Recently in the UK to promote the upcoming game Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, we had the chance to sit down and talk with Jennifer Oneal, Executive Producer at developer Vicarious Visions. Oneal started her career at Lucas arts in the late 1990s, working on Tim Schafer’s unfinished final project and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Afterwards, she moved to Activision and, eventually, settled down at Vicarious Visions. We spoke about Ultimate Alliance 2, the team’s first title for the HD console generation, and their first instalment in the series after taking over from Raven Software, as well as Stan Lee’s on-screen cameo in the game, and Oneal’s personal favourite Marvel heroes.
Vicarious Visions are mostly known as a developer of games for handheld systems (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Guitar Hero) or ports of games for consoles like PS2 or Wii. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is your first game on PS3 and Xbox 360. What was that like for the company, was it a big step? Was there much pressure? Or was it just another job?
This was a very big step, with plenty of pressure – as with any game of this stature. The thing that I should point out is, the team has been involved with the franchise for a very long time. The Alchemy Engine, on which this game is based, is the same engine that was used by Raven all the way back on X-Men Legends. Our engineering team has been constantly working on it, making it better and better. So, on top of that, we worked on the PSP version of X-Men Legends 2, and the Wii version of the original Marvel Ultimate Alliance, too. So the team in general has been involved in the franchise for a long time.
But, as a company, was this a big step?
Oh yeah, most definitely! I mean, this is the first game of its kind for the studio, and we’ve put a lot of stock in it, and a lot of effort.
So how did you approach this game? Was there anything you wanted to bring to it, after taking over the reins from Raven?
I think that one of the things that we wanted to do was to give back to the fans more of what they already knew and loved. We didn’t want to change too much. But, we knew there was something that we had to innovate on, and that’s where Fusions come in. This is one readily-visible thing that is obvious: this is our innovation for this game. We also wanted to build on the co-operative aspects of the game, building on the easy pick-up-and-play-ability of two people sitting side by side and just having fun and getting through the game together, and fusions play into that as well. Also, we made the decision to go a little darker with the storyline – Civil War was very relevant at the time, it’s very modern, and still is. And it kind of plays into our art style as well as our narrative themes.
In the past, Vicarious Visions have worked on movie-tie ins, and other licensed properties. Ultimate Alliance isn’t a tie-in, but is a licensed game. How is that different from working on a movie game? Do you have more freedom, and time, to work on it?
Certainly, we had a lot of flexibility with the deadlines. Also, I think we had a really good relationship with Marvel on this one. When you’re working on a movie game, you definitely have a lot more restrictions you have to work within. On this one, I think Marvel loves this franchise as much as we do, so it was a highly collaborative relationship for the whole time.
And you said you have an ex-Marvel writer on staff, as well?
Oh yeah, absolutely. His name’s Evan [Skolnick], and he used to work on The New Warriors, I think. He used to write for that, and decided he wanted to be in video game development, and he came to the company a while ago, but we got this particular title, and it made sense for him to write for it. We definitely benefited a lot from that.
As you mentioned, the game uses the Civil War event series as the basis for its storyline. It’s a brilliant fit for a game such as Ultimate Alliance. Was that something that the team came up with, or was that suggested by Marvel?
That was what the team came up with. It was kind of obvious, we were looking for storylines, and of course, this is one of the most popular and incredible storylines of the time. And, of course, our marketing folks did the usual focus test and, without question, this was the number one thing for us.
What was it like to have Stan Lee involved? I know he has a cameo at one point in the game…
Basically, his cameo came out of me just sitting next to him at Comicon a year ago, and saying ‘hey, Stan, you’ve been in a lot of movies lately, yeah? How’d you like being in a video game?’ And he was like ‘oh yeah, sure!’
Does he play games at all? Is he aware of that whole side of what he’s created?
I don’t see him as being a gamer necessarily, but he definitely plays them. He’s familiar with our game, we sat with him, and played alongside him, and he was just amazed at what we were able to bring to life from his comics. Imagine, when he first created these characters, I mean, there weren’t any video games back then. He could not imagine these characters that he’s creating coming to life in this way. He’s been a really great supporter.
And it’s great to have that stamp of approval for the Marvel video games, in a way, as most of the movies get Stan Lee cameos…
Oh, yeah, absolutely!
Is it going to be that every Marvel game gets the Stan Lee cameo, from now on? We’ll have to see, I suppose…
[laughs] But mine’s the first! I think he’s done v/o in games…
But this is an actual cameo, so this goes in the history books.
Yes! Because I sat next to him and asked him. [laughs]
Do you have a favourite character in Ultimate Alliance 2? And a favourite fusion power?
Ooh. It’s hard. I’m going to say, my favourite character is Songbird. It’s interesting, because she’s not a character that I followed a lot in the comics, but through working with her, and getting to know her – her backstory – she’s just an interesting character. This ex-villain gone hero, you know? So I like her story, I like what she represents, but she’s got some of the coolest powers in the game, she’s able to make crystals out of sonic constructs. It’s like, ‘what, really? okay!’ [laughs] So, you can imagine her fusions are also really beautiful. My favourite fusion with her… probably her and Hulk, they make this spiky hamster ball thing. She makes this sonic cage construct that goes around him, and he just rolls around in it and just ploughs through everything in its path, totally flattening it. It’s fun! [laughs]
Thank you for talking with us, Jennifer!
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is due out on September 25th, for PS3, Xbox 360 and other major consoles.