interview

Afterwords: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2

by Ben Reeves on Nov 17, 2009 at 12:25 PM

Raven Software’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance was one of the best comic based video games we’ve ever played. Meanwhile Marvel Comic’s 2006 Civil War storyline has been one of the biggest comic events in recent history. Combing the two seemed like the perfect fusion. But comic fans are notoriously hard to please, so while MUA 2 explosive action and technical improvements left some gamers please, others wondered if the game was faithful enough to its source material. We pose a bunch of tough, reader-generated questions to Vicarious Visions President and co-founder Guha Bala.

Fusion powers were a big focus this time around. How did that idea come about, and how did you guys go about deciding how each Fusion would perform?

We’re all big comic geeks, so the idea of getting in a “heroes combine their powers” mechanic was just too tempting to pass up. After we had a general idea of what kinds of Fusions we wanted to do, a lot of our work was in identifying exactly what kind of encounters each Fusion would be good for, and where they would be less effective. For example, if you use Targeted Fusions on a Boss, the battle will be much easier. But if you try the same trick with a crowd of enemies, you’ll only take out one or two and get overwhelmed by the rest. (tip: use a Clearing Fusion in that case). We wanted to make sure Fusions played a real tactical role in the game, rather than just being interchangeable ‘super moves.’

Some have said that Fusion attacks are overpowered. Did you find it difficult to balance these super attacks?

Well, Fusions are the result of super-powered beings working as a team, so we certainly wanted them to look overpowered. From a nuts-and-bolts gameplay standpoint, though, we think they’re balanced very well – unless you’re a truly elite player, there are a number of encounters in the game (especially on Legendary) that require skillful use of particular Fusion types to keep your party from getting utterly destroyed. If players fritter away their Fusions on encounters where they’re not needed, or consistently use the wrong types of Fusions at the wrong times, they’re going to be reloading a lot.

For a game like this, the character roster is very important, but the last game already did a pretty good job of including Marvel’s most popular heroes. Did you have trouble determining which new characters to feature this time around?

Frankly, the bigger problem is that Marvel has so many great characters, and we don’t have time to make a roster with hundreds of characters, as much as we would like to. Speaking specifically to the MUA1 roster, though, we wanted to bring some new blood to the series, like Iron Fist and Songbird, rather than just rebuild the same roster again. While we would have loved to bring everybody back, ultimately we want to make sure we’re making the game for the players, rather than ourselves. So we went for a mix of fan favorites and key story characters.

Was it hard to know when to change a pre-existing hero’s power set? How did you go about re-thinking how each character would function in combat?

For existing characters, we wanted to make sure that they brought something new to the table, while at the same time retaining some of the elements that made them popular in the first game, and iconic in the comics. The decision regarding what powers to use also depended on the character’s overall archetype (ranged, bruiser, etc.) and how they fit within the roster as a whole. Once we knew that, it became a balancing act to determine what we would keep, and what worked on a purely functional basis. Then we supplemented their original powers with ones that made the most sense within the context of our game.

Did you guys find it hard to work within an existing story frame while still giving players a free choice?

It was one of the primary narrative challenges, yes. We wanted to provide the feel of Marvel's Civil War, and give the player the experience of being forced to choose a side, but we also needed the story to be flexible enough to complement the interactive elements of the game as well as the inevitable day-to-day changes in mission design. Sticking strictly to the comics even when it would mean uninteresting gameplay would not have made sense. In game development, design generally trumps narrative, and with good reason. People buy games to play, and making the game fun to play was always our top priority as a team.

The game has a lot of cool technical features such as talent points that can be reallocated and a leveling system that doesn’t interrupt the flow of gameplay. Were you guys worried about streamlining the system for new players?

Not really, as most of the technical features were designed to make life easier for new players and veterans alike. We wanted to make sure that whenever we innovated on a system, we made it just as easy (or easier) to use than the previous version. Most of the challenges came in communicating functionality to the player. As an example, for the Quick Menu (the on-screen, in-game leveling menu for co-op games), we wrote special shortened versions of all the Boost summaries. Additionally, we crafted the names for Powers and Abilities so players could get a sense for their functionality with a glance, since we didn’t have room on the Quick Menu for additional descriptor text. While this was a lot of extra work for our writers and designers, it really paid off in terms of player communication.

Seems like this time around there is less of a focus on combos and enemies that require special takedowns. Why did you guys tone down on these aspects of the game?

We tried to provide a context for special takedowns, rather than having characters that were totally invulnerable until being tripped or stunned once. They still exist, though, in the form of shielded foes that need to be disarmed or tripped before you can hurt them. We also have a number of entirely new enemy types who require special tactics to deal with, like helicopters and power-sharing enemy groups.

It seems like some of the big water cooler moments from the comic were left out of the game. How did you guys go about picking which parts of the Civil War story to highlight?

We definitely reviewed all of the big moments and tried to figure out which ones would work in an interactive medium and which were likely to fall flat. We knew we wanted a playable Thor, so that meant that a Thor clone, which goes out of control, probably wasn't going to be a great choice. With regard to Spider-Man's changing allegiance, in order to do justice to that character arc we knew it would require a lot of storytelling support in the form of cutscenes, etc., and it would elevate Spidey's role to something much more primary. As much as we love Spidey and acknowledge his importance in the Civil War comics, that wasn't where we wanted to go. We really wanted to have the player directly feel the difficulty of making that choice, as opposed to watching someone else struggle with it. In general, we wanted to pick up the key themes and scenes from Civil War that would work for our Action-RPG format. A few scenes fit perfectly, many others needed some adjustment, and still others just didn't seem to fit at all.

Did you guys consider including a level based off the New Warriors Stanford incident? It seems like that would have been a cool playable moment.

We strongly considered this and wanted the players to be “doing” instead of “watching.” However no matter which way we came at this particular event, it seemed like the Stamford explosion had to happen, and forcing the player to either cause it or fail to prevent it seemed like it would feel bad and frustrating.

It would have also been a poor choice to invest the time and effort to make the New Warriors playable and then kill them a third of the way through the game, removing them from the player's roster. Avoiding the yanking of characters from the player's roster was a design goal that often sent us in different narrative directions than the original comic material.

The last third of the game transitions into a story that wasn’t covered in the comic. Why did you guys decide to go off book?

From a storytelling point of view, the Civil War comics were designed to be somewhat open-ended: to send the Marvel Universe into a new direction, which would be fodder for all kinds of new stories. Conversely, our story was designed to provide a satisfying, close-ended conclusion for the player. The ending in the comics (spoiler alert) wasn't going to work for us – a huge battle in New York City in which the Anti-Reg forces are gaining the upper hand, only to have Captain America look at the collateral damage and effectively surrender. It made for a fascinatingly unexpected conclusion in the comics, but as a player on either side of that outcome, it's not going to feel good if we stick to canon. Either you're being forced to feel like you're losing the fight only to have the enemy suddenly give up, or you're winning but then you’re forced to unexpectedly surrender. We knew we needed some big changes to that ending for the game, no matter what.

Also, from a more practical point of view, it was clear from very early on that it just wouldn't be feasible to branch the story into Pro and Anti threads and stay branched for the rest of the game. It would have been the equivalent of trying to create two games instead of one, neither of which would likely have been at all polished. So we were given the task of figuring out how to give the player the choice in Civil War but then bring things back together into a single thread for the last part of the game.

We looked at a long list of possible narrative conceits for this unifying element... some from the comics (such as Secret Invasion, which was only just being concepted in the comics back then – this was well over two years ago) and some of our own ideas. We looked hard at Secret Invasion but ultimately decided against using it because switching the theme from "Whose Side Are You On" to "Who Do You Trust" mid-game was a change we didn't believe could work well with our dungeon-crawling mechanic. We didn't want to reveal to the player that members of his roster were (and had always been) Skrull impersonators. We believed it would feel unfair, and again, it would put us in the position of ripping player characters away from the player's roster.

We wanted a very big threat that would overshadow the Civil War, and we also wanted it to feel organic to that conflict; something that came out of it, as opposed to some completely unrelated external force popping up. We wanted it to relate to our overall theme of individuality vs. unity. There was also a strong desire to have both faction leaders share the blame for this new problem. I'm not sure it was picked up on by most players, but some may have noticed that the threat we eventually used was created by the Pro-Registration leaders but released by the Anti-Registration team. This was part of our overarching effort to avoid demonizing either side.

With the first game, it seems like DLC was a bit of an afterthought. Was more consideration given to DLC during development this time around?

We wanted to give fans more than just some new characters, which is why we’re including several entirely new Sim Missions and a slew of fresh Boosts in our DLC. However, the characters are definitely the stars of the show, so we started our research initiative for those very early – right after we locked in our main roster, in fact. Because we’d already chosen a good number of story-central playables for the main game, we decided that DLC should be entirely composed of fan favorites. Since we didn’t want to make a biased decision based on any single data source, our research was a multi-pronged effort: internet polls, written forms at Comic Con, browsing thousands of forum posts on hundreds of fan websites, and other information gathering efforts. Each character takes several months to create. Not only because the level of detail that we put in their costumes but also because as you add a new hero you must add the full existing roster of fusion combos as well. We had to get an early start as a result.

Why aren’t there more alternate costumes, and how come they no longer give stat boosts?

Since our expanded Abilities system – combined with the new Boost system – provided the base of our character customization efforts, we were comfortable making costumes a purely cosmetic choice, rather than leaving them tied into the macrogame. 

Speaking in terms of graphics, the leap between MUA1 and MUA2 is astronomical. Our characters are vastly more detailed than characters in previous iterations of the franchise, not just in terms of raw poly count, but also in terms of texture complexity and special effects. This makes them much more expensive to make, and each model is so complicated that we can’t get away with low-scope solutions for alternates like simple re-skins.

It came down to a choice between delivering one extremely high-quality alternate costume for each character, or several low-quality alternates, cutting into other game features to free up the resources for more alternate costumes. We decided to err on the side of extremely high quality, because we didn’t want to water everything down just so we could include more costumes. It was a hard choice, but we still think it was better than lowering the bar on quality – or cutting the feature completely.