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SAN FRANCISCO — The gaming industry convergences this week for the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Among the games debuting at the convention is Activision’s The Amazing Spider-Man, which serves as an prologue to Sony Pictures’ upcoming fourth film based on Stan Lee’s Marvel comics hero. Although there are fewer video games based on Hollywood movies than in years past, comic-based games remain popular. In this exclusive interview, TQ Jefferson, vp games production for Marvel, talks about what the future holds for such Marvel characters as Thor, Captain America and The Avengers now that Disney has taken the reins of the company.
THR: What role do video games play today for Marvel?
Jefferson: Over the past decade or so, video games have become more and more important as a means to reach out to existing fans, find new ones and to innovate in the ways that we present our characters and tell stories.
How did the Disney acquisition affect games based on the Marvel properties moving forward?
It is very much “business as usual,” but the Disney acquisition allowed us to explore gaming opportunities on a much broader scale. Through the Disney Interactive Media Group, we have access to a whole new set of resources. For example, we were able to leverage the knowledge and expertise of Playdom to build the highly praised Marvel: Avengers Alliance game on Facebook. DIMG has a pool of talented people that we are able to tap into to make games great. As our relationship with DIMG continues to mature, you can bet we will find other opportunities to push Marvel in new directions in games.
Will Sega still be making Thor, Captain America and Iron Man games?
There are no current plans for additional Marvel games to be published by Sega.
Activision has a new The Amazing Spider-Man game on display at GDC. What impact did Spider-Man have early on in the game world when it comes to comic books?
I think it’s arguable that Activision/Neversoft’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 1 helped reintroduce superheroes to the minds of gamers. At the very least, it was groundbreaking in that it so successfully captured the essence of Spider-Man and translated it into a game: Open world gameplay, swinging on webs through a fully rendered Manhattan, clinging to any surface in 3D space are all big challenges for a game. Spider-Man himself continues to challenge development teams to this day, getting them to push their skills as developers and the hardware in ways that other characters can’t or don’t.
The Avengers is one of the highest-profile comic book films of the year. What type of video game will there be?
We just launched Marvel: Avengers Alliance on Facebook; which is just the tip of the iceberg. This is the first in a much larger effort to support the Avengers franchise across not just one but multiple video game touch points. The Avengers are bigger than just one game, and we’re planning to allow consumers to enjoy The Avengers regardless of their preference in gameplay style or platform. Look for more announcements in the weeks to come.
What are the challenges today in translating comics to games?
There’s always the balancing act between adhering to canon and innovating in new directions. We always strive to honor the comic books and draw upon the essence of the characters and stories that for many of us was our introduction to this world. On the other hand, we’re also tasked with innovating for the medium, and that requires new content or content never contemplated in the comic book. The challenge is to keep the various development teams focused on innovating in ways that do not “break” the character. We can’t give Spider-Man guns, no matter how cool the guns are, but we can give him specialized “web balls” that work in much the same way without breaking the character.
Why do you think we’re seeing fewer movie-licensed games today in the industry, and why do comics seem to be the exception?
In my opinion, the biggest afflictions affecting movie-licensed games is the amount of development time and a strict adherence to retelling the story of the film in the form of a game. The former is easy to understand — less development time means less time to design, produce and polish the game, resulting in a poor or lesser-quality experience. The latter is a little more subtle, but I can sum it up thusly: If a development team were to follow a film’s plot line to the letter, then you would have a two-hour experience with a bunch of thugs and one boss fight. That’s simply not how we define “movie licensed console game,” now or ever. In order to hit the expected amount of gameplay, you need to embellish, add additional characters, story, subplots and objectives to make a more robust and satisfying experience. That’s where a lot of movie licenses fall down – lack of content.
What role do you see the new Marvel Heroes online game playing for the company when it launches?
Marvel Heroes, the first Marvel MMO (massively multiplayer online game) to be launched with our licensee Gazillion, will allow us to reach an entirely new and different group of fans, to tell stories in ways we’ve never done before and get players to interact with our characters and each other in new and exciting ways. This is a very different experience from console games, where the interactions are with fewer online characters and are more linear experiences. With Marvel Heroes, we’re talking about dozens of playable characters over many hours of gameplay.
What, if anything, can Marvel learn from DC Universe Online?
We’ve already learned a great deal from DC Universe. We’ve played it, read the reviews and gauged how fans responded to a number of choices that were made in terms of design, presentation, etc. For our own MMO, Marvel Heroes, we worked with Gazillion and chose to do a number of things differently. For example, Marvel Heroes was built from the ground up to be free-to-play. We also made the decision to allow players to be popular heroes from the start; very different than how DC Universe works. There are a number of other differences between the two, but you’ll just have to play the game to find out.
What are your thoughts on the online space and the emergence of free-to-play?
I’m not saying anything revelatory when I say everything is pointing toward online and the connected experience. I believe free-to-play is exceptional in that it lowers the barrier to entry to nothing and allows consumers to sample the product before making a purchase. In today’s economic climate, games needed to do something to meet the consumer halfway, and free-to-play is a great first step.
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Jon M. Chu