My column this week looks at the E3 trailer for the upcoming Marvel’s Avengers and talks about some of the shortcomings. I find this footage really frustrating to look at. In some games you can look at substandard art or unpolished gameplay and assume the team didn’t have the time or budget to make something better. But in the case of Marvel’s Avengers, it looks like the publisher is spending money and that money is somehow not showing up on screen. As far as I can tell, this isn’t a problem with publisher priorities. This is a basic project management problem.
I doubt that the publisher would be foolish enough to ask a developer to make a mid-budget Marvel comics game with a large cast of diverse gameplay modes. That wouldn’t make any sense. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they did. If that’s the case, then why did Developer Crystal Dynamics aim so high with the scope? If they’re in a limited-budget situation, then it makes no sense to make these epic set-piece battles with large scale destruction of real-world locations. It makes even less sense to aim the visuals at this sort of half-assed photorealism rather than throwing a toon shader over the whole thing and making cheaper assets.
On the other hand: If Square Enix is putting up the money for a big-budget superhero ensemble game, then… where is it? Why does everything look so shoddy? Why does it look like there’s no art directorRead the column itself for my analysis on the character designs and proportions.? Why do the visuals look so last-gen?
Why was this team given this property? For the last decade and change, the only thing these people have made is Tomb Raider games. Crystal Dynamics has no experience with:
- Large open environments. Tomb Raider games take place in linear ruins, not sprawling cities.
- Superhero games. How do you handle flight? How do you handle it when the camera slams into a major piece of scenery while the player is moving at high speeds? What about a hero that can plow through dozens of foes at once? A lot of these problems need to be solved on a per-game, per-hero basis. Lara’s tree-climbing and cover shooting with groups of 3-4 dudes is pretty different from (say) Iron Man’s rocket-powered city traversal and mook-shredding repulsor blasts.
- Ensemble stories. The last two Tomb Raider games from Crystal DynamicsCD Made the 2014 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is from a different studio.have been kind flat character-wise, and now they’re entering a genre that banks on vibrant characters. Other movie studios struggle to clear the bar set by the MCU. Video games struggle to clear the low storytelling bar set by the movie industry. Crystal Dynamics struggles to clear the lower bar set by the game industry.
- Live service games.
If I had to use one word to sum up Crystal Dynamics over the last few years, it would be “mediocre”. The team hasn’t made anything horrible, but they’ve been working with well-worn gameplay mechanics, straightforward environments, and standard tropes. They haven’t failed, but they haven’t taken on anything particularly challenging either. And now they’re going to tackle this drastically different style of game, with a massive scope, AND they’re going to offer us a bunch of “live services” promises about ongoing content releasesAnd presumably, ongoing monetization. AND they’re going to tackle an ensemble story that’s more difficult than anything else they’ve ever done?
I know accusations of the Dunning–Kruger effect are really popular these days. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of throwing it around casually, but it seems inescapable here. As I watched the E3 presentation and these developers showed off amateur level work with AAA production values and followed it up with lots of grandiose promises, I got the feeling that something is really wrong with the development of this game. Somewhere in Crystal Dynamics is a leader that’s completely in over their head and they don’t even know it.
On top of this is the fact that “live service” games have an extremely spotty track record. It’s the World of Warcraft effect all over again: One game has huge success and makes tons of money, and then a dozen copycats chase the money and end up making a bunch of crap that nobody asked for. If Borderlands 3 had been a live services game I would have been massively disappointed, but it would at least have been an understandable business move. We have a working model for how looter-shooters work with live services. But what’s the live services model for a superhero game? I guess Crystal Dynamics will have to come up with that business model / monetization system / gameplay loop while they’re also doing all of these other difficult things they’ve never done before.
The MCU didn’t start with the Avengers. Just make a Tomb Raider sized game starring Hawkeye or Captain America. Once you have the basics down, then you can scale up. If you go right for the team-up first without the smaller movies then you’re not making The Avengers, you’re making Justice League.
 Read the column itself for my analysis on the character designs and proportions.
 CD Made the 2014 reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is from a different studio.
 And presumably, ongoing monetization.
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