The Marvel's Avengers Mega Interview – Crystal Dynamics on Longevity, Endgame Content, Characters, Balancing, Loot, and Spider-Man
From a development standpoint, Marvel's Avengers has quite the pedigree. Boasting Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Creative Director Shaun Escayg as... well, Creative Director and Writer, the game also has the expertise of Vince Napoli, the man responsible for God of War's Leviathan Axe, making him the perfect person to make Thor's hammer and Captain America's shield feel exactly as they should.
We recently had the opportunity to speak to both devs via the magic of the Zoom video call, sitting down (with underwear on, no less) to talk all things Marvel's Avengers, having played the beta version of the game. Quizzing both Lead Combat Designer Napoli and Escayg in a group chat – alongside questions from Stefan Langford of The SixthAxis and Alessio Palumbo from Wccftech – we talked longevity, loot, endgame (not the movie) content, and the process of picking new characters as DLC.
There's also stuff on narrative, which takes place in the wake of a disaster known as 'A-Day', we well as balancing, exploration, and the whole Spider-Man exclusivity thing, alongside a whole host of other info. Check out the full 30-minute Marvel's Avengers interview (all the words from it), right here, and our hands-on preview here.
XboxAchievements: How are you going to manage longevity in Marvel's Avengers? What's going to be the long-term goal for players?
Shaun Escayg, Creative Director: Well, I can start with the narrative. So each hero, each villain that we introduce – and we can't speak obviously to when we will, but just know that they're in development, in the pipeline, and have been working alongside the main game – will come with [their] own narrative arc, story arc, villain arc, explaining what they've been up to from A-Day until now, fitting underneath the world dominated by a banner of a support story structure.
Wccftech: Are you targeting 60 frames per second in performance mode?
SE: I mean, that's the goal.
Vince Napoli, Lead Combat Designer: It's not gonna be turning consistent 60fps – it's as high, as optimal as possible. It varies. It's a variable frame rate. It depends on the amount of characters and stuff going on. We're working on optimising, working on how we handle the lighting, effects, and physics lighting as well to trying to maximise it. That stuff is basically ongoing right now -- that's the stuff that happens at the very, very end of a project to kind of pull out all the bells and whistles, and all the stops.
And with that mode (performance mode) in particular, obviously the goal is the performance. As a combat guy, personally, I would love to see a constant 60fps all the time. We're always pushing for that and that's always the goal. I don't know if we'll hit that and it's certainly not possible in every scenario – the game is just too crazy in certain cases to guarantee that.
SE: We're still pursuing it, though, polishing and trying to get optimisation at the very, very end until they rip this game from our hands. That's the goal.
The SixthAxis: Spider-Man PS4 exclusivity has garnered an intensely negative reaction. I'm wondering if that was a surprise to you and whether you have anything to say to those that are particularly aggrieved by that exclusivity?
SE: Yeah. I mean the [thing with] Spider-Man is a very delicate [situation]. It's above us in terms of the relationship – it's a Marvel and Sony relationship: we really don't have much say in that. We are excited about putting out our version of Spider-Man and having that version of Spider-Man live in our world, which is very crucial for us that Spider-Man belongs to Marvel's Avengers' world and the world dominated by AIM.
Other than that, I can say that Spider-Man will have his own story, his own story arc, villains that may accompany it and live in this world. For the time being, that's probably all I can say on it.
The SixthAxis: I think a lot of people are kind of venting at Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, as well, so to clarify, is the use of Spider-Man something that was gifted to you by Marvel and Sony?
SE: I don't know the details of it. That's again, above us. But I will say, it's really just... that's a relationship between Marvel and Sony and we love having Spider-Man, so we'll jump at any opportunity to have him. But, you know, there are rules that are beyond us.
Wccftech: Are you going to be limited in how you're portraying Spider-Man in the overarching story, due to the PlayStation exclusivity?
SE: Without obviously giving any spoilers away, the window where you will see our version of Spider-Man, will fit into our story – and I have to obviously dance around this because I can't speak to it – but just know that this Spider-Man is our Spider-Man, and will be in our story, will fit in that world with what happened [to them during] A-Day, between then and now – even [with] the villains that support that and how he belongs in this world and how long he's lived in this world.
VN: Also, to clarify, Spider-Man is in addition to the arc and the progression of the main story.. There was no swapping or anything else – we've got our plan, we've got our heroes that are coming out, the stories, the challenges, and the gameplay escalation that we've planned out – that's all continuing. And then on top of all that stuff, we've also got Spider-Man now, and weaving him into [the story] is the key. There is no swapping or changing anything to accommodate that – he's got to fit within the massive plan and all of that stuff we've already got. [Spider-Man] is sort of like a cherry on top, but it doesn't affect or change [the story] in any way.
XboxAchievements: Inevitably, Marvel's Avengers has been drawing Destiny comparisons as an action game with loot and cosmetics, although part of the lure of that game is the visual nature of that loot. You have 'Gear' in this, which isn't visual, but it's the primary loot you're after in the game. Was there a point where you were experimenting with visual gear for characters but couldn't, because a unicorn pink hammer for Thor didn't make sense?
VN: The combat and the IP that you're dealing with is so massive. It's bigger than game genres, really, to be honest – it sort of defined itself. So even approaching loot, for example, status effects is something we really wanted to have, because they add a lot to a combat game, they add a lot to an online game, they're great multiplayer stuff. But you've got to do something that belongs to the Marvel universe, you've got to do something that fits to that.
There were definitely a lot of discussions on what loot would make sense and let's cater that to the IP, and from a visual standpoint, it just did not make sense to... Especially when we had this idea of wanting to portray Thor and his 80 years of glory and the continuation of that, then potential movie tie-in skins, and all sorts of other stuff -- and for a loot system, those are just two sort of contradictory things. But at the same time, we still want to customise and build the gameplay aspects of it.
And to be honest, there's been a lot of negative feedback from players around the idea that you need to look a certain way in order to get the gameplay effects. So in many cases, there actually is a massive benefit to being able to divorce those two concepts as strong as visual gear is tied to gameplay, there are a lot of benefits to not doing that.
With that said, we also do have other ways we've found to expand the loot system. For example, we have these things called Exotic Artifacts, which are objects pulled from the reaches and all-corners of Marvel lore that you find in all the obscure comics of all genres. They allow us to even pull things in from the Doctor Strange universe and make ties to that. And those actually you do visually see, because when you activate them, you'll materialise them and you'll see the visuals.
We found ways to squeeze in as much as we can in the Gear stuff, pull those in and get visuals where it makes sense, and we're still expanding that. I will say that that a lot of effort was put towards figuring out the way to customise it and wrap it around the Marvel's Avengers theme. The loot system is designed specifically for that.
The SixthAxis: I think it's safe to say that Marvel Comics has got a bit of a reputation for being very white throughout its history, but it's great to see that you've actually got Kamala Khan and given her a leading role. But because you're creating your own universe, are you able to go further to increase the diversity in the heroes and the game's cast, compared to the main comic book universe?
SE: We're all for diversity in general and I love Kamala Khan and what she represents, what she brings to the table, how she reunites the Avengers, how she's a fan just like us, and in some ways idolises these heroes. One of the things it's important to know is the way we approach stories, and what Marvel is very good at, in terms of opening up [their] 80-year history to us, to this game, is as long as we can ground those heroes [and] place those heroes within our universe, within our world, within our story, every hero is on the table.
So the opportunity to see much more diversity of heroes, storylines, or everything is kind of what we're trying to set up in this living organism that is this AIM-dominated world that sort of happens after the campaign. The foundation of where we can create these new story arcs, these new hero arcs, and yes, the goal is to open up the entire Marvel Universe to use that palette to draw from and situate in our world.
XboxAchievements: When you say that you can pull from anywhere in the Marvel Universe, does the license extend to characters like X-Men who've been part of the Avengers, like Wolverine, Beast, Rogue, those kinds of characters? And if so, what's the process that goes into choosing a new character?
SE: It extends to all of the 80-year history, and the process of choosing these characters is 'can we ground it in this world and can we make a real argument to Marvel that this character belongs here?' -- this character will move our story forward or take us into new stories. It's all about how we write it, how we sell it, how we situate it, and how we then bridge that into a new threat or new escalations of threats.
XboxAchievements: Will every DLC character you release have their own story arc then? Is that the plan?
SE: That is the plan, and it'll depend on how deep we go, but no character can be introduced without a storyline – that's the Marvel rule. So we have to have them introduced with a story arc, what that character is going through, potentially which villain is creating that conflict -- that is how we start to delve. Then there will be a more major payload or narrative payload on the direction we choose or wherever we feel we can add a bigger storyline.
VN: Fans like to pontificate over the next heroes and kind of select and choose which one would be great, and to be honest, that same kind of process happens internally, it happens with Marvel. They have their own personal heroes they're fans of, and would these make sense? A lot of that brainstorming and vying, lobbying for those heroes happens on the internal side, as well, and I think that's what makes it special, is you look and say 'hey, you could use this that showed up in this issue [of the comics]. These guys are ripe for the picking. Can we fit this in the thing? Is this a story worth telling? Should we add this character?' And there are just a lot of choices that go into that. Even gameplay – is this gameplay going to be interesting enough and are these powers something that... Oftentimes, it's like 'yeah! I'd love to see that. Let's try to pull that off.'
XboxAchievements You must be preparing to be bombarded with a million character suggestions, then.
VN: No, it's already happened. There's pressure, yeah.
Wccftech: As far as endgame content is concerned, there'll be additions coming very soon after the game launches. I was wondering if you can comment a bit on what that will be, whether it'll be a new villain sector with boss fights against certain villains, or something else?
VN: You can term it raid-like content, because it's actually multiple types of endgame content. We're currently working on tuning up a lot of that stuff for post-launch, because what we've got planned is a regular cadence of [content], introducing higher-end mission types and objectives. Some of the missions might resemble a villain sector where [there's] a boss challenge or it culminates in those kind of fights. We also have an endgame-type of content that'll roll out a couple of weeks after launch, which are Hives and Mega Hives that actually utilise your entire roster in a single run.
That's really designed around the idea of how far can you get with a single character before they're extinguished for you? So, then you need to switch to the next character and see how far you can get. And that one really challenges your full team makeup, which is a very different style of endgame content. We also have a group version of that where you have to plan your roster in order – which characters do I use first? Which characters do I use last?
We also have other mission types that are in this time shard frequency where you're constantly taking damage and it's a very short interval-type loop. And so these are almost like intended as rapid, high-intensity, high-pressure missions, but they'll only be open for short intervals before they refresh on a couple of days' timeline. We have a breadth of that style of endgame high-tier challenge stuff.
Then, of course, we also do have more of a traditional raid game thing, which are larger than life, multi-tiered objectives. It's a lot of content to plan. I think the next War Table (live stream) might go in detail on some of those, but, I do know for the first month or two months, almost on a weekly basis, there is a new type of endgame content coming out with unique loot tables and unique objectives. That's always been a huge focus for us. It's something that we're personally passionate about - what we play, what I like, so, something close to our hearts in terms of making sure we nail that.
The SixthAxis: Who was the toughest Avenger to sort of wrangle into the game in terms of getting it to work with the combat and the traversal system? Because there's such a wide range of powers, abilities, and movement.
VN: I would say Black Widow was maybe the most interesting and challenging, just from a perspective of... and we wanted to tackle it first because we were aware of that challenge of, you know, we have a lot of people even internally questioning, “well, how does Widow compete with Hulk, how does she compete with the God of Thunder?"
And, you know, what are we going to do? We set about tackling that right away, setting the bar with her and then going from there. She started from the opposite end of the spectrum, but actually ended up being the current fan favourite, or at least with local playtesting she always ends up getting the highest marks That's because people are not expecting her to be as dynamic as she is, but she plays very distinctly from the rest of [the Avengers] due to a combination of her agility, speed and gadgetry -- we just leaned into all of those aspects and I think the result is that you wouldn't expect her to be able to compete at that level, but she does through her own unique aspects.
The SixthAxis: That's interesting that you say, is that something that is going to carry through to Hawkeye who's also just a dude with a bow and arrow, famously?
VN: That's a good insight. Yeah. I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna lie. That is definitely another, another what works, uh, Yeah. So if the strategy works, it's a, I'm definitely a fan of continuing that. So we've definitely got some interesting twists on him and sort of leading into various similar aspects of what basically makes him different and then let's triple down on that effectively.
XboxAchievements: What were the specific aspects that you feel like you really had to pin down for this? And have you already isolated elements that you really need to address, and put under the microscope before launch? Is there anything that's really standing out that you need to nail down before September?
VN: To be honest, it's hard to even play the beta because at this late in the game or for me to play it, things change so rapidly and so fast that I look at a month-old build, and I'm like, “Oh my god, I can't even see – there's just so many bugs here.” It drives me crazy. I don't want to look at it, because at this point we are just rabidly fixing every last little bit.
We have feedback of like, “Oh, I'm using this gun thing and I don't feel the charge shots on Widow's pistol -- those don't do anything, I don't understand what the purpose is.” And we have that sort of bombastic feedback, even internally at this point. And so then it's a scramble to determine what we're going to do about this, how are we gonna address it? And we're sort of scrambling over those notes, and what's nice about the beta and about getting lots of feedback from that is we're mining for all of those little tidbits and everything we can possibly pull in.
It's about any outliers – is there something that someone just finds completely useless from some ability that we just get from some global feedback? Let's click in and address that. So we're still changing things at an extremely rapid pace. Maybe it's making a few producers a little uncomfortable, the amount of things we're still changing, but it's such a big game that we're pushing back on it. We need to be able to make these changes and we need to be able to make use of this beta - so far so good on that aspect.
XboxAchievements: In that respect, the difficult thing for you to square is when you've got a character like Hulk who could presumably just bat anything away like a fly, but that wouldn't necessarily make for an interesting game, so finding that balance must be really difficult.
VN: Yeah. I mean, that's ongoing and it's definitely dealing with those sort of expectations and then [figuring out] what's good for playability and finding that it's almost like a very, very fine line, where if you think about it too much, maybe something doesn't work. But in the moment it doesn't feel wrong – it still feels like Hulk.
And that's sort of what we have to target, where it's like, “Oh, this works for the game rules,” but if you looked at it from a high, 10,000-foot perspective, you're like, well, that doesn't quite match up. You know, maybe you should do this, but if you're in the moment and you're like, it felt like Hulk then that's what matters. It takes thousands of little iterations over time that we're still doing.
Wccftech: I'm wondering if the size of the War Zones will be altered in the final game, because I know that they're not the biggest you have in terms of exploration, especially because that's something many are wondering, you know, the degree of exploration that's available in the beta.
VN: Yeah. I mean, they only included a very small amount. I think there's Drop Zones and HARM Rooms. I think we had the question of people playing a bunch of Drop Zones and were not sure where the bigger ones are. We wanted to include as much of a small sample-size picking as we could for the beta, but it was also like, well, what are the introductory levels, so we don't spoil too much? What are the ones that we're not giving away, you know, sort of the other tier of content and stuff like that. So, yeah, there's absolutely bigger ones. There's a lot more grander spaces and more interesting biomes and things like that, that we wanted to save as a “wow, I didn't expect you to have this biome, I didn't expect to go to these locations” that we just didn't want to spoil for the beta. So it's definitely a very small sample size of it.
Wccftech: And I'm guessing that works as an explanation as to why the enemies are basically robots, robots, and more robots in the beta.
VN: Well, in the beta you're level-limited and the way enemies work is that we introduce them by both the region, the space you're in, and the level as well, so that at the higher power levels, you're not seeing the same enemies again. We didn't want that to be the effect, so very consciously we 'un-gate' them by tier, so you're basically seeing everything that is under the gated tier. The power cap is only 45 for the beta, so you're basically seeing enemies up to that cap, basically.
Wccftech: So we can expect more variety in the final game?
VN: For sure.
Marvel's Avengers launches for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on 4th September, with Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions coming at a later date. The Xbox pre-order beta also goes live from 14th – 16th August, before the open beta rolls out to all players on 21st - 23rd August.
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