The Big Marvel’s Avengers Interview – Crystal Dynamics on Endgame, Polish, and Spider-Man
Following our hands-on with the Marvel's Avengers beta, which goes public tomorrow for PlayStation 4 pre-order customers, we had the opportunity to sit down with two of the leading developers on this project, Creative Director Shaun Escayg (Uncharted: The Lost Legacy) and Combat Director Vince Napoli (God of War), for a roundtable interview which also featured colleagues Richard Walker from Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies and Stefan Langford from The SixthAxis.
We've transcribed the whole 30-plus-minutes chat below, which is chock-full of details on the game's story, gameplay, endgame, balance, and of course Spider-Man. Grab a cup of coffee or whatever is your favorite drink, sit back and enjoy.
Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies: How are you going to manage the ongoing longevity in Marvel's Avengers?
Shaun Escayg: Well, I can start with the narrative. Each hero, each villain that we introduce, and we can't speak obviously to when we will, but just know that they're in development and in the pipe and have been worked alongside the main game, will come with its own narrative arc, own story arc and villain arc, explaining what they've been up from A-Day till now and how they fit underneath the world dominated by AIM.
Wccftech: In the beta, I've noticed some rather meaningful performance issues even when playing on PlayStation 4 Pro on performance mode. Is that something you're confident you'll fix by the time Marvel's Avengers is out in early September?
Shaun Escayg: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's a beta. We wanted to get it in your hands to get that feedback, see how it performs. This is the first time we're actually widening the pool, everyone in the studio is pretty close to it. I know we've gotten tons of data and feedback from you guys playing it on the performance, bugs, crashes, etc.. It's something we're constantly developing, constantly trying to get better and absolutely, we hope to have everything fixed before lunch.
Wccftech: Is the performance mode on PS4 Pro meant to target 60 frames per second?
Shaun Escayg: That's the goal. Vince, if you can speak to that?
Vince Napoli: It's not going to be a consistent 60, it's as high and as optimal as possible. It varies, it's a variable frame rate and depends on the number of characters you might have and the stuff that's going on. We're working on optimizing for that mode in particular, we're actually working on optimizing how we handle the loading of like an effect or the loading of physics in order to maximize it, that sort of stuff is ongoing right now. It happens at the very end of a project, to pull out all the bells and whistles and all the stops. And with that mode in particular, obviously the goal is performance. As a combat guy, personally, I'd love to see 60 FPS all the time, so we're always pushing for that. That's always the goal. I don't know if we'll hit it in every possible scenario, the game is just too crazy in certain cases to guarantee that.
Shaun Escayg: We're still pursuing it, though, that's the key. We'll be pursuing and polishing and trying to get optimizations until the very end, until they rip the game from our hands.
The SixthAxis: Can I ask about Spider-Man, which has had a quite intensely negative reaction to the exclusivity, and I'm wondering if that has been a surprise to you and if you have anything to say to those that are particularly aggrieved by that exclusivity?
Shaun Escayg: The Spider-Man topic is very delicate, it's above us in terms of the relationship between Marvel and Sony. We really don't have much say in that. We are excited about putting our version of Spider-Man and having that version of Spider-Man live in our world, which is very crucial for us. Other than that, I can say that Spider-Man will have his own story, his own story arc, villains that may accompany it. For the time that's probably all I can say about it.
The SixthAxis: I think a lot of people are kind of venting at Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics as well. To clarify, is it something that was basically gifted to you by Marvel and Sony, that they were like 'Actually, you can use this character on PlayStation if you want to?'
Shaun Escayg: I don't know the details of it, again, that's above us. But I will say that's really just a relationship between Marvel and Sony and we love having Spider-Man, so we jump at any opportunity to have him, but you know, there are rules on this.
Wccftech: Many of those angry fans have also pointed out that you won't be able to meaningfully include Spider-Man in the ongoing story since he cannot appear at all on PC, Xbox, or Stadia. Can you comment on that?
Shaun Escayg: Without obviously giving any spoilers, the window where you will see our version of Spider-Man will fit into our story. Again, I have to obviously dance around it because I can't speak to it. But just know that this is our Spider-Man, he will be in our story and will fit in that world, sort of in that gap what happened A-Day and between then and now, even the villains that support that will kind of speak to how he belongs in this world and how long he lives in this world.
Vince Napoli: Spider-Man is in addition to the arc and progression of the main story as well. There was no swapping or anything else in that line. We've got our plan, we've got our heroes that are coming out and the stories and the challenges and the gameplay escalation that we've planned out. That's all continuing as planned. And then just on top of all that stuff, we've also got Spider-Man now and you know, he's weaving into that, that is the key. There is no swapping or changing anything to kind of accommodate that. He's got to fit within the massive plan and all of that stuff we've already got. It's like, Sony went 'Hey, can you add this on top of it, as a sort of a cherry on top of that? But he doesn't affect or change that in any way. That plan is still moving forward as originally planned and conceived with all the original expansion stuff in mind.
Wccftech: Is it fair to say that it will be kind of a self-contained story arc for him in Marvel's Avengers?
Shaun Escayg: Absolutely, yeah.
Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies: Obviously there's a kind of Destiny comparison that's going on, given that both Bungie's game and Marvel's Avengers have loot, co-op, and so on. And that game has a lot of visual loot. You guys have your gear which isn't visual, but that's the loot you're going for, and then you've got the skins, the cosmetics. Did you ever want to try and integrate having visual loot for characters, but you couldn't because you can't have a unicorn pink hammer for Thor? How did come about approaching the idea of loot for a game like this?
Vince Napoli: Like with everything, the IP that we're dealing with is so massive, it's bigger than game genres really, it's sort of defined itself. Even approaching, for example, status effects on loot we were like 'Hey, we really want to add these because they add a lot to a combat game, they add a lot to an online game. They're great multiplayer stuff', but you've got to do something that belongs to the Marvel Universe, you got to do something that fits into that. So there were definitely a lot of discussions of what loot would make sense and let's cater that to the IP. From a visual standpoint, it just did not make sense especially when we had this idea of 'Look, we want to portray Thor in his 80 years of glory' and there's the potential for movie tie-in skins and all sorts of other stuff but at the same time, we still want to customize and build the gameplay aspects of it out and to be honest, there's a lot of negative feedback around the idea that you need to look a certain way in order to get the gameplay effects. So in many cases, there actually is a massive benefit to being able to divorce those two concepts. As strongly as visual gear ties into gameplay, there's a lot of benefits to not doing that. With that said, there are other ways we found to expand the loot system. We have these things called exotic artifacts which are objects pulled from like the farthest reaches and corners of Marvel lore, that you may find in obscure comics of all genres. They allow us to even pull things in from like the Doctor Strange universe, and make ties to that like right now. Those actually you do visually see because when you activate them, you'll sort of materialize them and you'll see the visuals. So we found ways to squeeze in as much as we can in the gear stuff and pull those in and get visuals where it can and where it makes sense. We're still expanding that, I will say that a lot of attention was put towards figuring out the way to customize it and wrap it around the Marvel's Avengers thing. The loot system is designed specifically for that basically.
The SixthAxis: I think it's safe to say that Marvel Comics has got a pretty big reputation for being very, very, very white through its history. But it's great to see that you've managed to get Kamala Khan and give her a leading role. But because you're creating your own universe, are you able to go further than this to increase the kind of diversity in the heroes and in the games cast compared to the main comic book universes?
Shaun Escayg: We're all for diversity in general, I love Kamala Khan and what she represents, what she brings to the table, how she reunites these Avengers, how she's a fan, just like us, and in some ways idolizes these heroes. One of the things that is important to know about the way we approach stories, and this is what Marvel is very good at, in terms of opening up that 80-year-history as long as we can ground those heroes and as long as we can place those heroes in our universe, within our story, every hero is on the table. The opportunity to see much more diversity of heroes, of storylines, of everything is kind of what we're trying to set up with this living organism that is the AIM dominated world that happens after the campaign. That's the foundation of where we can now create these new stories and story arcs and hero arcs. And yes, the goal is to open up the entire Marvel universe to use that palette to draw from and place and situate in our world.
Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies: When you just said you can kind of pull from anywhere in the Marvel Universe, does the license extend to characters like Wolverine, Beast, Rogue, X-Men who've been part of the Avengers? And if so, what's the kind of process of choosing a new character?
Shaun Escayg: Yes, it extends to all of the 80-year-history of Marvel. The process of choosing these characters is 'Can we ground them in this world? Can we make a real argument to Marvel that this character belongs here, this character will move our story forward or take us into new stories?' So it's all about how we write it, how we sell it, how we situate it, and then how we then bridge that into sort of the new threat, new escalations of threats, etc.
Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies: Will every DLC character you release in Marvel's Avengers have their own story arc? Is that the plan?
Shaun Escayg: That is the plan. It will depend on how deep we go. But no character can be introduced without a story. That's part of the Marvel rule, so we have to have it introduced with a story arc, understand what that character is going through, potentially what villain is creating sort of that conflict. That is how we start to delve and then there'll be sort of a major narrative payload on the direction we choose or wherever we feel like we can add a bigger storyline.
Vince Napoli: I know fans like to pontificate over the next heroes, kind of selecting which one would be great, and to be honest that same kind of process happens internally and happens with Marvel. They have their own personal heroes, they're fans if that makes sense. And so a lot of that brainstorming, a lot of that sort of buying and lobbying for those heroes happens on the internal side as well. And I think it is what makes it special as you look and say 'Hey, we could use this, it showed up in this issue. These guys are right for the picking, can we fit this into Marvel's Avengers? Is this a story worth telling?' As Shaun just said, there's just a lot of choices that go into that, even from a gameplay standpoint, whether this character is going to be interesting enough and provide enough of a palette with his or her powers and abilities.
Wccftech: It was recently confirmed that you're planning to add 'raid-like' content added to Marvel's Avengers a few weeks after launch. Can you comment a bit on how that works and whether they're going to be similar to the Villain Sector that's in the beta?
Vince Napoli: We have been using the term raid-like content because it's actually multiple types of endgame content. We're currently working on loot tables, tuning a lot of that stuff for the post-launch stuff because we've got planned to introduce these higher-end mission types and objectives on a regular cadence. Some of the missions might resemble a Villain Sector where it culminates in those huge boss fights. We also have an end game type of content that'll be out a couple of weeks after launch, which is the Hives and Mega Hives. This actually utilizes your entire roster in a single go, it's really designed around the idea of how far can you get with a single character before that character is sort of extinguished for you and then you need to switch to the next character and see how far you can get. That one really challenges your full team makeup, which is a very, very different style of endgame content. Then we actually have a group version of that, where you get to plan your roster in this order and then team up with your friends who've planned their roster in another, it's a question of which characters do you use first, which characters do you use last. We also have other mission types that are sort of in this time shard frequency where you're constantly taking damage in these three short interval type loop. These are rapid, high-intensity, high-pressure missions, but they're only open for short intervals before they refresh on a couple of days timeline. So we have a breadth of endgame content, high-tier challenge stuff. And then, of course, we also do have more traditional 'raid game thing', which is this larger than life stuff that happens through multi-tier objectives. It's a lot of content planned. I don't know if we've used them the names of some of those but I think some of the names we've already talked about, Cloning Labs and the Hives and the Mega Hives. The next War Table might go in detail of some of those, but I do know for the first month or two months, almost on a weekly basis there is a new type of endgame content coming out with unique loot tables and unique objectives. That's always been a huge focus for us and something that we're personally passionate about, it's what we play as players, what I like personally, so it is close to our hearts in terms of making sure we nail that.
Wccftech: Can you confirm whether this will be still geared towards four-player groups? Because some games have larger groups for raid-like content.
Vince Napoli: Right now the current ones are just four players, but there's also of course expansions and other things planned that we haven't talked about yet, other types of content and stuff like that, but currently the ones that are on the short term plan are for four players.
The SixthAxis: Who was the toughest Avenger to wrangle into the game in terms of getting it to work with the combat and the traversal system? Because there's such a wide, wide range of powers and abilities and movement that they have.
Vince Napoli: I would say Black Widow was maybe the most interesting and challenging. We wanted to tackle her first because we were aware of that challenge, we have a lot of people even internally questioning 'How does Widow compete with a God of Thunder?', that kind of stuff. We set about tackling that right away, we wanted to set the bar with her and then go from there, but she actually ended up being the fan-favorite, I think. Currently, or at least with local playtests, she always ends up getting the highest marks actually, just because I think people are not expecting her to be as dynamic as she is. I'm not sure if you played the beta but she plays very distinctly from the rest of them for a combination of her agility and speed and gadgetry and we leaned into all those aspects. And I think the result is that you wouldn't expect her to be able to compete at that level, but she does through her own unique aspects.
The SixthAxis: Interesting that you'd say that. Is it something that is gonna carry through to Hawkeye, who's also just a dude with a bow and arrow?
Vince Napoli: That's a good insight. If a strategy works, I'm definitely a fan of continuing that. We've definitely got some interesting twists on him, leaning into very similar aspects of basically what makes him different, and then let's triple down on that effectively.
Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies: Is there anything that's really standing out to you as something that needs to be nailed down before Marvel's Avengers is out in September?
Vince Napoli: To be honest, it's hard for me to even play the beta because this late in the game's development, things change so rapidly that I look at a month old build and I'm like 'Oh my god, I can't even see this, there's just so many bugs here, it drives me crazy. I don't want to look at it.' Because at this point, we are just rapidly fixing every last little bit. And we have that sort of bombastic feedback, even internally at this point. Then we're scrambling over those notes. That's what's nice about the beta and about getting lots of feedback from that. We're mining for all of those little tidbits and everything we can possibly pull in. I think it's about any outliers, we're looking for anything that is like 'Is there something that someone just finds completely useless, some ability that we just get some global feedback that that thing is useless, let's zoom in and address that'. We're still changing things at an extremely rapid pace. Maybe it's making a few producers a little uncomfortable with the number of things we're still changing. But Marvel's Avengers is such a big game that we're sort of pushing back on, we need to be able to make these changes, and we need people to make use of this beta. So, so far, so good on that aspect.
Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies: Something that's gotta be difficult to square is you've got a character like Hulk, who could presumably bat anything away, but that wouldn't necessarily make for an interesting game. The balance there must be really difficult.
Vince Napoli: Yes, that's ongoing. It's definitely dealing with those sort of expectations and then what's good for playability and what's good for the game and finding that it's almost like a very, very fine line, where if you think about it too much you're like 'Wait a second, that maybe doesn't work', but in the moment, it doesn't feel wrong, it still feels like Hulk. And that's sort of what we have to target where it's like 'Oh, this works for the game rules', but maybe if you looked at it from a 10,000-foot perspective then you'd be 'That doesn't quite match up, you know, maybe you should do this'. But if you're in the moment and it felt like Hulk then that's what matters. Honestly, it takes thousands of little iterations over time that we're still doing.
Wccftech: I'm wondering if the size of the War Zones is going to be much different in the final game compared to the beta. Also, can you speak to the degree of exploration that's available in the War Zones when Marvel's Avengers launches?
Vince Napoli: Yes, we've only included a very small amount in the beta. I think there's Drop Zones and HARM rooms. We wanted to pick as much of a small sample size as we could for the beta. But it was also like 'Well, what are the introductory levels so we don't spoil too much? What are the ones that we're not giving away?' So, there's absolutely bigger ones. There's grander spaces and more interesting biomes that you wanted to save as sort of a wow moment and we just didn't want to spoil this for the beta. It's definitely a very small sample size of it.
Wccftech: Similarly, in terms of objective and enemy type variety, the Marvel's Avengers beta seemed a bit limited.
Vince Napoli: In the beta, that's level limited. The way the enemies work in Marvel's Avengers actually is that we introduce them by both the region, the space you're in, and the level as well so that at the higher power levels you're not seeing the same enemies again, we didn't want that to be the effect. Very consciously we 'un-gate them' by tier. In the beta, the power cap is 45, so you're basically seeing everything that is onto that tier.
Wccftech: So we can expect more variety in the final game?
Vince Napoli: For sure.
Thank you for your time.