How Marvel Games got its groove back

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Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy winning Best Narrative was one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 Game Awards. Not only was the category absolutely stacked — featuring serial 10/10 earner Deathloop and eventual Game of the Year winner It Takes Two — but Marvel titles not released by Insomniac Games were known for being critical disappointments. So it was a huge achievement for Guardians to take the category, beating out games that were far and away easy favorites.

The win was validation for Jay Ong, EVP of Marvel Games, and his team’s long-term strategy for becoming “the world’s best creative consultancy” by partnering with developers that make games that resonate with fans.

“This was a huge win,” Ong told The Verge. “A key thing was that they got the heart right, which is at the center of a lot of the Marvel stories.”

For the longest time, Marvel games weren’t known for their quality. In the early aughts, games like Spider-Man 2 and The Punisher were little more than playable versions of Marvel’s blockbuster movies.

“[Our] games were tied to movie releases,” Ong said. “One of the things that we realized very early on was that that was a recipe for very subpar games.”

Despite poor overall reception, Marvel’s Avengers single-player campaign centered on Kamala Khan was the game’s high point.

In 2014, Ong described a sea change that saw the company pivot away from the “inconsistencies” of the past. The team decided to prioritize “quality over other things like monetization or IP,” Ong said. “And so, we completely restructured the business around how to work with the best, most elite talent possible.”

This singular focus on elite talent led to partnerships with Insomniac, developers of Ratchet & Clank; Firaxis of XCOM renown; and Deus Ex: Human Revolution devs Eidos Montreal. Marvel Games would provide the IP and some creative input, but the developers would have the freedom to tell whatever stories they desired.

Ong described attracting these quality developers as a kind of courtship.

“It’s actually kind of like our secret sauce,” he said. But rather than keep secret the details of how the sauce(sage) gets made, he outlined an elaborate and almost romantic process involving getting to know a studio’s likes, dislikes, and passions.

“We talk about the creative process,” Ong said. “Do we have the same cultural fit? Do we have the same strategic alignment in terms of what we want this game to be?”

For Marvel Games, it’s all about finding the right fit between studio and IP.

“We want to work with partners whose games we want to play,” Ong said.

For the Disney-owned publisher, it’d be easy for Marvel Games to show up at a dev’s door with the biggest bag of cash and a mandate to make whatever Mr. Mouse desired.

But part of Marvel Games’ new approach centers on a developer-driven relationship in which Marvel offers some input guided by its knowledge of the entertainment world but largely leaves the devs steering the ship.

“We don’t start with ‘Can you make this game?’” Ong said. “It’s more of a ‘What would you like to do with us?’”

That’s how Guardians of the Galaxy came to be. Ong relayed a story of getting “pinged out of the blue” by Eidos Montreal with an idea for a Guardians game.

“He had a ton of passion for it,” Ong said of the studio head who approached him with the Guardians pitch. “He was literally saying, ‘We were made to do this.’”

In addition to having a surprisingly heartfelt story, Guardians of the Galaxy is also visually stunning.

“And we love Deus Ex,” Ong continued. “We played the heck out of those games. Since we were very familiar with the team and what they do, we thought that would translate really well to Guardians.”

Indeed, the most common refrain from Guardians’ reviews, including The Verge’s, was that it was a delightful surprise. Eidos Montreal and its partnership with Marvel was able to translate what they loved about Deus Ex into a critically successful game capable of winning narrative awards.

Guardians’ success is the tip of the iceberg of what fans can expect from Marvel games in the future. While Ong wouldn’t share specifics on just what players can look forward to, he did say upcoming games would explore stories and characters beyond X-Men, Spidey, and the Avengers — franchises that have all but dominated Marvel games in the past. Future Marvel games also hold promise of branching out from the typical kind of action games Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and Guardians have been.

“We want to make games for all the different types of Marvel fans,” Ong said.

Guided by a set of principles with an eye toward quality talent, Marvel Games’ strategy seems to be working. On top of Guardians of the Galaxy’s best narrative win, Spider-Man and its spinoff Miles Morales are regarded as must-play titles for the PlayStation. Earlier this year, Marvel Games announced its partnership with former Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig’s game studio and that a new Wolverine title was in development at Insomniac Games.

Players are excited about Marvel games in a way they haven’t been in a long time.

“It’s validation,” Ong said. “You try and have the right north star, right guiding principles, working with the right partners. Magic happens.”

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