Spider-Man’s elaborate web work has nothing on the twisted web that Beenox had to navigate in getting the video game epilogue to Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man reboot, which hit movie theaters just days after the game in July 2012. That was the overriding impression we got from a recent chat with Brant Nicholas, who served as executive producer on the game.
Negotiating a Story
The main thing that people might not realize is the number of proverbial cehfs in the kitchen for a project on this scale. Due to the fact that the game is a movie tie-in, and in fact functions as a sort of epilogue to the events of the film, as well as the fact that the movie is based on yet another company’s comic book series, Beenox was in constant communication with both Sony Pictures and Marvel Comics, as well as its Activision parent.
“There are essentially two separate canons,” Nicholas explained. “There’s the Marvel Comics canon and then there’s the Sony Pictures canon that came when Sony licensed the universe from Marvel several years back.”
“Whenever there’s anything that we want to do in the game, not only do we have to get it approved by Marvel, who has to bless it and give recommendatations that we [use to] tweak and to iterate, but then after that we go to Sony, and Sony has to give recommendations that we iterate on and tweak.”
It helped that Beenox was a player in the process almost from day one. Webb was already on board, but there was no script, only the loosest idea of what the story would be, and some general thematic guarantees, both in terms of Webb’s vision and in terms of the story rebooting the film side of the Spider-Man canon.
“We actually worked together with Marc Webb [and Sony Pictures] to review the script together, brainstorm the possibilities, think about the directions that they were going and the directions that they wanted to make sure we went,” Nicholas said.
“Marc really wanted this to be the story of Peter Parker more than it was the story of Spider-Man per se. He really wanted this to be a telling of Peter’s story, and of the love story between him and Gwen, and what that relationship is. Marc worked with us very carefully to make sure that we not only honored Spider-Man as a Marvel character, but that we also stayed true to the story that he was trying to craft.”
Alongside the film creator’s vision are basic Marvel edicts about different characters that simply aren’t open to interpretation. In the case of Spider-Man, it’s the fact that he doesn’t let anyone die. Or, as Nicholas put it: “He is the guy who always saves everyone even at his own personal expense.”
This universal trait for any version of the character resulted in Beenox having to make some changes to the planned game, which was to offer more of a complex plot built around player choice. “In our original story, Spidey had to choose in the first scene between saving Alistair or saving Gwen, and then your choices had impact in the story further on. Due to our ongoing discussions, we realized we were in a situation where Spidey couldn’t let either one of them not be saved,” Nicholas revealed.
“We originally wanted an additional layer of complexity to the story and the decisions for the player, but narratively, for Spidey as a character, his DNA, we would have to write in a way where he could have saved both of them.”
“For each of the characters in our story, we had to find ways to honor that and to stay true to that,” Nicholas added. “It was a long process. Everybody involved wants to write in these cool twists, and sometimes Marvel comes back saying, ‘Ehhhhh… noooo, we don’t think we want you to go that way.’ Or Sony goes ‘No, we don’t think we want you to close the door on this character, we may want to use XYZ in the future.’”
“All those things are part of the ongoing process of negotiating how we introduce these characters… because that has impact on the licensing agreements for each of the characters. The costs are different depending on how you license them.”
Also important from the game’s perspective was the movie’s handling of cross-species characters and Oscorp genetic experimentation. In the movie, the genetic research of Dr. Curt Connors and Peter Parker’s father feeds into the origins of both Spider-Man and The Lizard. On the game side, those same experiments inform one half of the villains you face off against.
“Specifically with the cross-species characters that were in ASM, [executive producer] Avi Arad and Marc really wanted us to try to drive home the biological emphasis behind the genetic experiments that Oscorp was undertaking,” Nicholas explained. It was another long fight to get legal approval for this fresh take on cross-species characters in the Spidey universe, but in the end it was just an idea that made more sense for a 21st century Spidey tale.
“One of things about Rhino, for example– he began [in the comics] as a Russian spy back in the day, and he got experimented on to give him armor [but] his costume kind of got bonded to him,” Nicholas said. “That story is kind of dated now. It’s not the ’80s anymore. Things have progressed a little further and it’s not the U.S. versus the Soviet Union. So one of the things we wanted to do was update Rhino to be a blend [of old and new].”
The rebooted Rhino actually went through a few iterations during development. Marvel’s feedback to Beenox came with the note that he should be a human with rhino DNA, as opposed to the animal mixed with human DNA that all cross-species characters other than Spdiey and The Lizard turned out to be in the final product. It was Marvel that later came out in an interview with a position that reversed the comic publisher’s initial feedback.,
For Beenox, the goal was simply to deliver a compelling character. “We’ve gone both ways with the character and wanted to find the thing that gave the best personality to him,” Nicholas said. “I can’t really touch on where we’re going with our plans for the next game, but it’s something even cooler.”
The extended fight to bring a new take on cross-species into the game actually worked out to the game’s benefit. Since characters like Rhino and Scorpion were caught up in legal negotiations, Beenox was free to further flesh out the plotline with the introduction of Alistair Smythe to the Sony canon.
Creator of the so-called “Spider-killer” robots in the comics, Smythe brought some classic Spidey villain cred to the narrative while also eventually serving as a research-oriented figure who could be the agent of this expanded focus on cross-species that Arad and Webb wanted the game to embrace, once it was approved.
`These various license approval discussion led to some epic boardroom showdowns. Nicholas descibes meetings in which legal teams from Activision, Marvel, and Sony all faced off to hammer down what could and couldn’t work. “No one could say anything without being quickly silenced if we were going in the wrong direction,” he said, laughing.
Tuning the Rush of Web Rush
Beenox worked within what was roughly a two year development cycle for Amazing Spider-Man. This includes the pre-production work like those aforementioned creative approvals as well as the technology refinement and world-building.
Amazing Spider-Man is the studio’s first open world game, Nicholas revealed that it required a complete overhaul of the engine that previously powered Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time. The new game also introduced an entirely fresh approach to Spidey’s traversal abilities in the Web Rush mechanic. All of which left Beenox with plenty to actively work on while legal teams juggled the content negotiations.
“We just knew [when we first started work] that it was a Spider-Man game and that we wanted to re-introduce Manhattan. Eventually we built things out from there,” Nicholas said, describing how Web Rush grew out of those early conversations. “You’ve never really been able to control yourself in the past. We began right away working on the Web Rush technology, and how we wanted to do that,” he continued.
The traversal mechanic that sees players sending Spidey leaping and bounding off to a designated destination went through at least seven or eight iterations during the two-year development period. There were even times that the team considered dropping it entirely. The goal was to tap into Spider-Man’s natural agility without that translating into a complex set of finger gymnastics.
“We weren’t aiming for the core Spider-Man audience like we might with Shattered Dimensions or Edge of Time,” Nicholas explained. “We were aiming at the market that a Sony Pictures movie might appeal to. With that in mind as our core target, [the question became] how do we make something that is fun and entertaining, and makes you feel like Spider-Man in the movie.”
“We wanted to find a way to actually bring that to the player. So the running along the tops of buses, the bouncing off of walls, the flipping off of flagpoles and all of that, it took us a long time to find the right balance. At one point we had Web Rush going about 250 miles per hour, which was awesome but the slight problem with it is [how quickly you can get across Manhattan].”
It took a great deal of experimentation to get the feel to a point where the mechanic achieved the dual goal of being fun and widely accessible. Even with all of the time spent toying around, there were still certain ideas that never made it into the finished product.
“In the end, we got about 80 percent of what we wanted to get into the game done in time and polished in time to ship with it,” Nicholas said. “We still have another 20 percent of all sorts of extra combat content that I’m not going to talk about. All sorts of environmental interactions and prop interactions that are definitely on our current slate… for some future iteration of the game. They’re the things that we wanted to do, but we just didn’t have the time at the end.”