Again, not so coincidentally, Sega announced on April 18 that it had also acquired the game license to Marvel's Hulk IP, formerly held by Vivendi Games. It is also developing a game based on the forthcoming film, which stars Edward Norton as the Hulk's often-angry alter ego, Bruce Banner.

While obviously potentially lucrative, the Iron Man and Hulk deals are only part of a new partnership arrangement between Marvel and the house that Sonic built. Sega has also locked down the game licenses to two other top Marvel properties--shield-wielding freedom fighter Captain America, and Asgardian hammer enthusiast The Mighty Thor.

While the Marvel deal fits nicely into Sega's push into Western markets and portfolio diversification, some questions remain. Why these licenses? Why now? When can we expect to see the first Thor game, and the first Captain America-centric title since 1994's Captain America and the Avengers for the original Game Boy? GameSpot caught up with Scott Steinberg, Sega of America's VP of marketing, to find out how the Marvel deal went down.

GameSpot: So, how did this whole agreement come about?

Scott Steinberg: If you want the long story, it began with not thinking about multiple properties at the same time. We definitely walked before we ran. Iron Man came before the others. But the more we worked with Iron Man and saw how the Marvel Studios operated, the more we saw that Marvel has a new system and new model and we wanted to attach ourselves to it. It's truly different these days than in prior years. They've taken more control over the development of their properties and are really in the driver's seat now. [But] we're all in the same foxhole and getting insight into what they were doing on the Iron Man project with [Iron Man film director] Jon Favreau, who's a gamer.

With Iron Man, we felt Marvel was going to produce hits on the movie side, which would lend themselves greatly to our industry and our building great games. If you think about the history of video games, never before has the tech in our industry been so close to the tech in the movie industry. And in some instances, you can still tell the difference, but the proximity and the graphical fidelity is incredible these days. That's a great thing for the movie studios because they can finally see the gamespace being a true extension off of what they're doing in cinema.

So, it just kind of came together that way. It was a slow-moving snowball, but that snowball effect gained speed around the Iron Man project and it became clear that we wanted to have a broader relationship with the studios. And they saw the value in working with Sega as a global company who is dedicating, you know, significant resources on the development side and on the marketing side. And that's how we walked down the aisle together.

GS: Was it was the announcement of the upcoming Hulk, Thor, and Captain America movies that made this deal attractive? Or was it you guys just wanted to get in the comic space, because obviously there's a built-in fan base there?

SS: Well, it's a little bit of both. We definitely have fans of Marvel properties at Sega, including myself. Named my oldest son after a comic book character--

GS: Oh, really? Which one?

SS: Logan, after [X-Men's] Wolverine. My second son has also got a middle initial--"C" for Clark, Clark Kent from Superman. So, there [are] definitely big comic book fans here. But from a commercial standpoint, the fact that Marvel was developing these properties into big movies helped us turn the corner on doing these specific deals. Quite frankly, if there was kind of a real tertiary property that did not have plans to be invested in and built up, we probably wouldn't have done that kind of a deal. But these are all properties that Marvel is investing in, so we're also doing a fair amount of investment as well. I think that's the magic combination.

GS: Now, you were mentioning the kind of crossover between movies and games, how they're on kind of parallel tracks. I know that Electronic Arts shared assets from the Lord of the Rings movies with its LOTR game development team. Are you guys planning a similar scheme?

SS: Well, I think that's a great question, and I wish we could answer it directly.

GS: As do we all!

SS: We're kind of holding off a bit about how we're developing the game. But let me just say that the tech behind the 360 and the PS3 is extremely conversant with films and enable us to get so much closer to what these guys are thinking about and doing on the movie side. So, our sharing on ideas is, I think, closer than any time before in this industry. In fact, we've had meetings on the Iron Man side where the film guy said, "Hey, if you're working on mechanics and working on things with your game, share those [with] us and we'll put them in our movie."

Before the movie guys were always pushing their ideas downstream to the game guy. Now with the technology of the 360 and the PS3, the ideas on the game side can now be pushed upstream to the studios making the movie. So, there's a lot more sharing in terms of different ideas and different ways to work physics and different approaches, even from a cinematography standpoint. So it's a renaissance period I think for games and movies. It's so much different than 10 years ago where I think a lot of movie games were getting kind of thrown under the bus because there was such a radical departure from what you saw in the theater and what you actually saw on your TV screen with a 16-bit or a 32-bit game.

GS: Right. So now, you guys have got some pretty big licenses in this deal. You can't get much more iconic than Captain America...but didn't he die in the comic?

SS: I think he's the new member of the superheroes who have died that will probably be coming back.

GS: Oh, really? That's never happened before...

SS: Shocker. He can't stay dead.

GS: But I mean, what attracted you to these licenses in particular?

SS: There were a couple of reasons. You know, we have a fiduciary duty to the Sega family of stockholders, so our motivations are to build big businesses--

GS: Are you telling me you're in this to make a profit?!?!

SS: [Laughs] Well, I'm afraid that is a part of what we have to think about. Checking that box off and stating the obligatory kind of facts, we look at this because we see them as being big movies that have global reach and profitability for the company. But I think from a creative standpoint and from a development standpoint, they offer up new adventures for us. We have the ability with Iron Man to do something I think pretty unique, and as a character he's extremely dynamic. I think the mechanics are going to be...well, I won't get into them, but it's an action game that is going to be asymmetrical in a sense of he flies and there's land-based combat.

The bottom line is these are all action heroes and, you know, the American public has a nearly insatiable appetite for big action blockbusters. And that's the spirit with which we're bringing these brands and these properties to the video game space. We want to let gamers truly live vicariously through these action heroes in an interactive environment. We want to be truthful and honest to them, but also lending the same creative flair that will be in the movies.

GS: Right. Now you mentioned they're all action heroes. So can we presume that most of these are going to be action games? Or are you guys going to try different genres, like the role-playing game Marvel Ultimate Alliance?

SS: Well, I would say that we can't really talk about that. I would say that the approach that we're taking for Iron Man is probably a bit more on the action side. Hulk, by definition, is a bit more of an action hero than he is a D20, +1 armor kind of hero. He's not going to be a Barbie fashion designer.

GS: OK. Now tell me about the Hulk. Vivendi had the license before you guys. Did you guys make a sweeter offer to Marvel, or did Vivendi just not want it anymore?

SS: I honestly don't know whether that expired or whether Marvel just looked at Sega as a more attractive partner. I do know that Marvel's approach to the Incredible Hulk is completely different than the first Hulk. They're actually going to try to create some distance from that. So I think it's almost a relaunch of the whole property and the whole franchise.

GS: Edward Norton is starring in the new one, right?

SS: That's right, which is huge. I think the original Hulk is going to be firmly in the rearview mirror as they approach building the Hulk to be something completely different. But we actually liked the Ultimate Destruction game quite a bit. And I think the movie that we've seen and how they're approaching it will be a lot more...well, I can't really talk about it. But it's definitely going to be a bigger relaunch of that brand and that property.

GS: Right. Now, the Iron Man movie is due out next summer, so obviously work on the game has already begun. Can you give us any details about the game, like a developer or platforms?

SS: Well, I can tell you that Iron Man is in part being worked on by Secret Level, our internal studio.

GS: And Hulk?

SS: I can't really talk about it. We don't have anything for a developer for Hulk yet to reveal, although we can say that it will be on all next-gen platforms.

GS: Including the Wii?

SS: It's still TBD right now. But it'll be on next-gen platforms and current platforms, so like the PS2, PC, and handhelds. Various developers are approaching us. It's folks who have gotten some exposure to the brand and the properties. It's not being built from our Sega Japan offices.

GS: I know Sega is doing a big Western developer push, as evidenced by the Creative Assembly and Secret Level purchases. Can we consider the Marvel deal another part of your effort to reach out to the Western market?

SS: It's definitely a part of our overall growth strategy. Having a licensed portfolio is a part of that strategy. I think it only makes sense to apply folks who've got passion for the brands, that are kind of fanboys for the properties, to build those games. And that's what we've done. Our producers are goofy about the Marvel properties and we've got developers who are equally as passionate about it.

GS: Totally. OK, I'll put this gently. A lot of movie license games have not been very well received. How do you guys plan on avoiding the pitfalls of the classic, watered-down movie adaptation?

SS: Yeah, a lot of those problems are inherent in the system, I think. I can't imagine somebody wanting to build a bad game on purpose. But typically, it's a situation where they acquire a license too late and can't put a lot of time and energy into making it a great game. They're kind of cranking something out in six months, and the technology really isn't there to fully articulate what was going on in the movie.

The approach of late is not to do that, and the approach with the next-gen technologies is absolutely not to do that. To invest in these properties is a lot more of where Sega's at. Our approach to Iron Man has been to get in the foxhole with Jon Favreau and the rest of the production crew and understand what's going on with those guys from a creative standpoint so we can make sure we're bringing that into the game property.

I think that the industry is getting a lot better. And over the last five years, it's been a whole lot better than the prior 10 years. My feeling is with the new technology, the 360 and the PS3 in particular, and the new gameplay mechanics of the Wii--I guess this is a bit foreshadowing--we can do some things that are interesting, unique, [and] innovative, and create value to the consumer.

The reputation of movie games is sometimes deserved, but also sometimes isn't deserved. We talked about Ultimate Destruction--that was a very well-reviewed game that didn't sell all that well. And I think the anticipation around the new Spidey movie and the new Spidey game is quite high. So it's clear that players want great games. And it's up to Sega and Marvel to create a great movie and articulate that with a great game.

GS: Now, can you give us any timeline? I know Iron Man's due out...

SS: May 2, 2008.

GS: And Hulk's June 13th, right?

SS: I thought it was June 17th.

GS: June 2008, fine. So you guys are planning kind of concurrent game releases with these, to kind of get the synergy from all the marketing and whatnot?

SS: That's right, within that same window.

GS: Do you have a timetable for the Thor and Captain America games?

SS: No, we do not. Marvel has not come out and talked about a release date for the movies yet, and we obviously are kind of counterpunching off of them relevant to the timing.

GS: Now this is a multiyear agreement. Do you have an actual number of years or are you guys just kind of keeping it under your hat?

SS: We're keeping it under our hat.

GS: OK.

SS: We have an actual amount of years and it's "multi."

GS: Ha ha. Now, how close are you working with Marvel on these? Is there a Marvel guy who has an office at Sega?

SS: No one is in-house right now. But there is one guy at Marvel studios. We are working closely with Marvel on a day-to-day basis.

GS: So, do they have veto power? How much input do they have? I'm just curious just the process.

SS: Well, it's very collaborative. I mean, it's their property. We treat them like a client, in a lot of ways. In the interests of Iron Man, we had multiple meetings with Jon Favreau and some of his production folks and talked about his vision for the movie, our vision for the game, and ensuring that they're in sync. It's collaborative for sure, but we understand who owns the property. I don't want to get too deep into the game's production, but we obviously want to ensure that the relationship is a strong one and a smooth one. So we work together.

GS: But it's not like Jon Favreau's coming over and giving you guys notes each week.

SS: Not up here at Sega! I think he may have an office down at Marvel Studios for this production. You know, you go down there for meetings and you see folks who are attached to the movie. [Iron Man star] Robert Downey, Jr. was there when we were down there. So, there is no doubt Marvel has taken this part of their business and spun it out a bit. They have their own offices, they've got an infrastructure there, they're meeting with retailers talking about all the licensed properties that they're working toward. So it's a well-oiled machine. They've hired industry veterans to work with us as well as to work with retailers to champion the Marvel flag.

GS: Will Robert Downey Jr. and the other Iron Man actors lend their voices to the Iron Man game, like, a la Toby Maguire in Activision's Spider-Man games?

SS: We haven't made an announcement on that.

GS: Drat. Well, thanks a lot for talking to us.

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