Marvel Strike Force Developers Talk Adding PvP, The Reemergence Of Thanos, And What Year Three Holds
Marvel Strike Force launched on iOS and Android two years ago, and while it has evolved in myriad ways since launch, every mode features similar gameplay where you take on A.I.-controlled teams.
For the third year of FoxNext's licensed RPG, the studio is implementing player-versus-player combat through VS. Battle mode. I spoke with creative director Jason Bender and game director Jonathan Durr to learn more about this new feature, as well as what to expect in the coming year of Marvel Strike Force.
No Man Can Win Every Battle
Up to this point in the lifecycle of Marvel Strike Force, players have only had the option to take on A.I.-controlled opponents. While this has been a serviceable option so far, the A.I. in Marvel Strike Force always operates in patterned ways, simply choosing the most powerful attack available to the character at that time (with few exceptions), and often not focusing or coordinating on a single target.
This A.I. predictability is by design. "There's a little bit of RNG going on in there, but the A.I. is intentionally simplistic because we don't want it to be frustrating," Bender says. "We wanted you to test your skills against the enemy team's composition. Also, when you play something repeatedly, you can master it, so we like a lot of our things to be static. Several of our modes you can play again and again and again, so you can crack that puzzle."
As the third year of Marvel Strike Force kicks off, the team is adding VS. Battle, a new mode that allows you to challenge other players to real-time, synced PvP battles. Each player brings his or her own roster and engages in a draft to determine which five characters are making the walk to the battlefield.
However, the draft is far from a straightforward pick-who-you-want experience. "We experimented with a lot of different drafting techniques, and we will likely develop a bunch of different kinds of drafting in the future because we found a bunch of fun ways to do it," Bender says. "We'll launch with a good, steady way to do it, and then we'll get into more interesting ones over time."
In the first iteration of the drafting mechanics, each player gets two character bans. Once a character is banned by either player, they are off the board for both sides. After that, a serpentine draft takes place until both teams of five are full; if a character is chosen by one player, that character is off the board for the other. Then both players get a reject to exercise, meaning they can choose a character the other player picked to boot off the opposing team. Finally, each player gets one final draft pick to fill the hole left by the rejected character.
FoxNext hopes this encourages players to experiment with their rosters and get creative with their team compositions. "You can't always build the same team, and you can't rely on having access to all of these characters," Bender says. "So sure, you might want Captain Marvel, but if I ban Captain Marvel, you're going to have to find an alternative for the structure you're building. And that introduces a whole bunch of new hybrid teams you haven't had to worry about before. What happens if you get two-thirds of the way through building Asgardians and then I knock out Hela? What kind of drafting strategies are resilient when it comes to the other person trying to spoil it for you? These are really fun things to learn, and it always changes."
Once you're in a VS. Battle, combat works much in the way it does against A.I. opponents. However, this time, you have to account for a human player reacting to your moves and devising strategies to counter not only your team compositions, but your strategies as well. Combat operates on a 15-second timer for each move, with the A.I. taking over if a player drops until they're able to rejoin.
When it launches, players will only be able to challenge their friends for low-stakes, fun matches with no direct rewards doled out, but FoxNext has grand ambitions for VS. Battle down the road. "We're toying with launching with some achievements, just to encourage people to try the feature out," Durr says. "We've got ideas on our side: doing rewards, doing leagues and tiers, and stuff like that; you could move through the ranks, battling people out. But you know, one of the things I'm also excited about doing, maybe much further down the road, would be events within the Alliance, where the Alliance has a tournament feature."
While those ambitions for VS. Battle are aimed at further down the line, FoxNext has several near-term updates, additions, and tweaks it has been eyeing.
Destiny Arrives All The Same
While the player-versus-player feature is one users can look forward to with the next update, the most recent one begins a rollout nearly two years in the making. Thanos is finally becoming the supercharged villain he has been in the comics and movies. The Black Order, Thanos' disciples shown in Avengers: Infinity War, are joining the playable roster.
When Thanos is teamed up with Proxima Midnight, Corvus Glaive, Cull Obsidian, and Ebony Maw, the Mad Titan becomes Infinity Gauntlet Thanos. This version of Thanos has all of the Infinity Stones in his possession and can blast enemies, flip ally debuffs and enemy buffs, and even rain a shattered planet onto his adversaries. FoxNext anticipates this new squad of villains will be the next strongest team in Marvel Strike Force.
"I'm really excited that Thanos is going to finally get his Black Order," Bender says. "We've had the Black Order built for so long, but we haven't tuned them or tightened up their strategies. It's so great to finally see them come together, because while Thanos has been a rockstar in our game since the beginning, he's been overshadowed by newer characters. He's about to step up in a way that players asked for right from the beginning."
It may seem strange to add characters that were so prominently featured in one of the biggest movies ever nearly two years after that movie hit theaters, but FoxNext says the design process for the Black Order is a special case and is not indicative of how long the character design and implementation process normally takes. "We did the concept art for these characters when Infinity War came out," Bender says. "They're getting a little more balance time and attention because this team is so cutting-edge powerful. We want to make sure we minimize power creep; this is a big concern for the balance team. We don't like it when there's too much power creep because it invalidates things we've invested in. If I've invested in a team, we don't want to see that investment become worthless, ideally ever – definitely as slowly as possible. So it was very, very difficult to make this team worth getting and dominant without blowing up power creep."
While Bender and his team at FoxNext have made efforts to reduce power creep, it has happened and it has affected different characters in different ways.
Two characters that proved to be among the most coveted in the early days of the game were Black Widow and Night Nurse. Black Widow delivered massive bumps in speed to her allies, while Night Nurse was viewed as all but essential to raid effectively. While Black Widow has remained relevant, she is far from the best character in the game as she was considered two years ago, while Night Nurse has dropped off from relevancy substantially.
"Black Widow has an ability that scales and that is always in fashion; you always want speed," Bender says. "Night Nurse's abilities are more numerical and have a certain amount of power built in, so she has not scaled over time to keep up. We don't want the top of the game to be static; you don't want Black Widow to be the best character forever. For a long time, in year one, we were worried that Black Widow would just never go away. So to some extent, power creep is good because it keeps the top of the game more interesting."
Bender's acknowledgement that power creep can shuffle the deck a little spells out a silver lining of adding new characters that knock the existing ones down a notch, but he doesn't want those characters to possess lower value forever. "Black Widow is going to get more love because she's got a movie coming out, she's a badass, and we want to make sure that she becomes relevant again," he says. "Now that we have more of a rock-paper-scissors kind of action, and we have more specialized abilities in the game, it's not as difficult for us to bring her back up to strategic relevance because we're not risking stagnating the endgame. Night Nurse, we're going to need to find another opportunity to bring her back up. We always want characters who are at the bottom of the stack of power to be shuffled back up to the top over time. Night Nurse will have her day again. That was the joke about Ronan, right? 'Ronan will have his day!' Ronan was at the bottom of the stack for a long time, Ronan was up top, now he's kind of floating down again. We'll see that with Night Nurse too."
As Bender mentioned, Black Widow is the eponymous star of the next theatrical release of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so the team wants to capitalize on that. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing most theatrical releases back, FoxNext finds itself in the situation of having to adjust its plans on the fly. While its team is working remote like most studios across the globe, it has also shuffled its plans in favor of experimenting with characters that might have come out in the more distant future.
"A lot of the Marvel movies, as we know from what's going on in the world right now, have moved back a little bit," Bender says. "A lot of times we try to come out with a movie so that when you walk out of the theater or you're thinking about these characters, you get to play them. We like to be there for that. This year is a little funky that way, which is giving us the opportunity to consider some characters that we haven't gotten around to. I don't think I have any characters I can actually announce as a scoop for you, but I will say it's giving us a chance to pick up one-offs here and there, and add them to the schedule – characters that we couldn't build as part of a five-person squad. We can now do some solos, and that's going to be neat. We'll see some characters that we weren't planning on at the beginning of the year show up."
While the entire globe faces uncertainty, FoxNext recently emerged from its own period of being unsure about the future, as Disney recently sold the studio to Scopely, effectively transitioning the team from an in-house Disney studio to a third-party partner. "We're really good at uncertainty now," Bender says. "If you've been with us from the beginning, you've seen us go from Kabam to Fox to Disney to Scopely. We are always in a state of transition practically. We try not to let that affect the game, and I think we're pretty good at that. What we really care about is what the players want, and we've been lucky that our partners have always understood that. So while it can be a bit thrilling internally, it doesn't affect how we run the game."
While we don't know when exactly VS. Battle will be added to Marvel Strike Force, FoxNext says it will be a part of the next big update for the title. Marvel Strike Force is currently available for iOS and Android.
To learn why I've spent a significant chunk of my time playing the title over the last to years, head here for an opinion piece from shortly after the game's launch. To see an updated list of all the playable heroes and villains in the game's massive roster, head here.