Designing for the future: Marvel Avengers Battle for Earth’s art director discusses how to develop for new tech

Marvel-Avengers-Battle-for-EarthAs the Wii U prepares for its grand entrance onto the world stage later this month on November 18, one of Nintendo’s strongest partners, Ubisoft, has committed a slew of upcoming titles for the launch window, including Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth, which was first developed (and has since been released) for the Kinect.

dan vargasAlthough the two systems have some similarities, the process of porting a game from purely gesture based controls to motion based controllers was not easy, but it was doable. It helped that the Marvel license is as popular now as it has ever been which meant that the support was there, plus the Wii U’s launch window offerings are somewhat light on fighting titles.

So on December 4, Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth will be released for the Wii U, joining its Kinect cousin. At a recent event Ubisoft event, we had the chance to try the game out, as well as talk with one of the game’s developers, Art Director Dan Vargas. Vargas, a longtime industry vet, has been on the cusp of the cutting edge in gaming tech for more than a decade, from the early days of motion capture to the Kinect’s gesture based mechanics to the brand new Wii U. We discussed the game, as well as Vargas’ front row seat at the ever changing nature of the gaming beast.

How long has the development cycle run for this game?

A little over a year, since the Fall of last year. 

designing for the future marvel avengers battle earths art director discusses developing new gaming trends powerup heroesWas this originally conceived as a Wii U title?

This game actually has a predecessor if you will, Power Up Heroes. The core mechanic is essentially the same.

Which was a really fun game, by the way.

Yep. And I think that’s why Marvel approached us. Marvel came and saw that game at E3 and thought it would be a perfect fit for the Marvel universe. This is the first time you’ve seen the Marvel Universe in a motion-controlled fighting game.

Was this developed first for the Wii U or Kinect?

Kinect. Obviously PowerUp was a Kinect version, so we built on the foundations of the Kinect. So we were developing mostly for the Kinect.

What kind of input did Marvel offer during development?

They had lots of basic feedback, and support as well. We worked very closely with the guys out at Marvel games. It was up to us here at Ubisoft to come up with the art direction and game plan, and we presented it to them, and basically just got them to approve on us and help to tweak things – costume adjustments here and there, and obviously some of the characters have changed their designs over the last little while. One of the key things that we did was actually to focus on “The Secret Invasion,” a 2008 publication, focused on the art, focused on the story as the premise for the game, and that really helped a lot. Marvel Universe is like a billion different things, so by focusing on The Secret Invasion it really helped.

Are you a comic fan yourself?

I am. Started with the X-Men.

Did that help with the development?

A lot (laughs).

Marvel Avengers Battle for EarthWhere did you personally get started?

I started back at EA a long time ago, like 2000. I started in motion capture, so basically I helped service all the sports games, and any other game with mo-cap, I probably touched that game between the span of 2000 and 2003.

Has that motion capture experienced helped you to develop gesture based games?

It’s funny that you say that because some people have now been able to hook up two Kinects so you can do motion capture. So it was actually a hilarious sort of come back to full body motion, so it was very interesting. Yeah, it’s a huge step. I look at it as one tiny step towards the Holodeck (laughs). You saw in The Avengers, Jarvis, that Tony Stark was using like that, we do that with our menus in the Kinect version.

Is developing for gesture based controls, on any system, radically different from developing a traditional controller-based game?

It’s just a different set of design parameters. Obviously that’s going to affect all areas of development – programming, game design… Our particular challenge here was starting with the Kinect; your whole body is the controller. Coming over to the Wii U, you have the nunchucks and the GamePad. So number one, you have to translate the button mapping. Number two, you’ve got to maintain the fun and variety, so you can’t have one particular input stronger than the other. That’s a challenge. You don’t just figure that out by deciding at random. You’ve gotta play test it quite a bit to figure out the balance, fun factor, etcetera.

So do you have an idea for a game and then build it towards gesture based mechanics, or do you have the mechanics first and then create a game that fits those needs?

We try to hold on to the core principles, the core design principles. It’s gotta be fun, accessible, whatnot. Once you boil those key, core concepts down to lower levels, that’s when console or input plays a factor. Fun on the Kinect is going to be different from fun on the Wii U. It starts to define itself a little differently at that point. Once you’ve defined your high level goals – obviously that changes for something like our process that I’m closer [as the art director] to – it’s going to change the way we do art, the way we do textures, texture sizes. Maybe not necessarily for this production, but in other productions where you have multiple platforms that you’re outputting to.

So what did you think of developing for the Wii U?

Very interesting. I wish we had a little more time to play around with it more, maybe a few more tools. When a console is first starting off there are a lot of tools that are coming later rather than sooner. But otherwise it’s fun. I personally wouldn’t mind working on a dedicated Wii U version of a game at some point.

Avengers

So coming from mo-cap to gesture based controls and now with some experience with the Wii U, you are in an interesting position  having been on the cutting edge of gaming tech multiple times. With that in mind, where do you see gaming going in the next several years?

I think what you’re seeing with the GamePad, this idea of asynchronous play. Very mobile, very portable, very easy to play anywhere. Whether that be cloud or online, that’s the direction I think things are going to go in. And with these smartphones getting super powered, and the tablets becoming a lot more accessible and people just eating that up, I have a feeling that we’re going to switch to that paring. And it’s not solely going to be strictly about input either. Some of the properties, and some of the core philosophy, whether we’re trying to gameify our lives or what not, those will play a factor as well. So to make predictions, I don’t know, that’s really tough.

What would you like to see down the road from the Wii U and from the next generation of Xbox and PlayStation?

I’d like to see us be able to develop for multiple platforms and give the consumers the options to play however they want. Whether it’s a console full on two hour, or whatever, kind of experience, or if they want quick fixes on their phones, it’d be nice if a single SKU could encapsulate all of that in one. A Swiss Army knife of games, if you would, that could almost service everyone.

But while that’s nice on the consumer side of things, I wouldn’t want it to take away from the creative process of the development side of things. I wouldn’t want us to splinter ourselves too much. I still want us to be able to focus on core experiences, core feelings, whether it’s a more cinematic feel for the console, or whether it’s the fun, really simplistic gameplay on your phone.

So what are you going to do after this game is released?

I’m going to sleep for a little bit! Then we’re going to see what project comes up next.

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