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Swinging With Spider-Man: Justin Lambros On Marvel's New Games Initiatives

In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, Marvel's new interactive VP Justin Lambros shares his thoughts on how his appointment will steer the company's efforts in the gaming space, touching on its partnerships with big players like Sega and EA.

This year, Marvel appointed Justin Lambros as its vice president of interactive media, in all appearances to match its aggressive push into Hollywood (where it both licenses with Spider-Man and has started producing its own movies with Iron Man) with an equally bold move into the world of video games.

With a background in the game industry, rather than in comic publishing or Hollywood (having started writing at GamePro and worked as a producer for LucasArts and Sega), Lambros clearly intends to bring his experience to bear on a company that has grand ambitions but lacked the expertise to understand the gaming space.

Marvel's properties have been morphed into games for almost as long as the medium has been around, but as with many major licensors, quality has at times been an issue. At ComicCon, Lambros was eager to talk about the future of its Electronic Arts-backed fighting franchise and its plans with Sega for games based on 2008's Marvel movies.

You’ve just announced this fighting game project with EA. What’s going on with that?

Justin Lambros: Well, we’ve been working with EA in the past on fighting games, so what we’ve done with done with this one -- which is very exciting for me -- is, you know, they’re a top studio doing all the top-notch fighting games. This revolutionary Fight Night stuff they did -- great stuff. So, looking at that [and] the crazy innovative things they did with Def Jam, we’re looking to do the next iteration of fighting games, with EA -- [we] turn[ed] to that studio.

And I think that’s absolutely great, so we’ve been collaborating with them, and allowing them to put their spin on it. So it’s not gonna be an evolution of either one of those -- as Kudo [Tsunoda, of EA Chicago] was talking about in the panel earlier; it’s gonna be them interpreting the Marvel thing, and using that inspiration. So that’s usually exciting for us, because it’s a natural fit. And the characters themselves, and all the powers and things they can do, really going toe to toe with each other is really great.

I wasn’t a huge fan of EA's last Marvel fighter, Marvel Nemesis. How do you feel about that?

JL: Well I wasn’t at Marvel when that game was made, but yeah, but there definitely were some things that were trying to be done with that might not have been fully successful.

So what this is, it’s a whole new franchise. It’s all Marvel characters, all the time, and it’s really rebooting a big franchise. But it’s keeping to the roots of what those guys do. One-on-one fighting. And that’s really the core. And that’s probably where the similarities to [Nemesis] end.

There’ll be Marvel characters -- there’ll be some characters that were in [Nemesis], that will probably be in [the new] game. We haven’t announced the character list yet, but there’s the big stalwarts that you wanna play as, the cornerstones of the universe. So some of that might be overlapping. But other than that, all new fighting system, obviously brought up to the next gen, and you’re gonna be with all the technology that EA Chicago has been developing over the years.

Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects

From your perspective, is it gonna be difficult to make sure it’s all balanced in terms of, you know, “Iron Man can do this and cannot do that”, and “So and so should be stronger than someone else”. I mean, you’re gonna get into super comic nerd-dom there, but…

JL: Yeah, well, that’s always the challenge. Whenever you take an IP, there’s always gotta be some kind of... You know, gameplay’s key on games, so we realize that. So we wanna make sure that the gameplay mechanics spawn from the IP, and are natural and make sense, and people who read the comics will see this and they understand it. But it’s been really cool; I’ve been working with them on the character lists and stuff, and they had a really clear idea on the combat and what they wanna do with it.

And so the character list has evolved based on that, and so they really put characters that fit in with this mechanic instead of shoehorning people in and having to stop [using] a power this person has, or change [something]. It’s like, “okay we’ve got this set of things, let’s think of the characters that can fit in there and really be dynamic and be different”. So they want to cover as wide a range of powers and characters as they can.

Do games sell comics or do comics sell games?

JL: Well there’s an interesting crossover, and there’s different target audiences and stuff, and we definitely see people coming in and learning about the characters for the first time, whether it’s in a movie or a videogame, or, obviously, in the comics. For the 60 years or 50 years of comic book history we have... there’s tons of people in the legacy, I mean, I grew up in comics, and a lot of the audience can see that.

Every opportunity that we do to make a TV series or a movie or whatever, there’s a chance to be the first introduction to a Marvel character, so that’s really important. We gotta be cognizant of that. The games that are based on the comic book universe, we want to be as referential, and we want to cross over and use as much stuff as we can from the comics, But we get people [who are] excited and interested in that. Because when I’m not playing games I love to be reading comics, or vice-versa, so that’s what we try to do.


It seems like the actual comic books were on a downturn for quite awhile. I don’t know if that’s still the case. No?

JL: No.

Because of the movies? Or…

JL: I think it’s a variety of things. I’m not an expert on comics, but definitely I’ve been following what they’ve been doing, and it’s actually been growing pretty strongly. Things like Civil War, World War Hulk, they’re just huge events. And publishing’s a tough business, but Marvel’s been able to grow and really been able to do some amazing things.

Obviously the exposure from films definitely helps. And the games business keeps growing, so the exposure from the millions of millions of game units we’ve gotten out there over the past few years, that definitely has to help as well. So it’s hopefully that the IP’s are all growing together: the movies are being more successful, the animation, the DVD, the TV stuff, the comic books, and all that stuff is growing, hopefully, at the same kind of rate.

So what is it that you actually have to do, on your side? You actually have to take a publishing, like a production role, in a way?

JL: The goal with Marvel is obviously licensing, we’ve gotta manage our IP, make sure the characters are being used well and stuff, but for me, it’s a real a collaboration process. I came out of game development. I spent the last [several] years making a lot of licensed games, from the production side, working with the licensor. So I wanna bring something that I learned from that end, now that it’s my new role, and I wanna really collaborate with [developers], and getting out in front instead of just approving things as they come in the back end.

Working with them, and seeing what their vision is. The EA fighting game, for example. Working with them, and see what their unique take is. That’s one of the great things about Marvel, is that everyone has their own spin on it. Through all the years, you’ve got these different versions of Spider-Man, different artists have done... the same sort of thing I wanna do with games. You get the right teams, and a lot of them flex their creative muscle. So for me, that’s what I really wanna enable. I wanna let them really be creative, and do some crazy things, and really innovate in the games, and make it all fit within the Marvel universe.

I think it’s really up front, kind of agreeing, seeing where they’re going, and then obviously staying in touch with it all the way through is kind of the role. So there’s definitely some production stuff in there, but obviously the license, and that role, is my primary focus.

So you don’t have your hand on the project all the way through, right?

JL: I do. I will have, from the very beginning, pitched documents, when we’re meeting up with a new publisher, or a just publisher on a new property. From the very beginning they’re talking to us, and seeing what they wanna do. And all of our partners, they do a ton of research and they know the kind of games that they’re gonna sell, and the history of if they’ve done Marvel games before, or what other people have done with Marvel games.

So it’s really important to share that knowledge and try to come up with great stuff, but really it’s the publishers and developers that we really trust with these franchises. And we want them to feel that they can really be creative on their own.


You should release the Marvel Superheroes games, or Marvel Vs. Capcom on Xbox Live Arcade.

JL: Yeah, those are among my all time favorites. I’m a huge 2D fighting fan.

Yeah, me too.

JL: Yeah, the Marvel Vs. Capcom stuff has a definite close place in my heart, so we definitely wanna see that stuff live on.

Yes. Get on it!

JL: (laughs) Yes, your majesty!

Will you guys ever consider an internal studio for this stuff? I mean it seems like you’ve been doing a lot more.

JL: You know, the movies have definitely been taking a more hands-on creative approach than just licensing [the properties] out to the studios, and there probably could be some parallels done in the games industry. There are some relationships that are probably similar to that. Currently we’ve got some long-term deals with publishers that we’re very excited about working with. We’ve got a lot great, top-tier partners that we’re excited to work with, so anything’s possible.

The creativity and what’s been going on at Marvel, I think the sky’s the limit, which is really exciting for me. But definitely, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, in some regards, too. So I think there’ll be things we’re exploring, the West Coast office is growing for Marvel, and there’s a lot of crazy new stuff going on. So nothing’s out of the question, but it’s not a focus currently.

 


Marvel vs. Capcom 2

 

Alright. So that’s a “maybe” (laughs)

JL: (laughs) Yeah I won’t confirm or deny anything, but I know I’m not doing anything for you right now. I’m definitely focused on 2008. It’s gonna be such an insane year for Marvel games.

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff happening with Sega Are those games coming out in 2008?

JL: Yeah, absolutely. So the movies Iron Man and Hulk [come out in] May and June, respectively, and then their game counterparts, which I’m very excited about. The Marvel Studios slate, starting off with those two films, is a huge initiative for the whole company, so the games, naturally, are some really huge titles for us. And we’ve just announced the fighting game, and I’m sure there’ll be other stuff that’ll be being announced in the next several months that we’ll be talking about too, in the future.

This is maybe a loaded question, but, why have there not been very many good comic book games? I mean, that’s my opinion, but I haven’t seen a lot of them.

JL: Well, one thing, it’s tough. One of the big things -- back on the original Playstation, Spider-Man came out, the first one from Activision and Neversoft, that was a pretty seminal game. You were able to do all the things Spider-Man could do. And that’s one of the big challenges. These guys can do so many different things, from over forty, fifty years of comic book history, so it’s a lot to do.

I think there have been some great successes we’ve had: we’ve had some great Hulk games, Ultimate Alliance, X-Men Legends has been a great success, the Spider-Man franchise has done extremely, extremely well, and ever since the first game I just mentioned. And you know, it’s a challenge, and we’ve got a lot of different people collaborating, and there’s a lot of different reasons. And I think we’ve learned a lot from past titles, and sometimes there’s a myriad of reasons. As every game developer knows, that certain things happen along with every project, and those things happen to superhero videogames as well. So I’m hoping it’s not the IP.

I think part of it is: it’s a tough IP to tackle. It something that isn’t necessarily built for a game, there’s some characters that aren’t as gameable as others, yet there’s still games made for them. There’s characters like, Iron Man, I think are an absolute perfect fit, but it’s a very complex game, and there’s a lot to it. So your first iteration out the door, you’re going from zero to a thousand miles an hour; you gotta get it all right or else people are really upset with you. So the team there, I’m really excited. The game looks great right now, and I hope it’s gonna be one of those on the hit list.

Yeah, there was an old Iron Man game, a really weird one.

JL: X-O Manowar.

Yeah, that game was odd.

JL: It was an odd game. That’s one of those things I don’t know very much at all about, except as a fan, I played through it a bit.

I just remember that it came out on the Saturn. That’s all I really remember.

JL: And a lot of 2D fighting games on the Saturn. Anything 2D and fighting on the Saturn, I definitely owned.



Was EA the first choice for this? Did you look at other people, or was it like “well, we’re gonna work with EA again on this.”

JL: Well, we had signed a long term deal before I started at Marvel, for them with the fighting game franchise.

Ah, so it’s an extension of an existing deal.

JL: Yeah. So they're just trying to -- reimagining, trying to figure out exactly. And obviously, since [Marvel Nemesis] the EA Chicago studios has really grown into prominence, and I don’t know if [the studio had come into] creation since then, since it’s only been around for a few years. So, it was kind of a natural extension as we’re progressing through this series of projects.

I hope it’s more Fight Night quality than Def Jam quality.

JL: Well, there’s definitely elements of each that they learn from, and they’ll be able to incorporate. And I hope, and as Kudo said earlier, I think it’s going to be it’s own unique animal.

Oh it should be, it better be. If it played like either one of those that would be a mistake.

JL: (laughs) It’d be very strange, I think so. You wouldn’t be able to withstand as many punches from the Hulk as you would from Muhammed Ali, so there’s definitely some differences there, too. (laughs)

Indeed. Is there anything else that you’d like to mention about what you’re doing right now?

JL: The next game that’s coming out is Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, which is actually exciting for me, because it’s a youth-oriented game. So that’s one of those things that’s really exciting for us at Marvel, is making sure we get that young audience. We were talking about the crossover between games, and film, and comics, and all that sort of thing.

So for me, that’s a great way and entry point for the younger generation to get into it. I mean, obviously everybody knows Spider-Man, but it’s a great game. The next-gen games are pretty complicated, there’s a lot of stuff going on with them.

Too complicated.

JL: Yeah. Getting down to the core. It’s great comedy, all the things that make him a great character, the web action, the fisticuffs, and then they’re lining him up with other characters, and using the movie characters and the movie moments that probably a lot of people have seen, but then we introduce them to the comic book stuff. So yeah, I’m really excited about that game. It’s a lot of fun, and I think it’s a good idea. It’s been the year of Spider-Man, with the big movie coming out, so it will be cool to see for this holiday season.

Spiderman: Friend or Foe

It seems like with the exception of the one Spider-Man game that did come out, Marvel’s interactive efforts have mostly been focused on the top-tier consoles, not so much on the handhelds, and that sort of thing. Is that going to change in the near future?

JL: For me, personally, the Marvel IP has such a huge fanbase. It spans age, generation, and all that sort of thing. For me it’s really important if there’s a particular game, for like, Spider-Man 3. Everybody who goes to see that movie, they’ll want to have that movie experience in a video game. Everyone. So we want to put that on every platform.

So for me that’s really important to see in everything we do. And even branching out in new ways and different ways they’re being played, and that’s another thing that’ll be interesting for me. And right now we’re really focusing on the consoles, the PC, and major handhelds. But again, there’s no limits to the fans of Marvel, and we’ve got to figure out a way to get everyone to enjoy the experiences of the characters that they love.

You know, I don’t know if this has been attempted yet, but it should be. A first person Spider-Man game on the Wii.

JL: (laughs)

And you can shoot the webbing out and swing through the city. That’d be insane.

JL: You know, I would love to see an appropriate Marvel character be put on first person. I think there’s different challenges, different kind of gameplay, but it’s something that frankly, we don’t have. We’ve got a lot of third person stuff, we’ve got roleplaying, and different genre stuff. First person’s a huge part of the gaming audience.

I think we can probably find some characters that might fit in there, whether it’s the game you mentioned or other properties or the characters that we have. I think we’ll try to find a fit for that one of these days, and make sure we’re into those gamers as well. Because yeah, it’s a great number of franchises out there that do really well.

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