'Avengers' updates showcases the best of studio but worst of game
By Gene Park
The game about Earth's mightiest heroes is in big trouble.
The game's launch was riddled with bugs. And despite being September's best-selling game, there are never more than about a thousand people playing the game every day on PC, an early and worrying symptom of a dying live-service game. To make matters worse, developer Crystal Dynamics had to push back the big "Kate Bishop" update that was scheduled for this month to an unknown date. The game won't even catch a ride on the impending next-gen wave, as PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of the game have been pushed to 2021. If no one is talking about "Avengers" now, it will surely be a forgotten memory for so many people by the middle of November.
All of this has laid to bare the immense risk and challenges of creating a live-service game, a subgenre of online multiplayer games that have seldom released without headline-grabbing disasters.
To blunt the disappointment of Kate Bishop's delay, Crystal Dynamics promised more long-requested updates, including a ping system for multiplayer and a replayable campaign, which was curiously missing from the launch release. And there's a lot to admire about how quick and responsive Crystal Dynamics has been, particularly since this is the studio's first live-service release. Studio head Scott Amos said in the blog update that developers are not only working from home but some have had to leave their homes because of the California wildfires. That so much good work was done under trying conditions should be applauded, and it speaks to the studio's 28-year history as a top-tier developer.
But then the studio made other additions that only seem to spotlight core problems with the game. In other words, it's more content, but content that nobody was really excited for or wanted.
For example, Crystal Dynamics touted a new "SHIELD Substation Zero Outpost" that offers "new narrative, characters and content." All three words are doing a lot of heavy lifting because the only thing the place offers are two new over-the-shoulder conversations, both of which offer nothing but a new venue to accept the same old missions players have been accepting for the past month.
When it comes to gameplay, the SHIELD outpost offers even less. It has the same vendors (names and all) selling the same inconsequential gear, the same wartable to accept the same missions, and the same hero table to choose your hero, something you can do in the options menu anyway. Oh, and they added the ability to accept Faction missions across all three hub worlds, negating the need to every visit any of them. "Avengers" is now a live-service game with three gathering areas, all of which offer the same things. It has failed to justify the existence of more than one area.
The game also added "Tachyon Rift Missions," which sound fancy but once again comprise the same mission objectives, except you have a two-minute timer to do it all. Players can extend this timer by either punching more robots (the same old ones, mind you), or running through constantly respawning Tachyon Rifts. But the rifts are everywhere, which makes you wonder why there's a time limit in the mode in the first place. The new missions are merely more of the same busywork, with a superficial layer of pressure added. It's just really boring.
The problem with "Avengers" isn't just that it doesn't have enough new content, but that the content in the base game wasn't enough to justify being an ongoing live service. There's little there to begin with. The mission objectives were always dull, and housed in the same environments we've been playing since the beta.
The Kate Bishop update promises a continuation of the main campaign narrative, but while the main campaign won some accolade thanks to its characterization of Kamala Khan, it didn't exactly end on a cliffhanger worth exploring. Basically, the main bad guy of the corporation was defeated, so there's a new CEO in charge, still making more robots for the Avengers to fight. So what kind of narrative hook will Kate Bishop bring? What's coming to get us excited? We haven't heard anything besides vague promises. Meanwhile, the game itself offers little.
I just want to fight more supervillains. But "Avengers" only has two, and repeated villain encounters are actually fights with "clones" of Taskmaster and Abomination. Aside from being the laziest narrative excuse to play a mission again, players can sometimes be stuck with the compelling choice to either fight Taskmaster, Taskmaster, Taskmaster or Taskmaster. That's how slim the options are.
Crystal Dynamics has done a commendable job in listening to the remaining (and departed) community and has implemented a significant amount of changes to improve the base game. Just in the past few weeks, the developers have run through a gamut of items that players have wanted since launch, including:
- Better, guaranteed gear for excruciatingly long missions
- Improved gear statistics for a more rewarding endgame experience
- Quality-of-life adjustments, including easier access to daily and weekly challenges, smoother movement in the hub areas, better multiplayer grouping and connections and a better, smoother experience overall
Crystal Dynamics is doing a better job than past studios when it comes to how quickly it responds to these issues. And it's also taken the laudable step to offer a generous amount of the in-game currency as recompense.
But all of these fixes don't change the core problem: "Avengers" didn't need to be a live-service game, and it's become increasingly clear that it shouldn't have been in the first place. The game is in trouble because while the combat alone can be fun, it's not enough to inspire players to keep going.
Other recent games have run rings around "Avengers" on these issues. "Hades" has revolutionized the rogue-like genre by creating logical, story-based reasons to fight the same enemies over and over again, to the point where you actually look forward to the repeat encounters. "Ghost of Tsushima" had a winning single-player campaign, and has since added a free multiplayer update that some are already calling better than "Avengers." "Genshin Impact" was able to achieve what "Avengers" couldn't: a compelling single-player story with disarmingly charming characters on whom players would be incentivized to spend money. And Genshin players have. It's even more remarkable that "Genshin Impact" developers did so with original characters, not relying on the brand recognition of Marvel.
EA's "Anthem" from last year has become the industry bugbear for disastrous live-service launches, and many are comparing this game to that release. "Avengers" is not quite the next "Anthem" yet, but it will be if it continues on this path.
"Avengers" aged quickly when compared to "Anthem," which had a healthier player base after a month than Marvel's game. Maybe it's time the industry recognized live service for what it actually is: expensive and likely to jeopardize a company's otherwise sterling reputation while forcing studios to scramble to satisfy a fickle player base that has more than enough distractions.
The industry needs to have a transparent discussion about why it continues down a clearly disastrous path. The public and player benefits seem next to nothing. Enough is enough.
The Washington Post