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Design lessons from the making of Marvel's Midnight Suns

Marvel's Midnight Suns director Jake Solomon shares key lessons from Firaxis' journey to ship Marvel's Midnight Suns.

Marvel's Midnight Suns might be one of the most intriguing games from Firaxis since it rebooted the XCOM series with 2014's XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's a turn-based role-playing tactics game featuring a deep roster of Marvel Comics characters.

That sounds like a win on paper, but from the second the game was revealed, there were surprising twists at play. First, the name Midnight Suns refers to a very niche corner of Marvel Comics history called "The Midnight Sons." It's a fantasy-themed branding that's much more "dark urban magic" than "alien invasion" or "the rise of civilization."

Slapping the superhero name on a game doesn't always deliver financial success, and choosing a very niche theme to work with comes with some surprising risks.

Second, this is Firaxis' first game based on a licensed property—and not just a licensed property, but a licensed property with iconic, well-known characters. The rest of the studio's games rely on different groups of anonymous units that can fit into a large variety of player strategies. This isn't a game where you can give a random nobody some Iron Man armor—when Tony Stark joins the party, he'll be the character players already have preconceptions about.

Third, this is the first Firaxis game to feature a 3D hub environment that players can navigate in third person. In an age where 3D game-making is the default, that may not sound like much, but it's still another technical and design challenge in a game already chock full of them.

But game designers love a challenge, and as creative director Jake Solomon told us in an e-mail interview last month, the challenges of working with Marvel characters made for a unique and different tactics experience from the talented team at Firaxis. 

Solomon was game to share a few specific lessons learned from the development of Marvel's Midnight Suns. Here's how he and his colleagues tackled some of the big problems above.

How do you make superheroes feel tactical?

In Firaxis' XCOM games, player choice is often driven by a high amount of risk calculation and some gambling. One missed shot or one surprise critical hit could spell the death of a character or the failure of a mission.

While mission failure is still on the table with Marvel's Midnight Suns, it wasn't going to feel great if a character like Wolverine could be iced by a stray critical hit. Solomon said that to make Midnight Suns, Firaxis went for "the opposite" effect. "In XCOM, your choices had weight because of systems like permadeath and percentage-hit chance, where you knew you could always take a shot but you didn't know if it would hit," he explained.

"In Marvel's Midnight Suns, any time you have an ability, you know it will work but there's no guarantee that you'll have that ability in your hand."

A screenshot from Marvel's Midnight Suns.

Here Solomon is referring to the card-based ability system that Firaxis spun up for Midnight Suns. Each character has a deck of abilities that are randomly drawn each turn, and players have to select which ones to use and explore adaptable synergies. "The pressure feels and is different," Solomon said.

He added that Marvel's Midnight Suns isn't a game that puts "downward pressure" on players. Superheroes don't miss punches very often, or panic at the sight of enemies closing in. By challenging players to maximize damage dealt (or control abilities used, or support abilities used at the right time), it lets Firaxis set up bigger and bigger punching bags that can put pressure down on the highest difficulty ratings.

Why The Midnight Sons?

We mentioned up top that The Midnight Sons (whose first appearance was in a Ghost Rider comic from November 1992) are a more obscure Marvel group. That's because the roster usually includes heroes who've "had a touch of damnation." The heavy metal hard-rock vibes are in line with video games like Diablo, but the touch of the demonic and battling demons out of hell isn't exactly part of Marvel's current family-friendly vibe.

Solomon said that Marvel didn't pitch the Sons to Firaxis, but rather came to the studio asking what story it wanted to tell. Solomon noted that as the team discussed pitches, they kept coming back to supernatural-themed characters. Solomon himself referred to Marvel's "Inferno" event, as well as the Ghost Rider "Spirits of Vengeance" run from later.

The cover of Ghost Rider's Rise of the Midnight Sons comic.
Image via Amazon

Marvel's Midnight Suns takes inspiration from "Rise of the Midnight Sons", but doesn't re-tell that event's story. Instead this game makes the most of an all-new customizable character called "The Hunter." Players can shape The Hunter into a personal role-playing fantasy to make it feel like they're fighting alongside Marvel Heavyweights, or go experimental, using them to explore the limits of the game's combat system.

Solomon called out that in order to make The Hunter feel special (but not too special, they can't outshine the characters a player may be here for), Firaxis had to give them a wider pool of abilities than any other character. They have access to a mix of Light, Dark, and Power-themed abilities. A light-powered hunter will be supporting the other heroes, while a Power or Dark Hunter will be more likely to take center stage.

The Hunter also lets players get up close and personal with the rest of the Midnight Suns cast during their downtime, which brings us to The Abbey—a hub world where players can manage their squads and chat with their teammates between battles.

The Abbey from Marvel's Midnight Suns.

Home sweet home

The Abbey is a big new swing for Firaxis: It's a full 3D environment you'd usually find in a BioWare game. The studio has plenty of experience building visually dense maps with passive storytelling, but this is the first time they've created a space players can walk through—and will walk through, repeatedly.

Why even take on this challenge? "There are two parts to the Super Hero fantasy," Solomon wrote. One of them is the fighting part, the other is the "living among them" part. Superheroes have secret identities, hideouts, headquarters, hometowns, etc.

He referenced Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, or Peter Parker's struggles as a Daily Bugle photographer. "If we were going to fulfill that fantasy by dropping the player into the story—well you would want to interact with those heroes, right?"

There's a bit of a doll house/action figure component to it as well. Obviously The Abbey is not the usual hideout for Doctor Strange, Blade, or other heroes. Placing them in this hideout lets players...well, "play" with their favorite characters in a new way. Recruiting heroes to hang out in The Abbey has a collectible feel to it as well.

A screenshot of Marvel's Midnight Suns. Doctor Strange and Carol Danvers lounge in The Abbey.

Of course, if you're going to build a home for so many heroes, you have to make it feel vibrant. Solomon explained that "one challenge that may not be as obvious is just how much stuff you have to build to fill a 3D world and keep it interesting for the player—who may not even touch some of the content you make!"

He alluded to the grounds surrounding The Abbey, which have their own batch of mysteries and secret locations. Plenty of players will never see them—but they're there to ensure the players who like poking at every corner will have something to find.

With Marvel's Midnight Suns already pulling in rave reviews from across the critical landscape, it's fair to say this title really shows Firaxis can still stretch its wings as a studio. Plenty of developers would be well within their right to prioritize new entries in long-running franchises—it takes a lot of work to build a new kind of game with new challenges, and Solomon and his colleagues seem to have pulled it off.

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