Making a new playable character for a game is as simple as making up a few powers, getting a couple art and sound assets, testing, and rolling with it, right? Right?
We recently chatted with Marvel Heroes 2015’s creative designer and community manager, Ryan Collins, about just what goes into making a new character for the game, something he’s got fresh experience with. Iceman glided into Marvel Heroes March 5, and Collins was the lead designer for the cool customer. He shared with us his insight into the design for Iceman and characters for Marvel Heroes in general.
MMOBomb: There are so many heroes in the Marvel universe to choose from, so can you tell us why you settled on Iceman for your latest addition to the game?
Ryan Collins: For Iceman in particular, he’s super-popular, the fans have been asking for him since launch, and as one of the original X-Men, he’s super-iconic. In terms of fan polls, he’s been in the top five for years.
MMOBomb: So if he’s so popular, why hold off doing him until now?
RC: We had to develop the game to the point where we felt like the tech we had would let us put him in the game. I think he was our most complex character we’ve ever done for visual effects because everything is static; it’s not just particles, like our other characters, which are easier to do, in comparison to making tons of constructs. We needed to make these special ice golems for him, so he was rather extensive from an art perspective!
MMOBomb: Give me an idea of the time frame involved in creating a character. Like, it’s only about two or three weeks, right?
RC: (laughs) No, but it definitely seems that way with how fast it works. For characters in general, the basic design happens when you get in a meeting where all the designers establish a set of pillars, like should he be melee, should he be ranged, what core powers does he have to represent… the core character stuff, and we build off of that. And then we have a really good idea for a design, like he should have stacks of chill and he should shatter enemies; that’s Iceman’s big mechanic. This is months ahead… I think Iceman was designed before November, before it even started getting cold in California!
Then you come to a process called estimation, when you get all the parts of the company together. First, we start with the designers, then we go to the artists and engineers and say, “Does this work? Can you make this?” That meeting alone can take up to four hours and usually happens two to three months before a character ships. For Iceman, that happened in December, and from there, we build a prototype and hand it off to art.
MMOBomb: What’s it look like when you’re first working on a character in the in-game engine? Does it have art assets, or is it more like a stick figure?
RC: We’ll put out a prototype before we have the art or the tech for the more complicated powers. So Iceman may be shooting fire or Iron Man’s beams just to get an idea of what his in-game powers will act like. Vision (who comes out at the end of next month) is right now using tons of art from other people; he’s punching like somebody else, he’s shooting Cyclops’ eye beams. Sometimes, when you play a character in his final form, it’s totally different, like it doesn’t look or feel right, and that part of design comes a lot later.
MMOBomb: How about dialogue and bringing in voice actors to record it? Where does that come along in the development cycle?
RC: I don’t write all the lines in our game, but I oversee them. We have a contract writer, and he sends in a script, and I revise it, I rewrite some stuff, I make sure it’s all Marvel canon. That comes into the office before the paper design is even ready, sometimes four months in advance, because we do a recording session two months in advance, and we need to always be ahead. We need to be months ahead so that the character can still ship without having to record. We just recorded Dr. Doom in February, and he comes out later this year.
Recording so far in advance also gives us some leeway and informs us where we’re going with the character. It helps me a lot to have the script, and then when we’re designing the character, we kind of know what they talk about and can get a better idea of who they are. Sometimes a designer might come through and listen to some lines, just to get an idea of his attitude, maybe if he should be more or less brutal with a power. We try to get that down as early as possible.
Probably my favorite part of the entire game is working on dialogue, working on who the character sounds like, who his voice actor is… it’s so cool for me to cast these iconic characters!
MMOBomb: So when you were talking about working on Iceman in November, you really even have to “commit” to them before that, to line up the dialogue and voice acting.
RC: Oh yeah, we know when we’re going to do a character very, very far in advance. By December, we pretty much know who we want to do for the entire year.
MMOBomb: So I assume development of Iceman went perfectly smoothly, and there were no major issues to resolve at any point, right? No great stories to tell, right?
RC: Iceman actually has a good story. The biggest thing was that people didn’t like his signature power. It was called “Work of Art,” where he makes a big statue of himself giving a big thumbs-up and then it explodes. Players said that they liked it but it didn’t feel enough like a signature power. We pushed Iceman to the following week, and we were all, “Oh my god, what do we do for a finisher?” So we ended up designing what we’d always tried to do all along, and now he does a huge ice flight around a certain area, goes super-fast, and he blasts the enemies on the ground, which I now think is one of the coolest signatures in the game.
It’s a really fun process working with the community, but it can be really scary sometimes: “They really don’t like this, what do we do?” When that happens, we pretty much always come up with something better. Sometimes you just have to throw something away and start over.