Marvel’s Avengers — Studio Head Talks Character Appearances, Crunch, And Squirrel Girl
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When it was first teased at the beginning of 2017, there was a huge air of anticipation for Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel’s Avengers game. When it was officially revealed at E3 2019 however, there was a bit of confusion about what the game actually was. Was it a character-action game? Was it a Destiny-style perpetual game? Both? How did multiplayer and skill customization work with pre-defined characters, and why did they look a little weird?
Since then, Crystal Dynamics and studio head Scot Amos have been touring comic and video game conventions around the world to better explain their big, ambitious, AAA take on an Avengers video game. They’ve been outlining how the game will be split between a narrative campaign, where you’ll help reassemble the Avengers after a devastating loss, and the persistent multiplayer co-op game, where you’ll customise your heroes with new gear, and take on “Warzone” missions around the globe with friends.
At PAX Aus 2019, we got hands-on with the tutorial level where you play as Thor, Iron-Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow, as well as a 15-wave combat challenge room where you played as their latest-revealed character, Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel). While the tutorial level was something we’d played before, getting to take out a variety of different enemies with Kamala Khan’s unique, stretchy melee combat felt quite unique. Overall, our impressions of the existing roster is that they all definitely feel like diverse characters, especially when compared to something like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3.
To better get our head around the conception and direction of the game, we had another chat to Amos, who was all too willing to tell us about a bunch of things: What it’s like working with Marvel, how Crystal Dynamics is imparting its signature on these beloved characters, how the development is split among the five different studios working on the game, what the working culture is like in the studio, and most importantly: whether or not Squirrel Girl is going to make an appearance.
Marvel’s Avengers will be available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Google Stadia on May 15, 2020. For more on the game, see our previous interview with Scot Amos at New York Comic-Con 2019.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
GameSpot: You’re pitching Avengers as an original story. But I feel like it’s almost impossible to make a comic book game without pulling least inspiration from somewhere. Can you talk about the touchstones you’re drawing upon?
Scot Amos: If you’re looking for like specific comics or specific references, I can’t, because we have the luxury and maybe the curse of 80 years of Marvel history. And having Bill Rosen as the VP Creative for Marvel Games and Shawn Skies, our creative director, we literally looked at everything and said, “What would be great?” Have you seen Joe Fix-It? Our purple suit for Hulk? That doesn’t specifically fit in any of the other storylines except the one that he was in, yet, we want to blend that in and looking at Kamala Khan, she’s only been on the scene since 2013. So she’s a fairly new face to Marvel, let alone anything about Avengers.
So for us, we’ve had this amazing capacity to look through all of that and say, “What’s going to tell the best story?” And the elements we want for that great story is a point of view or perspective character that people can relate to, that believes in these Avengers as a fan of them, that actually is trying to figure out their own path of becoming a hero, which is exactly where Kamala fits into our world as that point of view perspective character for the campaign.
But then, we want that familiarity of the core five that you know–Widow and Thor and Cap and Hulk and Iron Man. We want to have that as something people to go “I know who these guys are”, and then they show up and we want to put what we call the “Crystal Lens” on them, like we did with Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. We reimagined her back in 2013, saying, “This is an original origin tale, this is a hero that you may have thought you knew from your previous movies, or previous games that we’d even been part of.” But we reimagined her, it was saying: “What can we do that’s new, that’s fresh, that has a different take on it, but still is true to the overall spirit of that franchise and of that character?”
There are 9000-some heroes in the Marvel Universe–80 years of history. Have all the stories been told? No, like, that’s the fun part about what we do at Crystal, we go to that humanity behind the hero, look at breaking them down, and then look at having to build the individuals up, and then reassemble the team, and then rebuild that kind of epic, legendary reputation that the Avengers need to have.
You mention that Crystal is good at diving into the humanity of characters, but personally, I associate Crystal with mechanical innovation, like with Tomb Raider’s environmental puzzles. What is Crystal’s signature, mechanical flourish on Avengers?
Scot Amos: Well, when we looked at everything that Lara Croft could do and all the mechanics she had, those were a lot of gear based mechanics, a lot of just her wits, her ability to look for the truth, and her spirit, which is amazing. But how do you translate that into six heroes? And six heroes that can do things that no human can ever do. You get to play Kamala Khan with her polymorphic abilities–we had to reinvent combat because of how could she could stretch, how she can move, how she could traverse.
We didn’t have flying before in our engine, right? And now we have Iron Man and Thor. So it’s like–oh my god, how do we do that and make them feel both relevant and interesting and not tacked on, but like actually rebuilding our combat system to accommodate for both enemy flyers, as well as now these heroes we’re flying. So we’ve actually had to go pretty deep into it.
That’s why we hired Vince Napoli, who is our lead combat designer. Vince comes from the God of War series, and I knew him back in the day at Visceral Games, and Vince is one of those guys who just lives and breathes it. Like, his entire life has been about making great heroes have great combat, like he just loves it. He loves it to the point where he’s obsessed by it. And every time we give him a challenge, like “take Widow to the next level.” He figures it out, he just figures out what skills we have what gear we should add. And he’s just masterful with his team–it’s a great team called the P.E.T. team: Player, Enemies, Traversal.
These guys, whenever we throw a new challenge for one of the heroes, we think about how you expand upon it, and this is so we can build a platform. Because remember, post-launch, we’re going to have more heroes joining, they’re gonna have new skills, and new gear, and new outfits, and new hero missions, any warzone missions, so all of this stuff is us building this beginning. So you can actually expand it for years to come. So it’s daunting, it’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done.
Is Avengers using the same engine you guys used for Tomb Raider (2013)?
It is the next version of that engine–”Foundation” is the name the engine. It’s our proprietary tools and technology that we’ve been using for years. Our team has been upgrading it, every time we have a new version, a new platform, new technologies, we keep adding to it and say, “How do we expand upon its capabilities?” It’s one of our secret weapons.
Square Enix has a lot of studios working on this one. I’m interested in knowing how the workload is split.
Crystal is on point with all this. It literally started at Crystal–we were the beginning, and so we’re the largest group that is working on it.
Eidos Montreal is an amazing sister studio, we worked with them for all of our Tomb Raiders. On the last Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we started with them and then we peeled off, and they finished it. So they actually were the point team on Shadow of the Tomb Raider and they owned it, but they’d worked with us and all the previous ones so they’ve been part and parcel to us forever.
We actually had to build another studio called Crystal Northwest in Bellevue Washington, so we actually added an entire team of technologists who were specializing in multiplayer, guys who had actually known each other work together for years.
Nixxes in the Netherlands is a group we’ve worked with for 21 years now, and they are one of those teams that just know our code as well as anybody and are knee-deep in it. They also have a content team–they’re now making assets for this game as well.
And then you have Square Enix Japan, you know, we even have folks there working on technology and some lighting, so we literally assembled five studios as kind of our five core teams.
Much like the Avengers.
Crazily enough–it’s a fun story. But yeah, we literally have these groups all working together, who are specialists in different things, but bringing them together under our responsibility as the point team.
Kamala Khan is an inspired choice. Does her unveiling now set the tone for future character reveals?
Interesting way to put it. I would say her choice was very much from the beginning. We’ve told a few people this, but if you look back at the beginning of our campaign, January 20 2017, that first voice you hear is Kamala.
So from the beginning, we’ve always been like, “This is going to be that perspective character who’s just like the fans. They love these heroes, they know these heroes, they want to find a way to fit in and be part of something bigger.” So it has always been a very calculated choice.
2014 is when she got her own series, and she came onto the market. She was so full of energy. Looking through the opportunities and what kind of heroes we could have at the centre, we looked at the core Avengers, and then beyond the core Avengers, there are literally hundreds of people who’ve been in the Avengers roster all the different times.
Kamala is a freshness, she hasn’t been really seen in any of the big-screen ways that these other heroes have. So we have the familiarity of the amazingly-loved Iron Man, some Thors and Hulks and everybody else. But then you look at Kamala, and it’s one of those amazing opportunities where Marvel is like, “Hey guys, we think this is a great idea. It has a great relatability to it.” We still have all the familiar folks, and they loved it. From the beginning of our collaboration with Marvel, we were all saying that this is the right hero at the right time.
I’ve noticed a lot of the Marvel Games projects are really emphasizing the new roster–Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, Sam Wilson, Amadeus Cho and all those characters. Why have so many classic Avengers, when there is a whole new crew being pushed?
There’s an expectation that we want to fulfill–that dream, the superhero fantasy dream of being the Avengers. Everybody wants to do that, and being able to do it in this big AAA way with characters that you’ve known and loved in different formats.
There have been 80 years of heroes, but looking at the last 10 years, Marvel have done a brilliant job of bringing in people who had no idea what a Hulk was 10 years ago and are now wearing their t-shirts, right? So you have this mass audience, worldwide, that love these heroes. You can’t ignore that. You have to look at it and say, “This is a great way to onboard people into our version of these heroes,” and then you bring in the freshness with a Kamala.
We have all kinds of ideas for who the future heroes would be. We’d love to listen to our fans, we’re big fans of community, but we have some tricks up our sleeves for what’s coming next and down that path. I think people will be very excited what we have ahead of us.
Who’s at the top of your list?
Well, who says they’re not already in the game? I gotta say, Kamala, from the beginning, has been one of those exciting characters for us that just felt like untapped potential, particularly in the game world and particularly in this kind of large AAA screen approach. So it was a big deal for us to get her right. And I think getting the sense of her storyline through her abilities and how she plays.
Every time that Vince and his group work and a hero they become my new favourite. It’s the craziest thing, I know it sounds like a, “What the hell kind of an answer is that?” But literally, we threw Black Widow at him, and then after a couple of months we’re like, “Oh my god this is amazing. She plays beautifully.”
Then, we throw Hulk at him and I’m like, “Oh my god, you changed the skills and now you can do this.” He literally crafted these toys, these heroes, these tools, that can be played differently depending on what mood you’re in. They all have a slightly different feel and depending on the mood you’re in, you can find the right glove to fit.
A keen-eyed individual recently noticed that the look of Iron Man and Thor had changed since the E3 reveal. Tell me about that.
We were saying even back at E3 time–we aren’t done, we’re still months ahead, we’re still in pre-alpha. So things will iterate and improve where we can.
Thor, for example–one of things we love about Thor is changing his hairstyle, giving him a little bit more of that Norse mythology style to it and actually tightening it up. Because if you’re in combat and flying you don’t want this stuff scraggly in your face all the time, so we wanted to be able to tighten it back into a much tighter grab.
Big improvements made to #PlayAvengers since we first saw it at E3! This game is looking better and better with each new trailer released. Hope it lives up to the hype! At the very least I can vouch for the fact that the gameplay is super fun. pic.twitter.com/WYboQQFCHu
— Eren – CaBOOse (@CabooseEK) October 7, 2019
But all that stuff, including the costumes–and we have so many costumes, and those are full character changes for these heroes–you’ll see a lot of that kind of stuff. To us, that’s iteration and improvements to constantly make the characters better and better.
Tell me about the challenges of making an endlessly repeatable game. Is that difficult to balance with super-directed campaign experiences you’re used to?
The beauty of this game is that we have this amazing campaign that we’re talking about, starting with A-day, the whole thing with Kamala, reassembling all those heroes and unlocking them, basically adding to your roster. So there’s a complete campaign experience that has a beginning, middle and end so that you’ve actually done an entire arc of getting the story to a certain state that just sets up the world.
All the warzone missions actually add narrative to this as well and have their own expansive narrative, so it’s not just one place that’s just going to constantly rinse and repeat. In fact, it’s always growing. That’s the magic of what we built, that you have this campaign that sets up the world state, you have the world state itself evolving.
And remember, we’re going to add more regions and more heroes post-launch. Those are going to come with more hero missions, and more warzone missions, and more stories, and their own sets of skills, and new sets of gear and new enemies. So this world’s going to feel like it’s constantly moving down a path or a time period, that things are changing and evolving as you go forward.
So that’s a lot of content–obviously one of the big talking points in the industry now is developer crunch. What does the Crystal Dynamics working culture look like?
We believe absolutely, at the beginning of the day that we’re a goal based business. We have to say, what’s the goal? We have to have a great hero, you have a timeline certainly, but it’s all about quality. At the end of the day, if you put something out on time, and it’s terrible, you wasted your time. So it’s much more important to say what do we need as far as resources go? Be it time, be it money, be it people. But at the end of the day, what we believe in is saying: “what’s the right thing to do? What do we need to happen here?”
One of the philosophies we have at Crystal is “family first.” One of the things that I tell my team all the time: If you have a kid’s birthday, then go take care of your kid’s birthday, like what, what are you crazy?
I’ve heard studio horror stories that make me nuts, at the end of the day, we love what we do. One of the things that I love about my jobs–I’ve done this since ’91, I make games for a living because of my passion, and I turned my passion to my profession. I don’t think I work a day in my life ever, because it’s just what I love to do. So we want to find people who are like that, and like-minded, saying: “We’re craftsmen.” That’s what I think of Crystal is a studio.
So we all come to work every day to push each other to be better to work as hard as we possibly can on the right things. But we also want to do it in a smart, balanced way. And so we’ve actually changed everything from structures of how we do certain workdays with no meetings, go and get stuff done days which are very focused, “Hey, come in, and get your stuff done, we don’t want to interrupt you”, we’ll provide meals free, whatever it is.
But we also want to give people that flexibility of saying, here’s the workload, here’s how much time we have to get done. Help manage that on your own wherever you can, because we want to give that developer the flexibility and agency to say, “You know what we want to get done, we all want this to be great, how are we going to get there?”
Last question, and it’s one that’s very important to me: Can give me a hint as to whether Squirrel Girl is on the character list?
*15 seconds of laughing*
So, I will tell you that in one of the first meetings I ever had with Bill Rosen and his team, we sat there and started talking about the dream characters. So we went through the roster and were like “What about this? What about that? What about that?”
And I will say that her name came up.
Literally the first meeting, we had sushi restaurant near our office, we’re sitting there talking, we may have had a few shots of sake, I can’t confirm that or not. But it got to the point where it’s like, what would be fun? And we started saying what about this this, or this? What about this plus that?
It’s that ‘What If’ scenario, sitting with these guys who are masters of their world, sitting with us who love making games and love their world, and saying: “Could you imagine if you had this and this and this and this?”
So yes, at the very least that name has actually come up in conversation. I’ll leave it there.
I can’t wait to see the Crystal Dynamics Avengers take on Squirrel Girl. Thank you for your time.
*laughs* Thank you.