Looking Back on Marvel Heroes
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 June 2014, 6:34 pm
I spent $20 and maybe a dozen hours on the launch of Marvel Heroes.  I returned in November and have spent $270 since (including pre-purchase of post upcoming content slightly into next year), playing Marvel Heroes as my primary title for most of the time since December.  The good and bad of the game as it stands today:

Atmosphere, Gameplay
This game is a licensed property - I can't speak to whether you'll like it if you don't like the source material.  If you do like the material, it's in good hands - including a week-long review process at Marvel for stuff being added to the game.  Characters look like they should, almost always sound as they should (some voice acting is better than others, par for the course), and usually play as they should. 

In one example, they could have half-assed a magic user like Dr. Strange by re-coloring existing projectiles, and they instead spent time and effort on elaborate animations - portals with demons, swarms of magical homing daggers, a giant floating eye - to make him look more like the Sorcerer Supreme.  (One catch - heroes are priced largely based on level of development effort, so characters like Dr. Strange, and Ghost Rider who had a ton of work for his flaming motorcycle, end up costing more.)  The team has also taken the time to go re-review the launch-era heroes - one at a time - to bring them up to current standards at zero additional cost to players who already own that character. 

The gameplay is relatively standard action-RPG combat, with lots of dodging out of damage zones and occasional screen-filling explosions of particle effects.  The Marvel feel is here again, including a storyline that romps through a relatively timeless version of Marvel's major villains.  Personally, I enjoy repeating the story on all of the different characters to see how they handle the same content (which I now know very well) differently.  The action setting also includes shorter levels with more frequent opportunities to sign off and resume your progress later compared to Diablo III.  I feel that I can make progress in a 10-minute session or sit down on a rare occasion and power a character through the entire story in a few hours.

The Business
The game's business model has also seen an overhaul.  At launch, the cash store was all over the place, playable heroes were the priciest items, and just about anything could drop in game with no real way to farm what you wanted.  Today, heroes are cheaper across the board, and a new currency based entirely on time /played can be used to unlock any hero in the game.  The flip side, which the developers have been much more reticent to confirm, has been that everything else, from respec potions to costumes, have been drastically slashed on the loot tables. 

The new model makes sense - personally, my playtime drops off when I start running out of characters I want to play, and that costs the developers the chance to sell me other stuff.   I can also see how someone who focused on a single character and didn't care as much about cosmetic stuff is now looking at increased costs because things no longer drop at any reasonable rate.

This is also, as you might gather from my top line numbers, a potentially pricey game.  If you wanted to purchase just the playable heroes and team-ups released from December through May when there isn't a sale on, you're looking at over $90 without paying for any storage or costumes, i.e. $15/month.  Longer term promotions don't really save you much money but you can expect significantly more stuff - including storage and an alternate costume for each new hero as they are released.  I'm actually in a bit of a dead spot in the business model where I get squeezed harder than most.  Very infrequent players get a lot of playtime without paying at all, and players who get in 40+ hours a week walk away with enough splinters to unlock every character in-game for free.  I play just enough to want new characters faster than I can earn them. 

Also, the marketing team has always focused heavily on aggressive promotions, and recent months have seen a major rise in small but desired bonuses (exclusive costumes and team-ups, permanent experience boosts, etc) for very large purchases of $100 or more.  Thus far the extras have been optional, but the quality and frequency of these promotions is increasing.  A game's business model can't be a democracy, but that doesn't make it fun when it's pointed out that there's a lot of stuff they just won't sell to players who spend $300 per year, in order to make a market for players who spend over $1000 per year. 

Production
The game's developers will readily admit that the initial launch had problems - customer service had to manually flagging accounts for access during launch, the game's first client patcher was routinely redownloading 10GB of data until tech support began telling people to go download the game from Steam instead, and there were huge issues with basic functionality like tracking quests across multiple characters and landing only halfway to the cap after a first trek through story mode. 

The good news is that the game has come a long way and seen a lot added.  Patches with various amounts of stuff arrive monthly, and events of one sort or another run on most weekends.  At least one new playable hero, ready or not, will arrive every month.  And there's the other side of the coin - the team is reasonably good at following up on new releases, but the production cycle is very aggressive, with under a week of public testing for most releases, and new paid characters seldom miss their mark.  Anything that isn't a new paid character is likely to take at least twice as long as the developers say it will to release. 

It's hard to say how harsh to be on this topic.  Blizzard fails to follow through on both its preliminary designs and its time-tables; with frequent releases in Marvel Heroes that aren't held to fill an expansion box, it's more noticeable when features were promised for their actual target date and end up slipping by weeks or months.  Sometimes, small but significant issues even get held up because the team decided to tackle something larger - for example, Life Leech cores were deemed to be overpowered so the developers disabled them from dropping in game and said they would be nerfed in a subsequent review.  The review took something like four months, during which the best costume cores in the game no longer dropped in the game. 

The studio is in the midst of re-branding the title "Marvel Heroes 2015" to match the naming convention of annual sports franchises and attempt to earn re-reviews from game reviewing outlets.  Given the hiccups that they experience on almost every patch, they might want to be careful what they wish for - Simcity still owns a 64 Metacritic score and a 2.1 user rating due largely to server issues (and the company's poor handling thereof) from the launch weekend over a year ago. 

Overall
Overall, I'm playing the game and spending money on the game.  The mechanic of collecting new heroes (some with cash, some earned in-game) and benchmarking them against familiar content is fun for me.  Familiarity with the IP means that I start each new character with some impression of who they are and what they do, and the drop-in style of gameplay works with my lifestyle.  I feel okay about what I've spent thus far, but I do have some concerns. 

Looking into 2015, the team will be releasing increasingly lower-profile characters, and I could see character designs beginning to blur together as roster sizes increase.  I have concerns about how the number of vertical progression systems they are adding to the game will scale over time.  At some point I won't find what they're offering to be worth what they're asking, and because of how I play the game that will likely mean giving up on the game entirely rather than cutting back (i.e. playing with a very limited flow of new characters will no longer be fun). 

As I said up top, this is the first time in several years that I've spent six straight months almost entirely in a single game.  So far, that counts for something. 


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