Shared Universes, New Stories, And The Future For Marvel In Games

The last decade or so has seen Marvel conquer almost every corner of pop culture, but paradoxically, the reverse has happened in games. Once a key brand in console and PC gaming, the House of Ideas seemingly retreated in recent years, all the while making huge strides in film and television. The Marvel brand and its roster of characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, and more have never been stronger. But in games? Marvel was a shadow of its former self.

That is, of course, until recent months, with Marvel making several big announcements about upcoming games, signalling its intent to finally get back into AAA gaming. Marvel currently has a Spider-Man title on the way from Insomniac Games, a Guardians of the Galaxy series from Telltale (with new details being announced only yesterday), and has a partnership with Square Enix to create more titles (kicking off with an untitled Avengers project). It looks like Marvel is embracing the games audience again, and we recently spoke with Marvel Games creative director Bill Rosemann about the company’s recent moves.

When it comes to video games, Marvel has had its up and downs over the last few years. But there’s obviously been a recent ramping up, especially in the console space. What’s the overall aim for Marvel in the games space now?

Bill Rosemann: Our philosophy going forward is that we’re gonna match the best characters with the best partners to create the best games at the best time. We’re trying to no longer do any transactional deals, and we’re trying to avoid adaptations of films which can be a very tricky, tricky thing to do.

What do you mean by transactional deals. As in, when you simply go to a developer and say “here’s the IP, do what you want with it.”

Exactly. Even though what we do is licensing, it’s not about just taking someone’s money and walking away. We are very collaborative, and we seek partners who are very collaborative, and we want to stand with them every day.

So what would the relationship be, for example, with someone like Telltale Games, who are doing your Guardians of the Galaxy title? What level of input do you guys have on the creation of that game?

From a high-level, I can say it very much depends on the partner. Each studio works differently. The common denominator is that every partner we’re working with right now–especially Telltale–wants to work very closely with us. On the one hand we want each partner to own the game, to bring their vision to it, to show why they’re different, and to bring that extra spice to it so a player says like, “This is a Telltale game.”

At the same time, we want to make sure–and so do our partners–that since these characters have such long running fandom that goes back many years, they want to make sure that when they build the story and build the experience that it feels right. It feels authentic. That we get the characters right, we get the locations right, that it’s filled with Easter eggs. That it’s filled with all the things they love about Marvel.

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Is there something that you want to maintain across the games regardless of developer, or platform, or publisher? Is there a Marvel Games overarching stamp that you want gamers to be able to feel?

What’s really fun about Marvel, and all of our stories, are the differences that they have. When you look at the films: Ant-Man’s a heist movie, and then Guardians is sci-fi, Doctor Strange is supernatural. So they have those different elements, but underneath it all, the key thing about Marvel is our stories are heroic. They are inspirational. They are accessible. You understand who the characters are. You know what they want, you know who they are before they get powers, you know who they are after, you know what their goals and motivations are, and their challenges. And they’re fun. It’s not just dark. There are serious moments in our games, but that comes from the stakes. But what we can’t forget is the fun, the humor. You want to be in this universe.

But not a shared universe, necessarily, across the different platforms in the games?

Yeah, it’s the same thing when it comes to TV, Netflix, film, publishing. We want to give our creators room to tell their stories. We don’t want to box them in and say, “You have to set this Spider-Man game between this movie and this movie.” That said, again we want it all to feel very Marvel, and feel connected so that you can go from game to game, and feel like you’re in the Marvel Universe, and things will be consistent. But not necessarily box them in, and make them connect certain dots.

So in the way the cinematic and TV universes share the one reality…

They do, but they’re in different areas. Avengers are up in their tower, and the Defenders are down in Hell’s Kitchen. And they reference each other, but they’re not limiting the new stories you can tell.

It’s different with games though, correct? It’s not one reality that all these games are playing within the sandbox?

Exactly. I’d say they’re separate, they’re all original stories. They may be set at different time periods. But they’re all set in the Marvel Universe. And so there are certain things that might be consistent, like S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, and different institutions and locations. Wakanda, Asgard, et cetera. But again, we don’t want to limit them, and box them in.

Is that something that you think want to be a goal for the future? To have a shared universe within the games?

It really depends on the partners, what sort of games they’re working on, and whether it would be a benefit or not. On one hand, when I’m reading the comic books it’s very fun to see how they all connect. On the flip side, if you’re trying to create a story that connects, then that can often not be a very fulfilling story. And again, we don’t want that intention to then impact the story, and not allow each partner or each studio to really spread their wings.

I guess what I’m getting at is we won’t see Spider-Man in Insomniac’s game, for example, refer to something that’s going to happen in Square’s Avengers games?

I would say in the Marvel Universe, anything is possible. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But for now, today, we’re just focusing on each story, each partner, letting them tell their story so that the player gets a complete and full story. They won’t feel like it’s incomplete, and, “I had to buy something else to get the rest of this story.” So step one is just deliver the most awesome game, fulfilling game possible.

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So the big news over the last couple of months, obviously, has been your announcement with Square.

I think fans were quick to connect the dots of like, “wait a minute, Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite. The Guardians Telltale series. Spider-Man with Insomniac and Sony, and now the Avengers project with Square Enix.” They’re like, “Marvel is serious.”

This is a new era of modern games. Which I think was one of the intentions, to announce these games one after another. To really show it is a new era of Marvel games. And by seeing that collection of talent–you got Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal, all focusing on one group of characters–it’s gonna be amazing.

Can you at least confirm whether it is something that is more tied in with Marvel Cinematic Universe version of these characters, or is it more from the comics? Or is it an original creation?

As we’ve announced it’s an original, all new story. I’ll leave it at that.

Alright. You did mention that over the past six months you have made quite a lot of big splashes, really signaling your intention to go back into the console space particularly. One of the big questions is why has it taken so long for you guys to get back into it? The MCU has been resurgent for the last 10 years, so …

I think it’s all about timing, and luck, and it takes a lot of time to have stars align. We’re gonna be very selective about who we work with. There are partners who we want to work with them, they want to work with us, but they’re booked. They’re working on something else. So it just takes the time for them to become available, and to make sure that they have the passion, and they have the vision.

I would assume partners are banging down the door now trying to work with Marvel.

That’s part of it. There’s a give and take. Sometimes we reach out to the partner, sometimes a partner will knock on our door. And again, just being very thoughtful, and deliberate, and making sure we’re making the right choices for the characters and for our fans.

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Speaking of characters, is it your intention to tell new stories in the games, or adapt existing stories for games?

We want to be a content leader for Marvel. The pillars of Marvel: there’s publishing, there’s TV (both live-action and animation), there is film, and there is games. We all want to be telling our own original stories. We all want to be the tip of the spear in putting these new stories out there. I think all of us look upon Marvel history, and look upon the great ingredients that are available to us, and we’re like a chef. You look at these ingredients, you pick the best ones, you put it together. Sometimes you’re trying to create a classic dish, sometimes you want to reinvent the dish, or come up with a new dish. So we want our Marvel fans to have the opportunity to experience an all new story, and we want to give our partners a chance to tell an all new story. In that way, the gamers don’t feel like they know exactly where it’s going.

Does Marvel Games have complete control of all your characters and IP? Or is a similar situation with film, in which certain studios have certain rights, and you won’t see those characters cross over?

I would say that there are some characters that are available, and some characters that are not.

So there are still some restrictions you work around in terms of what character can appear in what stories?

Yeah, for various reasons some characters are available, and some are not.

Do you look at what the DC is doing in games? Is there anything that you look at and think, “Hey, that’s a really good idea, we should do that?”

We are students of entertainment, period. I mean, we look at everything. We look at every new console game. We’re looking at who made it? What does it look like? What’s innovative? What works? What doesn’t work? And we want to beat everyone. We want to be the best. And so to be the best, you have to know what your competition is, you have to be a student of the game. But we think as broad as possible, and we look at everyone all the time.

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One of the best things DC has done is be able to incorporate ideas and writers from the publishing side of things into their games. I think Paul Dini did a great job with the Arkham games, for example. Is that something you want to pursue?

There are names I can’t reveal at the moment, but I will say this. We look upon the entire Marvel family, whether they’re writing for TV, or film, or comics, and if they have the passion, and if they’re available, and if they’re gamers, we want to work with everyone in the Marvel family who knows and loves Marvel. So eventually we’ll make some revelations, and you’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this person is working on this game.” But it’s happening.

Without giving too much away, personally, which characters would you want to see in a game in the future?

Untapped. So these are untapped? I’m just spitballing? Just me as a fan.

Just you as a fan.

I think it’s time for Blade to come back. I think that’d be an awesome game. I would love to do something from the villain’s point of view. Even working your way up, like, “I’m a Hydra agent, I’m gonna work my way up Hydra.” Or “I’m a henchman, I’m a minion for MODOK, and I’m gonna try and survive and not get killed, and make my way up.” I think that would be fun from a villain’s point of view. I think the whole Defenders family. Something very street level connecting those characters would be a lot of fun. Even our core characters. I have a soft spot for Morbius, and Man-Thing. And what I love about the Marvel core characters is that mix of the monster and the person. And to show the humanity within the monster, I think that’s very compelling as well.

Have you considered dipping into your back catalog and resurrecting old franchises. I’m talking specifically about Ultimate Alliance, which has a huge fan base.

I would say that on one hand, there’s a lot of behind the scenes history, and legality, and trademarks that some things become available, and some things don’t. It’d just be out of our control. That said, for the first two years, every convention that I went to, it was, “When are you bringing back Marvel vs Capcom?” and “When are you bringing back Ultimate Alliance?” I would just say we are really aware of the love for these franchises, and it all comes down to planets aligning, and stars getting into the right position. And if they do, awesome.

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