Marvel has been licensing a lot of games in the mobile and online space, and it has been cooking some good hits in partnership with Lego and TT Games. But Disney-owned Marvel surprised everyone with the announcement this week of a major console game based on its Spider-Man superhero.
One of the people behind that effort is Jay Ong, the vice president of games at Marvel. He joined a couple of years ago with the aim of bringing higher quality to Marvel’s efforts. The Spider-Man game is one of the fruits of that work. It is being developed by Insomniac Games, known for titles like Ratchet & Clank.
We caught up with Ong at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles, after the announcement that Spider-Man is coming for the PlayStation 4.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Could you talk about arriving at Marvel and what it was like?
Jay Ong: I came to Marvel almost exactly two years ago. When I came in, I had a mission. We had one of the greatest treasure troves of superhero characters and stories in the world, and we needed to make incredible, epic games with them.
The strategy we came up with involved partnering with the best companies on earth. Everything we do in terms of our staffing processes, everything, revolved on partnering with the best. How do we seek them out, talk to them, interact with them, sell them our shared vision of making great experiences for our fans?
GamesBeat: Did you have to change a lot of things to suit that strategy? What did you put more emphasis on?
Ong: The emphasis was on this obsession with quality. And more than quality, certain things like—this has to be better than just good enough. It has to be great. Our games have to have lasting value that we’re all proud of. Part of it involved being very discriminating in who we partner with. This is a case in point. Sony and Insomniac are two of the best game companies on earth, from the publishing side and from the development side. Picking the right partners was the key.
It was also finding a franchise-driven and character-driven approach to products, as opposed to one-offs. Making sure we made these franchises sustainable. That gives developers more creative freedom. Going away from movie games was a big pivot. Those just didn’t work for us in the past. The idea of creating original storylines, giving the developers the freedom to create something new—from a creative standpoint that’s liberating for our partners. And for us it results in great games.
GamesBeat: Spider-Man definitely seems like a triple-A approach. Is that the beginning of something for you? How does it fit in your portfolio with everything else you’re doing?
Ong: Certainly it’s the beginning of great things to come. It’s the culmination of two years of effort from my team, following this strategy of bigger, better, fewer games. It’s going to be a tentpole in our console portfolio, but the first of many that we’ll be announcing sometime in the future.
GamesBeat: Spider-Man needs this, right? In the good old days, the character had some good games, but it became more formulaic.
Ong: Spider-Man is in a special place for us. For those of us on the games team it’s a deeply personal choice. This character, for a lot of us, is the reason why we fell in love with Marvel in the first place. It has a special meaning. And certainly from a commercial perspective it’s the most iconic Marvel superhero.
GamesBeat: With mobile, it’s getting a little more crowded. We have different kinds of Marvel titles. How do you sort out what kinds of games you want to have in mobile from different partners?
Ong: We do have lots of partners across lots of platforms. We have all sorts of different strategies as far as how to deal with that. They’re all very successful, if you look at our mobile and PC portfolio. Right now we’re focused on Spider-Man on the PS4 and our console strategy around that.
GamesBeat: I suppose the thing you want to avoid is having too many partners to be able to do this well.
Ong: That’s right.
GamesBeat: With mobile, it feels like you have to take more shots, though.
Ong: True enough. And we have. But we’re continuing to be very selective about who we partner with, on all platforms. Certainly on the console side, as you see, and on the mobile side as well. You asked earlier about changes we’ve made. That’s a change we’ve made, becoming more selective. In the past we might move forward on three out of every 10 opportunities. Now we’re focusing on one of those, or even less.
We only partner with companies that have the talent and the resources to invest heavily in a game, and that share our passion. Do they believe in the IP as much as we do? That’s a criterion we’re very hung up on. Insomniac is crazy about Spider-Man.
GamesBeat: Do you feel a change in how receptive some of these very high-end studios are to working on someone else’s intellectual property?
Ong: Our brand and our characters have grown more prominent in recent years. Our success across other lines of business has shown that. It’s helped build this affinity for the brand. So absolutely. Even in the two years I’ve been in this business, I’ve seen a change. More doors are open to us that weren’t open before. As we continue to have success in the gaming space, whether it’s in mobile with games like Future Fight and Contest of Champions and Avengers Academy, or with things like Spider-Man here, that’s going to continue to open more doors. People see success and want to follow it.
It goes back to our discussion of strategy. When we tell people that they aren’t just building a movie game, that opens up their eyes. “You mean we have the freedom to invest and deliver the title that we want to deliver?” They don’t have to meet some artificial date. We give them time. We initiate projects far earlier than we used to. Great products require time to make. They have room to breathe, creatively and from a scheduling perspective.
GamesBeat: Do you need to coordinate with other media, like comics and movies?
Ong: There’s a fair amount of coordination. Not in terms of what type of games we make or the schedule around launching games. But certainly on the mobile side it has a lot to do with in-game content, the live content aspect of it, where we use that to celebrate the launch of a new movie or an event on the comics side. That’s where we inject new storylines, costumes, and characters into our mobile slate. It’s the same with our PC game, Marvel Heroes. With any of the live-operated games, we have very coordinated events related to other media. Our fans love it.
Even Spider-Man is reflective of that. Yes, this is a brand new look for Spider-Man, a new and original story, but it’s still very Spider-Man. It’s very Peter Parker. It’s a part of that lore. In order to do that, we make sure that it’s connected.
GamesBeat: How much interaction is happening between Marvel and Insomniac in that regard?
Ong: Every day. They’re actually only 10 minutes away from us, physically. So is Sony. It’s an amazing coincidence, and very lucky. We’re at their offices and they’re at ours. It’s a very close collaboration.
GamesBeat: Lego has been interesting in that it’s a triple-A production as well.
Ong: It is. We love WB TT and the partnership we have with them.
GamesBeat: They don’t seem to mind injecting movie content into some of their games as well. It fits better as episodes in that kind of game.
Ong: That’s right. Also, looking at Lego Marvel Avengers, they had the previous movies to work with. That’s a lot of content, and they had the time to delve deep into it. They also injected a lot of other stuff. They used characters and content from the comics, TV shows, Agents of SHIELD.
GamesBeat: A lot of characters you don’t usually see.
Ong: Right. While the core is the theatrical library, that game goes far beyond.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you have to deal with too many opportunities. You have 5,000 characters. You could make 5,000 games.
Ong: It’s a good problem to have. We have a lot of characters and they’re fantastic. But Spider-Man is the one we love.