Out of all of Marvel’s mobile games, the most successful one is without a doubt Marvel Contest of Champions. It hit $100 million in gross revenue seven months after its release. The developers behind the game, Kabam, always have a big presence at the Marvel booth at NYCC and this year was no exception. From time trial tournaments to a new, original character announcement, Kabam gave Marvel Contest of Champions fans a convention to remember.
At New York Comic Con, I met up with Creative and Art Director for the game, Gabriel Frizzera, to talk all things Contest of Champions. Gabriel has worked on the game since the beginning, and is still excited about developing new aspects of the game. Or as he put it, “As we make more, we get better at it.”
The team has grown since the game first launched in December of 2014. Gabriel says, “The game became a phenomenon the first year. We brought more people in, people who can see how characters relate to one another, so that we can rebalance the game.” This rebalancing is a continuous thing that is ongoing to this day, as anyone who participated in the Venom beta is well aware. Just look at the true strike bonus Venom now gets when his opponent drops below 18% health, making Iron Man Infinity War less of a defensive threat in Alliance War.
In December of 2016, Kabam was acquired by Netmarble, but that acquisition didn’t change the day to day life for Gabriel’s team. According to Gabriel, “Netmarble didn’t change anything. They bought Kabam, and specifically us, the Vancouver studio.” Everything else was sold off. Netmarble bought Kabam “because of this big phenomenon called Marvel Contest of Champions, because of Transformers, and because of our expertise in the western market. We know how to make games for the western market,” explained Gabriel. He went on to explain Netmarble’s hands-off approach as, “They wanted us to keep doing what we were doing. As long was we keep doing well, they don’t interfere. It’s been good.”
Since Gabriel is the Creative and Art Director of Marvel Contest of Champions, I asked him which character has his favorite animations in the game. Gabriel answered, “I really have a soft spot for Aegon right now, the new original character we created. The symbiote characters look outrageous. I love them too. From the older ones, I love MODOK because he’s so different.”
Besides working on the game, Gabriel also plays the game. “I’m a medium level player. I’m level 55, something like that. I’m not as good as those guys,” he said, pointing to the players competing in the tournament at the Contest of Champions booth, adding “because I have to work on the game.”
Who is Gabriel’s favorite character to play? Believe it or not, it’s not Blade or Corvus Glave. “I love my Captain Marvel,” he said. “I’m not really a technical player. I’m an artist. I prefer to play my favorite character even if they don’t play as well.” He also likes to play “the original characters I created, like Guillotine or Civil Warrior, even though they’re not the best to play anymore,” adding, “I like to make a team that looks cool.”
Gabriel’s handprints are all over Marvel Contest of Champions. “I pretty much designed every character,” he said.
Original characters designed for the game like Guillotine have made their way into Marvel comics. “That was a high moment for me,” Gabriel commented. I asked him how that came about. He explained, “When we were talking to Marvel in year one, Bill Roseman from Marvel Games said we should create a character to appear in the comic and in the game. The same night, I went home and started sketching. I couldn’t sleep because I get to make a real Marvel character. When she (Guillotine) became popular, they asked if we wanted to create more and then came Civil Warrior and Morningstar and Aegon. It now became the expectation of the game to push the boundaries of the Marvel Universe, not just copy it.”
Gabriel was quick to point out that this isn’t just a job for him and his team. “We’re Marvel geeks.”
Medusa is a character in the game whose design gave the design team problems. “Medusa was a character that we expected to not be able to do. In the comics, she has like 20 different tentacles. Memory wise, that would be complicated. I told Marvel, what if we did swords, and she’s holding swords and has a sword in a braid? It was a compromise,” Gabriel explained, adding “Every character that we think is worth going into the game is a technical challenge.”
Are there any big technical challenges left facing the team in terms of game mechanics? Gabriel answered, “Skrulls and shapeshifting characters in general. Mystique too. Shapeshifting represents the last technical challenge for us. Shapeshifting is something we never dared to do because it involves loading loads of characters at the same time, and the characters need to change. How do we do it?” From talking to Gabriel further, it sounds as if the team may have figured out that answer already. He gave some hints to the future of the game while talking about the Captain Marvel trailer. “We saw them in the Captain Marvel trailer. It has Skrulls. We love Skrulls! How do we do it? We’ve been thinking about it. We may find a way. We’ll see.” Don’t be surprised if we see Skrulls shapeshifting in game in an event quest tied into the release of Captain Marvel in theaters. I wonder if Skrulls will replace Sentinels in Alliance Quest.
I asked Gabriel what else he could tell me about what’s in store for 2019. He said, “2018 is the end of an era for us. Everything we do is based on story. The way we write the story is in long arcs. Everything is planned out way ahead of time. We plant seeds really early. Now with Aegon and The Champion, this is the last act of the story. Act 6 is coming next year. After that will be a bit of a reboot of the story. One arc will be here, compressed, you can play the whole thing, and over here, we start something new.” This is huge. It’s almost as if Marvel Contest of Champions 2 is coming to Marvel Contest of Champions after Act 6 finishes up the current story of the game. While players are getting psyched to play Act 6, the dev team is already looking beyond that.
Gabriel summed up the game as “less of a product than a service. We want more content all the time to keep people from being bored. Entertainment and the ability to escape are important.”
Billy Henehan writes for The Beat. In his free time, he likes to hunt down foreign language reprints of Todd McFarlane Spider-Man comics.