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‘Insomniac’s Spider-Man’: How Did We Get Here and What’s Next for Marvel Games?



With the imminent release of Spider-Man Homecoming this week, Marvel Studio’s is yet again flexing its muscles and pushing its cinematic universe in a new and exciting direction. Adding Spider-Man to the existing roster of big-screen characters further asserts their dominance in adapting characters from the comic book pages to work within a wider on-screen universe.  Whilst the Marvel movies show no signs of slowing down; the superhero juggernaut is yet to make a similar impact on the gaming landscape. So far gamers have been left wanting, after a series of inconsistent offerings from Marvel; which up to this point have amounted mostly to movie tie-ins with short development cycles. This could all be about to change however, with E3 2017 bringing with it an extended look at the new Spider-Man game coming to the PS4. The gameplay featured in Sony’s conference showed real promise in being the best Marvel game in a long time and a sign of things to come for Marvel Games.

After last year’s initial announcement that Insomniac Games; the studio behind titles such as Ratchet and Clank and Sunset Overdrive would indeed be developing Spider-Man, expectations for this year’s conference were high. And for good reason too, since games based on Marvel characters have so far included the likes of Thor: God of Thunder, The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2 and the child friendly Lego games. Whilst reception to each of these games has been varied, none really delved into their respective characters in the way fans expect. This point was one of many highlighted at this year’s E3 when Marvel Games vice president and executive producer Mike Jones, spoke to Gamespot to discuss the current state of Marvel Games. In the interview, Jones alluded to the aforementioned tie-in games as a “brand slap”. He points out that this is where a developer has “built a game, built a mechanic” but then just “slaps the character in there”. The problem with this he explains is “you don’t really dig deep into what the DNA of the character is, what the DNA of the experience is, what makes a unique and great story for that character, nor do you lean into that for what the overall gameplay experience is.” Therefore, it’s clear that Marvel Games wants to avoid rushing their games to tie into a movie premiere. Rather the gameplay, story, and character must all be executed in ways that work together as a complete package – a game that truly shares the identity of the superhero it is portraying.

Spider-Man on PS4 is to be the first game where Marvel Games adopts a more serious approach to its game design. In the same interview with Gamespot, Jones explains where this appetite for a stronger gaming presence came from. He mentions how Marvel looked at their business and asked the question “why are our games not as great as our films and TV shows?” and how they wanted their games to be “a pillar of the brand”. To achieve this, they would have to create “truly unique and high-quality products” and “to partner with the best” – the first of which is Insomniac Games. Marvel’s inconsistent console offerings notwithstanding, Jones did point out how they’d had “incredible success with… live-service titles–Contest of Champions, Future Fight, Puzzle Quest, and Marvel Heroes”. It should also be noted that Marvel has arguably had some success on console, with games such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine,  Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and Spider-Man 2 being popular among gamers. Despite these exceptions, Marvel’s console outings have largely been left in the shadow of DC’s success with the Batman: Arkham series.

When asked about the influences the Arkham series has had in encouraging Marvel Games’ to pursue gaming as a more serious media outlet, Jones responded: “The Arkham games…inspired us to lean into our characters and trust that nailing the uniqueness of each character experience is really what’s going to make the gameplay compelling.” He points out that the Arkham games are “compelling” even without Batman, suggesting how Marvel really wants to nail the mechanics of the game and achieve the level of polish shown by Rocksteady. In the case of Marvel’s own properties, Jones considers Insomniac’s Spider-Man and asks “What’s essential to a great Spider-Man story and the superhero power fantasy of controlling him? …what’s essential to telling Peter Parker’s side of it?” It’s clear then that Marvel Games wants to create a game tailored specifically to the character of Spider-Man; including the moment to moment gameplay, the story and an exploration of the character’s duality. Jones also went on to point out how this approach would apply to other games, as in “What makes an Avengers story unique and different from a Spider-Man story or even a Defenders story?” This suggests that going forward; Marvel Games is looking to differentiate between characters and properties. They are aiming to create games according to a hero’s unique story and abilities – games which could fall under separate genres.

In terms of what’s next for Marvel Games, they are quickly partnering themselves with other talented game developers such as Telltale Games and Square Enix. The latter is overseeing development on the recently announced Avengers Project, being handled by Tomb Raider studio Crystal Dynamics, in collaboration with Deus Ex developer Eidos Montreal. Just what form this game will take is anyone’s guess at this stage, but we can likely expect a different gameplay experience from Insomniac’s Spider-Man. Telltale will likely build on the success of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series and adopt new Marvel characters that suit its episodic style. As it stands, Marvel Games most recent console games: the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy from Telltale and Insomniac’s Spider-Man, both offer completely different gameplay experiences. It’s this variation that the interview with Mike Jones alludes to, and is something that will likely continue with each new partnership and subsequent release.

With a new approach to making games, comes a pertinent question: What does Marvel Games have planned beyond the already announced games and what will these games look like? When asked about their roadmap beyond Spider-Man, Mike Jones told Gamespot that they have “some incredible mobile, console, and VR games planned” and that Marvel Games are “very active in planning what are the right experiences for the right franchises for the right platforms, as well as finding the right partners who can provide the best of that”. This was then followed by a question asking whether Marvel Games had considered licensing out Marvel properties to smaller “indie” studios.  To which, Jones responded: “Oh, absolutely. We’re looking at mobile and we’re looking at VR… we’re making sure to get our big behemoths set up first… once all of those tent poles are established, I think our next step would be to create smaller, interesting indie-made games”. Interestingly, Jones also referenced some artwork by comic book artist Scottie Young as a possible inspiration of where Marvel Games could take some of their properties. We will likely therefore see some interesting games coming from Marvel Games in the coming years. These could range from big triple-A experiences to smaller indie titles. Could we, therefore, see a new Wolverine game in the style of Rogue Legacy or Hotline Miami for instance? Or maybe even a new X-Men game in the vein of Firewatch, where we would be exploring the X-mansion. Whatever the idea, it’s clear that there are possibilities facing Marvel Games waiting to be explored. Let us know your own Marvel game pitch in the comments!

An example of artwork by Scottie Young

From Kent, England, Ben is a keen trophy hunter with a passion for all things PlayStation. His game of choice is an open world RPG, having a particular fondness for games such as Skyrim and The Witcher 3. Ultimately though, he'll play anything with an interesting story and/or fun gameplay. When it comes to movies, his go-to is Star Wars - just don't ask him to pick a favourite!