By Sammy Bovitz
In concept, a big-budget video game based on the Avengers would dominate sales charts and news stories for months on end. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has generated billions of dollars for its parent company, and the video game industry is more lucrative than it has ever been. Superheroes and video games make billions and go together like bread and butter. Video games based on Batman and Spider-Man have practically printed money, so it stands to reason that if an Avengers game was done well, it would bring superhero fans and video game players to a standstill for months on end.
That’s why the 2017 announcement of “The Avengers Project” from Marvel and veteran game studio Crystal Dynamics was so exciting. An Avengers game could go anywhere and feature a unique combination of iconic playable heroes. Both parties went silent for two years until the game got its full reveal in June 2019.
Marvel’s Avengers was not a particularly creative title, and neither was the team revealed alongside it. The developers practically copied and pasted Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, and Black Widow– ⅚ of the movies’ original team– and announced that they were to be the roster for the game, to the chagrin of fans that wanted a unique Avengers roster. Still, Crystal Dynamics promised a lengthy story-centric game with options to play through it by yourself or with friends. This announcement was met with thunderous applause at the Los Angeles theater packed with fans who were only there to see trailers for one video game.
But they also announced that further content for Avengers focused on multiplayer action would be regularly added after the game was released, and would be a core pillar of the overall experience. This kind of constant post-release addition is called a “live service” in the video game industry. This one decision ran Avengers into the ground like a particularly erratic Hulk smash.
It’s 2023, and the Avengers video game has been irrelevant for some time. Not only that, it’s about to shut down forever.
The decision to make Avengers a live service game wasn’t the worst one when examined from afar. These games aren’t a bad idea in concept, and they’ve been executed pretty well by many teams. As long as the core gameplay is fun and the new content enhances the experience, players should be satisfied.
There have been many video games that have been very successful by continually adding to the base experience. Hits like Destiny 2, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto Online are being played years later as if they’re still new, keeping players hooked through new content as well as the addictive central experience. Then there’s one game that’s done it better than anyone else, a fixture in the larger entertainment cycle. Have you ever heard of Fortnite?
So the case for making the Avengers into a live service is pretty obvious: the idea practically prints money. You can keep adding new heroes, locations, villains, mission types, side stories, and quirky costumes until the end of time and everyone will pay for it. As long as it’s executed well, this game will be great. Problem was, there was no indication that this idea was going to work.
Crystal Dynamics has been around since 1993, and their calling card is the single-player narrative romps of the now-iconic Tomb Raider series, making them perfect for a cinematic Marvel adventure that one player could sit down and enjoy from start to finish. What they were not experienced in was a live-service multiplayer game requiring constant online maintenance and balancing. Before Fortnite, developer Epic Games worked for years on multiplayer shooter Gears of War, a game with core concepts like online-first enjoyment and post-release content. Crystal Dynamics were totally unprepared by comparison to create their first-ever live service game, especially with the high stakes that came with the Avengers property. Not only that, they also promised a single-player campaign that would release with the game, which players would naturally expect to be on par with the thrill rides that Crystal Dynamics were renowned for.
Another game that didn’t help this plan was another Marvel release: Marvel’s Spider-Man, released in September 2018 by Insomniac Games. Insomniac were also known for developing single-player narrative adventures, and that’s exactly what they did. This style worked perfectly. By 2023, Marvel’s Spider-Man received a spinoff game, several comic books and novels, and has sold millions of copies across several game platforms. Its sequel is set to come out this year and has quickly become one of the most anticipated games of the decade. It all exploded from one single-player story released in 2018.
To make Avengers a live service was unnecessary for its success, didn’t make sense for the studio creating it, and wasn’t something all Marvel fans were clamoring for. For this game to become a smash hit like Spider-Man, this live service had to be almost perfect.
Can you guess what happened next?
Marvel’s Avengers was released on September 4, 2020 to mixed reception. The story was regarded as mediocre and inferior to previous Crystal Dynamics efforts, and the gameplay was inoffensive without being particularly deep or exciting. But in the worst signal for the game’s future success, the long-hyped multiplayer was regarded as the worst part of the game. There were no exciting rewards to unlock, as tediously grinding through repetitive environments for invisible stat increases and uninspiring costumes left critics and consumers disappointed.
In order for the game to continue living, there were two options. They could either listen to the criticism and overhaul the game to a state that everyone was happy with, or they could stick to their original plan of slowly trickling out new characters. Marvel and Crystal Dynamics picked the wrong door to walk through.
Since the launch of Avengers, the developers have added six new characters in two years. Cool, right? Not quite. Two of them are different iterations of a new character (Hawkeyes I + II), one of them is a slightly new version of Thor (Jane Foster), one of them was exclusive to PlayStation players and paled in comparison to its predecessors (Spider-Man), and one launched with little fanfare (Winter Soldier). The only hero of the six to make waves on launch day was Black Panther, who launched with a sizable single-player campaign and well-rounded cast of characters.
And… that was about it for substantial additions or changes. There were a few additional missions, costume options, and stat buffs made available to purchase with in-game currency. But those kinds of rewards aren’t why people wanted to play a game about the Avengers.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is only as popular as it is because it lives up to the hype. If you watch a trailer for an Avengers movie, it promises an action-packed thrill ride with colorful characters and high stakes. On that front, Marvel Studios has never missed. They’ve built franchises within the franchise, all promising something slightly different while ultimately adhering to the winning superhero formula. Movies starring Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Thor, and Black Widow have stood the test of time to stay in fans’ hearts for years after release.
On September 30th, 2023, Marvel’s Avengers will be delisted from PlayStation and Xbox stores. Existing players can keep enjoying the game, but no one else will be able to purchase it after that date. As a thanks for sticking with them, the few players left were given every single costume for free.
I never bought the game, and certainly won’t now.
Making a video game is an impossible affair. Artists, programmers, designers, writers, actors, directors, engineers, musicians, animators, and producers come together to make an interactive audiovisual experience that demands excellence from every part of the studio– and that’s assuming it’s just one studio we’re talking about.
Crystal Dynamics was aided by four additional studios in the development of their blockbuster– and make no mistake, blockbuster is the perfect word for their Avengers game. It’s a cinematic interactive experience that looks beautiful; it features fun characters, engaging gameplay, and stays true to the almighty source material while also forging its own path. That alone is an outstanding achievement, and it’s a miracle that this game turned out as well as it did.
But there was a crucial mistake made at the beginning of the game’s development. If you can’t make a live service game right, it will crash headfirst into irrelevance with no players left to pick up the pieces. The makers of this game could have made a straightforward campaign through the Marvel universe and would have been adored by players if they had done so. However, they chose the more ambitious path.
The only true success would come if people played their game forever, and Marvel fans around the world were more than ready to play the Avengers experience of their dreams forever. But instead of soaring upwards to the skies like Iron Man, fans found their hopes and dreams hulk-smashed into the ground.