No two phrases seem to raise the ire of gaming consumers more than “free-to-play” and “licensed title.” Perhaps operant conditioning is to blame. The over-use of microtransactions and a procession of ofttimes terrible games in the last half-decade would be more than enough to make any gamer flinch in rage at the mere mention of either phrase.
This knee-jerk reaction has only grown worse in the past few years, with public relations debacles such as Electronic Arts release of the free-to-play sequel of Dungeon Keeper and Silicon Knights’ fumbling of the Marvel license with X-Men Destiny. It would seem that free-to-play and licensed titles have earned their bad reputation in spades.
A few bright lights shine through the cloud that covers free-to-play and licensed games. Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign is one of the brightest.
Marvel Puzzle Quest publisher D3Publisher’s Joe Fletcher knows that it is not easy finding the line of balance between microtransactions and quality. “It’s by no means an easy process, but with a lot of data backing up user behavior and our own feelings regarding where that line is, we try our best to stay on the light side of the ‘F2P force,’” he said. “A lot of that gut feeling comes into play when we look at adding a new feature or streamline a current one.”
Released late last year with support from Demiurge Studios, Marvel Puzzle Quest has brought production quality and polish that most licensed titles lack, while providing an engaging gameplay system that is supported, in part, by microtransactions. Using story beats from the 2008 Marvel Comics series Dark Reign, Marvel Puzzle Quest uses the ‘Bejeweled meets RPG’ concept that made D3Publisher’s previous entries in the Puzzle Quest series a surprise hit. A large part of that success has been a steady stream of constant updates featuring original art to go along with beloved Marvel characters from a proven story line.
“All art is in-house by Demiurge staff,” Fletcher said. “We do rounds with Marvel for approvals of any in-game art but usually things pass through almost immediately. The art team is very much on point. The turnaround from ‘Hey, we should put XYZ into the game’ is generally about 6 weeks, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be released immediately, just that they’ll be in the queue at that point.”
According to Fletcher, Marvel is supportive in letting the team decide the content. “Marvel gives us a ton of leniency on our creative aspect,” he said. “It does help of course that our team knows the source material pretty well, so we know where the lines are to start with.”
The team has even gone the extra mile in providing surprises and Easter eggs that will cause comic fans to squeal in delight. “Devil Dinosaur’s appearance was one the Demiurge team dreamed up,” he said. “It was implemented fairly quickly too since his art design didn’t have to be as full featured as a full on three ability character who can chat in between missions. It’s definitely a possibility that you’ll see more cameos going forward.”
Many free-to-play titles don’t see the continued support and updated that Marvel Puzzle Quest has been privy to. This stream of regular updates, in conjunction with a microtransaction system that doesn’t penalize players for not spending money is what contributes to the success of the game. Fletcher says, “Any new feature will have an effect on monetization, so we need to make sure that we’re not implementing something just because it will increase the bottom line.”
With daily drop box rewards, weekly tournaments that provide a chance at everything from new characters to premium currency, and a steady flow of story events meant to showcase new characters, Marvel Puzzle Quest treats it’s player base with respect not normally seen in other free-to-play titles. Players can expect to see this treatment continue, as D3Publisher has prepared for the long haul.
“There’s a story bible planned quite a ways out with the whole Dark Reign arc penciled in,” he said. “That being said, we don’t tend to start zeroing in on writing/design for a PVE Event until about 2 months before it’s ready to go live. That allows time for iteration of the event itself, Marvel to make sure it all jives with their various media, etc. ‘Player vs. Player’ events are a much shorter timeline in general, as there is less work, given that they tend to not have much story or new feature-sets.”
Recent character updates have seen the likes of Black Panther, The Punisher, Daredevil, Psylocke, and Susan Storm added to a robust roster of heroes and villains. Updates with characters that players will care about seems like a goal for the title. Fletcher agrees that keeping the community happy is always a goal, as well as a key to success. “This has been an interesting situation, as this is the first fully live event-based game for either D3Publisher or Demiurge. Before, we’d do the work, push it out the door, and see how fans react.”
Here though, criticism and response is constantly incoming. “We’re always looking at user data to see how people are playing the game and looking at forum postings to see the musings of our player base,” Fletcher said. “It’s a totally different process that means that we’re always re-evaluating where we want to move forward for future development. While we have story arcs, characters, and features that we would like to introduce, we definitely take the community into account in what we’re putting resources into next. It hasn’t been hard to make that change per-se, but it is a totally different development paradigm compared to the standard ‘Ship and we’re done’ boxed game style.”
Will Marvel Puzzle Quest see tie-in events to upcoming Marvel films or comic storylines? “We’re in talks with Marvel all the time on how to make our game meld better not only with the comic portion of the license but also within the ecosystem of the other media out on the market,” he said. “Sometimes that affords us opportunities for tie-ins while other times it doesn’t make as much sense within the narrative of how our game is running. I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
With a focus on original art for classic Marvel characters, a tried-and-true gameplay system, and a free-to-play element that doesn’t punish players who don’t want to pay to play, Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign is a rarity in the free-to-play genre. Fletcher hopes to keep fans happy while finding a happy medium. “Every change we make needs to give the player something either short or long term and needs to be for the continued health of the game. Monetization based off that is secondary. The balance is definitely a factor, but the idea is to make a great game. The success will come with that.”