Deeper Heroes: The making of Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2

The team at Disney talk design decisions and gameplay balancing

Deeper Heroes: The making of Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2

Four years after the launch of Facebook squad battler Marvel: Avengers Alliance, Disney finally got around to releasing the sequel. 

Designed for mobile, but entering a highly competitive market, Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2 offers deep tactical gameplay - especially in terms of the debuff/buffing system.

To find out more about the game's development, lessons learned in soft launch, and why there's no auto-play function, we caught up with senior producer, Justin Woods, and creative lead, Scott Rudi.

PocketGamer.biz: It’s taken Disney a long time to make a sequel to Marvel: Avengers Alliance. Can you provide some background about how that process occurred?

Justin Woods: We see both games as a platform for storytelling. There was no rush to create a new one until the market started to shift to mobile.

With more and more mobile gamers we wanted to build a game that was appropriate to the platform and leveraged a design that met the expectations of the changing market.

It became clear that the market for this type of game was there on mobile, and we jumped in with a new game to take advantage of that.

Good sequels retain the best bits of the original, combined with new elements, so can you explain your thinking in terms of how this balance worked for Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2?

One big aspect was to stay strong on story elements.
Scott Rudi

Woods: We wanted to make sure the game felt familiar to the brand, but different enough for players to want to play both was an important goal for our team.

Scott Rudi: For Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2 (MAA2) we took a good look at what worked and what didn’t with Avengers Alliance on Facebook. There were a lot of lessons learned!

We also researched the current competitive market to see what was doing well and what designs we wanted to consider for integration on MAA2.

One big aspect was to stay strong on story elements – being part of Disney and Marvel, we are true believers that we’re here to tell a story and think that makes the game a more enjoyable experience for our players.

Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2's core is its squad arena gameplay

PvP was an area we knew that needed some improvement. A big change is that in MAA2 you can no longer lose your tournament ranking while you’re offline like in MAA.

You can only lose rank for matches that you initiate in MAA2, which gives players a lot more mastery of their PvP fates.

How long did development take, and did you use any notable tools or technologies?

Woods: It took roughly 2 years, though a portion of that time was dedicated to early prototyping and designing the game on paper before it was ever built.

You really have a lot more control over creating your perfect Avengers team.
Justin Woods

We used the Unity game engine, which is popular these days. It certainly gave us a great starting point for our first mobile game.

There are a lot of Marvel games available on app stores, so what was your thinking in terms of differentiating Avengers Alliance 2?

Woods: I like how customizable our heroes and teams are.

With our swappable hero abilities, customizable teams, and ISO-8 gems with various gameplay effects, you really have a lot more control over creating your perfect Avengers team. That feels really unique about our game.

Rudi: We’re the only turn-based RPG similar in gameplay to Avengers Alliance on Facebook. The RPG elements allow us to go deeper into Hero customization and progression, which I think works for us and sets us apart.

Even in the early stages of the game, there are plenty of characters to choose from

Other Marvel games are strong in their own genres, and we’re proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners.

The game was in beta/soft launch for a considerable time. What did you learn during this process and how did this feedback in terms of changes to the game?

Woods: You know you can always build a game and expect players to play it in a very specific way, but when you throw a ton of real users in even the best-laid plans change.

That’s what the soft launch is really for - figuring out what player behaviours are like and what is and is not working.

Having that opportunity to adapt before we go to a wider audience is important with these ever-more-complicated mobile games.

Each hero has eight collectable abilities, but can only bring two abilities into combat at any one time.
Scott Rudi

Rudi: We learned a lot from our soft launch! Aside from the technical learnings (server scaling, issues only visible when thousands of real users are playing, etc.) we got a lot of good feedback and metrics on gameplay.

Many of these were tuning-related, like various heroes being weaker or stronger than they should be, or that the combat in Chapter X, Mission Y was too difficult.

We continue to evaluate guest feedback, data reports on actual behaviors, and our own play experiences to continue to dial these in.

All-in-all, we want to do more of what our players like, and fix or update that which they don’t.

The game doesn't have an auto-play function. Was this a core decision or just something that you didn’t think worked for the game?

Woods: It’s a feature we are exploring, but it’s not a simple implementation with some of the systems that drive our game.

We want to make sure it works well before we give it to players who will expect it to play somewhat similarly to how they do.

Rudi: Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2’s core combat is a bit deeper than many of our competitors, which provides some challenges on how we implement auto-play.

Like any other features common in our genre, we need to ensure that we’re meeting guest expectations as well as implementing in a way that works best for the game.

More generally, how easy did you find gaining a good balance between core gameplay and the longterm meta-game?

Rudi: Like many RPGs this is anything but easy!

What is very important is to make sure that the long-term meta impacts core gameplay. As players progress their heroes, these heroes need to feel more powerful and versatile in combat.

Core gameplay also should support – even encourage – players who come up with their own devious plans and strategies.

The game offers a lot of character customisation

For example: Each hero in the game has eight collectable abilities, but a hero can only bring two abilities into combat at any one time (this expands to three abilities once the player has progressed a bit).

Each ability has different combat statuses, power, and resource use strategies, which lets the player really customize each hero for a specific style of play.

There are times when I want my Luke Cage to be a tank and soak up tons of damage; other times, I want Luke Cage to have a high damage output.

Each ability also has its own progression path, becoming more powerful and versatile as it gains star ratings.

The gameplay is surprisingly deep and tactical in terms of the character buff/debuffs. How worried are you that this will limit its mass market audience?

Rudi: This is perhaps our greatest challenge right now but one we think seriously differentiates our game and helps provide that deeper experience.

You’re never really done with a live product. I’m happy, but I’m not done.
Scott Rudi

How are you approaching live ops? Do you have a separate team or its the original development team still working on it?

Woods: We had one big dev team until shortly after we launched worldwide.

Now the team will split into several smaller groups, one of which will be focused on live ops while the rest will be working on new features and content for the game.

At what stage of development did you consider you had a game that you were happy with?

Woods: We love the game we launched with, but there are so many features, characters, and stories we want to tell that just didn’t make it in for launch. Those will be rolling out over the coming months.

I want to say that a game like this is never done, and if we were ever truly happy with it that might impact our passion and drive to make it better every day.

That has not happened - we’re just getting started!

Rudi: For me, it was as we approached our beta date. I was playing on a shard that I knew was going to be erased and restarted in order to open it up to real users. Knowing that, I still couldn’t stop playing. That’s a pretty good sign.

On the other hand, as an old designer I’m seeing all the creative things I want to clean up in the game every time I play it (and I play a lot).

I guess, in a way, you’re never really done with a live product. I’m happy, but I’m not done.

The game’s launch appears to have been fairly low key in terms of marketing/UA etc. Can you say anything about your plans for the future in this regard?

Woods: A lot of these types of things are important to our company’s strategy so I can’t go into a lot of detail here, but one thing to note is this type of work is generally really targeted.

How happy are you in terms of the audience reaction to the launch?

Woods: I think with any launch of this magnitude you’re going to have a few technical things that slip through the soft launch because there just wasn’t enough feedback from the smaller community.

While MAA2 is no exception to this, the vast majority of our feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Players note the art and animation being cream of the crop, an authentic turn-based RPG experience, and a great character roster as major draws and successes for the game.

The game's art and animation is high quality

Rudi: We see some great feedback from players. Most really like the game and have fun, but many are stuck on issues and bugs at this time. As frequent players, we see the same issues and are working to address them ASAP.

We’re also seeing some great suggestions and ideas from the players! Our community manager is super awesome and gets us this info on a regular basis - a critical bridge between our community and the dev team.

What can you tell us about your plans in terms of updates?

Woods: There are obviously many characters in the Marvel mythos who have yet to make it into MAA2, and we will keep making new ones for the life of the game.

Beyond that we are really excited to be working on some new game modes for players to enjoy along with improvements to the overall experience of playing MAA2!


Ric is the Editor of PocketGamer.biz, having started out as a Staff Writer on the site back in 2015. He received an honourable mention in both the MCV and Develop 30 Under 30 lists in 2016 and refuses to let anyone forget about it.