Earth's mightiest heroes ain't looking too mighty at the moment. It's been six months since Marvel's Avengers launched, and it's still hard to justify sticking around after you've finished the campaign. While the imminent Hawkeye update could inject some life back into it, the wise-cracking archer is also being accompanied by an XP update that's poised to slow down the endgame. It's a solution to a problem it doesn't actually have. Adding more hours to the grind sounds like an odd thing to tout as an improvement, though it would make more sense if the developer is laying the groundwork for a switch to free-to-play.
The future of the game is murky, and neither Crystal Dynamics or Square Enix have mentioned a change in business model, but it already has many of the hallmarks of a free-to-play affair—like most live service games. The upcoming changes to the pace and the endgame cosmetic hunt just makes the similarities even more pronounced. The transformation has been long-predicted, and the short-term gains might seem pretty seductive to a publisher staring at a dwindling playerbase, but it will do absolutely nothing to solve Avengers' fundamental issues.
It boils down to a big, broad problem: the fun dries up once you're finished with the story. There's a decent singleplayer campaign, and then there's just a big ol' grind through repetitive missions. The level design, enemies and loot aren't strong enough to support all this repetition, and things that can be easily overlooked in a game where you run through it once become glaring problems when you're expected to keep doing it week after week. No longer charging £50 for the privilege might bring in some new players, but it won't keep them around.
We'll probably just see a repeat of last year's launch. The allure of superheroes will bring people in, they'll have some fun smashing some robots, then the grind will wear them down and they'll leave. This kind of change is better when it's part of a game's evolution, like Destiny 2 or Rocket League, rather than a way to claw back a playerbase. We were chatting about this in a meeting recently, and I like the way that Rich put it—that these games succeeded because they made the change from a position of strength. That definitely doesn't describe Avengers.
Destiny 2, though I hate to sing its praises again, at least has its best-in-class combat, boasting gunfights that few other shooters can hope to emulate. It's a mess and only seems to make the people who play it miserable, but boy does it feel amazing to fire those fancy sci-fi guns. Where's the hook with Avengers? Where's the great bit that makes up for all the live service stuff that rightly gets on everyone's nerves? It just doesn't have it. Aside from, I guess, the decent campaign.
If pivoting to free-to-play isn't on the cards, then I've got no idea why Crystal Dynamics is spending time tinkering with something that already works fine. The announcement didn't go down well, leaving players a bit confused and prompting the developer to release a statement clarifying what it was actually trying to achieve. It's not trying to increase the grind, it says, and the aim is to help players explore builds, giving them breathing room instead of bombarding them with skill points after every mission. This sounds like bollocks.
Nobody is getting overwhelmed just because they've got a couple of skill points to allocate, and only the higher levels will be affected, after players have already spent a lot of time exploring the skill trees. Tweaking some numbers to artificially lengthen something that already outstayed its welcome is not going to make levelling up more meaningful—it's just going to make it slow. The clarification only makes it seem like the team has gotten a bit lost.
With the Hawkeye Future Imperfect update on the horizon, that might be an unfair characterisation. Crystal Dynamics is adding stuff that's a lot meatier than balance and cosmetic tweaks, but I've still not seen much that indicates how it's going to keep the endgame engaging in the long-term. Players will still rapidly burn out on the new missions and maps if the larger underlying problems go unaddressed. Even just a few missions where I'd actually be excited to play through them again would be nice; a little something to make the grind go down easier.
I'm not convinced that Avengers is going to have a second wind like No Man's Sky or Sea of Thieves. It's hard to get a sense of its direction, and it really just feels like a game that should have stopped after the campaign. There were a lot of comparisons made with Anthem around its launch, and it still reminds me of BioWare's sci-fi disaster. They're both big, costly live service games that don't have the identity or spark that can support people playing them for years. With Anthem, BioWare and EA eventually cut their losses; while Avengers isn't in quite such dire straits, I still can't imagine anyone talking about it next year.