Back when Square Enix’s The Avengers was unveiled at E3, a few of us were wondering: could this be the start of the Marvel Interactive Universe?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated cinema (and now TV) for nearly 15 years, with its huge comic book universe of interconnecting stories, characters and franchises. Following the success of the PlayStation Spider-Man games, and now with big partnerships with major AAA studios, were we about to see the company try and repeat the trick in video games?
The answer was no. And according to Bill Rosemann, the VP and creative director of Marvel Games, such a move would be detrimental to the company’s overall ambition.
"The world is, amazingly, very familiar and accepting of the multiverse,” Rosemann explains. "We have all these different realities. Now they’re all real, and we want to give everyone the freedom to tell their story. We don’t want to say 'you can’t blow up the moon, because this game over here by another studio needs the moon'. We want to give everyone the freedom and the clear lane to tell their story.”
"We don’t say ‘you can’t blow up the moon, because this game over here needs the moon’. We give everyone the freedom to tell their story”Bill Rosemann, Marvel
Rosemann is speaking to us ahead of the announcement of another major Marvel project from another AAA studio. The Disney-owned company is already working with the likes of PlayStation, Take-Two, Niantic and Skydance on titles featuring an array of famous characters, and now it has added EA to its partner list, with Star Wars Squadrons and Dead Space developer Motive creating an Iron Man game.
Yet although all these titles are standalone and independent from one another, that doesn’t mean there won’t be anything that connects them.
"Every decision [the Motive team] are making about their Marvel universe, their Tony Stark, their Iron Man… they’re building it from the ground-up,” Rosemann explains. "But it is being built with what we call Marvel building blocks. When you play the game, it may not be the Iron Man story that you’ve experienced before, but there will be many similar things. What would you expect in a Marvel story? There are things, there are institutions, certain companies, groups… I don’t want to say what is and isn’t in this game, but for example, there is S.H.I.E.L.D, Hydra, there’s the Daily Bugle, there’s these different countries that exist. These are building blocks that make the Marvel universe. They make it feel like a real Marvel story. Now with that, [Motive is] going to tell its story, and we will give them that freedom.”
Leading the Iron Man team is executive producer Olivier Proulx. Proulx joined Motive straight from Eidos Montreal where he had finished up working on another AAA Marvel game: Guardians of the Galaxy.
"Patrick [Klaus, EA Motive General Manager] approached me earlier this year after I took a vacation following Guardians of the Galaxy,” Proulx says. "I was looking at next projects, and Patrick told me there is a new game and it’s a collaboration with Marvel and it would be a great opportunity to continue the great work that we’ve started together. It was a natural fit.
"Motive is a studio that has really strong foundations, but it has amazing momentum right now, in building great teams and working with really good IPs, and turning them into high quality games. Continuing to build on that with Iron Man was a really good fit for me.”
The initial discussion between the two companies happened between Marvel’s Jay Ong and EA’s Patrick Klaus and Samantha Ryan. EA Motive had impressed with Star Wars: Squadrons and were developing further prototypes involving flying, which naturally led the two companies towards Iron Man.
From the creative side, Rosemann says that it became clear EA Motive and Marvel matched in terms of values.
"We both want to make great action games that are innovative. And we also love bringing to life iconic worlds. On top of that, we want every player to feel like the hero and to deliver on that fantasy, that wish-fulfilment,” he says.
Then the team got the white board out and started to discuss what it is fans like about Iron Man, and what would they expect from the Iron Man experience?
"It’s about understanding the characters,” Proulx tells us. "What drives these characters? And building a great story from there. Of course, not only from a story perspective, but also a gameplay mechanics perspective, how does that translate to the nature of the characters? With Guardians of the Galaxy it was all about team play, so we built a lot of narrative systems around that. And with Iron Man, having that visceral experience of flying around as Iron Man is going to be supremely important, and of course building a great story around Tony Stark and tapping into his character. He is a creative genius, that is his superpower, so there are great narrative opportunities there. But then it’s about how that translates to the gameplay experience as well.”
"At Motive, and within EA, we think there is a lot of space for great single-player games"Olivier Proulx, EA Motive
EA Motive may be bringing the development expertise, but both sides insist this is a collaboration, with Marvel adding the authenticity that a game like Iron Man is going to need to win over the fans.
"We are here to do everything we can, 360, to help our collaborators bring their vision to life,” Rosemann explains. "How can we help? Can we be a source of background? There has been six decades of Iron Man comic books, we can start with: ‘read these ten stories’. We are here for advice. We are here for talking about what game they want to make, and how the gameplay matches the wish fulfilment of the character… the set pieces, the music, the characters, what the story is about. People expect a great story from a Marvel and Motive game. It’s the heart of what we do. We will offer everything that we can to help give that Marvel perspective, to create that 100% authentic Marvel experience, so that when people play it they’re saying: ‘this was made by fans’.”
Proulx adds: "But [Marvel is] also really pushing us to make this Motive’s version of Iron Man. What is the new story that we can tell with Tony Stark? That is incredibly empowering for the team. It’s very much about collaboration and working together on a weekly basis, pushing ideas, challenging each other… it’s a great experience.”
Rosemann again: "All of the best Marvel creations, throughout our history -- comics, cartoons, films, games – are when the best talent comes to Marvel and they’re teamed up with characters that they love, and want to say something with. And often they want to say something new. And it’s Marvel’s tradition to give them that freedom to tell their story. What is the new thing that they want to do? It’s like they’re the chef. What is the meal you want to make? Oh, you can make that awesome. Here are all the ingredients. You don’t have to adapt anything. You don’t have to make it fit with anything. We are going to give you the freedom to tell your story. This is your Marvel reality, and here is everything fans will want from an Iron Man story.”
This won’t be the only game to come from EA and Marvel, with the companies confirming that other titles are in the works, but it is early days. Proulx says the Iron Man team is small as it is still in pre-production. Alongside Proulx, the other members of the Iron Man team includes creative director Ian Frazier [Star Wars Squadrons/Mass Effect Andromeda], franchise development director Maëlenn Lumineau [Immortals Fenyx Rising/Assassin’s Creed], and senior producer JF Poirier [Star Wars Squadrons/Child of Light].
"As we grow more confident in our ideas and start to prove out some of these creative endeavours, we will grow the team," Proulx says. "We want this to be a super high production value AAA experience. It’s single-player, it’s action adventure, so we want to go all-in on how it plays and how it comes across on screen. And we want to have the right size team and budget to make sure we deliver on that.”
Despite the industry trend towards more service-based and online experiences, Motive and Marvel is keen to stress this will be a single-player adventure.
"It’s really about telling a great story,” Proulx explains. "At Motive, and within EA, we think there is a lot of space for great single-player games. The games industry is not only one thing, and single-player experiences are still a huge part of it. But this game specifically, to do a strong narrative experience tied to Tony Stark and channelling his charisma, his complexity as a character… going single-player is the way to go.”
Of course, no matter how free the team is to create its own Iron Man experience, there will be a shadow cast by the world conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man was a relatively small Marvel character, certainly compared to the likes of Spider-Man, before Robert Downey Jr took on the role and made it one of the world’s biggest movie franchises. There have been four different versions of Spider-Man depicted on cinema screens over the last 20 years, but only one Iron Man.
But then, as fans will know, Iron Man is currently absent from the movie scene.
"I keep saying this word freedom,” Rosemann continues. "Every division within Marvel is given the freedom to create and do what they do best. So this is an opportunity to tell the best Iron Man story. We may be compared to everything… or we might not. It doesn’t matter. What is important to us is that when people play this game, we want them to say that this is a love letter to this character. We want them to say that it is exactly what they want, and it surprised them. We talk about power and responsibility. Our power, Marvel and Motive, is that we get to create a AAA Iron Man game. The responsibility is to make it awesome. That’s our mission, it’s on our shoulders, and we think it’s great. The world is a very challenging place, and we are lucky enough to create things that bring people together and bring people joy. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Proulx concludes: "It is a huge privilege to be working on such a big character, and one that fans recognise… whether that’s from the comics or the MCU or anything else.
"At Motive, we have worked with really established IPs before, and bringing our own voice and our own gameplay experience to that table is something we love to do. And we can do this with Iron Man."