Art above is from the first volume of Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness's run on Avengers, which I read while drunk at Christmas, and enjoyed a lot. Get it on Comixology here.
Marvel is quietly having a resurgence in games right now, and it hasn't happened by accident. Around four years ago, Marvel reconfigured its focus to something very specific: "to collaborate with the best partners to unleash a bold new era," as Marvel Games' VP and creative director put it in an interview recently. The best result of that is probably the PS4-exclusive Spider-Man game (with one notable misfire being Marvel vs Capcom Infinite), but there's a lot more in the works.
This should be the year we find out more about Crystal Dynamics' Avengers project, and it's been reported that the Deus Ex creators at Eidos Montreal are working on a game based on Guardians of the Galaxy (hopefully with a bank level of some kind). Ben Brode, a key Hearthstone figure, is working on what I assume will be a card game based on Marvel's properties. The future should be pretty bright—and I get the sense Marvel is trying to avoid the mistakes of past games by not just jumping on bandwagons and licensing out watered down versions of the same thing.
But, reader, forget Marvel's common sense attitude towards tiresome trends: what if there was a Marvel battle royale game? And I don't mean just popping up for a limited time in Fortnite: what if there was a game that updated as frequently as Fortnite, but was entirely about Marvel superheroes? Why isn't there? And what would it look like if there was?
Time for some unsolicited backseat games designing for a complicated and expensive game that will never exist, from a writer who has made two (two!) Twine games with no graphics.
I give you: Secret Wars (2015 edition)!
The fundamental premise of Battleworld from the Secret Wars comics is that they're a kind of patchwork of different parts of different worlds, where heroes and villains can, well, battle it out. In the latest Secret Wars book from 2015-2016, written by Jonathan Hickman (which is well worth reading, by the way, especially after reading the dense multi-year Avengers run that preceded it) and illustrated by Esad Ribic, Battleworld was composed of different realities bordering on each other—many of which were based on 'what if?'-style scenarios.
One, for example, was set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the book Old Man Logan (roughly the basis for 2017's brilliant Logan movie). During Secret Wars, Logan finds his way into other lands featuring different versions of the superheroes we know—they border each other like nations separated by barriers, despite representing vastly different times and places. In one, Tony Stark and Captain America are locked in a constant civil war. In another, Captain America fights dinosaurs. As you can see above, It's a very comic book-y concept, and as such you should never spend too long thinking about it, but it's a fun backdrop for a big story.
Anyway, rather than bog you down any further in the details of comics I half-remember from four years ago, Secret Wars strikes me as the perfect setting for a battle royale game. You have a landscape that encompasses enough new worlds that the developers could seasonally overhaul parts of the map. In the story, Battleworld is the creation of Doctor Doom—in a game, it'd make sense if he overhauled it as he sees fit.
Maybe you start with Manhattan, home of many Marvel heroes, and it looks like a traditional superhero setting. Then it gets weird. It merges with parts of Knowhere, as seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The wasteland of Old Man Logan becomes adjacent to Times Square. Then you could add a new quadrant of the map with the futuristic skyscrapers of 2099, home of Miguel O'Hara, as seen at the close of Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse. This variety of themes would be more than enough to keep a battle royale map fresh—Marvel has decades of What If? stories to tap into. And the premise of Battleworld stops the frequent map changes from seeming arbitrary in a story sense, as well as giving the game many opportunities for limited time events focused around certain worlds or characters.
But wait. Wait! The important part is, the heroes and villains would start the game by jumping out of the SHIELD helicarrier.
Apex Legends is a good model for how you reproduce these characters for a game. Roughly map them into sub classes, then give them specific abilities suited to their fictional powers: web-slinger could be a class (there are so many Spider-people, from Miles Morales to Spider UK), so could magic (Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, Magik, Nightcrawler, Loki), a tankier class would make sense (Captain America, Hulk, Colossus), and you could have a few fliers, too (Iron Man, Falcon, Angel from the X-Men). The roster could expand forever. Moon Knight could be in it!
How would combat actually work?
Er...good question! PC Gamer's Tom Senior asked me this very thing, and I just sat there looking dumbstruck. You can't really make this into a shooter—a few characters carry projectile weapons in the Marvel universe, like Cyclops, Hawkeye, Havoc, Iron Man, Falcon, but many of them don't. They hit hard, or have a cool melee weapon.
There's a lot of doing cool shit at close range, so it'd have to primarily be a brawler, with each character having an optional long range attack with a cooldown timer. I'll leave this to my hypothetical game designers to figure out. I'm out of my depth here.
But! Like playing Marvel Vs Capcom, the appeal would surely be how each character works against another—webbing a character up as Spider-Man, throwing your shield as Captain America. A good team of four would have enough in-built counters to deal with different types of heroes. The kind of loot found around the map could be a Smash Bros-style array of big, silly weapons from Marvel's history—I'm thinking the Infinity Stones, but also various Asgardian weapons, the Hulkbuster, Green Goblin's glider, the mystical staff from The Runaways. You could even have Smash Bros-style AI-controlled support trophies comprising less obvious characters (what if The Sentry just threw your opponent into space? What if Lockjaw from the Inhumans turned up to adorably maul your opponents? You could call in the velociraptor from Runaways!). References to that universe and novel weapons could compensate for a lack of guns.
Here's one wild card aspect that would be rad as hell in a battle royale game: in 2015's Secret Wars, the Battleworld had its own police force, and they were the Thors. Not just Odinson Thor, but every version of Thor from across every universe, all working in tandem. If you fall outside the circle during a game of Marvel's hypothetical battle royale, the Thors fly in and mess you up.
Fine: here's why it possibly wouldn't work
Battle royale is an overstuffed genre, and I'm tired of it too, honestly—if something like Dying Light: Bad Blood peaks at under 500 players, breaking through with anything would take something of a miracle, even if it's tied to the biggest entertainment thing in the world. Apex Legends came from a seasoned studio with an unmatched history of making competitive FPS games, and a massive planned streaming presence, which helped it get oxygen. God help anyone else. It wouldn't just take Marvel characters to make it happen—it'd take a world class developer of competitive games.
There is also a mixed history of characters being transplanted into more popular genres. Infinite Crisis, the MOBA that launched in 2015 and was shuttered later that year, is based on a similar premise to Secret Wars, where different versions of characters from alternate universes would do battle—and they were matched to a genre that was pretty hot at the time. Turning up with iconic superheroes isn't always enough. Although, that said, the DC Universe Online MMO is still going.
And what about Marvel itself? Plenty of games have thrown together a multitude of superheroes from that roster and met their demise—the free-to-play Diablo-alike Marvel Heroes, for example. It's had more fortune in the last few years with a singleplayer, PS4-exclusive Spider-Man game than anything else. Maybe that upcoming Avengers game from Square Enix will be a better bet.
Look, I'm not saying that Marvel Battle Royale would make billions. I'm just saying it'd be nice if someone tried.