Back when the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched in 2008, the film to video game rights for all properties were licensed to publisher Sega to farm out development to whom ever they saw fit. While the results ranged from really good (Captain America: Super Soldier PS3/Xbox 360, Thor: God of Thunder Nintendo DS) to okay (The Incredible Hulk PS3/Xbox 360, Iron Man Nintendo DS) the rest were the kind of games you had been trained to avoid like the plague (I.E most anything that came out to capitalize on the hype of a major summer blockbuster.)
Something happened between the time that Sega’s first Iron Man games launched on store shelves to the final days of Sega’s contract in 2011 with Captain America, something that would change how we as gamers would perceive games based on comic book properties in the future. That something? 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum:
Not only was that title a stellar Batman game, nailing for arguably the first time what it felt like to be Batman in an interactive medium, it was an excellent game, standing toe-to-toe in the game of the year categories with the likes of Naughty Dogs Uncharted 2. It was the game that we dreamed possible all the time we slogged through every comic book game stamped with the LJN rainbow and Acclaim logo. The day, it seemed, had finally arrived when you no longer had to fear when a publisher announced that you’re favorite character was coming to your system of choice, nay, you actually counted down the days to when the game would possibly arrive.
While WB Games continued raising the bar with their DC Games with the ongoing success of the “Arkham” games, Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes and Injustice: Gods Among us, Marvel has steered away from the traditional games space, despite their characters awareness and popularity being stronger than ever thanks to the over billion dollar gross of 2012’s the Avengers.
That film was to have a video game to launch with it: a first-person action game from now defunct publisher THQ that was canceled.
Ubisoft would fill the void left by that game in late 2012 with the better-that-it-had-any-right-to-be motion based fighting game Marvel Avengers Battle for Earth for the Xbox 360/Wii U, but it still wasn’t the game we as fans desired. The closest thing we would get to playing as our favorite Marvel heroes together at one time would be 2013’s Lego Marvel Super Heroes from WB Games, ironic in that Warner Bros., who own DC Comics, would give us quite possibly the best Marvel hero mash up game to date.
The only other console releases Marvel fans would be treated to were from publisher Activision with their near annual Spider-Man titles, 2011’s X-Men: Destiny and 2013’s Deadpool. In the case of the latter two, “Destiny” developer Silicon Knights closed their doors after an incredibly messy development cycle and were ordered to destroy all copies of that game due to a lawsuit, while High Moon Studios, those behind Deadpool, suffered layoffs after that games completion. There’s also the case of THQ’s kid friendly Marvel Super Hero Squad titles that died when that publisher closed their doors last year.
With the sale of Marvel to Disney, Marvel finds itself in the unique position that Warner Bros. has with the DC stable of characters being all owned in house, I’m assuming with the exception of per-existing license deals like the one Activision holds for Spider-Man. So now that Marvel brand awareness is hotter than ever and with the backing of one of the most powerful entertainment houses in the world, where are all the blockbuster Marvel games?
Disney, it seems, is playing things either incredibly smart or excessively lazy depending on your perspective. As opposed to putting millions of dollars into movie tie-in games like studios have done in the past, all of their cinematic universe games have been free to play mobile and tablet games. Examples include:
– Iron Man 3
– Thor: The Dark World
– Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Other efforts outside of film tie-in’s also exist in the mobile/free to play space including:
– Marvel Heroes (browser based free-to-play MMO)
– Marvel Avengers Alliance (Facebook/mobile)
– The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 (Mobile)
– X-Men: Battle of the Atom (free-to-play mobile)
– Marvel Run! Jump! Smash! (free-to-play mobile)
– Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign (free-to-play mobile/PC)
It’s no lie that game development has become costly with the budgets to produce blockbuster games at a higher price point than ever, and sticking to quick, proven money making in game transaction mobile titles makes sense from a business perspective. Disney’s only really console game presence having closed all of their internal video game development studios, Disney Infinity, gains an additional revenue stream from the sale of add-on toys and accessories. The second iteration of Infinity should role out this year if the rumors are correct, featuring members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society:
What makes sense from a business standpoint doesn’t bode well for Marvel fans wanting to see their favorite heroes in games like what WB has been able to accomplish with the DC Comics brand. Imagine an Arkham structured Captain America game with Splinter Cell like stealth sections, a Thor game on par with Sony’s God of War complete with realm hopping adventures, the ability to fly around an open world environment as Iron Man, or a Guardians of the Galaxy RPG in the vein of BioWare’s Mass Effect. That’s not to mention the ability of these properties crossing over in an Avengers style game, something that has already proven quite fruitful in the movie business. Marvel claims that they’ve already laid ground works for a shared video game universe, but the only real linking thread among their games is the ISO-8 power up that debuted with Marvel Avengers Alliance, not the character spanning franchise we’ve been craving since the Avengers changed the way we look at comic book characters in the media.
To create a new stable of Marvel games, Disney doesn’t even have to look inwards on themselves, but merely outwards to the right company. Star Wars, another mega franchise that recently fell under Disney’s umbrella, is being licensed to EA for all video games in the near future. They’ve even managed to attract Amy Henning, the driving force behind 2009 Game of the Year winner Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, as a creative consultant on their upcoming Star Wars games from their Visceral Studios development team. This move at least proves that the publisher is not simply pushing out shovelware with the Star Wars name slapped on the label for a quick buck (though to be fair, that could very well still happen.) I find it hard to fathom that they’re isn’t someone who couldn’t accommodate the Marvel series of characters in a similar fashion.
WB Games has proven that with a passionate enough studio, you can take an iconic video game character like Batman and put him in a game that stands not only with other licensed game peers, but with some of the best games of our generation. Five years after the Dark Knight entered the twisted corridors of Arkham Asylum, and it seems we’re still waiting for a comic book video game revolution on par with the success of Marvel Studios. To paraphrase the Joker from the Dark Knight, maybe all anyone needs is the right push.