Avengers reassembled: How Gazillion rescued the struggling Marvel Heroes MMO

CEO David Brevik tells Develop how working with the community and being prepared to scrap everything helped turn things around
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Marvel Heroes, a free-to-play MMO that launched two years ago today, did not live up to expectations.

That’s not just public or press consensus: those are the words of David Brevik, CEO of the game’s developer and publisher Gazillion Entertainment (pictured), who says that while the initial reaction to the game was one of excitement, Marvel Heroes quickly garnered some poor review scores, landing it with a Metacritic rating of 58.

The game showed a lot of promise. The developer had the entire Marvel universe at its disposal and a close working relationship with the comics giant itself. Marvel even advises Gazillion about its plans, both for comics and movies, up to a year ahead, sending the dev team assets from the films – such as Age of Ultron’s Hulkbuster – to help them incorporate the latest characters and events into the game. Meawhile, Brian Michael Bendis – one of the most acclaimed writers in the business – came on board to help with the game’s storyline. And it was an MMO that was free-to-play from the off.

Given the ongoing hype around all things Marvel over the last few years, it should have been a surefire winner. So what went wrong?

For a lot of reasons, we launched a little before we should have,” Brevik explains. “We had lots of content we still wanted to put into the game but hadn’t had time to do so. But we still believed in the idea and the product.

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“Usually when things go poorly for a game at the beginning, there are two routes you can take: you either say, ‘well, that didn’t work’ and move on, or you can buckle down and not be afraid to make the changes that are needed to make the game better in the long term.”

Gazillion opted for the latter, relaunching the game one year later as Marvel Heroes 2015 – a title that now enjoys a robust community of players and a far more impressive Metacritic rating of 81. It was a tough year, but the hard work definitely paid off.

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THE NEEDS OF THE MANY

Brevik says the transformation began with the key to any MMO’s success: the players. As with many failed or struggling MMOs, Marvel Heroes saw its audience drop rapidly shortly after launch but the game was far from abandoned.

“Some people gave it a try, didn’t like it and have never come back,” he says. “But there was a core of the community that believed in the product, saw that we were working hard and making changes, so they stuck with us and we’ve come a long way since then.”

Listening to the community is something that almost every developer professes to do but putting it into practice is a different matter. While many studios do indeed follow the feedback of their players, some are determined to stick by their original vision, even if it’s only with regards to certain aspects of their game.

This was not the case when it came to rescuing Marvel Heroes.

We started patching every single week, and the community could see the changes happening. They believed that we could make this better.

“Nothing was sacred,” says Brevik. “We ended up changing everything, and we did it step-by-step, listening to the community and made changes that showed we were taking their feedback. So they continued to support us and we just kept making the game better and better.

“We were very open and honest about where we were: coming out and talking directly with the community – not just myself, but the entire team. We opened up the forums and had people talk about every possible issue, starting good dialogue with players and then making rapid changes.

“We started patching every single week, and the community could see the changes happening. They believed that we could make this better.”

But when you’re revamping a project with as broad a scope as an MMO, where do you even begin? Which issues were the players most keen to see changed? What was the root of Marvel Heroes’ problems?

“Everything,” Brevik laughs. “The downloader wasn’t working well. The business model was unfair. The prices were too high. The responsiveness of the controls wasn’t good enough. There wasn’t a deep enough item system. The end game wasn’t very fun. It was pretty much everything.” 

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CHANGING THE BUSINESS MODEL

As you would expect with any free-to-play title, the monetisation was a crucial issue to fix and the reputation the original Marvel Heroes gained made this struggle even more challenging.

Brevik recalls that when the game was first released, complaints emerged that its funding model was extremely expensive, that Gazillion was charging $20 for each of the playable heroes. This was not strictly true: out of the 25 characters available at launch, two or three were close to – but not quite – $20. The rest were around the $10 mark.

“But we got labelled as charging the full $20 for all the heroes,” Brevik says. “People take the worst examples and that becomes the perception. If you get labelled as unfair, it takes a lot of work to come back from that.”

Determined to rectify this, Gazillion dropped the prices several times over the course of the game’s first year, both on heroes and on costumes. In the original version of the game, the only way to unlock heroes was to buy them or hope that they dropped while playing – although even Brevik admits some were “really, really rare”.

If you get labelled as unfair, it takes a lot of work to come back from that... Now people tout us as having one of the best free-to-play business models.

“That wasn’t a very fair way for people to gain heroes, so we came up with a new system that allowed you to collect an in-game heroes that you could use to purchase heroes through time and playing,” he says.

“Those changes – being able to earn the heroes you want, plus the significant reduction in prices – really address a lot of concerns people had about the business model. The only things you can’t earn by playing the game are cosmetic. You can get almost everything, but some of the costumes, for example, are very rare.

“Now people tout us as having one of the best free-to-play business models.”

Lessons like these are often learned the hard way, particularly when there are few previous examples to take inspiration from. At the time of Marvel Heroes’ initial development, there were very few free-to-play MMOs out there and most of the ones that were already live, Brevik observes, had converted from a subscription model.

“The only other example at that time was League of Legends, and in a lot of ways that’s what we changed our business models to reflect, where you can earn the heroes but it’s the costumes and cosmetic things that you can buy,” he says.

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THE RELAUNCH

After a year of hard work and extensive collaborations with the loyal players who had stuck with Marvel Heroes from the beginning, the game was in far better shape but one seemingly unresolvable issue remained.

“We were still stuck with the Metacritic score of 58 and yet we had changed everything about the game,” says Brevik. “It had a much deeper endgame, lots more items to chase, PvP, story difficulties – we had changed so much about it that in a lot of ways it wasn’t the same game.

“Since we were updating the game, patching every week and slowly putting all this stuff in over the course of the year, we hadn’t had a big press event that garnered enough attention for people to give us a second look.

“The press in general works on the old school business model of creating boxed product, and new things being put on shelves. Or it’s morelike movies: they come out once, they get reviewed, and then they aren’t really around. That’s very different to games-as-a-service, which is what Marvel Heroes is. The industry hasn’t really adjusted to that very well.

“Even League of Legends’ Metacritic score is quite low, but that game is still ridiculously popular and has changed a lot since it first launched.”

The industry hasn't really adjusted to reviewing games-as-a-service, which is what Marvel Heroes is. Even League of Legends' Metacritic score is quite low.

The answer was a complete rebrand. On June 4th, 2014 – one year after its debut – Gazillion relaunched the game as Marvel Heroes 2015.

“We positioned it as sort of like a season two of television or something like that, and it worked,” says Brevik. “It was very effective for us, raising our Metacritic score from a 58 to an 81 – so you can see we’ve made quite a bit of progress. It made a lot of difference and got us a lot of attention. All our numbers – the number of people playing, etc – all went up.”

And Gazillion is determined to make sure that hard work didn’t go to waste. Another year on and Marvel Heroes 2015 is still going strong, with regular new content updates, a new hero or character class every month, and – most importantly – the lines of communication still open between the developer and the players.

“We continue to engage the community, we’re constantly working on the forums,” says Brevik. “I even do a lot of tweeting and answer player questions. My wife and I actually stream the game several nights a week on Twitch, playing with the community and answering questions through that.

When I play, I’ll tell the team if the game’s missing this or that, or if I’m frustrated by a bug, and we can prioritise that because we’re experiencing it like the consumers.

“I think the community is very strong and it’s our interaction with those players that really builds that great foundation. We have a lot of wonderful players in our community, who are very supportive and we’ll continue to build on that step-by-step, one person at a time.”

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