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Four times a week, David Brevik streams himself on Twitch while he plays Marvel Heroes 2015 and interacts with fans. Sometimes he’ll fight with them, like when he took control of an overpowered cow and laughed hysterically as his enemies fell like dominoes. Other times, when he drinks a little too much whiskey, he might slip about an upcoming announcement or two.
Brevik isn’t your typical CEO.
The veteran developer best known for creating Diablo oversees Gazillion Entertainment, the studio behind the free-to-play Marvel Heroes 2015. The massively multiplayer online action has players fight together as superheroes and villains from the pages of Marvel’s comic books. Gazillion has an active relationship with its diverse community, which is a mix of MMO fans, diehard comic book readers, and a casual audience who’re perhaps more familiar with Marvel through its blockbuster films. In addition to Twitch streams, the company regularly keeps up with them on forums, YouTube, and other social media.
But the studio hasn’t always been this open with its players — it learned how to do so after Marvel Heroes’s 2013 release. GamesBeat met with Brevik at this year’s Game Developers Conference to talk about the tumultuous journey of maintaining a live game and how the company quickly adapted to its many problems.
Road to redemption
The “2015” title is a bit presumptuous. It implies that each new version will be better than the last, or at least introduce dramatic updates and features. Fans will expect Marvel Heroes 2016 to be an improved version of 2015. When I brought this up, Brevik didn’t sound too bothered by the pressure the “2015” brings.
“I guess it puts pressure on us. As long as you plan for it, I think everything [will work] out fine,” he said.
The new moniker is a simple but effective way to show how far Marvel Heroes has come since debuting in June 2013. It received mediocre review scores, with fans sharing many of the same complaints as reviewers. They didn’t like the way you earned new characters (tokens that randomly dropped during battle), the limited content, and the prohibitive real-world prices for heroes and items in the in-game store.
Brevik believes they could’ve fixed a few of those problems if they listened to their hardcore players earlier. Gazillion was too busy trying to meet its deadline to pay attention to what fans were saying from the betas.
“We were so focused on getting to that finish line that we pushed [player feedback] to the side and said we’ll deal with that later,’’ Brevik explained. “When in actuality, we should’ve been listening better to them at that time because there were probably some simple things that we could’ve [fixed] to avoid some of the mistakes at launch.”
Instead of getting discouraged about the lukewarm reception, the developers vowed to make a better game. To improve their communication efforts, they opened up the forums to all 150 employees and established a responsive social media presence. It was important for them to not only listen to feedback but to also act on it. Within a year’s time, they addressed many concerns with sweeping updates.
Among other things, they cranked out new modes, got rid of the random character drops (now you can buy them with in-game currency), and lowered the overall prices of microtransactions.
Gazillion felt the changes in Marvel Heroes were so big that it deserved a relaunch. It rebranded the game as Marvel Heroes 2015 on its one-year anniversary last summer. Press outlets who chose to re-review it gave the new iteration much higher marks (its average Metacritic score rose to 81). And now that they proved they were willing to change, positive comments started to pour in from the community.
The story isn’t uncommon
Drastic as it is, Marvel Heroes’s turnaround isn’t unique. Another high-profile online-only game, Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo III, had a similar arc. It only overcame a disastrous, buggy launch after numerous changes and an expansion. Since Brevik had a hand in both franchises, I asked him if these stories reflect the challenges that come with the games-as-a-service business.
For him, they’re just a normal part of game development.
“People forget that this exact same thing happened with Diablo II,” said Brevik. “When Diablo II came out, it was well received but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, this is great!’ It wasn’t until the expansion a year later that really made a big difference. There were a bunch of mechanical things that we fixed in the expansion that made it a lot better. Since they were only a year apart, people blend them together in their heads. …
“I think this is common with all games. Once you put out something — It’s really difficult to actually make a game, put it out, and have it be great.”
Today’s technology allows Brevik and his team to rapidly add content to Marvel Heroes, something he wished he could’ve done 15 years ago.
“It made me very sad when I couldn’t fix the things that I wanted to fix in Diablo II because we were saving all the content for the expansion,” he said. “One of the reasons why I enjoy playing [Marvel Heroes] and getting feedback is when I experience it, I can go back to the office and talk about stuff [that we can fix]. Nothing can’t be changed. It makes it a really exciting time to be a developer and get this instant feedback through lots of line of communications: from Twitter to Twitch to forums, Reddit threads, whatever.”
Feeding into the Marvel ecosystem
Marvel Heroes 2015 has another distinct advantage over Diablo (and every other MMO, for that matter): the global power of the Marvel brand. The developer can promote the game multiple times a year by creating content based on other products. The easiest way is to piggyback on the company’s lucrative film business. With 12 films coming out over the next four years, Gazillion will have plenty of opportunities.
It doesn’t have to do these tie-ins — Marvel just “highly encourages” them — but Brevik said it’d be foolish not to, especially because player spending increases whenever a new movie comes out. When Guardians of the Galaxy opened to packed theaters last fall, bundles containing Star-Lord and the rest of the movie’s main cast sold very well for Gazillion.
“The more we tie into these things, we feel the more success we’ll have during those events,” said Brevik. “Obviously, it’s gonna be very important for us to tie into [Avengers: Age of Ultron] stuff because we believe that’s going to be a massive movie.”
The comic book world has no shortage of huge events, either. This summer brings Secret Wars, a universe-shattering storyline that will spread into many of Marvel’s ongoing books while creating a bunch of new spin-offs. Brevik couldn’t give a definitive answer on whether they’ll use Secret Wars material, but he did say it’d make sense.
Even among other Marvel games, Marvel Heroes 2015 stands alone. It predates the publisher’s shared universe initiative that’s happening mostly on mobile devices. Gazillion has long-term plans, so its license probably won’t expire any time soon, like it did with Capcom and Activision. And since Marvel Heroes 2015 has more depth than what you find in Disney Infinity and the Lego games, it’s the only alternative for Marvel fans looking for more than a quick diversion.
After a rocky launch, Marvel Heroes 2015 is in a good place. The team is constantly adding new content with weekly updates, including at least one new playable character every month. And when they do make mistakes, their community wastes no time in pointing that out to them.
Last month, when the developers announced that they were going to sell special new costumes in limited quantities, they had no idea it would spark so much outrage in the forums. Gazillion responded quickly: Within 24 hours of the announcement, it presented a much more palatable idea to the community.
“It’s OK to make mistakes. People make mistakes all the time. People realize this,” said Brevik. “It’s how you handle those mistakes that makes the biggest difference. … Learning from those things, growing from those things, and using those things as a tool to enhance the product is the right attitude to have.”
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