Marvel Universe Online will be free-to-play, penned by Bendis

Move over, Batman: After a few false starts, Marvel's finally poised to become the next big MMO superhero thing.

Thursday evening, I attended Gazillion Entertainment and Marvel's live San Francisco reveal of Marvel Universe Online's head writer, the jovial Brian Michael Bendis. Joining Brian for a lively Q&A panel were Gazillion President and COO David Brevik, VP and Studio Head for Secret Identity (fka Gargantuan) Jeff Lind, and VP of Games at Marvel TQ Jefferson. Brian's involvement in the game's story wasn't the only announcement the panelists had in store for attendees -- they almost casually confessed that players will slip into the spandex of iconic Marvel characters and that the game will be free-to-play, making it perhaps the first Western triple-A title to be designed for such a model from the ground up.

Because I knew you'd be disappointed if I didn't, I dutifully asked an amused Jeff Lind about PvP, housing, crafting, voice acting, character customization, travel powers, advancement, and all those other goodies, but as you can probably guess, the devs aren't in a position to talk about sweeping systems just yet -- they want to "retain the ability to change [their] minds." So manage thy expectations accordingly! Fortunately, both Jeff and Brian were willing to chat about story, tie-ins, and MUO's niche in an increasingly crowded superhero MMO field, so hit the break for their thoughts and my round-up of the hot topics from the panel.

Massively: "Story" is the MMO buzzword this year. Everyone's hiring a famous writer. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that MUO is going to employ story the way that some of these other games are doing?

Brian Michael Bendis: Well, see I come from a place where story is the buzzword every year! So I hear you... maybe that's a representation of that.

So you're saying they're copying you? [laughing]

Honestly, comics are highly influential. If you look at what's going on in the movies, comics did it five years ago. I'm not just talking about me; I'm talking about [comics in general]. What's great is that as the world keeps turning, instead of just going to the comics and stealing the comics, now they're stealing the writers. So instead of hiring someone to imitate Geoff Johns, you hire Geoff Johns. And that's what happened here. [laughs] I was impeccably qualified, for the last 10 years of my life, to do this; I believed in it tremendously, and I told them, "If an MMO ever happens, let me know." I think it's the next step of evolution of the comic reader, and I just wanted to be part of it.

You said [during the Q&A panel] that Disney is treating you guys really well. Do you think Marvel is doing the same when it comes to canon? Are you trapped when it comes to writing only certain things, or can you do anything -- are you now writing your own canon?

I've been in the company for a while, and the reason I keep re-signing with them is that our old editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, and our new editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso, are really bold thinkers. And bold doesn't mean just shock value... right now, I'm doing something a little shocking called Death of Ultimate Spider-Man, where it looks like Spider-Man might actually die. And it's very sad. So it's never about the shock of that, instead we're sitting around going, "All right, if we do that, what do we get? What are the stories that happen?" A perfect example is when they killed Captain America a couple of years ago. The stories that followed had never been told before, they were brand-new -- and that is so exciting. So we're not pigeon-holed at all -- we're only pigeon-holed by our imagination. The reason comics are so influential is that we don't have a budget. Our budget is what's in our heads, plus a piece of paper.

An intellectual budget!

But no special effects budget! Anything we can think about, we can do. Stan Lee had this idea back in 1960, and it took 35 years for Hollywood to come up with a thing that was in his imagination. Now that CGI has caught up with us, we have to think about what we can do that they can't do. And we can tell awesome stories.

"It's more mature, in the sense that it's for real gamers."

Do you think you'll be making it dark, compared to something like Super Hero Squad Online, which is very cutesy?

It's more mature, in the sense that it's for real gamers, but it's only going to be as dark as the character wants it to go, as dark as the player wants to take it. The player is going to have a lot of control over the characters, the way a writer has control, so that's kinda cool.

So when playing canon characters, will the player be able to take them in directions that are not canon?

In certain areas, but not too much. You'll find that most people want the characters to behave like the characters -- that's why they're playing those characters.

What kind of freedom do you see for roleplayers who want to do their own thing?

I think they'll be very satisfied. You'll have a lot of control over the character and the story, and the way you play is how the game will play.

Villains? Do we get to play them?

I can't say yet.

How do you think that writing for an MMO is different from what you've done before?

First of all, it's massive. It's literally like all the writing I've ever done, over 10 years, in one game, in one place. I'm adapting other peoples' stories more or less, but it's so massive... it's a giant story. It just doesn't even compare. In the comics, you also dole out your story one chapter at a time, so I've been working on this massive Spider-Man story for 11 years, but here it's all in one place.

I switched gears next to chat with Jeff Lind!

Massively: What kinds of tie-ins will the game have -- movies, Super Hero Squad Online, comics?

Jeff Lind: We've been really happy with what [the SHSO team has] got there. [MUO] is aimed at a really different audience than Squad. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of doing things across those games, but I don't see those audiences overlapping that much. We wouldn't be doing those separate projects and investing separately if we felt they were going to be hit by the same audience. For other tie-ins, there is some discussion of Marvel Comics Publishing doing something with what we're doing here. Comic books publishing tie-in: probable. Super Hero Squad: possible.

Do you still think SHSO is a "gateway game" for MUO?

Gazillion believes that somebody might play Squad and then get to a certain age and decide he wants to learn more, wants to do more. The great thing about the Marvel world is that the same kid could go see a Spider-Man movie and see a slightly more adult take than Squad's Spider-Man, and as he gets older, he might become interested in our game or start reading the comic books. Gazillion would love to take the Squad customer who gets too old and turn him into a Marvel Universe customer. But I don't feel like graduating SHSO customers are going to be our entire business. This game needs to stand on its own.

Now when you're saying "adult," you don't actually mean "adult," right? You mean the game systems are more mature, more complicated?

I'm not commenting on ratings or anything like that, but I'm saying this is an MMO. It's going to have depth; it's going to be for gamers. And gamers are -- I don't know if I want to say mature [laughing] but at least they're an older audience, and gamers want depth. And the challenge for us is to make a game that is both accessible and deep. Both are very important. I think that's Blizzard's secret sauce -- to make things accessible so you can hop in and understand what's going on fairly quickly, and yet there's enormous depth if you want that. They don't throw it in your face in the first hour, but it's all there.

And you're going a step further than Blizzard by going free-to-play.

That was the big surprise of the day! We are very excited about that. We think that [F2P] is an awesome way to make this game much more accessible. It's a great way to get more people to play (which is good in and of itself), but also we think it's a good business decision. We think this is a better way to make games in the business now. There is plenty of evidence out there -- you guys see it all the time -- and we feel like this is a great way to go for the game.

I think you'll be the first (Western) AAA title to launch F2P from the start.

That should offer some advantages!

So how do you see yourself compared to the other superhero MMOs that are out there, other than SHSO?

I think that the things we've said today -- which is that you get to play the Marvel heroes and we're F2P -- set us vastly apart from the other superhero games right now. If I did everything else the same -- which we won't! -- but if I did, we would be very different from DC Universe Online, Champions Online, etc. We think that this is a better path for superhero games. There's lots of other interesting stuff about superhero games that we've been looking at. When all is said and done about this game, those are going to be the major things that are different, and those cascade a whole set of decisions.

Just allowing us to play iconic characters sets you apart. I wonder whether the fanbase will take to that -- every time we talk about SHSO, the fans debate whether they want to play iconic characters or their own characters.

I absolutely see the problems on both sides, and we basically decided we would rather live with the set of problems that you get from our decision. And then we've got some really great answers to those problems! Ultimately, the fans want to play these characters, and that's what's going to play out in the end, regardless of the other stuff.

I asked Bendis, and I'll ask you too: What do you think about "story" as the new MMO buzzword? Do you feel Gazillion is leading the pack or following the pack on that?

I don't care! I think it is incumbent upon us, upon deciding we're doing a Marvel MMO, to deliver some story. You can make an argument about whether story is important or not in an MMO, but if you're doing Marvel, I think you have to do a story -- I think that decision is made for us by adoption of the IP. If nothing else, Marvel is about two things: It's about characters and it's about stories. And we feel like we had to deliver on one. So it almost goes without saying that we have a story in our game, which isn't, in an MMO, necessarily a given. We want to have one -- we have to have a great one. I can totally understand doing an MMO that has zero story, but I don't think we'd be doing a service to Marvel by doing it that way.

Thanks so much to Brian and Jeff for chatting with us and to the Gazillion folks for hosting the event!

Other nuggets from the panel:

  • The game will be a "grand epic tour through a reimagining" of the Marvel universe, spanning the classic to the modern era. "No corner of the Marvel universe will be left unturned." TQ Jefferson indicated that comics would be the main source material but that the writers are pulling from everywhere.

  • The game will be free-to-play, designed F2P from the ground up. David Brevik noted that he hates being "nickel-and-dimed" by the sorts of F2P MMOs that are really just five-minute demos to get you to pony up for the rest of the game. The team isn't ready to talk about the kinds of microtransaction content that will fund the game, but we were assured that it will nevertheless be playably F2P.

  • Players will play iconic Marvel characters, just as they do in SHSO. In fact, the game will feature more Marvel characters than any Marvel game to date. We won't be merely "sidekicks." Such characters include (but are not limited to) Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. Wolverine was also mentioned.

  • Squirrel Girl was mentioned in response to a question about female characters, but I'm not sure how serious the panelists were! We were, however, promised strong characters of both genders. The game isn't a "boy's club game."

  • The major villain? Doctor Doom.

  • It'll definitely be a PC game; other platforms are yet to be announced.

  • Likewise, the team isn't talking about what sort of client the game will utilize. Jeff Lind mentioned that some gamers are biased against certain clients and payment models, but the team is aiming for an accessible AAA title with high production values.

  • Brian Bendis reiterated that (contrary to some gamers' suspicions) Disney's acquisition of Marvel has been a boon not a hindrance. "Disneyfication" is a myth -- in fact, Disney was worried about "Marvelfication"! Disney, we're told, handed down no mandate for story and has let Marvel's writers do what they do best however they do it.

  • There's no release date -- yet!