Making Marvel’s Avengers a tactical gaming affair (Wired UK)

Launched in 2012, Marvel Avengers Alliance is one of
the most popular and successful games currently running on
Facebook, offering turn-based, story-driven battles across the
Marvel Universe. Currently in its second story season, the game has
become such a phenomenon it has its own panels at comics
conventions. Yet rather than do a direct sequel to a title that
still updates content every few weeks, developers Playdom have released a
companion title, Marvel Avengers Alliance Tactics.

The new game has players battling enemies in turn-based combat
on isometric maps, as they explore Marvel’s Savage Land. More
Command and Conquer than Final Fantasy, the game
introduces real-time combat with defendable bases and resource
management. Wired.co.uk speaks with producers Gabe Brown and
William Schmidt on the game’s development and operating in the
free-to-play space.

Wired.co.uk: Avengers Alliance is still
successful — what made this the time to branch out?

William Schmidt: Around the office, we’d been saying how we
really wanted to do a tactical game and with Avengers
Alliance
being out for about two years, we wanted to refresh
it and put it out in a new way. The big impetus behind
Tactics was to retain the essence of what made the
original great — character design and style, gameplay, excellent
story writing, all those things — but update and refresh it,
giving players a new way to experience the combat.

Why did you choose to shift to a real-time
system?

Gabe Brown: We really wanted to encourage players to interact as
part of the core experience for Tactics, while the
original Avengers Alliance had players focussing on
playing with just friends. A lot of players did participate in PvP
and that was something you could opt into and decide if you wanted
to be a part of it. In Tactics it’s part of the core
experience and it’s really crucial for players to find each other
and chat and interact with each other. It opens an awesome
opportunity for you to meet other people and ask questions, which
we think is really awesome. It lets new players ask things like “I
don’t understand how this works”, or “why do I keep losing in
combat?”

What’s interesting is that even though some players do fight
against each other, there are also people helping each other and
banding together when they come online. Things are happening when
you’re away but when you sign in, it’s a new experience and you
have that sense of community and camaraderie — and sometimes
competition.

Have you taken this as a chance to react to feedback
from the core game? Balance and PvP there seems to have been the
biggest divisive issue.

WS: Yeah, we have a lot of people that very much enjoy PvP and
others who say they prefer to stay with the PvE content. The way
Tactics is designed is that you don’t have to do PvP but
it might find you from time to time. We have ways that you can
protect yourself, like shielding your bases, so you can opt out and
it doesn’t become too daunting.

GB: On feedback from Avengers Alliance, one of the most
common issues we bump into is matchmaking. In Tactics, you
have the ability to control your match and an easier time judging
your target, maybe deciding to go find an easier target. That’s
something that has been a common issue, making sure players feel
things are fair. That’s the difference here — the players are in
control about who they attack and who they try and challenge.
Before, we had an automated system where we help find you a match
where you have a fair chance of winning, but you feel less in
control.

With PvP in Alliance, we also have to adjust to make
sure the new content coming out is effective, the new gear packs or
Spec Ops drops have to be effective as well. Putting content in
the game keeps the metagame going and feeling interesting.

Will you be having the same kinds of character-driven
Spec Ops in Tactics?

GB: Absolutely. We’re hard at work right now on our first two.
We also have special assignments that are not quite as grandiose as
Spec Ops. Those place the whole focus on one hero, or unlocking a
villain — big long storylines. We’ll be doing things like that and
tournaments in future. We’ll be doing smaller events — little
one-week assignments like the Covert
Tasks
. We have a lot of content and are generating more right
now. We plan to roll it out over the next couple of months.

What’s the key to a successful base defence in the new
game, then?

WS: We give you a lot of agents [grunt-level characters in
Tactics, rather than known superheroes] to defend your
buildings, but they’re rather weak and you need to equip them with
uniforms and gear to actually stand a chance against invading
heroes. We started introducing this arms race into the game,
introducing new gear for agents and abilities for heroes. People on
the cutting edge of the arms race will find themselves much more
efficient.

Do you think this granular method, of constantly
acquiring new items and power ups, reduces the game to a
grind?

WS: You can go without and see how you do or you can advance
each portion of the character to the point where you feel they’ve
reached the maximum potential. We wanted people to have goals. By
introducing Iso-8 [a resource that creates new abilities or
enhances existing ones] and variable gear into the game, we give
people a lot of options to pursue. It alleviates any boredom they
might have with the game. There’ll always be something they
want.

GB: That’s something which is pretty typical in RPGs. Character
progression is so important. Characters always need to be growing
more powerful, getting more equipment, more customised, so that
they can be effective in each combat. It’s a lesson we’ve learned
from the more successful MMO’s out there, where if player
characters have a point where they stop evolving, people start
losing interest. We wanted to make sure we continually have avenues
along which you can evolve your characters.

In season two of Avengers Alliance, you’re
midway through a story about the Circle
of Eight
, which was seeded in season one. Do you have similarly
grandiose narrative plans for Tactics?

GB: We do have a lot of plans for the story in Tactics.
We introduced the story of the Incursion event that’s occurred in
the comic books and we’ll be pushing the story event as a kind of
macro-event, an overarching storyline. Then we’ll be introducing
new, smaller storylines at a pace of about every four to six weeks.
We’re going to inject new content and story variants that focus on
characters and events in the world but everything will focus on
that Incursion storyline.

Both games have been successful with a free-to-play
model. Why do you think that system works so well for
you?

GB: We don’t want to make a game where you risk a tonne of money
up front and then you don’t have fun. We want to make a game where
you have fun and then you decide to pay for the experience. We
believe that our quality is what sells. If we don’t put out
quality, people don’t pay. We find that most people really enjoy
and play the game when they have a group of friends they can trade
in-game currency and resources with, and then selectively spend the
gold they get from level-ups. There are some players that prefer to
pay because they don’t want to grind [but] we don’t want people to
play and then go “oops, you have to buy this thing in order to
unlock the next level!” I think that’s something that’s been so
critical to the formula that made Avengers Alliance do so
well, that players don’t feel like they’re hitting a paywall.

Also, we didn’t see free-to-play as just making booster packs
for extra content to consume that you can buy. [F2P] is deeply
rooted in everything we do in our game design.

WS: I think Gabe really hit the nail on the head when he said
that you don’t need to buy anything from our game to have fun. The
only time that people start paying is when they feel there’s
something they really want and they don’t want to spend a week
earning it.

You say there are no paywalls but with Avengers
Alliance
at least, there will be missions requiring heroes
that were only unlockable in a previous event. Isn’t that the same
as a paywall, if players missed that?

WS: It’s not a paywall because these are optional events and
because we reintroduce the content. So it’s not like there’s only
one time you can get that specific hero. That chance will come
again in six or nine months. If you really want that character then
the option is to play at that point or wait for the chance to come
back around. There’s no critical content that’s behind a paywall.
Like, it’s not that you can’t go past level ten without paying
money.

Has there been a strong carry over of players between
Avengers Alliance and Tactics?

WS: Yes, definitely. We’ve seen a lot of players who were strong
MAA players moving over to Tactics.

GB: One of my favourite things to see playing Tactics
is someone saying “I don’t have energy here so I’m going to pop
over to the other game for a while”. We often see people playing
both and alternating as their energy refills on both games.

Will Tactics be coming to tablets and
smartphones like Avengers Alliance eventually did? If so,
will players be able to sync their progress between mobile and web,
unlike the existing game?

WS: We’re currently debating about what the best platform is for
this. We’ll always keep that in our eye.

GB: Synching is something we’ll consider, yes. A lot of the time
there are technical considerations that limit us or challenge us
there, but it’s definitely something we’re considering.

Have you noticed any differences between how mobile
users of Alliance engage with the game versus the desktop
players?

GB: Mobile players are actually quite similar to the Facebook
users. They tend to play very similarly, their sessions are similar
lengths. It’s hard to tell if it’s because of the platform making
any difference or if it’s the game itself that’s the main
factor.

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1 August 2014 | 5:06 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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