When Marvel Heroes was coupled to the word ‘2015’ two summers ago, it wasn’t simply to signal the fact that Gazillion planned to carry on year after year, though they do. It was also a message to those who’d already cast aside the mediocre action-RPG the studio had produced 12 months earlier: “Hey, take another look at us - we’re good now”.
So why rechristen the game once more, to Marvel Heroes 2016? Studio director Jeff Lind says it’s a renewal of vows; a statement of continued intent.
“Keep looking at us,” he says. “We’re only getting better.”
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Since the last identity change, Lind reckons Marvel Heroes has grown to the size of two games, with 20 more characters sourced from the comics, two raids, a patrol mode, achievements, revamps of the game’s team-ups and stash systems, plus more costumes than a Rocky Horror screening.
So far, the next year promises a Secret Invasion story chapter with attendant new enemies and NPCs, plus support for leaderboards and tournaments, and an option for gamepads.
Controller support wasn’t exactly what you’d call a choice for Gazillion. For one, it’s felt mandatory in the genre since Diablo III hit consoles. For another, Marvel Heroes players were already resorting to homebrew solutions involving external software and .ini file fiddling. Felling frost giants from your couch via Steam Link or in Big Picture Mode is, apparently, a “pretty great” feeling.
“We wanted to give it some more formal support and make it function smoothly,” explains Lind. “It’s in early testing, and we really like the feel and think it will be exciting for many players. It’s a big challenge to make some important things work with the controller, but it’s definitely been worth it.”
Perhaps the shift from the study to the living room has engendered a philosophical change at Gazillion, too. They’ve started talking lately about short session play.
“Not everybody has time for a four hour session every day - even the most hardcore players,” muses creative designer Ryan Collins. “But it feels good to make progress towards a goal.”
To that end, the studio have designed Danger Rooms: randomised, repeatable endgame scenarios with clear objectives. Rather than shoot for a rare item and pray to the patron saint of percentages, players earn ‘merits’, a form of currency that’s intended to provide incremental, tangible progress.
“A lot of MMO type games are really exploring this,” says Collins, “and I think they’re better for it.”
The noisiest feedback from the Heroes community - like that which buoyed controller support - will continue to steer Gazillion’s priorities over the coming year. Spidey-associated antiheroine Black Cat is the first new character in their calendar, but the second is Neil Gaiman’s angelic bounty hunter, Angela - implemented in accordance with a public vote. As more names are announced, say Gazillion, the guiding hand of their community will become apparent; a game-directing hive mind resembling the school of fish in Finding Nemo.
Ongoing ‘level 52 reviews’ - the rebalancing of older heroes, who had all of their powers unlocked by level 30 and consequently unfurled less evenly than their fresher counterparts - have been “very community-driven” too.
“While Secret Invasion wasn’t a community suggestion per se, new story content in general is something we get asked about all the time,” reveals Lind.
Secret Invasion pulls in the Skrulls for the first time in Marvel Heroes’ short history - extraterrestrial humanoids who look like cleaned-up orcs but are considerably more crafty. Their advanced energy-based weaponry and shape-shifting ought to make for inventive combat; not to mention the Super-Skrull’s list of abilities, which literally includes everything you’ve ever seen the Fantastic Four do.
“What makes Skrulls such a fun enemy is twofold,” expands Collins. “On one side, there’s the intrigue. Anybody can be a Skrull, so you get to have Skrull-ified heroes and such as enemies which is something we don’t get to do much of.
“On the other hand, they have a very wide range of powers. We don’t just have the traditional Super-Skrull with the Fantastic Four’s powers - we also have a group of War Skrulls which have powers from different groups ranging from the Avengers and X-Men to Mystic and Cosmic heroes.”
Instrumental in Marvel Heroes’ turnaround has been its tendency to tie updates to the Marvel movies where possible - and Gazillion haven’t forgotten that fact. Their next raid will star Thanos, four-decade survivor of comic continuity and current big bad of the MCU.
“We’re still in the midst of designing and ideas are changing, so we can’t really dive into many specifics just yet,” says Collins. “But needless to say, it’s quite exciting - he’s arguably the most popular Marvel villain who has yet to be featured in the game. We think players and fans of Marvel will be pretty excited with where we take you and some of the faces you’ll see.”