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Interview: Marvel Universe Studio Director's Great Responsibility

From launching as free-to-play to throwing players into the shoes of established characters, MMO Marvel Universe will break the mold of core gamer focused online games, and in this Q&A Jeff Lind explains why.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

May 3, 2011

9 Min Read

Last week, Gazillion and Marvel announced Marvel Universe, a free-to-play MMO that will be core gamer-focused. The game is under development in the company's San Mateo, California headquarters, close to San Francisco, by a large team called Secret Identity, which has been formed for the express purpose of developing it. At the recent San Francisco press unveiling, Gamasutra had a chance to speak to Jeff Lind, the studio director of Secret Identity, about the decision to take the game free-to-play, the recruitment of the team to develop it, and the fact that it will let players play as Marvel heroes rather than created characters. Lind, whose background includes stints at EA, Sony Online Entertainment, and Flagship Studios, believes that free-to-play is the right decision for the license and seems to agree it might even help the model get wider adoption on new platforms. You guys didn't show anything, you didn't talk a lot about details, but it sounds like you have really big plans to sort of shake up the way MMOs are approached. Fair enough, yeah. I mean, I think that just the two major things that we've said today... Actually, there are three major things that we've said today, one implicit and two explicit. You shall play as the Marvel heroes. There is a story in this game, we've hired a known writer and this game is free-to-play. I think none of those things were what people were expecting for this game. I think zero of them were -- well, maybe that there is a story might have been expected. But the other two would not have been necessarily expected, and I'm really excited about that. Honestly, I wouldn't say we are trying to shake up the way that people approach MMOs. I think we're trying to do service to the Marvel universe. I think this is the right way to do Marvel. I think having a story and playing as these characters is the right way to handle Marvel. I think free-to-play is a way to make this game more accessible, and Marvel gives us this great opportunity to not only address core gamers, but also gives us this access to this much broader mass market, and we need to do things to make the game accessible. And I will be doing things on multiple dimensions to make the game more accessible, pricing being the first, and honestly, the most important; but there will be plenty of other things to make the game accessible as well. So, to me, it's more about how do you do Marvel well than it is how I think MMOs should be. So, you're the studio director. Have you been at the studio since its inception? Yeah. This studio, I have grown organically -- hand-grown. [President] Dave [Brevik] was the first person working at this studio, and I am the second. He and I have hired everybody that we have. It's obviously been people we've worked with before in the past and some new folks. There's a little bit of Blizzard North blood in us, but also a nice healthy dose of other people from the Bay Area and others. And it is hand-picked, hand-grown, and I'm really happy with how this is working out and how things are growing. That's a great opportunity. Like, it's very rare that you get to pick everybody and you get to start from scratch. It's one of the things that David and I were really excited about at Gazillion, the opportunity to have a well-funded situation where you can pick everybody you work with. Usually, you're inheriting a team or some situation. It sounds like you have had the chance to absorb a lot of experienced talent from the industry into the studio. Absolutely. We've got some great experienced talent. I've pulled people from the obvious sources and some of the non-obvious sources. I have designers from Wizards of the Coast. I have folks from Sony. I have folks from the obvious Bay Area [studios and] other places. It's an interesting time right now to be hiring because the games landscape is changing so radically. We're doing something that seems in some ways almost old right now, given what else is going on out there. You know, it's an interesting time to be hiring. And also plenty of traditional studios are shedding employees. Zynga and Playdom are hiring left, right, and center. Well, you are making a big stake in the ground, though, by taking a game with this kind of team size, budget, license and saying "free-to-play." Absolutely. I think it is the most exciting and radical thing we're doing. We're trying to do a triple-A free-to-play title from the get-go, and I think that's really exciting. I think that is a statement that we think not only is this good for fans, but this is actually a good business move -- because we wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it was a good business move as well, to be perfectly honest. I think it's both. [In the group Q&A] You got a question about platforms, and you said "TBA." Right now there's a sort of tension about what platforms can support free-to-play. But I could see your game being sort of like a wedge that puts some leverage on platforms that don't support free-to-play to think about supporting free-to-play. You think? Yeah, potentially. You might be right! [laughs] Ultimately, I think we're at an inflection point where it's inevitable probably that free-to-play starts opening up in places it isn't already. There's a lot of it going on, for sure. There are reasons to like it, and there are reasons to think that it's hard... You see things happening... I personally think this is a really good way to go for this particular title. I am not willing to pronounce a vast world-changing trend yet, but I can totally see why people might feel that way. It has a knockdown effect on things like production and design as well. For one example, you're going to have to be really heavy on rapidly releasing post-launch content in a way that even conventional MMOs aren't, potentially. I don't know if I see a difference there. I think there's always an important emphasis on post-launch content. You always want to do as much of that as you can. It's always a challenge because you want to offer the best possible experience at launch, and you want to show people that you're alive and kicking. The most valuable thing our players invest in us is their free time, and they want to see that their free time is invested in something that's live and growing, and you want to show them that you're there to do that. You certainly need resources, and you certainly need customers to make that go. So, you know, it's very important to be able to offer a super big product at launch. So many people will judge a product based on their personal experience or reviews or word of mouth at that point, that you want to put your best foot forward at launch. You only get one, as they say. On the other hand, you also want to have an enormous amount of follow through on that as well. Both of those things are important, and both of those things cost money, and you want to be able to do them as well as you can. I don't know that subscription, free-to-play, box sale -- if it's really vastly different... Well, maybe box sale is different, but subscriptions and free-to-play, I'm not sure it's vastly different, because ultimately you're asking people to invest the most valuable thing they have, which is time. I think that's more important than money for most of our players. And you are expecting to have that relationship recur over a long period of time. They need to have a great initial experience, and they need to feel like you're there for them. You haven't gotten into specifics about how you're handling the fact that you're playing heroes, and I'm not going to ask you to try to spill the beans. But the conventional wisdom of this space is give people a paper doll. As far as we know, Wolverine can't really be a paper doll. I have such a great answer that I cannot give you right now. I have described this game to our execs and our investors and our partners like Marvel, and this is absolutely the first question I get every time. I think we have a nice answer to it, and is nothing I can talk about right now, but I can totally understand why you're talking about that. It seems like you're biting off a lot here. You're biting off a different design space than other games. And certainly there's a lot of precedents in the genre right now, both in terms of superhero MMOs, and other MMOs, and free-to-play games. You have to worry about a lot. Yes, we do. It's a huge responsibility to have a title that has been thought about, wished for, hoped for, discussed for a long time prior to us being involved, prior to me being involved. That's an enormous responsibility. We have chosen a path that is perhaps a little non-standard, and that does create a big thing. I feel that all the time. I really want to do well for all of the fans and all of the people ... I'm speaking to Gamasutra, I'm speaking to PC Gamer, I'm speaking to the people who we are thinking about everyday when we are making decisions. I want to do well by them, and I hope we can. But yes, absolutely, it's biting off a lot of stuff. You guys are in a spot where you are so prominent. You have pressure, but if you do innovate, it's going to have a big effect. I mean, people are really going to be eyeballing you guys. So, you actually have an opportunity, too. Absolutely. It is a huge opportunity... Yeah, absolutely. It's a great opportunity. I am thrilled about it. It is a huge responsibility. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility.

About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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