Marvel has one of the healthiest content businesses in the world with its films, movies, and comics. But the company approaches gaming a bit differently than those other creative mediums.
Unlike previous console generations, the big-budget game featuring Captain America and Spider-Man is rare. Today, gaming in the Marvel universe (and across many classical properties with the recent exception of Star Wars) is primarily about iOS and Android devices. During a fireside chat at the GamesBeat Summit in Sausalito, California on Wednesday, Marvel Entertainment executive vice president and general manager for interactive and digital distribution Peter Phillips explained that the goal is to engage audiences by giving them more ways to participate in the ongoing adventures of characters they love. Marvel’s development partners, like Kabam and D3 Publisher, are making money using this strategy in the $36.9 billion mobile-gaming industry, and fans are gobbling up the apps. Contest of Champions, Kabam’s fighting game, is No. 9 on the Android grossing charts in the United States, and developer Netmarble’s Marvel Future Fight is No. 30. And that success is due in large part because Marvel treats gaming as a licensing business, which is different from how it treats some of its more traditional creative works.
Marvel’s last decade of films, for example, have millions of fans who rush to the theater for every new release, and a lot of the credit for that goes to the company’s insistence on producing those movies internally at Marvel Studios. While the company’s mobile games are seeing comparable financial success, according to the grossing charts, that’s largely because the company hands over a lot of the work to developers outside of Marvel.
As it turns out, Kabam is better at building gameplay mechanics than Marvel’s team of writers.
So where does the creative side of Marvel fit into the making of the games? Well, the company does what it does best: storytelling and characters. Phillips works to ensure that his partner developers get all the support they need to squeeze the most entertainment from the Marvel roster, which numbers in the thousands.
And by giving gaming this seat at the table, Marvel is able to reach audiences every day on a smart device they carry with them everywhere. This enables the company to pitch unfamiliar characters and adventures to audiences for events that are happening with the company’s non-interactive business.
“Our games are not [just] fan service,” said Phillips. “They certainly are a nod to the fans, but we thrive in the midcore. What’s important to us is to not only give something to people who’re very familiar with our brand. It’s also an opportunity for us to onboard people who are not as familiar with our brand, even in a market like the United States.”
This manifests in a lot of different ways, and you’ve likely noticed some of the techniques if you play any Marvel game on your smartphone.
“We like to infuse a lot of the storylines of our current films,” said Phillips. “We put out content from our comics business every Wednesday. We do live events that give a nod to the themes of that content. You’ll see that in a lot of the games we have out in the marketplace. Sometimes we’ll have a whole section of a game that is a nod to a new film.”
In Western markets, Marvel uses this to get fans excited about upcoming films like Captain America: Civil War, which opens in theaters Friday.
But in regions like China, where the vast majority of the consumers in that market didn’t grow up with Wolverine or Reed Richards, Marvel is using games as a promotional tool.
“It gives us an opportunity to do a tip of the spear thing,” he said. “Marvel is much newer to people in Asia — China has been an amazing market for us. But they know about the characters because of the Avengers films. The games help us say it’s not just about the Avengers.”
This leaves Marvel, its partners, and gamers in that old “win-win scenario” cliché.
Developers are finding success in a hypercompetitive mobile market because they have an attractive license. Gamers are getting more content featuring some of their favorite characters. And Marvel has a new way to tell stories while simultaneously getting paid to educate its audiences about its other products.