A couple months ago, I downloaded TinyCo’s Marvel Avengers Academy on a whim, after seeing some friends in the comics world gush over how it reinvented characters like Iron Man and The Wasp. To my surprise, what I found was a free-to-play game that wasn’t just a compelling builder sim, it was a surprisingly funny and quick-witted exploration of Marvel’s popular heroes.
Which, as someone with brief experience in the free-to-play business, was somewhat surprising for me! For the most part, free-to-play games don’t put a big priority on storytelling.
A few MMORPGs or role-playing games do take a stab at worldbuilding and character creation, but due to the pipeline problems of creating live games, written and scripted game content just doesn’t get a big spotlight in the free-to-play world.
So if you’re a developer interested in making written games for mobile, how do you create a process that helps you target that bigger free-to-play audience? How do you craft a development structure that lets you create content faster than players can consume it? And if all the tools you have are words, how do you use them to catch players’ attention?
To get answers to some of these questions, I shot a note over to TinyCo writer Allen Warner, who pens all the quest dialogue, V.O lines, and asked him to explain how he gets away with letting Hank Pym accuse superheroes of being fascist, and allowing a teenage Tony Stark face the specter of his own death.
BF: Can you sort of explain the basic vision you and the TinyCo team went in with for Marvel Avengers Academy, and how did you strike the tone for a licensed game like this?
When I joined the team very early on in development, the only thing that was absolutely set in place is that this would be a builder game centered around reimagined versions of the Avengers as young adults where players would recruit heroes, and build the ultimate Super Hero academy. From a narrative perspective, the main question I wanted to address is, "Why are they young?"
It would be easy to say they're young because this is a video game and we said so, but I wanted to use Marvel lore to create a story reason for why these characters are younger, and in some cases, drastically different than how we've seen them portrayed in other games and media. The backstory behind that question led to the overarching mystery driving the main story about the strange "timefog" surrounding the campus, and the powerful secret Nick Fury is hiding beneath the school.
As far as the tone, art lead David Nakayama and our amazing art team created concepts ranging from very cartoony to very realistic to help establish the art style for the characters and the environment, and I did the same for the narrative tone. I basically wrote the same quest line three times, ranging from a slapstick vibe to very dramatic. In both cases, we settled somewhere in the middle, and I think it's worked out really well. We wanted to create a fun, exciting, youthful world that would be accessible to casual Marvel fans, while still having plenty to chew on for longtime fans like myself. Bill Rosemann, Tim Hernandez, and everyone at Marvel Games have been incredibly trusting and supportive and insightful from the very beginning of the game's development to this day, and they've been instrumental in helping us achieve that vision.
We've continued that back and forth throughout live operations as I bounce my story and content ideas off of them for events like our current Daredevil special event, and the art and animation teams are constantly getting feedback on all of the new content that they're constantly producing. They've given me a lot of freedom and great feedback on ideas like turning Loki into a lawyer to face off in the courtroom with Daredevil, how to best portray Ronan and the Chitauri combat in our Guardians of the Galaxy event, how Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen interacted during our Spider-Man event, and even letting me turn Winter Soldier into an emo singer/songwriter in our Civil War event. With each event, we've worked together on how to best showcase Marvel's iconic heroes while reimagining them for our world's specific mythology. I'm really proud of the events we've had so far, and we're even including some exciting and hilarious costume ideas from our players in our upcoming Halloween event.
BF: The most surprising thing about Avengers Academy is how consistently fresh and quick-witted the dialogue is. There’s few recycled lines and some interesting character beats that you didn’t know these heroes would display. How much work did it take to get such a high focus on dialogue throughout the game?
Thanks! Dialogue has always been my favorite part of writing, but getting there is always a lot of work. I think it's mostly knowing the world and the characters inside and out, and being confident in the tone. These characters have such rich histories, and have been created and developed by so many amazing artists and writers over the years that it's about defining what's at the core of each character, combining that with classic school tropes, and finding a way to make it my own. They're so iconic and well-defined that you can take them into the old west or the far future or a school for superheroes, and they'll still be immediately recognizable.
My challenge is how to push them as far as I can to make them feel unique and genuinely younger while not moving too far out of character. We know what Iron Man and Winter Soldier are like as grown men in the movies and the comics, but what were they like as young adults? Everyone is generally more immature, insecure, emotional, and reckless when they're younger, so turning up the dial on a character's normal personality traits is usually where I start. After that, I just bounce the characters off of each other, and try to let each conversation take its natural course while throwing in the occasional curveball. I'm always a proponent of risking doing too much versus taking the chance of not pushing things far enough, so that's my approach, and Bill and Tim at Marvel Games pull back the reins if they think I'm taking things a little too far.
A ton of credit for the dialogue should also go to our Lead Animator Joe Daniels, and all of the amazing animators on our team. The animations are one of the best parts of the game, and the dialogue emotions in particular really take everything the characters say to the next level.
BF: There are a few outright moments of subversion with these characters as well. Early on Hank Pym refers to superheroes as “not very good at supporting peaceful transitions of power (seen above)” and in the ongoing Daredevil event Nick Fury has a surprisingly sly quote about spycraft (also seen above). How does stuff like that make it into the game, and have you noticed players’ response to it?
I think it's just an extension of what we talked about before, just knowing your characters, and letting them speak their minds. I've never gone into an interaction trying to be purposefully subversive, but I also don't censor characters when they say something that seems completely natural. Nick Fury is a blunt, pragmatic person who proudly deals in secrets and lies in order to protect the world. He's the best there is at what he does, so if someone questions his views, he's not afraid to share his knowledge, and put them in their place if need be. He's not a guy who has some idealized view of the world. He knows the world is flawed and dangerous, and he'll openly use dishonesty and manipulation to keep it from getting any worse. Hank Pym is something else altogether, as anyone who plays the game knows. For character and story reasons, his brain is operating on multiple wavelengths at once, and one of those wavelengths is always pushing at the fourth wall. I think it's refreshing and fun to have characters comment on the absurdity of living in a superhuman world, the nonsensical "gamey" aspects of their lives, and even deeper revelations into the real world.
One of the main reasons we go to stories is to be surprised, so I think players enjoy when characters say something they'd never expect them to say, whether it's because they haven't heard that character say something like that in any other media, or because it mirrors something the players themselves might be thinking while playing the game. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback on the dialogue in general, which feels really good because I want to do these great characters justice, and I want everyone who spends their time, energy, and money in the game to be as entertained as possible.
BF: In fact, how do players respond to the dialogue-heaviness of the game to begin with? (Given that it’s not normally a feature of free-to-play games)
They can correct me in the comments if I'm wrong, but I think players really like the interactions. If anything, I think most players wish there was even more dialogue. I can't speak to other F2P games and companies, but from the first interview I had at TinyCo, they stressed the importance of writing and overall narrative in their games. I think they see that as one of the most important factors in the success of their Family Guy: The Quest For Stuff game. They wanted to take that to the next level in Marvel Avengers Academy and keep building on it in future games in development. An entertaining narrative keeps players interested and invested, and makes them feel like part of the game's world. It's really flattering and humbling when I see screenshots of conversations from the game online, but I especially love seeing stories and fan art and cosplay outfits created by our players where they take something from the art and narrative, and make it their own.
BF: While talking to other writers who’ve spent time in free-to-play they became frustrated by some predatory behaviors implemented by design that felt like nickel-and-diming their players. What practices do you and TinyCo employ to make sure players don’t feel they’re being cheated while still getting them to invest?
I can't speak for either company or anyone else on the team, but my feeling is that we provide a lot of free content for every player. I understand F2P players being frustrated that they don't have access to all of the content, but every player has access to a ton of characters, narrative, features, buildings, outfits, and decorations, and we're creating and releasing more all of the time.
BF: That sort of springboards into the question, how do you approach writing lines that are only going to exist behind a paywall in a free-to-play game?
From a creative standpoint, I treat them exactly the same. I try to approach every character like they're someone's favorite character, and every story and outfit like it's the coolest thing that could've possibly happened. From a practical narrative standpoint, I just have to be careful about not including anything absolutely critical to the main story in premium content.
Going back to what makes sense for each character, I'll still bend that rule sometimes. For example, we had a mini-event with Pepper Potts a while back, and there was no guarantee that every player would get her, but when it came to writing her stories, it only made sense that as part of the faculty she would have more access to Nick Fury and the rest of the faculty's secrets.
It wasn't anything that would lessen the understanding or enjoyment of the main story mystery for players who never recruited her, but I included clues and information in her stories that weren't seen anywhere else because it made sense that Pepper would have access to more information than the students.
BF: Something else I’m curious about---as the game’s writer, you don’t just write the quests, but also the dialogue boxes for generic tasks and “thank you messages” for the characters. Is there anything in particular you’ve learned about writing this more generic dialogue that makes it useful to both players and the development team?
Yeah, actually until this week I've been the game's only writer, so I've written all of the copy from the voiceover lines to the action names to the shop descriptions to pretty much every other word you see in the game. I think the thing I've learned more than anything through writing the ancillary copy that probably surprised me the most was just how observant and meticulous our players are about everything in the game. They identify and speculate on all of the Marvel Easter eggs, they appreciate the goofy one-liners, and they get annoyed when something seems incorrect or off-character. I love it because that text is some of the most relaxed and enjoyable to write, and it's great to know that players read and care about some random decoration description that I probably spent way too much time on.
BF: What are the kind of restraints that exist for you as a writer on this project? I know in other games whole quests can be rewritten because their level will be moved throughout a game, but does MAA present any specific challenges in terms of ‘you can’t do that or you’ll break our animation teams’ backs?”
There are art and animation and engineering constraints due to limited resources, but I think that's true of every game, and every medium. We'd all love to have every single action for every character be completely unique or be able to visually show your heroes visiting all of the crazy places I describe in the dialogue, but it just isn't realistic. Everyone on the team works incredibly hard to create as much as they possibly can at the highest quality bar possible, so I try not to ask for anything special unless I think it's critical.
From a strictly narrative perspective, the most difficult aspect of writing this game is knowing that every player is in a different place in the narrative. Our events, like the awesome Daredevil event we're running right now, are available in exactly the same way for players who've been playing the game for months and recruited a bunch of heroes, and those who just started yesterday. I can't advance the main story much in an event narrative because it won't make sense to someone who just started, and I constantly have to decide which characters to include based on what might satisfy or confuse some players.
For example, we ran a "Gamma Event" a few months back, featuring Hulk supporting characters A-Bomb and Red Hulk. When Hulk became available in the main story, it would make sense for his best friend and worst enemy to immediately greet him, but a lot of players started playing the game after that event, so they'd have no idea who those characters are, what they're doing at the school, and what their relationship is to Hulk. On the other hand, if you did play that event, and did recruit those characters, it could be frustrating to not have them all immediately interact. It's a constant process of juggling different characters and timelines and player experiences and expectations that you don't have to deal with as a writer in other mediums or some other genres of games.
BF: Marvel Avengers Academy is still pretty lighthearted, but some of its events and characters reference far grittier stories like the Netflix Marvel shows—how do you approach incorporating characters associated with sex and violence into a far more tame game?
We're definitely a more lighthearted game with a more youthful approach, but we're also a game about young adults attending a school for Super Heroes. I don't completely shy away from either one because to some degree sex and violence have always been a part of Super Hero stories, school stories, and the everyday lives of young adults. To me, it would feel false and disingenuous to pretend like neither one exists in this world, but I think there are ways to address adult themes without being explicit. I try to reference it when it feels natural for the characters and the conversation, but in a way that would go over the heads of younger players. Just because the tone is lighthearted doesn't mean it can't address real issues or have any edge at all, and I think for the most part, players appreciate that.
Almost every situation can be handled with comedy, and when we do get serious, it makes the purely comedic moments more powerful.
BF: Last question, how did you arrive at the decision to showcase characters like Loki, Taskmaster and Enchantress ahead of movie mainstays like Hulk and Thor?
The character order was one of the most difficult decisions during development because there are so many factors to consider like trying to balance diversity, power sets, personalities, lesser known vs. high-profile characters, etc. We ran through a lot of iterations internally, and got feedback and advice from Marvel Games throughout the process. There are a lot of reasons not to put all of the most high-profile characters in the very beginning of the game. We give you some like Iron Man and Black Widow very quickly, but leaving characters like Thor for later in the game gives players something to strive for, and keeps the movie mainstays from always dominating the narrative.
On a personal level, I see this game as a great opportunity to introduce casual fans to characters they don't know as well, but will hopefully come to know and love. I think Wasp is a perfect example. She's an original Avenger, but if we stuck with the movie cast, she wouldn't have been featured early, if ever. Instead, we made her the second character in the game, and I've had a lot of time to showcase everything that makes her so awesome and lovable. I think if you took a poll, players would probably vote for her as their favorite character in the game, and that would have never happened if we went with a front-loaded movie mainstay approach.
Since the characters you mentioned are all typically labeled as villains, I think that's another important point to address. From the beginning, we wanted to have villains attend the school alongside the heroes for a lot of reasons. This is a world where all of the characters are younger, so they haven't done some of the terrible things they've done in the movies or other continuities. Just as they're still mastering their powers, they're also still forming their identities. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves a chance to make up for those mistakes, and try to become a better person. I think we've already featured some great redemption stories with characters like Mysterio and Crossbones, and characters like Loki, Enchantress, and Taskmaster have all showed signs that they're capable of being heroes and teammates.
Another important reason for including "villains" is that it's more reflective of an actual school experience. School isn't only populated with nice guys and girls. There are bullies. Snobs. Thieves. Jerks. Mean girls. It creates drama, and drama creates good fodder for stories. Including villains also differentiates us from other Marvel properties, and lets us stretch our roster by giving us and the players more options. Besides, villains can be a lot of fun.
Most importantly, there's a critical and pretty shocking story reason why Nick Fury is actively recruiting both heroes and villains to his cause, but you'll have to uncover the big mystery to find out why...