I’ve thought for a while that a Marvel Interactive Universe would be a cool thing to have, like the MCU but for video games. Instead of trying to skip to the end with Ultimate Alliance style team-ups, give major characters dedicated games and bring them together for team-ups after they’re established as individual heroes.
The secret sauce of the MCU is in consistently getting good people to make their movies for them, so if you were going to make the MIU, the question is less in exactly what gameplay mechanics you’d use game by game, and more in what studios you would hand different properties off to in order to get the best gameplay. That’s the challenge I plan on tackling here: Picking which studios should get which characters. In order to do that, we do need to assign heroes a genre of gameplay, but we don’t need to figure out exactly what features will make it stand out from the rest of their genre, we just need to figure out what studio is good enough to figure that out for themselves.
Spider-Man is both a free space and something you probably can’t lead with. Sony still has those rights and they won’t part with them until you are an unstoppable MCU-style juggernaut and they have consistently failed to make a profit off of the character themselves. The thing is, the 2018 Spider-Man game was fantastic and my recommendation for using Spidey as the headliner for a new MIU is just to go to Insomniac, ask them who was in charge for Spider-Man 2018, and give the Spidey game to those exact same people. Sony can and have done that for themselves and have no reason to let my hypothetical project poach the character.
I don’t know the video game copyright status of Marvel’s characters very well, but I’m going to go with the same copyright status the MCU had when it got started: Spidey, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men went with their respective film franchises, which means the Avengers are our only big names left. Fortunately, the success of the MCU means we’re on much more solid ground in terms of name recognition. Whereas the MCU had to take Iron Man from someone people barely even recognize and turn him into the vanguard of what would eventually become the most ambitious film franchise in Hollywood history, our Avengers games’ main problem is going to be stepping out of the shadow of their beloved film counterparts.
So let’s look at our big four Avengers: Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. Then let’s also toss Black Panther in there, because he was a breakout hit and we could do a lot worse than leading with him. We also have Ant Man, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy rolling around in here, plus Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and probably Daredevil, although I’m not sure where the video game rights for Daredevil are, since he got pawned off to Fox for the 2003 film, but probably if Marvel has TV rights they have video game rights, too. None of those characters are core Avengers and none of them were surprise hits, so we’re really only hitting them as targets of opportunity, giving them games where it’s convenient rather than as a necessary foundation of the concept.
Hulk and Iron Man are both in a spot because the developer who most recently did the thing that would most obviously lend itself to what those games need have in both cases been doing something else for years. For Iron Man, we’d want to see if we can peel FromSoftware away from making the FromSoftware game long enough to go back to making Armored Core, except have a stronger emphasis on aerial mobility and call it Iron Man. Also, probably hearken back more to Armored Core 1 and 2 era, before the fiddly mech design went completely out of control. The old AC games allowed for tons of mech customization which is exactly what we want out of an Iron Man game, except instead of 30-foot mechs it’s 6-foot suits of power armor. Probably use AIM as the main villains, since that gives us lots of generic bad guys to fight, including tanks, choppers, and so on, plus we can have some specific named super villains with their own power armor suits, guys like Iron Monger and Crimson Dynamo.
Hulk is in an even worse spot, because while FromSoftware last made an Armored Core game in 2013, Volition last made a Red Faction game clear back in 2009 and have since not just changed focus but also entered into a steady decline and then basically died. They’re still technically a thing but they’ve recently faced huge lay-offs, so even if the team that made Red Faction was still there working on Agents of Mayhem, they may not be there now. Destructible environments are at the heart of what makes a good Hulk game, and nobody’s really been pushing that frontier except the Battlefield guys, and even then, they use destructible environments more as set pieces than as dynamic setting features. Worse, not only do we want destructible environments, we want procedurally generated destructible environments, because ultimately we want to have a big monster fight in New York City between Hulk and Abomination as our capstone. Most of a Hulk game should take place in small towns and maybe foreign nations as Bruce Banner hides in Guatemala or wherever, but the finale needs to take place in a major city, and that means we need thirty stories of destructible environments. Either we grant ourselves hundreds of millions of dollars and somehow get Rockstar to make a Hulk game for us except we force them to obey the commands of a competent writer, or we’ve got to go procgen on the New York finale so that we can have individual apartments that aren’t just copy/pasted and which you can throw Abomination through and use the debris of as improvised weapons without having to personally handcraft each and every couch and bathroom mirror. This is a specific conflux of skills and I’m not sure who to give it to now that Volition has been gutted. So I’m thinking we give it to Volition and hope for the best.
For Captain America, you want gameplay to revolve around an assault on a location, and you want to have options for both subtle and very noisy approaches. Sometimes Captain America drops in with a team of Navy SEALs, blows a door open, grabs the MacGuffin, and is gone before the enemy can even get their pants on, and sometimes he rides a motorcycle through the front door guns blazing. Arkane Studios’ recent work includes both the Dishonored games and Prey, so they’re perfect for this kind of game. Bonus points, in 2008 they did “additional work” on Call of Duty: World at War, back when that was a WW2 franchise, and while we want a Captain America game to have almost completely different gameplay from a Call of Duty shooter, if we’re lucky they’ll have a bit of institutional knowledge of how to make WW2 environments left over. This open level building infiltration/assault style also works very well for Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury, any or all of whom could be included in Captain America 2 or just get their own standalone SHIELD game that uses the same mechanics, and for Black Panther, who needs a standalone title which could come before or after Captain America (in terms of release – for in-universe chronology, Black Panther obviously comes after Captain America). Black Panther uses more stealth and melee and less automatic weaponry compared to Cap, but the bones of the genre are the same and the same studio can handle them.
Also, as a matter of principle, I as the MIU czar demand that our version of Wakanda not be a stupid hidden country. It’s just a powerful African nation that’s always been there in our universe, like Sokovia or Latveria. That the Black Panther is also the King of Wakanda may be a secret, but that Wakanda is technologically advanced and prosperous is not. You cannot simultaneously be isolationist and technologically advanced no matter how much super metal you have. Technology does not work that way. /rant
We could also give Captain America/SHIELD to Eidos Montreal, who made Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided and are making the real actual Avengers game that’s coming up. The thing is, that Avengers game looks like a hot mess and Deus Ex really wasn’t as good at this genre as Dishonored or Prey, so I’m shooting for Arkane Studios.
Thor screams out to be a God of War clone so hard that the actual God of War series eventually went there. This presents two problems: One, Santa Monica Studio (the God of War guys) probably don’t want to develop a game in the same genre and starring the same public domain character as features prominently in the current era of their flagship franchise because they’d be competing with themselves, and two, Santa Monica Studio is owned by Sony, who may object to renting one of their studios out to a competitor in the super hero video game space. The era of the God of War clone is over, and even the 2018 God of War isn’t really in its own eponymous genre, although it’s close enough to be a Thor game.
Probably the best people doing work in the same general field is FromSoftware, but every Thor game we give to them is an Iron Man game they aren’t making. PlatinumGames made Bayonetta and Nier: Automata and they’re working on Bayonetta 3, but as you can tell from that rundown of their most notable games, they are very Japanese. Ninja Theory developed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and DmC: Devil May Cry, but fans of the genre pretty universally reviled DmC. Devil May Cry 5 was much better received, but was developed directly by Capcom, who pretty much never take on work outside their own IP. Now, they do have a pre-existing relationship with Marvel video games through their Marvel vs. Capcom titles, so it might not be impossible to convince them to loan us their Devil May Cry team to make us a Thor game, but it doesn’t feel like something we can bet the franchise on. Ultimately, if we can’t get the Devil May Cry guys to do it, I think aiming for PlatinumGames is probably the best bet (if we can get them, but so far I’ve been willing to assume that every studio that doesn’t specifically have a reason not to work with us will do so). We can always find a well-regarded Thor writer to pair them up with in order to get the character right, and while having Thor be a sexy ninja woman would be way too far, having our Thor be noticeably distinct and kind of alien compared to the MCU Thor would actually be good in that it would help us stand out.
We want all of these games developed in the same engine so that we can use the technology developed for each of them in our Avengers game. We don’t necessarily want to have the full suit-building mini-game in Avengers (that would take up an awful lot of space for a character who is only 1/5th-ish of our main cast), but we do want Iron Man to play exactly like he does in his own games, and for people to be able to import their custom suits from their save files. Hulk’s procgen city battlefield is, unless the team behind them hits the jackpot in a big way, totally unsuited to the kind of infiltration/assault gameplay we use for Captain America, Black Panther, and SHIELD, but we can have a lovingly crafted centerpiece like Stark/Avengers Tower and let Cap and Panther shine there while Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor have their own finale in a procgen city outside. Having all of our studios collaborate on Avengers would probably be a recipe for disaster, so we’ll want to pick one, and we’ll want it to be whoever has the most enthusiasm for the project. It doesn’t really matter which, since this one needs to draw on all the strengths of the various studios chosen so far, backed up by all the technology and game systems developed for the previous games. The Avengers game would simultaneously be the most difficult and most pivotal game, but could be truly amazing if pulled off properly.
I’m not gonna fish around for studios to make the B-roll characters, but pretty much all of the Defenders’ gameplay ultimately boils down to “punch people,” so they could easily share games, Doctor Strange should probably get some kind of Metroidvania style game, in which you explore strange locales and acquire magical powers which open up new ways to interact with your environment that allow entrance into further strange locales, Guardians of the Galaxy needs to be co-op but I’m not sure on details past that, Captain Marvel can punch things, shoot lasers, and fly, which feels like it should be enough powers to wring a video game out of but I’m not sure what kind exactly, and I don’t have any idea what to do with Ant Man.