Marvel Comics to Bring Heroes to Computer Gamers

Fans of comic series such as Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America, The Punisher, Iron Man, and other Marvel Comics may soon be able to don the virtual Spandex and fly into the action. Marvel Entertainment and game developer Gazillion revealed a 10-year partnership to create numerous massively multiplayer online games (define) based on characters in the Marvel universe.

The partners are betting on comic book fans and gamers to embrace the games for their unscripted and open environments that allow for role-playing rather than completing pre-determined objectives as in video games. Gamers will also be able to play and interact with established characters from Marvel comic books under the licensing deal, though gamers won’t see the fruits of the partnership until next year at the earliest.

“What is great about Marvel, and great about the MMO opportunity, is that we’ve been publishing comics for 70 years, and we have 70 years to draw on,” said Simon Philips, president, worldwide consumer products at Marvel Entertainment, a company that publishes comic books, produces films, and licenses characters for use in products.

And, MMOs represent the latest in a long line of brand extensions and licensing deals for Marvel. It has licensed its characters to movies, video games, toys, and other properties. “With a partner like Marvel there are built-in marketing vehicles. The millions of consumer touch points that you have is really unparalleled. All of these films that come out, the TV shows, the toys, these are all opportunities to drive awareness and subscriptions [for the game],” said Paul Baldwin, VP of marketing at Gazillion.

“Marvel has a wide appeal,” said Billy Pidgeon, program manager, consumer markets, games at IDC. “Obama likes Spider-Man. Parents read Marvel. Kids get into Marvel. Marvel has a perennial license. Movies are doing well, the games could do well.”

He cautioned that consumers could be disappointed if they wait too long for the Marvel games to come out, or if the development isn’t polished. “People’s expectations are really still an issue,” he said.

The first title, “Marvel Super Hero Squad,” will be released in 2010. The title will be a browser-based casual MMO drawing from characters featured in an animated television show that starts in the fall. Marvel is also in contract with video game publisher THQ to release a video game in 2009 for the same property, and Marvel has licensing deals for a line of toys.

The second game, “Marvel Universe,” will come later, likely in 2012.

“It’s one of the longer deals that we’ve done,” said Philips. “It’s primarily down to the fact that it takes a couple of years to get a game out. We want to have a great game experience. These games are not a one-week, one-month, or one-year gaming environment; it’s a totally immersive gaming experience. It seemed the right thing to do to have a game environment that would have the right experience that would provide that for people.”

Ten years is not unreasonable given development time and the lifespan of an MMO according to Pidgeon. “You need a 10-year deal for MMOs, it takes three years to get it off the ground, and five years to be successful. It’s risky stuff,” he said.

In the time it takes for even the first Marvel game, “Marvel Super Hero Squad,” to be released in 2010, there’s already a murky field of hits and misses in super hero-themed role-playing games online. “City of Heroes” and later “City of Villains” were developed and released by NCSoft. Both were unlicensed, meaning neither were attached to a partner such as Marvel to offer a fan base, marketing, or other form of support. In the licensed playground Gazillion is contending with “Star Wars Galaxies” and “Star Wars Old Republic,” both from LucasArts, “The Matrix Online” released by Warner Bros. and Sega, and “Age of Conan” from Eidos. “Because of the license, expectations are going to be very high,” said Pidgeon.

DC Comics also announced “DC Universe” with Sony Online Entertainment and Warner Bros back in 2006, which has yet to come out.

Gazillion is a creator of MMO games for wide audiences. It hopes to expand beyond its audience of 18- to 34-year-old males with the Marvel titles as well as others including the upcoming “LEGO Universe.” The company just came out of a so-called stealth mode that lasted three years. Gazillion boasts it employs talent from Pixar, Apple, Blizzard, and Microsoft to create its games.

The depth and value of Marvel’s license gives this arrangement an edge over a number of rivals’ offerings, said both Baldwin and Philips.

Exactly what Marvel and Gazillion will offer to consumers has yet to be decided.

Philips, for instance, couldn’t say whether gamers would be able to play Wolverine or any other Marvel character, or simply create avatars or other characters that take on the characteristics of super heroes. “It remains to be seen exactly how the game will evolve and how the characters evolve, but if everybody chooses to be the same Wolverine, it will be a boring game,” he said. “We may allow players to have the powers, but not the characters.”

Even if players have to settle for a more generic version of The Punisher or his favorite X-Men, it will still be in the Marvel world. “The comic book world is finite, with an MMO it is infinite. The world is changing, a complete extension,” said Philips.

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