Game on! How Spider-Man and the Avengers sparked Marvel's next phase of blockbuster games

The MCU may be on hold, but the video game versions are bigger — and better — than ever.
By Nick Romano
August 13, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT

Thor and Hulk are at it again. The Avengers' helicarrier is under attack by a swarm of robot minions under the command of MODOK, the head of a tech company who became a super-powered Inhuman villain after a catastrophe known as A Day — and still the raging green muscle finds time to hurl a projectile at Thor’s head. “Just like old times,” says the Asgardian, referencing a bit from 2012’s Avengers movie. Only this isn’t their next blockbuster sequel. It’s their first blockbuster video game.

Since the MCU has been put on indefinite hold in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic (see: Black Widow’s release date, production on the next Spider-Man movie), games — and, specifically, Marvel Games — are rising to meet the need for fresh stories. This year alone will see the debut of Marvel’s Avengers (Sept. 4) from the Tomb Raider team at Crystal Dynamics, plus Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (holiday 2020), a separate spin-off of Insomniac Games’ 2018 Spidey adventure that revives the breakout Spider-Verse star.

“We always believed in the power of video games,” says Bill Rosemann, who’s like the Kevin Feige of Marvel’s gaming division. “We’re happy that more people than ever are discovering — even though you may be physically in different areas — [that] games can bring you together and create connections."

This next phase (to use an MCU term), which finally gives fans playable Marvel adventures on large console platforms, began with Spider-Man. Earlier attempts to make games of this scale, like an Avengers project planned to coincide with the original movie, fell apart. Leaked footage of this first-person effort, as well as a canceled Daredevil game, exist on YouTube as a glimpse of what could've been. The 2018 release, Marvel’s Spider-Man, finally webbed a green light because it was “all about timing,” says Rosemann. “It's all about what talent is available? Do they want to work with Marvel? If so, what's their passion? When you have all those things align, that’s when you can create something great.”

Jon Paquette, the lead writer of Marvel's Spider-Man, noted how one of their mantras "was to design an experience that felt like you were playing a Marvel movie." Out of that mission came a story about Peter Parker, a little more experienced in his years as New York's friendly neighborhood... you know, interwoven with a battle against a sinister rogues' gallery. It became the best-selling superhero game of all time, at over 13 million units. “We had a feeling it was gonna do that,” says Bryan Intihar, Insomniac’s creative director. "I mean, you don't [really] know. There’s this ultimate fear of screwing up one of the most popular characters.” When celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and LeBron James began sharing images from the game on social media, they knew it had “reached another level."

They still didn’t know if they could make a sequel. There were two post-credits scenes that teased big things to come — another element borrowed from the movies — but that was them "stacking the deck," as Intihar put it. One stinger revealed that Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teen from Harlem and a playable side character, also developed powers after a bite from a radioactive spider once held in Norman Osborn's secret lab.

“We knew really early that [Spider-Man] was going to end with him getting the spider bite," Intihar says. “We would tease it during development. I think everybody was focused on, 'Can you make the first one really good and we'll worry about the other stuff later?' But we wanted to have that set up so if it became a reality [to do another game] we could pull it off." At one point during an early workshop session, Miles was going to be a post-credits scene reveal and nothing more, but Intihar says the team determined it was important to "see the roots of him being a hero before he even had spider powers." Intihar adds of the final end-credits tag, "One of the reasons we put that out was to hopefully convince people that ‘He’s a Spider-Man now. Can we have a game with him?‘”

It paid off, partly because Insomniac went from being a partner with game publisher Sony Interactive Entertainment to being an official member of the Sony family once the company acquired Insomniac in fall 2019 for $229 million, per the company's financial statements. After that, "they were fully on board with the idea" for a sequel, Intihar says. Rosemann thinks of that first Spider-Man as "proof of concept." Now, for the holiday 2020 season (COVID-19 willing) Miles’ own game will further expand this virtual world.

Insomniac Games

In Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, set in winter one year after the events of the previous game, Miles' Harlem home is on the verge of being torn apart by a war between an energy corporation and a criminal organization armed to the teeth with advanced tech. It's not a formal sequel to Spider-Man. That, if the coy responses from the creatives are any sign, may or may not be coming later. It's a shorter spin-off, likened in scope to the Lost Legacy game in the Uncharted series. Nevertheless, Intihar promises "it has a lot of heart."

"This is a full arc for Miles Morales that started in Spider-Man," Brian Horton, the game's creative director, says. "We really are completing this hero's coming of age in our game. It is a complete story."

The choice of a smaller narrative came amid discussions of what that hero's journey looked like for Miles in the context of Insomniac's games. After all, Miles, according to Marvel Comics canon, doesn't typically exist in the same reality as Mr. Parker. "When we started crafting it," Horton recalls, "we realized that, with a little bit more of a compact storytelling style, we could tell a very emotionally impactful story that would fit really well as an experience that would take Spider-Man 1 and [Miles Morales] and do justice to this character."

Miles may be training with Peter to hone his Spidey skills, but Horton and Intihar see him as "his own Spider-Man." The animation, the movements, the mechanics, even his powers (including bioshock and invisibility) aren't just unique tricks for this character, they are metaphors for that hero's journey the pair keep mentioning. Peter's origin "was born out of tragedy" — i.e. the death of his Uncle Ben — but Horton mentions Miles "is more so born out of family. What I think is really compelling about Miles as a character is he has friends that he could actually let into his world — his human world and his Spider world. He's a little different in the way he approaches it."

Despite all this spin-off talk, Rosemann isn’t actively overlapping his universe of interconnected games — at least not yet. It's more like a Spider-Verse. "Each game is in the Marvel universe, but they're in their own reality, if you will," he says. "Currently, our plan is to keep each game set in its own Marvel universe." It's part of his goal to give game-makers as much freedom as possible to craft the stories they want to tell. So, while this year’s Avengers won’t be linked to Spider-Man, it has its own web-slinger. Spider-Man has been confirmed to arrive in Marvel's Avengers as a DLC story sometime after launch. But when the game drops, it will also come with a lead character who maintains certain parallels to Miles.

Crystal Dynamics

Kamala Khan, a Pakistani Inhuman teen from New Jersey, started as a fan before becoming a hero herself, in Marvel’s Avengers. The game kicks off with what will become infamously known as A Day. As Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Captain America celebrate the opening of the West Coast Avengers headquarters, their big day is sabotaged when enemies, led by Taskmaster (a character also featured in the delayed Black Widow movie), attack the team's new Terrigen-powered reactor. The explosion not only kills Cap, but it triggers the Inhuman gene in people around the world, including Kamala. Her origin here "was the bedrock from the beginning,” says head of studio Scot Amos. “Kamala feels like that new generational character.”

It was only a few years into the shelf life of Hollywood's Marvel Cinematic Universe when studio heads at Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics' parent company, first tossed out various ideas for a Marvel game. "It started in a very broad way: was there anything we could do?" Amos remembers. "It took a couple of years of saying, 'What could that look like?'" As Jay Ong, now the executive vice president of Marvel Games, first joined the company by 2014, the focus seemed to be about reshaping Marvel's mobile games. Amos estimates it was a couple of years after that when they regrouped for something "more focused" — specifically around the Avengers. "The MCU was doing its thing, but we looked even deeper," he says. "We look back to the 80 years of Marvel history through all the comics and just said there's so much there."

Rosemann, working to make sure all Marvel games maintain that Marvel feel, would show up during development meetings with Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, bringing with him "stacks of comic books and post-it notes on various panels," Amos continues, always looking for moments they could translate into the game. "It was three days of sitting in the same room with the walls covered with post-it notes and script pages." Kamala proved to be a particularly "exciting moment" for them.

First realized in comics in 2013 by writer G. Willow Wilson, artists Adrian Alphona and Jamie McKelvie, and editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, the Inhuman teen with the ability to manipulate her body's size and shape became an instant fan favorite and focal point for new representation in storytelling. "She has her own internal struggles. She's a fan of superheroes, particularly a fan of the Avengers. She's trying to figure out who she is," Amos explains. "We were like, 'That sounds a lot like a gamer.' Somebody who's now in a world of change where they're becoming a superhero, they are looking for mentors. She really did meet her heroes." Not only that, but because of the events of A Day, Kamala's idols created both her (as Ms. Marvel) and her archenemy; the head of tech giant A.I.M. which seeks to take over as the world's centralized robotic defense force, George Tarleton transforms into the villainous MODOK (another comic book call-out) by way of the Terrigen Mist. It now becomes Kamala's job to reassemble the disbanded Avengers and take him down.

"If you go back to that first video [in Jan. 2017], there was a voiceover that talks about what's happening. That's actually Kamala Khan," Amos says. "The very first thing we ever said to the world [about this game] was actually Kamala talking about her heroes and talking about this world and how it was going to be."

For Rosemann, Kamala — and Miles, for that matter — is about “putting the human in superhuman." And there’s far more on the way. "We're constantly adding new missions," Amos specifically notes of Avengers. On top of the Spider-Man addition (arriving TBD), the end of Kamala’s story in Marvel's Avengers will lead players into new adventures with notable characters like Hawkeye. Trailers have also implied the presence of figures like Captain Marvel. According to Amos, those Easter eggs are very much intentional. He says actors are still recording, remotely and in secret, material for the next set of characters, to be revealed down the line. “This game isn’t just one and done," he says. “It’s launching and then supported for years to come."

Funny. The same thing could be said for what’s coming next from Marvel Games. "I'll just say we're concentrating really hard on making Marvel's Avengers, Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales the best games possible," Rosemann says, trying hard not to let anything slip. "As the late great Stan Lee said, 'Stay tuned, True Believers!'"

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