Marvel Heroes: Master Marketers

Magneto's new costume: Money Manipulation

Magneto’s new costume: Money Manipulation

Since Dungeons and Dragons Online opened the floodgates of mainstream F2P MMOs, we’ve seen a lot of gimmicks used by studios to fund their “free” games–pay gates, character restrictions, in-game advertisements, pay-for-hats, buy-to-play, and the dreaded and ever nebulous pay-to-win–but they generally have one thing in common: annoy the player into opening their wallet to make things easier or the experience better in some way. Then there’s Marvel Heroes, which applies the opposite strategy. At launch two years ago (has it really been that long?) I was initially really excited about it because I had just finished playing through Torchlight II for the second time, wishing there was an MMO like it the whole time. Marvel Heroes seemed poised to fill this void, but it had a pretty rough launch. Heroes were really overpriced, and the only way to earn them in-game was from a random hero token that dropped (rarely) from bosses. On top of that, some of the heroes (like my original starting character, Fantastic Four’s The Thing) were both boring and underpowered. Disappointed, I quit the game for about six months. When I came back, I discovered that something magical had happened that it feels like we see less and less of in MMOs these days: the developers listened to the community and made the game better. Hero prices were reduced, and hero token drops were replaced with eternity splinters that players could spend on the hero (and later, teamups) they wanted to buy. Heroes have been balanced and rebalanced on a regular basis, which is crucial when you essentially have an MMO with nearly fifty classes, and they’ve done a surprisingly good job of it. They’ve added multiplayer mini-games and PvP that are actually fun and not just something to keep players from complaining.

All that to say, the thing that makes Marvel Heroes so appealing is not its story (which is mediocre), not its combat (which is fun, but not very deep), it’s the feeling that the company behind it actually cares about their game and the people who play it. The game basically rides on the goodwill of its players, and Gazillion knows it. They give away mountains of free stuff, not just through in-game drops, but daily login rewards and coupon codes through email blasts as well. They’re even giving away a free hero of your choice today to celebrate the second anniversary, and we’re also getting a free pet and team-up in the coming weeks. They do anything it takes to keep the player coming back. And the crazy thing is that it works. A popular sentiment among players is “I’ve gotten so much gameplay time and free loot from this game, I’m ok with putting $10 in the Gazillion tip jar for a costume from time to time.” Personally, as both a player and a developer I would prefer this kind of model than the aforementioned annoyance model. Granted, Marvel Heroes probably doesn’t have the highest development cost on the planet, so maybe “success” is measured by a different standard than other MMOs, but still, they don’t show any signs of slowing down.

They’re also good at removing barriers to players enjoying the game. For instance, the most recent patch has removed respec potions, which were more of an annoyance than anything, and given how often they were handed out for promos and quest rewards, I can’t imagine they made much money on them anyway. The only sad thing about free respecs is that “Retcon Device” is the coolest name for a respec potion ever. I hope they figure out something else to use the term for. Additionally, they recently made all unowned heroes free to play up to level 10. I had a lot of fun just messing around with the ones I didn’t own, and, knowing full well that I was falling for their fiendish schemes, ended up buying Wolverine while he was on sale (not a huge fan of the character, but I’m as big a sucker for a DoTs and HoTs class as I am for sales) despite the fact that most of the characters I already own are under level 25.

Marvel Heroes may not be my favorite MMO ever, and it will probably never be my go-to game, but the studio really has really nailed the fine art of making the game a purely fun experience.

P.S. Dear Marvel, forget Ant-Man, can we please get a Squirrel Girl movie? Thanks.

Marvel Heroes: Occasional Anti-Hero

We are Groot.

We are Groot.

Marvel Heroes finally released Venom as a playable character. I’ve been looking forward to playing as him since they teased him nearly a year ago, and I have to say it’s been worth the wait. He has a really interesting mechanic in that his mana (normally known as spirit but renamed ichor specially for him) only regenerates when you use attacks that do damage at the cost of health, and many ichor-burning attacks regenerate health. It’s a really cool way to represent the symbiote/host relationship, and the double resource management makes for an interesting alternative to many of the “hold right mouse button to win” characters that I’ve played in the past. Like most characters in Marvel Heroes, his “rotation” is sweet and simple: build ichor and take out trash mobs with his AoE, then hit the survivors with the more powerful ichor based attacks, either ranged or melee depending on the situation. If I’m running low on health, I can use my basic (left mouse button) attacks. I’ve had a hard time deciding if I prefer the high damage melee or the long ranged one, but I’m starting to lean toward the ranged one. After all, they both regenerate the same amount of health, and I have other skills that are more efficient at dealing damage, this one is for keeping me alive. Plus, if I’m in a tough spot I’d like to be able to keep as much distance between myself and whatever happens to be shooting at me at the time. I’ve loaded up on health regen gear so far, so it hasn’t really been much of an issue, but when bosses start hitting hard it’ll be nice to be able to build my health back up quickly.

Venom vs Symbiotes

Can you spot the player in this screenshot? (Hint: I’m the one that’s not dead)

A little strange was the quest Symbiote Infestation, which has been in the game since launch, that had me fighting off symbiote infected office workers, including a section that had me activate a Sonic Emitter that’s supposed to disrupt the sybiotes’ hold over people. Yet I was completely unaffected. Apparently my symbiote has his soundproof earplugs in. I suppose it’s not any stranger than having multiple Human Torches or Thors running around in the same room, but it was somehow more unsettling to know that I’m fighting myself. Ironically, when I got to the room at the end where I’m supposed to fight boss Venom, the cutscene bugged and wouldn’t let me continue the quest. I guess I confused it.

Also this December I got the Holiday Groot team-up from a giveaway in the newsletter. He’s my first team-up, and, while his festive lights may look a bit tacky year-round, I love Groot, and I see no reason to spend money/splinters on a team-up if I already have a free one. He adds a little bit of tanking and damage, but honestly I haven’t really needed it yet, so I can’t really say how good or bad he is. I’m sure I’ll be changing my tune if I ever get to extreme difficulty, though. Either way, I’m glad to have the extra inventory space he adds.

I continue to be amazed at how far Marvel Heroes has come. At launch, it was pretty much unplayable if you didn’t pay money; the free starter characters were mostly garbage (especially The Thing, the character I started with), and there wasn’t much hope of getting new ones (hero tokens dropped rarely only from certain bosses). The Eternity Splinter system, frequent giveaways, and daily rewards mean that I’ve never been tempted to spend money on anything but heroes, and I’ve bought only two of the eight heroes I own. Unfortunately, it still has the nagging problem of being a little lacking in content, and the fact that most things are instanced and you can do everything alone doesn’t give it much of an MMO feel. It’s more of a microtransaction-heavy single-player ARPG with a few multiplayer hubs. They’ve tried a few things to bring players together, but it ends up feeling more like a mini game that you can’t do on your own to distract you from the main game. I can’t say it really bothers me too much, but it sometimes feels a little gimmicky.

Marvel Heroes: An Unexpected Return

Human Torch 1

Something unexpected happened while I was recovering from my recent surgery: I had a random urge to play Marvel Heroes again. I was really excited about Marvel Heroes when it first came out, because I’ve recently become a fan of this particular flavor of ARPG. Ever since I picked up Torchlight (I never got into Diablo, but Torchlight, especially its sequel, really clicked with me), I’ve dreamed of a Diablo-style MMO. So when I stumbled upon a random beta gameplay video of Marvel Heroes, I was pretty excited. I actually considered buying one of the hero packs, but decided they were (and are) overpriced. It’s a free-to-play, no need to commit cash until you know it’s worth playing, and I’m not sure I would notice the difference between the Iron Man suit from the third movie and any other costume.

When the game came out, I picked The Thing for my first character. I usually enjoy tank classes (I loved my engineer in Torchlight 2) so I figured Thing fit the bill. Unfortunately he felt slow, had uninteresting powers, didn’t do much damage, and was just generally not that fun to play. I was more than a little jealous as I watched Storm and Spider-Man and Rocket Raccoon blow their way through groups of mobs while I plodded my way through one at a time (I just got out-DPSed by an animal who eats out of garbage cans, how embarrassing). The game got a little more interesting when they gave me a second starter character character for free, Hawkeye. He’s mostly built for crowd control, which I also sometimes enjoy in the right balance. He was fun for a while, but by level 20 or so I could tell he wasn’t going to be much fun to level. Also, I was a little frustrated with the launch rush overpopulation and the general overpricedness of the game. The game isn’t quite pay-to-win, but it certainly isn’t pay-for-hats either. It’s more like pay-to-be-awesome: you can have a good experience and not pay a dime, but if you want to play as your favorite heroes, you’re going to have to shell out some money. In the end, I chalked Heroes up to the category of a good idea with poor execution and moved on.

Then I saw a Massively article about the game’s 2.0 patch, with a new zone and, more importantly, new heroes added to the starter lineup. I’m not sure why, but that was all it took to suck me back in. Continue reading