On paper, Marvel's Avengers was a sure-fire hit. Starring some of the most recognisable heroes on the planet, and developed by some of the most respected teams in gaming, it's no wonder Square Enix invested heavily in the project. Yet after a launch plagued by multiplayer issues and a first year defined by a lack of content, the long-awaited superhero RPG shifted just 3 million copies – bringing in, it's been estimated, only 60% of its expected revenue.
It's a fact that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics are all too aware of. As I hop onto a Zoom call with Scott Walters, senior game designer, and writer Hannah MacLeod, it's clear the duo are no strangers to answering tough questions around the game's success and longevity. "We're definitely listening to player feedback," says Walters. "We're figuring out what players want to see and trying to focus our efforts around... stuff like that."
There's a pause. "...Yeah," agrees MacLeod, "we've learned a lot more about, you know… what it takes to keep this game going"
It's hard to blame them for looking weary. Pouring years of your life into a game only to be constantly grilled about its failures can't be easy. Yet despite the deservedly cool reaction to Marvel's Avengers at launch, a year later Square Enix seems determined to turn its first live-service game around. The game's unlikely saviour? Black Panther.
A fresh start
As one of the players who was less than enthusiastic about the base game, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed my two hour hands-on with the new expansion. Entitled War For Wakanda and starring the voice of Kratos himself – Christopher Judge – as Black Panther, there's a level of cinematic quality and Marvel sheen that was missing the first time around.
It's no surprise then that the duo are quick to try and shift the conversation from the missteps of the past towards what they see as the triumphs of the present. "I feel like we've hit our stride in a lot of ways, "says Macleoad "From my perspective, War For Wakanda is some of the best storytelling we've ever done on this game. I think it's a pretty dramatic and emotional story. It really just expands the world – makes it all feel a lot bigger. I think if you only played the Reassemble campaign, you'd be surprised how much more story there is now"
It's hard to disagree based on the snippet I've played. Compared to the jumbled-together Reassemble campaign, this virtual Wakanda feels like a place that has been crafted with love. It turns out, that's because Black Panther was a hero the team wanted to recreate from day one.
"We always wanted to do Black Panther," Walters tells GamesRadar. "Even when we initially started Avengers and were making a list of the heroes that we wanted, Black Panther was at the top of our list. How Wakanda merges technology and culture together… it's a very interesting departure from our other heroes"
We went hands-on with the Black Panther DLC and it looks like a new high for the live-service. Learn more in our Marvel's Avengers: War for Wakanda preview.
Yet the problem with recreating Black Panther is that for many, there's only one T'Challa – the one immortalised on the big screen by the late Chadwick Boseman. "It was definitely something we were always conscious of," says Macleoad. " I think Chadwick Boseman's performance is going to be pretty core to that character forever. Our goal with our version of Black Panther was to explore sides of the character that people might not be familiar with."
"Our T'Challa is a bit older and he's been a king for a bit longer, which gives him a sense of arrogance that people don't know if they've only seen the movies. But in the comics, he is incredibly intelligent. He's super confident – he's a scientist in his own right. And that gives him a kind of arrogance that can be off putting in some ways, and I find that really interesting"
Yet as nerve wracking as filling in for Boseman must be, there's no doubt that Christopher Judge has done a commendable job of bringing the Wakandan King to life. "I'm really excited for players to meet this cast," Macleoad continues. "I think the heavy hitters that we have voicing this cast really brought it. I know a lot of them were nervous to do these characters justice, but they just knocked it out of the park. I still can't believe Chris Judge is T'Challa! It is the coolest thing."
Embracing the strangeness of Marvel comics
Outside of Kamala Khan, a lot of the Reassemble campaign drew criticism for being rather po-faced – as well as its reliance on expected story beats. It's a lesson that the writing team have taken to heart, and for this free Black Panther's DLC, Hannah reveals that she's enjoyed embracing Marvel's weirder side. "We've really come to learn that people love the comics because of the stuff that's weird – the unique and the interesting. I think our Reassemble campaign was very grounded for a lot of good reasons, but with this live service content we've gotten to go a little wackier... and people have seemed to respond really well to that.
As happy as fans are to see Black Panther make his way to Marvel's Avengers, there's one character that many are desperate to see: Spider-Man. Announced as a PlayStation exclusive character before launch, the silence around the witty web-slinger has been deafening. Sadly, Walters says we'll have to wait a little longer. "Yes, we are still working on Spider-Man. We planned on releasing him this year, and he's still on track for that."
Even with Peter Parker missing in action for the first year of Avengers adventures, between the upcoming Black Panther DLC and the previously released Hawkeye expansions, it's clear that Square Enix is trying to do right by its fanbase by offering increasingly expansive free updates.For Walters, complaints of the game being content light are no longer well-founded.
"With the [War for] Wakanda expansion, Marvel's Avengers, start to finish, is now over 25 hours of just campaign content," he says. "We're adding New Avengers initiative missions outside of just the Wakanda space with this expansion too, so there will be more endgame content to engage with outside of the campaign. We will have a new omega level threat that is Wakanda focused coming out a little bit later on too – that way players have time to level up their Black Panther."
Will Marvel's Avengers go free-to-play?
There's clearly an appetite out there for Marvel's Avengers. You need only look to a recent free-to-play weekend for evidence of that, where the game's concurrent player count leaped from an estimated 500 to 10,000 on Steam alone within a 24 hour period. Does this mean that Marvel's Avengers will abandon its paid entry approach entirely and embrace a free-to-play model? Crystal Dynamics says it's unlikely, but the studio is investigating more free-to-play weekends as it attempts to draw players into its revitalised Avengers ecosystem.
"There's definitely plans to look into free-to-play weekends," says MacLeod, "especially since we only did it on specific platforms. I think right now, we still very much want to give people story content for free. We never want it to be a pay to win model with our game. We don't want to block story content behind money or anything like that, because I think the story stuff really gets people into the game. So we're certainly looking into further events and things like that, but we don't have anything specific to announce yet."
Despite the dark cloud that's been hanging over this game for the last year, Scott and Hannah seem determined to continue to make Marvel's Avengers the best that it can be. Whether War For Wakanda as a whole redeems the experience is hard to say, but from the slice of it we experienced Marvel's Avengers is certainly on the right track. Regardless, for the team at Crystal Dynamics, this new expansion represents a glimmer of hope – and their excitement at launching it into the wild feels tangible.
"I'm just really excited to see what fans of Black Panther think when they get their hands on it," says Walters with a slight smile. " Not just from a combat perspective, but also just about being able to explore Wakanda, or, you know, walking through the outpost and seeing sort of how that technology has shaped that space. I'm just excited to see what they think."