FoxNext VP & General Manager Talks Working With Marvel And Getting The X-Men License
In January 2017, 20th Century Fox formed FoxNext, a new division to head up the company's video game, virtual reality, and theme park initiatives. From an upcoming shooter based in the Alien cinematic universe to a recent adventure game with the Planet of the Apes license, FoxNext has worked with multiple development studios to create games using the IPs that Fox controls. The latest game to launch under the FoxNext banner is Marvel Strike Force, a turn-based strategy game centered on assembling the various characters across the Marvel universe to take on a multidimensional threat.
I spoke with FoxNext Games' vice president and general manager Amir Rahimi about what it's like to work with Marvel, as well as FoxNext's initiatives as a whole. You can check out our discussion below.
FoxNext is Fox's big push into the video game space. The benefit of this is that you have Marvel, Alien, and all these different properties. What was the big-picture goal for Fox when establishing FoxNext?
The way that they talked to me about it, and the vision as I understand it, is they are really sincere about owning the future of storytelling. They've clearly mastered that across film and television, and they want to take that into the interactive space. What I love about Fox as a company is that they're so mature when it comes to their thinking about creatives. They really understand that the creative people are at the center of these endeavors; you don't always get that at other companies. A lot of times, it's really technology-focused or really business-focused. These guys let creators be creative and innovate. I really, really love that.
What they define as interactive storytelling is really broad and they leave that up to us as the creatives to determine what that means. For our San Francisco studio Fogbank, it means something much closer to what Fox does. They're going to be doing some interesting narrative games. For us down in L.A., it means giving players the tools and empowering the players to fulfill a fantasy and tell their own stories through deep, meaningful interactions. So we really focus on the social. We love creating a game where all the drama comes from interactions between the players.
How does the team determine which properties to pursue for a game?
Again, the coolest thing about being with Fox is that it's not a top-down thing; they really let us decide. We handle it from a couple of different directions. One, we look at the expertise of our team and the passions of our team, and we try to figure out what gameplay patterns we would be best at. Like, our creative director on Marvel, Jason Bender, was one of the lead designers on the Diablo III console version, and was a senior designer on the game proper.
We've always loved turn-based strategy games, so we've been prototyping a turn-based strategy game for many years now. When we have a sense of what the mechanics, we look across media to see if there is a property that fits it like a glove. If there isn't, we'll create our own IP. In this case, there's no better universe in the world than Marvel for a turn-based strategy game that's about collecting a roster of heroes and using them. It's just ideal. It's perfect. At the time, we were Kabam, we had relationships with Marvel, so we had an in and we were able to get the license.
With Avatar, it was kind of a similar calculus. We have a long history of doing real-time strategy games; a long time ago, we were the Command & Conquer team at EA. We made several Command & Conquer and Lord of the Rings RTSs. Talking to the folks at Lightstorm and seeing what they have in store for their sequels, we were super inspired. All of us, hearing about what they have in store, we just envisioned the perfect strategy game.
What I love about Fox is they don't even care if we use IP; they really want to innovate and do what's best for our industry. If we would have pitched new IPs, they would have been fine with it. Although, it helps when you're working on their most important franchise in Avatar, and one of their most important franchises in Marvel.
Do you have any interactions with the creative teams behind the film properties?
We do. Our primary contact is a guy by the name of Bill Rosemann [Marvel Games executive creative director], who is just a freaking legend. Having a drink with that guy and just asking him about the Marvel universe is so fun and so entertaining. We get almost everything we need from him and the Marvel Games team.
Avatar hasn't had very many games, but IPs like Alien and Marvel have had a million different games based on them. How do you differentiate your games from the experiences that have already been presented?
We have some really awesome innovations in Marvel. The way that we've chosen to innovate when it comes to this particular Marvel game is through a few different vectors. One is the combat, and the interactions you have in combat. We're delivering a degree of cinematic action and quality that I don't think has ever been done before in a mobile game. There's been a lot of squad-based games out there, but not a lot of them actually let you team up your guys. It's like, one guy attacks, the other guy attacks, and they go back and forth like that. We're doing some really cool stuff with team-ups. You can team up in many different ways, and if you have iconic pairs of characters, you can pull of things like you see in your favorite Marvel movies.
Fox has the license for a particular corner of the Marvel universe. Have there been any problems with getting any of the characters under the Disney umbrella?
No. In fact, the struggle was the other way around! We have the Marvel license, so we have the access to all the great Marvel characters. We didn't have the X-Men. We've now managed to get the X-Men. Not all Marvel games get that; it's actually kind of hard these days.
Not even Marvel vs. Capcom got it in the latest game.
Right. So, the team is so incredibly fired up about having the X-Men. Some of the most popular characters in the entire universe. We're already hard at work on the X-Men. It's kind of recent that we got this, but we've pushed to get Wolverine in for launch.
If you're under Fox, what was the roadblock to get the Fox properties like the X-Men in your game?
There was definitely no resistance from Fox. Fox obviously wants us to have that license. There wasn't any undue resistance from Marvel. It's just their policy that they don't give both licenses to people, and we didn't have the X-Men. So we had to make a case for the X-Men. I don't know what factors went into ultimately granting us the X-Men from their side, but as far as I can tell, they probably wanted us to some extent to prove ourselves and get a game up that's worthy of having the entire universe. We worked closely with those guys, and they've been pretty happy with what we've done here. They're seeing our metrics in beta, and they're pretty impressed. If I had to guess, that probably greased the skids in some respects.
What about the other licenses like Spider-Man being under Sony or The Hulk still technically having ties to Universal?
Those didn't impact us. Hulk and Spidey were both part of the original deal. It was just the X-Men and the Fantastic Four that are carved out. I don't believe they're giving the Fantastic Four to anybody.
It seems like Marvel is kind of being protective of them lately. Fantastic Four has had kind of a rough run in film as of late, so that makes sense.
It probably factors in, right? We have access now, with the X-Men, to hundreds of characters.
Does the X-Men license loop in Deadpool?
It sure does. And with Deadpool 2 coming, we are going to do something really big for that.
We've seen in the past, entertainment companies not known for their work in the game industry like Disney dip their toe in with gaming, or even go all-in with gaming, then suddenly change their minds. What is preventing Fox from doing that with this initiative?
Ultimately, obviously, it's not up to me if this is them dipping their toe. I don't believe it is. I think that Fox looks at the future of entertainment and really believes that interactive is such a critical part of it. I think they're going to give us every opportunity to succeed. I think the thing that would probably cause them to remove their toe from the water would be if we don't deliver. By "we" I don't just mean this one game; we have a really compelling portfolio that we're building and I think that they're going to give us a run at it and really support us in doing that. If we can't execute, I wouldn't expect them to, at least with us, keep their toe in the water.
Marvel is on one end of the spectrum where they have a million different characters and enemy types and hero types, but Alien has always just had a couple of enemy types to take on. How does the team behind the announced Alien shooter work within those constructs to make a compelling game while only having a few enemy types from the source material?
I don't manage that game directly, so I can't really speak for their creative vision behind it, but the way that we try to look at each different IP out there is that you have to tap into what's special about it. We would never – again speaking just for my studio in L.A. – we would never take a license like Alien and try to do a game that's heavily dependent on creating a huge roster of unique characters. It just wouldn't fit. It goes back to that thing of "Does it fit like a glove with what you're building, or not?" The way that I look at Alien is that it's much more of an intense survival, maybe a little horror, and you want to immerse players in that world, and again, give them the tools to fulfill that fantasy. You only need the few characters and enemy types that you see in that world to create something compelling.
I know you said that with FoxNext, not everything needs to be an IP, but do you have a dream IP that you'd love to tackle after Marvel?
Marvel for most people in the studio is a dream come true. For most people in the industry, I would think it is. Avatar... I just adore that world, and it's going to come back in such a big way. It's hard to look past those two, but, man... yeah, I can't. To be honest, I would love to do another Marvel game. We're starting to think about what we're doing in the future, and it's been so fun partnering with those guys that I'd love to pick a different genre and do something else with them.
The Marvel license is so fun because you can get away with so much within that universe. You can do whatever you want, as long as you stay true to the characters. As long as Spider-Man is always Spider-Man and you're not giving him, like, a grappling hook - something that would be so anti to what he's about...
Going around, killing people left and right.
[Laughs] Right! Definitely. Don't give him a sniper rifle or something stupid like that!
As long as you stay true to the core of the characters, you can do so much in that world. That's been so freeing to have that.
Are there any stories you're trying to tell in Marvel Strike Force that fold into events in the comics or movies?
Yes, certainly. The big villain is a guy named Ultimus, who hasn't been touched by the MCU at all. He's a pretty compelling nemesis because he is an Eternal, the same way that Thanos is. He's sort of the same species as Thanos, but just a different race. He's part of the Kree, and as far as I understand, he's one of the few characters who beat up Thor in two out of the three battles they fought. He's incredibly powerful... about as powerful as Thanos is, but he's someone who hasn't been seen to this point in the MCU. So he's kind of someone we can have a sense of uniqueness to our game.
The overall premise is that he's been going from dimension to dimension mind-controlling heroes. So he's been building an army of mind-controlled Hulks and Spider-Mans and Wolverines, and he's raising that army to take over the universe. He's now at what is considered the Nexus Earth. This Earth is sort of the key to every other Earth that exists. You, as a commander of an elite unit of S.H.I.E.L.D. called Strike, are tasked with recruiting heroes to prevent him from taking over this Earth that would basically unlock his ability to rule the entire universe.
Are there any concerns with doing the multiverse? That can get real complicated real quick.
What's great about that is what it all just really boils down to for the super casual player is that it's a beautiful conceit for why you might be controlling a Hulk who is fighting another Hulk. You'll see red eyes on the guys who are mind-controlled and that's all they really need to understand. Then, through the campaign, we tell the story. For people who really want it, they can dive real deep into the multiverse thing and have as much as they want.
Marvel Strike Force is currently available to download on iOS and Android.