Why Marvel’s Video Games Keep Failing

Following the shutdown of Marvel's Avengers, we take a look at Marvel's surprising struggles with their recent video game releases.

Marvel Video Games
Photo: Square Enix, 2K Games

Today, servers for 2020’s Marvel’s Avengers were officially shut down. While this decision will likely not surprise those who have followed the game since its troubled launch, it is a surprise in the grand scheme of things when you consider how high expectations for that title once were. Unfortunately, that game’s official shutdown is also the latest in a line of relative failures for Marvel’s highest-profile games. 

Several other recent Marvel games (including Marvel Future Revolution, Marvel Heroes, Marvel Avengers Academy, and Marvel Realm of Champions) have been shut down since their releases. Marvel’s Midnight Suns and Guardians of the Galaxy both reportedly failed to meet sales expectations. When some of this information was recently pointed out by Twitter user Neb, Marvel reporting account CanWeGetSomeToast suggested that Marvel is aware of these failings and is eyeing the progress of upcoming projects like EA’s Black Panther and Iron Man games to see if they should internalize future Marvel gaming projects. 

Truth be told, I wouldn’t put much stock in the specifics of that report at the moment. The information and its implications are both far too vague to consider it to be much more than a logical possibility at this time.

However, it is much more difficult to deny that Marvel’s recent gaming releases have been struggling to achieve consistent commercial success. That information raises two important questions: “Why is this happening?” and “What can be done about it?”

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The first question is difficult to answer with certainty. You can try to say the problem is “quality,” and that is certainly at least partially true in some cases. However, it is not necessarily true in the case of two of the biggest games mentioned above: Marvel’s Midnight Suns and Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps those games weren’t for everyone, but they were both incredibly well-reviewed titles from some pretty big-name studios. 

Yet, the studio involved may be part of the problem in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy. No, I’m not talking about the exceptional job that developer Eidos-Montréal did; I’m talking about the stigma surrounding Square Enix’s Marvel projects following the failures of Avengers. Despite the many differences between those games, their similarities proved to be a little too close for comfort for the recently burnt. Both were “from Square Enix” and both gave off “kind of MCU, but not really” vibes. It’s also not like the Guardians of the Galaxy marketing team could simply state that one game wasn’t actually being made by the developers of that other Square Enix Marvel game you hated. 

For that matter, it probably didn’t help that Guardians represented a departure for Eidos-Montréal who hadn’t released a major new game in quite some time and were best known for their rebooted Deus Ex titles. You could say something similar about Midnight Suns. It was, after all, a game made by the XCOM studio that looks kind of like XCOM but was actually a card-based strategy game (though not a CCG). The game was largely exceptional, but so much time was wasted trying to communicate what it is and why people should be interested in it.

Communication has been something of an issue with Marvel games, in general. The MCU has trained modern Marvel audiences to expect a fairly uniform experience. Similar styles, familiar faces, and continuing storylines. The decision to divorce recent Marvel games from the MCU is seemingly ideal from a creative standpoint (more on that in a bit), but don’t underestimate the confusion it has caused.

A Guardians of the Galaxy game released years after one Guardians of the Galaxy movie and years before another? One Marvel game that’s a fairly linear action-adventure title, another that’s a card-based strategy game, and another that’s a Destiny-like live service game (none of which were handled by studios with notable experience in those genres)? The presumed target audiences for these games don’t always know what to make of them at a glance, and their eventual quality isn’t necessarily enough to save them from rapid obscurity as a result of that confusion.

Right now, Marvel games vary wildly in terms of their quality, pedigree, genre, and releases in relation to notable MCU projects they may share some elements with at a glance. Some of those factors shouldn’t matter as much as they do, but if we’re just talking about sales performance, then they clearly do matter to at least some degree. 

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That being the case, you can see why it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Marvel getting a hold of these projects and having a bigger role in their development would be an obvious solution. However, I don’t think that solution should be quite so obvious. Actually, I think that Marvel’s current approach can pay off in a big way, and that’s because we’ve already seen two notable examples of that approach pay off in big ways: Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man games and the hit mobile CCG, Marvel Snap

Again, on the surface, those games are incredibly different and represent some of the chaotic factors that may have contributed to the relative struggles of other Marvel games so far. However, I think that the strange secret that unites both of those games is that they’re actually not that chaotic at all. Both represent pretty safe bets that were handled in smart ways. 

Marvel’s Spider-Man is an open-world, PlayStation-style action/adventure game developed by Insomniac Games: a studio that recently had notable success with pretty much exactly that kind of game. It also starred Spider-Man, who is not only one of Marvel’s most iconic mainstream characters regardless of the quality of current media releases (though those recent releases have been exceptional) but a character who has appeared in a number of incredible video games over the years. 

It’s a somewhat similar story for Marvel Snap. That’s a pretty classic (though obviously modified and refined) CCG title headed up by former Hearthstone honcho Ben Brode and released on a platform that has always been more receptive to those kinds of experiences. Much of the confusion and hesitation that surrounded Midnight Suns over the assumption it might be that kind of CCG clearly wasn’t a problem for Midnight Suns because of its developers’ history and their chosen release format. A lot of mobile gamers look for CCGs, and those familiar with one of the biggest CCGs (Hearthstone) were looking forward to what Brode would do next within that genre.

There are other uniting factors, of course. Both games are exceptionally well-made, both invoke pleasant Marvel memories without being directly tied to MCU, and both do not feature the aggressive microtransactions that arguably helped doom some of those other Marvel projects. Again, there are always a vareity of factors that help determine which games succeed and which games fail.

Yet, as much as I hate to do so, I keep coming back to variations of the word “safe” when I think of those successes. An open-world Spider-Man game from a noted PlayStation developer released for PlayStation and a mobile CCG game with minimal microtransactions headed by a noted figure in the genre. Proven genres on proven platforms made by proven developers who can deliver the best versions of those in-demand concepts. It’s not always a recipe for success, but it’s one that we haven’t always seen from the other recent Marvel games. Gamers could look at those titles, know why they should be excited based on everything (and everyone) involved, and then enjoy the quality games that justified all of that excitement. Clarity, quality, and delivery.

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Look, I don’t want Marvel games to become predictable and boring. It saddens me to think that games like Midnight Suns and Guardians of the Galaxy may have never even existed if more risk-averse regulations were put into place. As Marvel should have learned from the MCU, though, you have to establish a model of success with consistent, high-quality individual installments before you can give your riskier projects the chance to succeed that they deserve (if they are worthy of success). 

Perhaps Marvel can make that happen internally, and maybe they’ll decide to do that if those upcoming EA games fall to an all-too-familiar fate. However, I think it would be a shame to see that happen. Franchises are often about pedigree, and when it comes to games, Marvel may be taking their pedigree for granted and assuming that gamers will buy their games because “Marvel” is on the box. We now know that is not always the case.

The experiments will (or should) come later. Right now, Marvel needs to change the narrative about their gaming efforts by finding the right partners for the right projects and letting the studios who will probably be all-too-happy to make the next great Marvel game that fits into their wheelhouse just do their thing.