At some point during the 14 month production cycle for Avengers Initiative, the iPhone and Android mobile game that was supposed to tie-in with the blockbuster Avengers movie, it became clear the game wasn’t going to be ready to hit the app stores by box office time.
Once, that would have been the kiss of death for a game tie-in - and for the career of the person in charge. But Marvel Games boss TQ Jefferson was tired of the rush job game-of-the-film nonsense that’s gone before.
One solution might have been to pull all-nighters to get it out in time, and if there were bugs, so be it. But instead, he just kept the team at Wideload Games working away as normal.
“We held the game back and we kept working on it. We kept polishing it until we got it to a point where we felt it was ready,” he says. The game eventually launched on the iPhone and iPad in early September, a full five months after the film opened in cinemas.
But the delay was anything but a death sentence: the game launched to glowing reviews, and has racked up thousands of downloads so far. Not bad for a mobile game that costs a fiver - and it hasn’t even launched on Android yet. Is this the start of a comeback for movie games?
Jefferson is the first to admit that that Marvel (The comic book legend responsible for everything from Spiderman to X-Men) has been guilty of turning out by-the-numbers games in time for the film before. “Some of our games in the past, you know we could say we’ve fallen on that formula before,” he says.
It wasn’t always like that. Back in the early 1990s, game versions of Aladdin and The Lion King showed that it was possible for incredible games to be made about films. But as graphics jumped to 3D and budgets skyrocketed, keeping the game and the movie in sync became very difficult.
“Trying to make a one for one translation of a film into a game is always tricky because the timetables are different. We start a game two and a half years out and the film starts maybe a year later. By then a lot of design choices have to be made, so if you wait for the film you’re almost setting yourself up for a rush to product,” he says.
Jefferson should know: before coming to work at Marvel as vice president for production, he was an interactive manager at Pixar trying to strike that balance every single year.
Marvel, though, has decided to chuck that model out of the window. All that matters now are three factors, says Jefferson: “fun and engaging gameplay - it seems so obvious but I think a lot of times you can lose sight of that very, very easily. The second is compelling story and then the third is true to character experience.”
“Moving forward, we firmly believe that quality trumps everything, fun trumps everything and the movie game doesn't have to be about the movie.”
Like the hit Batman: Arkham series on consoles from rival DC Comics, Avengers Initiative certainly isn’t about the movie. An episodic game, the first part sees you playing as Hulk in world where countless Marvel bad guys have escaped and are out causing mayhem. It’s up to you to stomp them into the ground, using touchscreen gestures to dodge and pound.
Yes, it plays a lot like Infinity Blade, the epic giant-slaying game from the brains behind Gears Of War, a series which set the benchmark for mind-blowing graphics on the iPhone. But where there’s space for one, there’s space for two.
“I would be lying if I said that we didn’t look at Infinity Blade for inspiration,” says Jefferson. But I also think that the genre that it has opened up has created a lot of open water for other executions, and other ideas and other games to play in.”
Jefferson, a lifelong comics fan, doesn’t actually develop the games in-house, but he does have the final say in who gets to use Marvel’s characters. He and his team of seven in LA work alongside publishers and developers “from concept all the way through to publishing and beyond.”
Avengers Initiative’s production stretches back to just a month after Infinity Blade was released in December 2010, and after six months of prototyping a team of 35 got to work. They’re still going too, with the Android version on the way, as well as the next chapter starring Captain America (Jefferson won’t tell us which other Avengers we can expect to play as down the line).
That sounds like a big effort, but it’s nothing compared to making a console game, which can take years, millions, and hundreds of staff. If anything, Jefferson says, mobile lets Marvel take risks, like missing movie deadlines, and playing with new characters.
“The mobile space allows us to experiment a little,” he says. “We have 8,000 characters [in the Marvel universe] and I think a lot of people just know Spiderman, Wolverine and the Avengers. So in an ideal world we’ll start rolling out games that feature other characters and new gameplay.”
Jefferson won’t say which fan favourites characters can expect their own game any time soon, but he does use Moon Knight as an example, a cult favourite with comics fans, but not one destined to get his own film starring Hugh Jackman any time soon. It’s an exciting possibility though: a whole universe of superheroes, each with their own game.
But there’s more to do in the near future. Up next is an Avengers Kinect game, where you can literally smite bad guys with Thor’s hammer by swinging, as well as a free-to-play massively multiplayer online game, Marvel Heroes. There’s also Deadpool, a comically gory console game based on the extraordinarily violent mercenary - one which would never have been made if Marvel was solely after movie tie-ins.
But which Marvel hero would Jefferson like to see most in a game? “I would love to make Blade game,” he says. “The vampire theme is the zeitgeist right now - it’s time for that character to have a comeback.”
Given Wesley Snipes’ fall from stardom, it’s a good thing Marvel won’t have to wait for a new Blade film to come out to do that.