Brian Michael Bendis is well-known for his work in the Marvel Comics universe, whether it's his historic run on "Avengers" or his critically acclaimed start on "All-New X-Men" and "Uncanny X-Men." In addition to his comic-writing duties, Bendis has crafted the story for Gazillion Entertainment's free-to-play "Marvel Heroes" MMORPG, which allows players to take control of their favorite Marvel Comics heroes in a wide-ranging story, covering the length and breadth of all things Marvel.
Releasing June 4, Bendis discussed his work on "Marvel Heroes" during a special conference call, focusing on how the game compares to his comic book projects with Marvel and the process of translating the source material to a massively multiplayer online experience.
"This is a very cool opportunity, and the reason I'm so excited to do it is the Marvel Universe -- and the way it interacted with its audience from the early days of Stan Lee -- seemed like the perfect thing for an MMO," said Bendis, who noted how much he appreciated the massive scope of the Marvel U. "It's perfect game fodder. I thought it was an opportunity to create a universe for fans of all mediums to gather and do whatever they wanted in the Marvel Universe. All fans have a very specific idea of what the Marvel Universe should feel like and now they can make it in their own image. I'm very happy about how the game turned out. It takes it to the next level of how fans interact with the characters."
Bendis has worked on a Marvel video game before -- Activision's "Ultimate Spider-Man" -- and the writer said the experience was valuable. "The difference between a console game and MMO is huge," he said. "It's like you're writing a lot of setup and then the player takes over -- sometimes for a writer, the setup's the fun part. I write the setup and the player has to figure their way out of it. It's pretty cool. Everyone at Gazillion was really cool and did their homework. The first time I came down to visit them, we hung out at a comic book store.
"Limitations exist in the animation and gameplay in what they can and can't do, so we wrote to their strengths," Bendis continued. "It's nice working with lovely, caring people. It was extremely pleasant. The diehard Marvel fans will be relieved to know this game was put together by people who give a shit about the characters."
For "Marvel Heroes," Bendis pitched a story opening in the street level universe, then scaling up to the cosmic level, uniting and driving the story by placing the Cosmic Cube into the hands of Doctor Doom. "He's making a concerted effort to a smarter plan -- that power is the Cosmic Cube. Fans of the movies know it as the Tesseract," he said. "Because of his very specific expertise in technology and the magic arts, he feels he'll be able to control that power, and by doing so is wreaking havoc all over the Marvel Universe."
Doom as the main antagonist makes a lot of sense, and Bendis noted there wasn't any other good choice for the game's big villain.
"Dr. Doom's reach is such that it could hit the entire Marvel Universe," said Bendis. "His actions could create a ripple effect all the way from Daredevil up to Thor. We wanted to make sure this game felt legitimate. It doesn't get more badass than Doctor Doom -- his motivations are excellent for a villain. His agenda's specific and it's a lot of fun to write. You get to see why he's gone crazy and what makes him tick. I don't remember having a discussion of anyone else who would fit the bill."
Part of the challenge for Bendis as a writer was to ensure the same level of emotional connection to the game as readers have to the comics.
"As a storyteller, you want readers to really feel and care," said Bendis. "As the motion comics go along and once the stage is set, hopefully you'll really feel the threat of Doctor Doom and the sacrifices that need to be made for him. Of course it's up to the player whether they'll feel the connection -- that's certainly part of why you'd want to do a Marvel story. The characters are very relatable, and as the story continues and expands you'll get to feel a lot of stuff. That's one of the most important things to me."
Rather than cinematics, the game features over an hour of motion comics that fill-in between chapters -- all are written by Bendis and drawn by "legitimate Marvel Comics artists." It's all original material, but Bendis nonetheless has a large degree of familiarity with these characters -- especially those squarely in his wheelhouse, such as Luke Cage and Squirrel Girl, who both make an appearance as playable characters in "Marvel Heroes."
"I was happy to see that," Bendis said. "It showed the developers and the guys behind the scenes were really on the same page as me in what would be cool for a game. They were taking the temperature of the readership while creating it. They knew by putting Squirrel Girl in there, it says a lot about the wide breadth of the game and who they are: one of us. Not some soulless developers."
Bendis has written a version of nearly every playable character announced for the game so far, and he said it was nice seeing his favorites included on the list. "I wonder if they would have made the list before 'New Avengers.' It made me a proud daddy," he said. "I really tried to create a voice for the characters that were the quintessential version -- not my version or Jonathan Hickman's version or Roger Stern's version -- the quintessential version of the character so they could be as relatable to as many players as possible.
"That's the responsibility of the gig," Bendis continued. "You're setting up the player to build it up into what they want. From the early stages of the project, I've said this is the best thing for writers of the Marvel Universe. I get a letter every five minutes about Pixie from X-Men. I actually want it on the box to say, 'Marvel Universe: here! Now leave us alone.' That's the job, to create a Marvel Universe not only for comic book readers, but people coming in from the movies and television -- you want to make it as inviting as possible, just like you would at the beginning of every comic. It's not unlike what we do on a normal work day. You make sure every issue could be someone's first."
The amount of story content in the game is massive, especially for those that might only be coming in from Marvel's comic book universe.
"I've been working on this on and off for two and a half years," said Bendis. "Add that up to -- I couldn't even come up with a number -- but it's got that event level feel to it. The story escalates and the danger is real. Doctor Doom's power level is at a peak we haven't seen before. He does something drastic and huge just to launch a game. It's an event that goes on for quite a while... let's say 2000 issues."
Bendis said expansion packs were discussed immediately upon beginning development, and players should expect more content as the game continues to grow. "That's another reason the Marvel Universe is begging for this kind of treatment," he said. "There are all these places and things and story lines you can adapt or tweak or create new stuff for. There are so many different places you can go, so that was making everyone very excited. From the first day we got together, people were throwing out expansion pack ideas."
Since Bendis is so involved in Marvel publishing, he's been able to bring unique insight and direction as to what would be most appropriate to include in the game's content -- things like a more obscure playable character, environment or plot point.
"One of the plusses of hiring me is I'm neck-deep in what's going on in Marvel publishing -- not only what's going on this second, but what's going on a year from now, two years from now. I can take this information to Gazillion and say, 'They're doing this, they're doing that, this character is looking like it's going to pop. I happen to know that this writer is going to go nuts with this character,' and if that is something Gazillion gets excited about and thinks they can do, they immediately take that information and start applying it to the game. This sets us up for really cool interactions down the line where things can start getting close together... as far as an event happening in publishing that you may feel in the game."
The connectivity doesn't stop at story-driven events, but continue through to design changes to characters as well.
"Let's say a character is getting a big redesign," said Bendis. "We immediately show those designs to Gazillion. We have the original X-Men who are the stars of my book in 'All-New X-Men' -- a lot of fans know they're getting a redesign coming with the 50th anniversary of X-Men. Those designs immediately go to the game for them to decide if they want to include the look in choices of costumes for the characters. It's a potential for this game that's unique from any other MMO. Publishing is a constantly moving organism and the game is a constantly moving organism, so they can move toward each other."
While the potential for connectivity between the comics and the games exists, Bendis stressed this wouldn't signal a shift to writing stories specifically for inclusion -- in or crossover potential with -- "Marvel Heroes."
"You don't want to start trying to make a story into everything and including everybody," he said. "The story was written specifically to the game's strengths... but there are things from my comics that pop up in the game. Like when the characters head over to the Savage Land, there's a joke in 'New Avengers' I repeated in the game."
In many ways, Bendis feels bringing the Marvel Universe to the fans in the form of an MMO is a natural evolution of the tone Stan Lee set for the publisher back in the early days of characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers and the X-Men. This heavy connection to Marvel publishing really helps present an authentic Marvel experience.
"Think back to the '60s. Stan Lee was the first guy who talked directly to the reader. He made you feel part of the Bullpen, a part of the experience," Bendis said. "It was the thing connecting us to the character. We felt like we were part of something. For the modern audience, a game like this is the next step of that evolution. We as fans have always been a part of the Marvel Universe, now we can start playing the Marvel Universe.
"I've been chasing this idea down for years. There was another attempt at this, which I was a part of. When it fell apart, I said to Marvel Games if it came up again to let me know, because I really believe for this generation of Marvel fans, this is the absolute connection no other universe provides."
While the game hasn't even officially launched yet, Bendis states fans should brace themselves for quite a bit of content come June 4.
"There's tons of stuff coming -- this is just the beginning."
"Marvel Heroes" launches June 4