Talking with the Developers of Marvel Universe Online

In the world of video games, the massively multi-player online game is the king of the mountain. Games like "Everquest" and "Warcraft" are juggernauts, with millions of subscribed users and massive communities devoted to the game.

Comic fans have eagerly watched the development of "City of Heroes" and "City of Villains" from NCsoft and Cryptic Studios. The game allows you to create your own superhero or villain and play alongside thousands of other comic fans and gamers. In 2005, Marvel sued NCsoft and Cryptic in a copyright infringement case, but the case was settled in December of last year, according to the Cryptic Web site.

Apparently, all that's considered very much in the past as Microsoft, Cryptic Studios and Marvel Entertainment announced today a new MMO with the working title Marvel Universe Online. CBR News got a chance to speak with the principles involved with the development of this new online game: Frank Page, Senior Director of Business Development, Microsoft Game Studios, Jack Emmert, Creative Director, Cryptic Studios; and Ames Kirshen, Vice President of Interactive, Marvel Entertainment.

Hey guys, thanks for talking with me today. Let's start out by finding out how much of the details of the game have actually been settled upon already.

Frank Page: No comment! [laughs] We've been working on it for a little while. Why, do you have something you'd like to see in the game?

Of course! There's always a fan dream list.

Ames Kirshen: We've had our initial creative huddle on the game and I think we're all aligned and have integrated these guys into the Marvel system and we're well on our way to getting this game going.

A number of comic creators have consulted or written other video games, such as Brian Bendis writing Ultimate Spider-Man or Paul Jenkins writing a Hulk video game. Will any comic creators be involved in the development of Marvel Universe Online?

Kirshen: It will be a collaboration between a lot of different groups at Marvel working with Cryptic to make this game a really robust comic book experience and the real definitive Marvel Universe interactive experience. We don't have anything specific to talk about right now in terms of creators, but it's certainly something we're talking about.

Page: The great thing is that there are so many talented people over there and we have access to everything within the Marvel Universe. The world is our oyster here and it will be up to Marvel and Cryptic to decide what the best content to use for the MMO is going to be, but it's limitless.

Jack Emmert: Are you saying I'm not creative enough? [laughs]

I think you can probably get the job done! [laughs]

Emmert: Marvel has really opened up their doors and they've been great. There has been absolutely nothing that we haven't had access to. We've been able to pick peoples brains. It's been terrific. I've been treated as though I'm one of their #1 writers and they've really shown a lot of respect and excitement about the project on every level.

Page: We're just hoping they don't try to hire Jack away before the project is done. [Laughs]

Kirshen: Yeah, they should at least wait until the day it ships. [laughs]

That begs the question of a release date for this. Have you guys set one yet?

Emmert: This decade!

Kirshen: We have a release date in mind, but we're not telling you! [laughs] No, seriously, we're just not ready to talk about it quite yet.

I'm guessing it's still quite a ways away then. Are we looking at 2007?

Emmert: No comment! [laughs]

There are a wide variety of MMOs out there right now with some new ones in the planning stages. What do you guys have to do to make this game really different and special?

Emmert: I actually have two answers for that. One, this game is being developed for the Xbox 360 and Windows Vista at the same time. There are very few MMOs with that particular expressed purpose in mind. We're aiming at a console experience that still devlivers the satisfying MMP features that the hard core player wants.

The second thing is, I'll actually dispute your saying there are so many MMOs. How many MMOs have launched since "City of Heroes." Just a couple. That's the reality. Making an MMP is hard. There are very few publishers and developers that have the ability and I think that here we have a perfect wedding with Microsoft, who has been just teriffic to work with, Cryptic, we've been through this routine now and with the terrific intellectual property in Marvel that we know and love as developers. So, put that all together and that's a recipe for success for any game.

Page: It is the perfect collaboration. Marvel's intellectual property is international. Every single person probably in the world knows who Marvel is and certainly every game player does. It transcends the boundaries across both platforms. And Cryptic is the perfect developer, as I said before, for this game. They have a great track record. They've released two MMOs that are fantastic, highly rated, well respected and selling well. That was very impressive to us when we went looking out there to choose who the partner should be. They absolutely are the #1 choice.

Kirshen: And from Marvel's perspective, when we looked at this opportunity in terms of what would be the right home for us in terms of an MMO, there aren't many companies that can handle a proposition like this, as Frank and Jack said. MMO development and maintaining an MMO financially and operationally is a huge undertaking. That, coupled with the fact there are not many publishers out there who really understand the infrastructure required to get these things off the ground and keep them maintained. From our perspective, we really wanted to go with one of the giants and strategically Microsoft was the perfect and only choice in my mind to do this. It's hard enough to find good enough development talent to do a standard action RPG game for the console. The developer landscape for an MMO, let alone a quality top-notch MMO that we all expect from this Marvel Universe game, you can count the groups on one hand that could do this game and Cryptic, obviously given their success in the MMO space, but specifically ones that have been based on super heroes, it's a complete no-brainer. From Marvel's perspective, we couldn't be more thrilled to be A> partnered with Microsoft and B> partnered with Microsoft and Cryptic.

No one's saying that this game will replace "City of Heroes," right?

Emmert: Not at all. "City of Heroes" will continue to exist and we're fully supporting it. This will be a different game with a different experience. Let me put it this way - super heroes are a genre just like fantasy is a genre. Fantasy has a half dozen successful titles that have shipped. There is plenty of room for many different super hero games that have different experiences and we think "City of Heroes" will continue to satisfy the customer base it has, but with Marvel we're aiming at something new, something different, something special that is uniquely Marvel.

Cryptic was sued by Marvel and the two sides settled back in December. Was this deal to develop Marvel Universe Online part of that settlement?

Page: None of us can really comment on that at this time. What we will say is that we're very happy to be moving forward. That's water under the bridge and we're very happy to be moving forward and we think it was destiny to bring all three of us together to work on this MMO.

Emmert: Let me give my particular slant on this. Marvel makes its living off its IP. It employs many, many fine creative folks there. Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, the Avengers, without these characters there is no Marvel. I think the employees there like the fact that their employer protects their livelihood. That's all Marvel was doing - making sure their IP was not being touched or threatened in any way. That's just what a good, responsible company does. So, no harm, no foul, it's all water under the bridge as Frank said.

What can you tell us about the characters we'll see in the game? I'm guessing we're not going to see thousands and thousands of Wolverine's running around in the game at the same time. How will that all work?

Emmert: We're not talking about anything specific in the game, but we have some fun things up our sleeves that I think will satisfy players of all stripes.

And I'm guessing one of your goals will be to allow players to play as many characters from the Marvel U as possible?

Emmert: Nothing's been announced yet, but let's just say we've got a number of fun twists and turns to come.

Kirshen: They've got access to every single character in the library and we will use anybody and everybody that makes sense both creatively and commercially to make this game a success.

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