Marvel Contest of Champions, the hit mobile game from Kabam, has been going strong for close to five years now. At New York Comic Con 2019, I had the opportunity to sit down with Marvel Contest of Champions lead designer Gabe Frizzera to follow up on our conversation from last year’s NYCC, as well as Meghann McGregor, the product manager of the newly announced spin off game, Realm of Champions.
Billy Henehan: How does it feel to be closing in on the 5 year anniversary of Marvel Contest of Champions launching?
Gabe Frizzera: This year was probably our strongest year. There’s a lot of games that die in the first year. There is a select group of games that learn to keep going, that keep the players coming back. I think that we have a good formula. I like to think that the content is a big part of that. We always try to put on a show. We don’t see this as a product. We see this as a service. People can skip [the cut scenes] at any time.
It’s crazy to think we’re not feature complete five years in, that we still are putting new features into it. I saw the road map. There’s more stuff coming. I think we struck the balance between a good, simple experience that can become really complex as you get more engaged. I know my daughter can pick up this game and learn to play in two minutes and have fun, learn the basic controls, the basic dance of the characters. But then if you really want to get engaged, there’s a lot of finesse. The [Summoner Showdown] Final at the Marvel stage was as riveting as anything I’ve ever seen in a competition. Those guys take it to the next level. I think that’s a good formula; easy to pick up, very hard to master.
Henehan: With each year that passes, the new characters introduced in Marvel Contest of Champions seem to get more complex, both in terms of visual design and technical design. Is this deliberate?
Frizzera: In terms of design, we have around 150 characters in the game. Every new character that comes in needs to be justified. What is this character’s utility in the game? Otherwise, nobody is going to go with it, and two months of character development will be thrown in the garbage. It’s become more of a challenge. We have a big design team now and they spend hours trying to find what is the one thing this character will do that people will like to see. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we don’t get it right. It’s become a spider web of relationships now. Every time we get it right, people get excited, which is cool.
Frizzera: On the visual side, we’re getting better and better at doing them. We know now how the technology can be pushed and pulled. We have big challenges because we kept some of the characters that we couldn’t do in the beginning off the list because they were too complicated. Now everyone wants those characters and we have to find a way to do it. But we started getting more technical artists too to figure out how we can do it. It’s an aging technology. We had to support iPhone 4 [when we launched], so we had to tone down a lot of things that we could do at the time. But they pull it off.
My job is super easy. I come into the brainstorm and say, “Reed Richards. These are things that Reed Richards must have. You can’t have Reed Richards without the stretching. There are moves he needs to do that are famous from the comics.” Not everyone has great knowledge from the comics, so I have to say, “Hey, these are the tent poles. You can’t have Reed Richards without him doing this.” Then they go into their room and figure out in the gameplay how to make that translate. On the outside, I close my eyes and know they’ll do a great job. Those guys are world class. I have nothing but great things to say about them. They know their jobs inside out. The art is getting better and better. It’s the combination between the art, design and the interface where the challenge lies.
Henehan: How will Marvel Realm of Champions be related to Marvel Contest of Champions?
Frizzera: They live in the same universe. This game [Realm] was initially conceived as a story in Contest. We wanted to explore Secret Wars and alternate realities. I’m a big fan of alternate universes, stories like Earth X and Age of Apocalypse. Storywise, I think of the games as one thing, but in terms of experience, they are very different games. The game started as a story, and then started growing and growing, and I said, “No, this belongs in a different game.” The stuff we wanted to do in Contest that we can’t do like real time PVP, multiplayer, we thought it would be a good idea to make this new experience on top of the world we already wanted to create.
Henehan: What separates Marvel Contest of Champions from Marvel Realm of Champions?
Meghann McGregor: It’s a real time multiplayer action RPG that we’re trying to do. The Contest is more solitary. It’s PVP but it’s 1 vs computer pretty much. This is 3 players vs 3 players and we’ll have PvE as well. There will be strategy and team based. We’ll have all these rpg rules. These are superheroes that work together, so we’re finally happen to see the synergy so that when people go into combat they’ll be able to have Black Panther, Iron Man and Hulk working together.
Frizzera: It is weird in Contest that you always take a team but always fight with one. We wanted to do something more; the three things in this new game. Let’s take Contest. It’s 1v1, you have alliances, but the core toy as they call it is a 1v1 fighting game. This new game has three things. One it’s 3v3 real time multiplayer action. Not turn based. The second one, the control of Battleworld. You have the map, that is a living breathing world that is always on. Your house, you come in as the recruit of the house. You contribute to the house in the war effort. The house is always changing. The resources are always changing. We want people to influence this world by playing it, and tell the story with us.
The third part is customization. You start as a recruit. Let’s say you pick Gamma Horde You’re a low level Hulk. All you have is the purple pants, nothing more. Then you get sent into some low level missions. You get some gear. We want people to create their own version of the Hulk, not our Hulk. That’s why, when you see Spider-Man there (points to the big Realm of Champions booth mural), it’s not Peter Parker. It’s you as a Spider-Man. It’s a low level Spider-Warrior. There’s different slots. You mix and match, make your own Spider-Man. There is a weapon too. For Spider-Man, it would be a web shooter. But for that Spider-Man there, it’s a really big gun, like a gatling gun. For every character, there will be slots for customization.
You go from there. You rise through the ranks of your house. We want people to become real celebrities in the world. You see her character and you know how her character looks and you know the name of her character in the world and you say, “Oh, that’s so and so. She won like 100 battles.”
McGregor: It’s completely different game in the same universe. We were able to do this because Contest is doing so, so well. We’re at 5 years now.
Frizzera: We can take some risks. Creatively, this is a very weird and different idea. Because Contest had a solid base, we can try different flights of fancy and see if this works. We’re still working on [the play style)] but we’re working with dynamic camera. We want to have a camera that allows people to have strategy, so that you can see where everybody is, where your partners are. But that camera is very boring. It’s an immobile camera, it’s boring. We want to also have those moments where when you use a cool superhero ability, that the camera goes in there. If you’re taking many hours to customize your character, we want people to see it. We don’t want you to be always tiny on the screen. There’s a balance between those two things that we’re still working on.
McGregor: As well as celebrate the action. When you hit that button and your ability goes off, you’re able to see that damage you’re doing and see the cool effects, and get right in that combat.
Frizzera: That’s one of the hardest things in making the game. Tweaking the balance between the strategy, the cool superhero action and not have people get dizzy not knowing where they are. The camera is very complex. It’s not like Contest. That was a much easier problem to solve.
Henehan: What drove you to rework past characters in Marvel Contest of Champions, like the recent updates to Colossus and Old Man Logan?
Frizzera: We always wanted to have fun with design. Our team was originally much smaller. It comes down to bandwidth. At the time, we had a much smaller team. No one knew how big this game was going to be. We had to cut a few components. There was no way around it. We said, “Okay, maybe the Punisher and the Winter Soldier can have a few common animations.” Of course, after a while, the team grew, and we have enough animators to do it. We made a pledge a few years ago that we would never have two characters with the same animations again ever. That was 2015, because we can.
Now we have a backlist of characters that we go back and change. Just because we want to. It doesn’t change anything for us. The characters are already out. We’re not going to make any more off them. It’s for our pride. We want to make every character look as unique as they can, but the priority is always the new characters. We have a couple of days of animation time, what do we want to do? I think the players appreciate what we’re doing with Colossus and the others that we are reworking. We have a list to do more, time permitting. The meta changed over time. Some of the most popular characters we released with the game cannot compete in this environment today. I’d love to see Magneto be the Magneto he can be. We have him on the list. It’s always a grind to make new characters. We’re currently working on characters for April of next year. We try to get ahead, to have more testing time.
Henehan: How is Marvel as a partner? Do they give you advance notice of comic storylines and new character designs?
Frizzera: Sometimes the MCU can be a bit secretive. Not because Marvel doesn’t want to show us, but because I think those guys are reworking the designs to the very last minute. We do have a secret laptop in the office that is directly connected to Disney. Every time they have a new package of designs for a movie, they will send it to us. Only a few of us can actually look at the laptop.
McGregor: I can’t even look at it.
Frizzera: It’s locked in a vault and everything. The movies, we know quite a lot. We know about Black Widow, The Eternals, others. We already are planning which characters we want to do. They tell us about stuff on the publishing side too. A lot of games like to prioritize the MCU. We’re not like that. We like to see the weird stuff in the comics. I have always read comics, so I look to see what we can do.
Henehan: It looked like your team had a lot of fun with the Marvel 80 Years event.
Frizzera: The idea for the 80 Years event was to puzzle people. I thought most people wouldn’t know those characters. I like to pick characters that have the same name as current characters, so people go “Another Vision?” and are really angry about it. Then they’ll see it’s a completely different character. It’s funny because we get a lot of leeway to use characters nobody uses and make those characters really cool for our game. I have a lot of fun with that. I love the MCU, but there’s a lot of “We have to do that version, because that’s what people are expecting.” But for the weird characters, our imagination can run wild. The designers can pick their powers apart and say “Maybe I can use this, or this.” I really like when we did Mister Sinister. I think that character turned out really well, with the flamboyance and the feathered cape. Namor set the bar on how cool the characters can be. Even the engineers are like “Namor had too many parts to him!”
McGregor: “The budget!”
Frizzera: Namor’s special three when he goes into the water is so good. There’s a couple of characters who haven’t come out yet who I love, but for me they’re already in the past, because I’m working ahead. My favorite character is the Silver Surfer. I’m really liking how that character is turning out. And of course Doctor Doom. That’s why it pains me when somebody leaks the unfinished characters into the world. People say “Oh, they look so bad and don’t have effects.” You can say, “They’re unfinished” but people aren’t going to listen. I know sometimes people leak stuff because they get excited about the game but it’s a couple of months of work where we try to make things as polished as possible and because of some server mistake, things come out ahead of time, and it kills me. Because I take pride in the characters looking good. And I hope people don’t see that a representation of the work we do.
Henehan: Which upcoming character in Marvel Contest of Champions are you most excited for?
Frizzera: We started to work with our content creators so that they can break the news some time, so they can talk about it. I’m a big Fantastic Four fan. I was waiting so long to do these characters, the whole family. They are a whole new avenue of characters we can explore. The problem is the more anticipated a character is, the more of a letdown they could be. Like with Carnage, everyone has their own Carnage in their heads. You can design the character one way, but then it’s “No, no, no, this isn’t the Carnage I wanted.” That is always the problem with characters like Doctor Doom. People always want a certain version of Doom, but maybe that’s not my Doctor Doom. I grew up in the 80s with the John Byrne Fantastic Four. That’s the Doctor Doom I have in my head. And that might be different from what others have in their heads.
Henehan: When we spoke last year at NYCC, you talked about Acts I through VI fitting in a box, and then what comes next starting a new progression. Has the development of Realm of Champions changed that?
Frizzera: You’re going to realize you saw many connections in the past as Realm of Champions comes out. We planted a lot of breadcrumbs out of this. Even when you go to the home screen, that’s Battleworld. That’s not an accident. If you take screenshots of every build since Civil War, you see a planet coalescing in the background. That’s Battleworld. You’re going to see characters crossing over. Act VI is the end of a phase. I want to close that story up with Carina and then start a new one, independent of Realm but still a little connected. Contest is its own line that we want to keep following. It’s like comic books. You close a trade, and then start another one.
Henehan: Are there some nodes for Alliance War or event quests that the designers take particular joy out of how frustrating they’ll be for the player?
Frizzera: I don’t think designers want to piss people off. They want to offer challenges. We don’t know where people will land on a challenge. If you make it too easy, people complain that it’s too easy. If you make it too hard, people are going to get pissed off. It’s a little bit of a guessing game. The designers all play the game. Sometimes they’ll play some new content and think this is too hard, but when you put it out there, people crack it in a week. I don’t think anyone wants to make anyone angry but that’s the nature of things right now. You have such a population of people, that somebody is going to get angry. And sometimes that person has a YouTube channel, and that person is going to yell at you through the channel and everybody is going to agree with them. The good thing is we can always change back. It’s not like a console game where it’s hard to put a patch out. I like to think it’s a conversation. We don’t need to yell at each other, but we can talk. And if something doesn’t work, we can go back and change it.
Henehan: Last year, you spoke of wanting to add shapeshifting to Marvel Contest of Champions. We saw that in the npc Skrulls, but is shapeshifting in the plans for playable characters?
Frizzera: I think the Skrulls, we put those characters in the game because we want to go back to them. We have a couple of plans for shapeshifting but it’s not quite there yet. We tried a few things, and there are different opinions in the office on what direction it should go. It’s a hard nut to crack. It could be a file load problem if you have to load every single character in the game every fight. It changes quite a bit the way things are done. It’s not on my side. On my side, I say, “Hey I want to have Skrulls.” There is more stories with Skrulls coming next year.
Henehan: When is the release date for Marvel Realm of Champions?
McGregor: Realm of Champions is coming out in 2020, next year.
strong>Henehan: What month?
McGregor: We can’t say just yet. 2020.
Henehan: Will players who play both Marvel Contest of Champions and Marvel Realm of Champions unlock any special bonuses for playing both?
McGregor: We’re exploring a few things right now. There is talk about having a Kabam account that is connected to both mobile games. We’re brainstorming a variety of things we could do right now.
Frizzera: If you’re crazy enough, or organized enough, to play two intense games like that, for sure we want to make people feel rewarded, and that they are a cut above. We know the Contest already takes a lot of hours out of hardcore players, so we’re not asking anybody to sacrifice their personal lives for the two games. It’s always a good idea to show appreciation people who go through the whole story as it were. We have a few ideas about that.
Henehan: In Marvel Realm of Champions, will character selection be more user driven, or will it be random number generated like the crystals in Marvel Contest of Champions?
Frizzera: The crystals, we definitely want to involve them, but not necessarily. In a game where you dig for gear, like a RPG, usually it’s through grinding. Some games like to focus on selling consumables instead of selling the gear itself. Some other games sell the gear. Some other games leave it for random drops. We’re exploring different avenues. We don’t want people to get frustrated with progression. We want you to always progress forward. That’s how you get business from people. If they progress forward, maybe they want to play more, and then maybe they want to give some money to the game, which is the free to play model. When the free to play model goes bad, that’s when you stop people from playing and people get frustrated.
It’s not my area of expertise, but I love to see people happy with this game, and playing more, not playing less and getting angry. It comes naturally. The absolute majority doesn’t pay a cent. Like 90%, 95%, they play for years and they don’t pay a cent. The other guys are the people who want to compete on a higher level, or who don’t have the time or patience, and they have money to spare. I think it works pretty well, and the market has spoken. The biggest games right now are free to play games. Unfortunately, some of them are exploitative, and now as a father, I have to pay extra attention to that, because my daughter plays those games. I have to say, “Look, this game is trying to squeeze this money from you. It won’t let you play. It’s trying to get you to pay right away, and then you pay and it’s a bad experience.” She’s learning that very early. There’s a lot of good ones out there. Pokemon Go! does it very well. The new Mario Kart is great. They have free to play stuff, you don’t feel like you’re getting squeezed.