Soon, Playdom will launch Marvel: Avengers Alliance
for Facebook. The game -- an RPG title with strategy elements which lets players ally themselves with characters like Spider-Man and The Hulk -- has been under development for about a year and a half at its Offbeat Creations studio in Seattle, and is currently in closed beta.
Though the game entered development before Disney acquired Playdom, the fact that all three companies are now part of the same family has made it a big priority for all of them, says Playdom vice president of studio operations Michael Rubinelli.
"Every time we meet with Bob Iger he asks about it, he wants to know how it's going," he says, of the Disney president and CEO's interest in the title.
So is the corporation standing behind the game? "I can promise you they are supporting it, and they are behind it, and they're very happy with where we've got to so far," says Rubinelli.
"On the platform itself, we think it is one of the best games," he says. "We want to go out with a product that is reflective of Disney-level quality, Marvel-level quality."
The goal of the project is to marry a popular IP with time-tested core-focused game design and social play patterns.
The game itself features a mixture of strategy elements, such as tech tree research, with a mission-based, story-driven RPG with battles not dissimilar to classic Final Fantasy
titles, all wrapped in a social layer which rewards cooperation and features asynchronous player versus player combat.
Appealing to the Core on Facebook
"Are you taking social games and trying to inject them with core aspects, or are you taking core games and trying to inject them with social aspects? Neither. I think neither of those actually work," says Robert Reichner, chief operating officer and co-founder of Offbeat Creations, the game's developer.
"It takes people who actually live in both of those worlds and fully understand them at a deep level and understand the behaviors that go along with them, and what those differences are, and to approach it in a fresh way, and that's what's exciting to us."
Reichner's studio has been around for four years, and his game development background is exclusively in the social space; this pairs with Rubinelli's console background, which includes stints at Electronic Arts, THQ, and Genius Products.
Recognizing that "people play games on Facebook in a very different way," Rubinelli thinks that gamers will flock to titles like this that encourage frequent, small bursts of play when they don't have time to dedicate to a long session of games like Skyrim
. The mentality is "I still feel like I'm gaming, I still feel like I'm plugged in," he says.
Rather than trying to fit the game's design to the social space from the outset, says Reichner, the team identified what kind of game it wanted to make, and then asked "what would it look like to build this game?" From there, "let's think of using our expertise in the social space, let's use our best practices" was the way forward.
For example, he says, "to progress at a decent pace... you really realize the value of working with a network, and playing with friends, and relying on them."
Fortunately, he adds, "the virality that we're seeing on this game in terms of people wanting to interact with their friends" is at a "volume we've never seen" in the beta. He puts it down to the Marvel IP and the audience's engagement with Avengers Alliance
Reichner is aware that the game, as a social title, has to appeal to a wide range of fans, from those who simply like the Marvel-based films to die-hard gamers. "That's guided our vision throughout. We know that we need a huge amount of depth to maintain that audience, but it can't be obligatory depth."
That said, the team has built features to appeal to the most avid players -- like PVP. "Without a doubt, if you are going to look at the people who are the most passionate, the most rabid about these games, they are the people that are going to be in there," he says.
Is Facebook Going Core?
Companies like Kabam and Kixeye are making big bets on core gamers flocking to Facebook -- but so far their attention has really stayed fixed on console and traditional PC games, MMOs, and the like. What does Rubinelli think is the future?
"We've seen this move before on console: those platforms grow up, they know what their audience likes, and they try to speak to a high quality level of user. And I think there are certain things that have been done in that world that haven't been done, and haven't been embraced [in social games], and we're trying to pull that in," he says.
"I don't think it's going to happen as quickly as people think," he warns, and he also doesn't expect that social games will totally supplant dedicated consoles. Core-focused developers have to gain social expertise, as well, before they can make their mark on the platform.
"I think that Facebook, though, as a core gaming destination relative to Newgrounds or Kongregate will be favorably compared to those endeavors," says Rubinelli.
"I think our product helps get there, and I think that as people see how we build things -- which they'll certainly be influenced by the direction we've taken -- [that] will help the evolution of it."