Marvel’s Avengers lead Lego into new gaming territory

Developers tell us how a toy company’s take on gaming can be a pioneering force in the industry

Marvel LMA

You’ve played with it as a child and have probably experienced the unique pain of stepping on a Lego piece, but the next generation may see more bricks on a screen than in their hands. Now, Marvel at what the brand has become.

#GNTECH recently met the guys developing the upcoming Lego Marvel Avengers (LMA) at an exclusive preview event at the Olympic Park in London. We got to play the upcoming game, which will be available on January 26 across platforms.

Everything in the game is “Lego-ised”, to borrow a phrase used by Philip Ring, Executive Producer of LMA at TT Fusion. The studio has nearly a decade’s experience of moving an interactive children’s toy sets from the physical world into polygonal gaming console co-op fun.

Game first, shop later

Now, the toys appear on screen first. It’s a role reversal.

“If you’re playing LMA in free roaming mode, there’s a ship parked on the SHIELD Helicarrier that takes you to space,” says Ring. “It’s the exact model from a Lego set being released early next year.” He also cites a “huge build” Hydra train and Captain America’s bike as examples from the dozens of upcoming sets that will feature in the game before they hit real-life stores in 2016. “The team digitises a real Lego set and we’re lucky to be sent the sets very early.” It is product placement, only done more clever than most – the product shows up on screen first.

It goes beyond simply placing a model of a toy in the game. Certain puzzles require a player to construct a device or vehicle to get past an obstacle. Hold down a button and you see the pieces coming together to make the object at a fast-forwarded speed. Do these movements effectively act as a building guide as well? “Not the part where small pieces hover in the air, of course – but yes, we did try to ensure the pieces coming together to make these objects are as reality-based as possible,” explains Ring.

He says the TT office is flooded with Lego and that this makes for a fun workplace. But the environment is not without some challenges – “You need to wear shoes in our office. I made the mistake of not doing so once.”

Kid-friendly authenticity

One challenge for a studio making PG games based on films and Marvel TV series with a more mature age rating is providing an authentic depiction of characters that fans deeply care about while keeping things appropriate.

“We included Jessica Jones and Luke Cage as characters after seeing the popularity of the Netflix show,” says Ring. “However, their characters aren’t nearly as dark as they appear in the series.”

How did TT Fusion do that? “The good thing about comic book superheroes is that there isn’t a single depiction of any of these characters – different writers can show different sides of each one,” says Ring. One example of language cleansing can be seen in a verbal exchange between Loki and Stark, where the latter makes reference to the Asgardian’s “performance issues”. When asked about this, Ring says, “Well, we didn’t want to have kids turning to their parents and asking them ‘What does that mean?’.”

However, the producer says each license the team works with has to feel authentic. “That’s why we got original voice acting recorded, not only of Clark Gregg [SHIELD agent Coulson of the films and TV series], Cobie Smulders [Nick Fury’s second-in-command] and Stan Lee but also renowned voice actors such as Jennifer Hale,” explains Ring.

Characters for the fans…by the fans?

Like the Jessica Jones characters, many in the expansive Marvel playable roster were selected on basis of recent popularity and media attention. But you might not have heard of a fair few of them. Devil Dinosaur, of the late 1970s comic series, is one example. “We didn’t actively ask people what characters we should include,” says Ring, “but whenever we did post on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, fans were quite vocal about who they wanted to see – and our developers obliged. A liquid-metal Iron Man suit in the game was one result of this.” Aside from social media responses, a few characters were also included on the basis of comments running under online articles covering the game.

“I can’t tell you more than this, but we also have another character who, shall we say, has some history with the Hulk,” Ring says, with a cryptic smile.

Marvel at open worlds

Open worlds are rarely seen on handheld devices, mainly because it can be incredibly difficult to do justice to the nuances of possibilities and player freedom. “As a designer, I don’t get intimidated but excited by these challenges,” Steven Thornton, Game Director of the handheld versions of LMA, tells #GNTECH. “The open world of New York is 1:1 scale with the console version.” This is the sixth Lego title for handheld devices he has worked on. “The beauty of an open-world games lies in the element of freedom… We were really excited to give the player that freedom, but with superheroes.

“You’re Iron Man flying around New York and you see a thief stealing a purse. We wanted to ensure that this random occurrence can take place on the handheld as well as the console version.

“If you’re very linear with a character, it can feel like you’re limiting possibilities for the player,” adds Thornton.

“It’s giving players the tools to have their own fun,” says Ring.

Open-world free roaming is particularly fun with Quicksilver, whose super speed lets him run across ponds in Central Park. When asked if TT Fusion had looked at other open-world games for inspiration, Ring says, “Skyrim and Metal Gear V are incredible gaming worlds, but they’re more adult.” And he doesn’t just mean in terms of violence or other mature content. “The mechanic can be very tricky for younger players at first.” TT Fusion tested early builds of LMA with young children and found that many would spend hours roaming around New York before even thinking about progressing the main storyline.

“Many open-world games are confusing to children,” explains Ring. “Although they do love and appreciate the sandbox concept.

“We’re introducing the open-world play mechanic to younger players.”