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Crystal Dynamics: The Avengers is the biggest thing we've ever done

The Square Enix studio on its transformation beyond Tomb Raider

Crystal Dynamics has developed some pretty big products over its 25-year history. As the custodian of the Tomb Raider series, the firm has rebooted the franchise twice, and its last two games -- the award-winning Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider -- have sold in excess of 18 million copies worldwide.

The next game, however, is on an even grander scale. You couldn't escape Marvel's The Avengers at E3. The logo was plastered across the Los Angeles Convention Centre, and it was the grand finale to Square Enix's press conference.

"From our side, it's the biggest thing that we've ever done," head of studio Scott Amos tells "We now have five studios working together to pull this off. Crystal Dynamics at Redwood Shores, we opened a new studio in Bellevue called Crystal North West. We have our partners in the Netherlands, Nixxes, which has a big team of people who we've worked with for 20 years. Eidos Montreal was our sister studio for all of Tomb Raider, so they're working on this. And even Square Enix Japan has folks from the tech group working with us.

Avengers was promoted heavily at E3

"We've literally had to put these five studios together and say: 'We're going this far. Tomb Raider, awesome. Rise of the Tomb Raider, even better. Shadow of the Tomb Raider... and it's like no, we're going beyond the boundaries'.

"We've had to change how we work, how we are organised as a team, the number of people we need to do this, the number of external partners... We've had to go hire experts like Shaun Escayg, who is our creative director. He told stories for Uncharted and The Last of Us [at Naughty Dog], we needed him to help tell this story. Dave Fifield was a game director who worked on Halo and Call of Duty, we needed him to help us with multiplayer. We go around and look at what we need. Who are the experts? Vince Napoli, he's our lead combat designer, he just did God of War, come help us with the combat. We cherry-picked the best of the best and said: 'Let's put this together in a new way for something bigger than we've ever done'."

There is another party involved in the creation of the new Avengers game, and that's the franchise owner: Marvel. But far from being a mere licence holder, Amos says they're more like part of the development team.

"We now have five studios working together to pull this off"

"Marvel showed up and said, 'What do you want to do?'," Amos explains. "That's how it started. They really looked at us and said, 'Crystal, you guys are experts at making games, we're experts at The Avengers. What do you want to do? What's the original take you want to do on visuals, on story?' But they are true north. We work with Bill Rosemann, their VP of creative, and ask whether Tony [Stark] would say this or not, would Hulk do this particular move or not, does this gear make sense?

"They're not just collaborators, they're partners. They're embedded with us as a team. We talk to them daily. We send them everything we're working on, we have builds they play and get feedback. We bring them to the studio and go through it together. Bill is 25 years at Marvel. He knows everybody. We're like, 'So we have a character, and this storyline we saw in issue x,' and he's like, 'I can get you the writer, let's go see what that person thinks'... We have this amazing collaboration with them that lets us do a little of the iconic fan service and a lot of doing an original take that makes it feel fresh and familiar."

This is an original Avengers game, but with plenty of fan service

Avengers seems like a conventional action-adventure game, but it's more ambitious than that. Before the reveal, rumours suggested the game would be a Destiny-style co-operative service-based game. That rumour turned out to be only partially correct. The demo that was shown at E3 was the start of a single-player story, where players alternate between the main heroes: Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Iron Man and Thor. But beyond that, players can experience several co-operative -- yet still story-driven -- mini-campaigns.

"Everything that we do -- any of the characters, the gear, anything we put in there -- has to have a story behind it. That's something that Bill taught us from the very beginning: put anything in the game, but focus on the story," Amos explains.

"In terms of how we monetise, we'll have cosmetics. No gameplay paywalls"

"Why do you need Widow to look like that? Why do we need Cap's star on his shield to be a little bigger than it used to be? That actually has a story behind it that ties to the lore of the overall Avengers. Crystal likes to do third-person, intimate, narrative, character-driven action adventures; Marvel likes to tell epic stories about the human spirit. Blend those two together and it's like, 'Okay, but this is the Avengers, so it needs to be a team.'

"We also need to reintroduce those heroes, or introduce them for the first time for those people who have never met them. That's the campaign; the narrative, bespoke campaign like you just saw in the demo where you play as a single character and might bounce between the different heroes or have specific missions just as that one hero.

"When you go past that moment of A-Day [the scene from the start of the game], the big tragedy where things change, and you go back and start reassembling The Avengers, when you find the different heroes it unlocks different branches in the world. If you have Hulk, you can continue down the main campaign or you can go off and do these other areas as Hulk and explore him more and level him up. There are some story arcs that are just for him. These branches are all enabled for co-op multiplayer. Even though you have that main story arc where you'll be playing by yourself, we actually have these areas where you can bounce in and out with co-op.

The Avengers is its own game, but don't rule-out some connectivity with Insomniac's Spider-Man

"Then after you get through all of that -- the story arcs, the missions, the hero arcs -- then you get to the end and it's like, 'Wow, there's a whole world out there.' 99% of the stuff we are adding is playable single-player, but it's also co-op enabled. Now that you have gone through that story campaign that sets up the stakes in the world, the next step is saying there's all this stuff to do. Global threats are ever escalating, new levels, new heroes showing up at no additional cost.

"As that happens, you have a larger pantheon or roster of heroes to jump into. Now all of us can say: 'Great, I want to be this character or that character. I want to go back to the core five that they started with and play together in new ways'. As it expands, all of it also has story. We just keep adding more and more story to this for years to come."

"Every game has an influence on us. We look at any great game and ask what we can steal from them"

Amos is passionate, and it sounds like a hugely ambitious project. A single-player, story-driven game with many co-operative elements that will keep expanding... and Square Enix isn't going to charge for it? Crystal Dynamics has already ruled out loot box mechanics, so how do they expect to fund all this?

"We've been thinking about that from the beginning," Amos says. "We want somebody to be able to go buy a disc and never have to go online. You don't have to. You can have a complete experience and have fun. But there's all this cool new stuff that's coming, all these new heroes, you have to go online for that stuff. That's how it's going to work.

"The idea, from the beginning, is that we want you to be able to customise your hero; how they look, how they play, the gear they have and how they use it. Your Black Widow could be different to my Black Widow -- just a little, maybe a lot depending on what you favour and how you unlock things. In terms of how we monetise, we'll have cosmetics. No gameplay paywalls.

"We want people to be able to play together and go on this journey, but we also want to say if you want to over-invest in your characters and customise them, you've got it. We also have ways for you to earn a lot of those things. We want to give players as much flexibility as possible because it's for them. We make this for the fans. At the end of the day, we will listen to them and get feedback from them and we'll adjust everything to serve that need... We want to reward them for the hours they're investing in our game."

In film, the majority of the Marvel movies connect together to form one huge universe. Avengers is the second big-budget Marvel game to arrive after last year's hit Spider-Man. In the demo, there was even a character [Taskmaster] who appeared in both games. Amos stopped short of denying the existence of a Marvel Interactive Universe, although Spider-Man's influence has been felt.

"Every game has an influence on us," he concludes. "We look at any great game and ask what we can steal from them. Looking at Spider-Man, it was close to our hearts for sure, but think of all the games that have shipped in the last ten months. We'll steal from anybody who is the best. We look at it with Marvel. They're very savvy. They know what's going on in their world, from movies to shows to games. They help keep us abreast of what is going on and what's the right and wrong ways for us to reference each other.

"At the end of the day, this is Avengers. We're building The Avengers universe. This is our thing."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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