Raven Software surprised many gamers when it released the two X-Men Legends games, followed by Marvel: Ultimate Alliance -- both because the co-op-focused action RPG gameplay was a departure from the studio's FPS roots, and because they were uncharacteristically well-received for licensed titles.
With Raven now developing two shooters, the role of lead creating the 2009-due Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Fusion has fallen to Vicarious Visions.
Though the studio has made a name for itself as a premier handheld developer -- with its portable Tony Hawk titles often earning higher praise than their home console counterparts -- it is developing the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions; n-Space and Savage Entertainment are handling Nintendo DS and Wii.
Speaking to Gamasutra on their task, creative director Dan Tanguay spoke on the role reversal. "Certainly this is the first time in a couple of years for me that I've been working on a lead SKU," he said.
"There's an incredible amount of responsibility to not only provide a direction for your team, but to set a direction for the other developers that you're working with that are downstream for you. We've been in that position, and it really isn't fun sometimes if people aren't paying attention to it."
Tanguay says that the move to lead development makes sense in the context of Vicarious' strengths. "I think the team's definitely been building toward this," he said. "Last year, we worked on Spider-Man 3 for the Wii and PS2, and got our first taste of really large console development and learned a lot of lessons."
"Overall, it seems like a natural progression for us. Design- and art-wise, we're always looking for ways to challenge ourselves. Honestly, in order to be leaders in handheld development, we need to have a lot of knowledge of future generations," Tanguay added.
"We would not have nearly been able to develop as effectively for the DS had we not done a lot of work on the PS2 or the Wii and learned a lot of these methods that we can bring back and try to crunch down on smaller platforms."
The hook of the franchise, of course, is that it throws dozens of characters from the Marvel pantheon into an RPG-flavored brawler, with alternate unlockable costumes to boot.
This can present a challenge for a real-time 3D game, which needs to present all of those possible avatars in a way that is visually coherent but also retains each character's appearance.
Art director Bryan Schutt laid out the process and its difficulties. "Often when we're poring through the references, great as the comic art is, there's a lot of details missing in constructed elements that we need to add in to the models," he explained.
"We kind of step back and say, 'Look at a costume like Thor's. What are those metal plates on his chest? How is that formed? How would it look if we made this in real life, or to fit on a character in a movie?' That's essentially what we're doing. We're building these 3D characters out of the pages of the comic books, so a lot of detail is going into that."
Tanguay added, "A lot of consistency comes from the material selections that Bryan and his team makes. We start using common materials -- certain types of leather, and things like that. Finally, we have an overall art style to bring everything together as well, with lighting and shaders."
Picking and choosing source material plays a role as well. Said Schutt, "We looked through all the different styles and artists that worked on these great characters, and we pick ones that inspire us and fit in with our theme." He pointed to the Marvel art of Steve McNiven as one of the team's touchstones.
Marvel's diligence at keeping its characters consistent can lengthen the time it takes to crystallize such interpretations. "The first thing we do is we pore over all the comics," recalled Schutt.
"You have classic versions and more current versions, and we pick one that we feel fits our theme. We run it by Marvel, and they either will say yea or nay. They might say, 'You can start with this design, but we know that you want to go with a more realistic model and add some details.'"
"We go through our concept art phase and run it back by them. Then they either approve it or send it back for more revisions. Sometimes they'll nitpick about things."
"The part on the hair," Tanguay chimed in.
"Yeah, even so much as the part on the hair," Schutt continued. "Like, 'That guy's hair is parted in the middle.'" The team ends up going through a few more phases of approval on high-polygon models, optimized models, and full animated in-game characters.
Unlike many high-profile Activision franchises, Ultimate Alliance isn't an annual release. Raven's title shipped in 2006, and Vicarious doesn't plan to have its sequel out until early 2009.
"It's a huge responsibility to Marvel, to the fans, and to Activision, our parent company," said Schutt. "We know there's a lot of big expectations for it, and we want to deliver on those."