Marvel Strike Force Epitomizes Why Players Are Wary Of Free-To-Play Games
When I played a pre-launch build of Marvel Strike Force at the 2018 Game Developers Conference, I was excited to dive into the multiversal battlefield the team at FoxNext created. The solid turn-based combat, an ever-growing roster of beloved Marvel heroes and villains, and compelling hero-collecting elements borrowed from games like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes drew me in from the jump. I couldn't wait to get the launch version on my phone. When Marvel Strike Force arrived on iOS and Android in late March 2018, I was immediately hooked.
Early on, the premium elements felt pricey yet largely unnecessary if you played the game a decent amount and completed all your daily objectives. Sure, dropping some cash accelerated your progress, but I was largely free-to-play for the first year of the game's life. However, once I did selectively begin spending money, the microtransactions I chose felt rewarding and valuable. Unfortunately, as the game's lifespan approaches the start of its fifth year, the transactions feel less "micro" as offers ranging from $50 to $100 a pop are more common in the game's marketplace, in addition to two simultaneous battle passes that set purchasing players back $20 each per month.
The easy fix is to ignore the premium offers and instead focus on the gameplay, right? Well, that works to an extent. As I mentioned before, in the early days of Marvel Strike Force, spending money felt like a luxury purchase – nice-to-have bonuses that will either unlock new characters faster or power them up with less grinding. Today, massive event-based rewards are sometimes impossible to earn unless you spend upwards of hundreds of dollars. The current in-game event featuring the character Echo gives free-to-play players who put in a ton of time grinding barely enough character shards to unlock her, then rewards those who drop an exuberant amount of money with bonuses that will only further increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
There are plenty of free-to-play triple-A games that do it right, giving players a great experience, then offering up extra goodies if they feel like throwing some cash at the game. Unfortunately, Marvel Strike Force isn't one of them. Every step of the way, Marvel Strike Force now feels designed to frustrate players until they finally cave and spend. It's true that a goal of any video game is to bring in profits. But when the game is so demonstrably designed around making sure the player feels bad or left out unless they regularly spend money, it showcases precisely why so many immediately lose interest when they hear a game that is free-to-play.
But Marvel Strike Force's problems extend beyond its constant siphoning of players' wallets. Amid parent company Scopely reporting massive growth and profits from its Marvel hero collector (to the tune of 70 percent growth and more than $300 million in 2020 alone), the quality of the game has continued to decline. At present, Marvel Strike Force regularly crashes when players perform certain actions in the menus. In addition to the game-breaking glitch that accidentally rewarded players with exponential gold, causing the game to be taken offline for an entire evening in May 2021, players have endured glitched microtransactions, character kits not performing the way they're described (often fixed by the team updating the text of the description instead of the kits themselves), and myriad other technical problems. In the last 24 hours alone, the game has displayed incorrect text telling players what the rewards will be for the next raid, plus the wrong art telling players basic Red Star orbs are granting 10x credits when they're not. When Scopely is touting how much money the product brings in for the company, the least players should be able to expect is a high-quality product.
But when players continue to spend money, what incentive does Scopely have to enact change? The age-old concept of voting with your wallet has never been more relevant than with a game like this; my spending has certainly dropped off dramatically in the last year. I know I can't be alone in my disenchantment, as the Marvel Strike Force Reddit page is flooded daily with complaints from players along the same lines. Scopely has a dedicated, built-in fan base that's willing to spend, but if the company keeps upsetting its player base, that revenue could dry up. It's anecdotal at best, but my Alliance has had problems over the last two years filling vacancies left by players who got upset at the greed-driven design and quit the game.
On top of all this, updates have continually ignored many of the quality-of-life improvements most often requested by the player base. The unfriendly, RNG-heavy red star system has been disliked by many since its inception, while the Real-Time Arena mode introduced in 2020 fell flat within the community, only adding to the amount of screentime Marvel Strike Force asks of players. And Marvel Strike Force requires a lot of time and commitment on top of any purchases you decide to drop money on. Marvel Strike Force respects your time about as much as it respects your budget.
With all these mounting problems, you might be asking me why Marvel Strike Force has been and continues to be my daily game for so many years. The answer is simple: I still enjoy the core gameplay, roster of characters, and hero collection/upgrade loop. However, as the problems persist and the game design centered on frustrating players until they plop down cash becomes more apparent, my continued dedication becomes more difficult to justify. Now, not unlike a favorite restaurant taking a dive in quality while upping its prices, I have a difficult, somewhat sad choice to make in the near future. If Scopely and developer Boundless Entertainment continue to further alienate their player base in the name of profit, it's inevitable that my ever-tenuous time spent in this game will become more a sunk-cost fallacy than an actual love of the game.