If you needed more proof about the resources required for triple-A mobile game development, Marvel Strike Force has you covered.
Full development on the console-quality squad-based RPG began in early 2016.
“But we were prototyping turn-based tactical squad RPGs way before,” laughs Amir Rahimi, who’s GM of FoxNext’s LA studio, which is developing the title alongside co-located Los Angeles indie Seismic Games.
“These aren’t tiny little mobile games anymore."
At this juncture, well informed readers may be scratching their heads and thinking FoxNext didn’t exist back in early 2016.
And you’d be right.
An interesting amalgam of game and VR development and theme park operations, the division was only announced in January 2017 when Fox acquired Kabam’s LA studio, which post-Netmarble’s acquisition of its Vancouver operation had been renamed Aftershock.
Players have told us it’s the most generous F2P mobile game they’ve played.Amir Rahimi
As well as the forthcoming Avatar mobile game, which has been in development even longer, the potential of Marvel Strike Force was one of the reasons behind Fox’s aggressive move.
“The change of ownership hasn’t impacted our day-to-day activity. Fox has been very nurturing,” Rahimi explains.
Indeed, current and recent bosses aside, the core team behind the game can trace its lineage back to EA where it worked on game franchises such as Command & Conquer in the 2000s.
Similarly Seismic Games was started by veterans from EA and Pandemic (Mercenaries, Destroy All Humans).
“We have a really strong studio culture and instantly connected with Seismic,” Rahimi says.
But enough of the triple-A console heritage, let’s get onto the game’s console qualities.
As you expect, given the power of Phone X and Samsung 9 devices, with everything turned up to 11, Marvel Strike Force looks amazing.
Even with 10 superheroes (and villains) onscreen, each 5v5 battle is cinematic, with the camera dynamically swooping into the heart of the combat to highlight signature moves.
And the character animation is certainly the star of the show.
Not only do all the Marvel heroes have their own set of smooth moves, but when in autoplay mode there’s an almost balletic flow to the action as the end of one hero’s turn is interlinked with the start of another, and heroes in the front row duck down to enable the villains behind to fire their weapons. Some hero types even team up to perform intricate tag combos.
“The fidelity of the animation was something we really focused on, both in terms of each character’s moves and to optimise it to support as many devices as possible,” Rahimi says.
In this way, a level of detail system keeps the action as smooth as it can be even on lower-end Android phones, although Strike Force obviously won’t work on all devices.
Marvel is the ideal universe for this type of game as it’s a character-driven, character-diverse IP.Amir Rahimi
Yet for all this, Rahimi says having a strong IP and great graphics won’t be enough for success.
“I think we’re in phase three of the mobile games market,” he says.
“To begin with, you didn’t need any IP, and then IP was the differentiation.
“Now you need great IP and high fidelity graphics but to get people to keep playing for years not months, you also need deep social interactions and gameplay.”
The ties that bind
Marvel Strike Force’s approach to keep its players highly engaged is - like most F2P mobile games - based around Alliances.
These are collections of 24 players who work together to complete missions and hence gain better rewards than available in single player mode. During the soft launch, these missions have been limited to Raids, in which players combine to fight through branching missions to defeat enemies and bosses.
But coming soon is the more ambitious Alliance Wars, which uses the Marvel universe’s helicarrier in a similar way to Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter.
Shown in cross-section view, each player has a room into which they place their squad. The Alliance leaders shuffle those rooms around to create the best defence structure. Alliances then battle each others' helicarriers for higher level rewards.
“Alliance Wars has been a real game changer for us when we’ve been testing it internally,” Rahimi remarks.
More generally, given Strike Forces has been in soft launch in Canada and New Zealand since December 2017, he says the development team have used such feedback to make key changes to the game.
The biggest has been to boost all characters’ power metrics to make levelling up a more significant experience in terms of player progression. And that - together with the game’s fast paced metagame - creates a noticeable cadence.
“Players have told us it’s the most generous F2P mobile game they’ve played in terms of energy, resources and progress,” Rahimi says.
“That’s been a surprise for us because it’s not something we’ve actively set out to do. If anything we feel the game is still feature and content-light.”
That stated, he reveals the number one metric the team is tracking is the regularity of player activity.
“At the moment we don’t care about monetisation. We want to build a long-term relationship with our players so it’s about regularity above all else,” he says.
One interesting metric in that regard is the percentage of players who play the game every day for the first seven days. Rahimi doesn’t reveal it, but says it’s higher than any game he’s worked on.
The result of such activity is over 99 per cent of such players continue to play on day eight.
Yet, with the game about to launch, the real work is just starting for FoxNext Games LA and that gets Amir Rahimi excited too.
“Marvel is the ideal universe for this type of game as it’s a character-driven, character-diverse IP, plus we have lot of forthcoming movies to support,” he points out.
Building on the success of Black Panther, April sees the release of Avengers: Infinity War with Deadpool 2 following in in May.
“Marvel’s never been hotter,” he ends. “And we’ve got a lot of content to create.”