Exclusive Interview with David Brevik on Marvel Heroes 2015 and Beyond
During New York Comic Con, we had the chance to sit down with David Brevik. A legendary industry veteran responsible for co-founding Blizzard North, developing Diablo and Diablo II, and lately, spearheading Marvel Heroes 2015 developer Gazillion Entertainment, Brevik's made as big a mark on gaming as any one person can. Over drinks, we talked about Marvel Heroes 2015, his past, his successes, his failures, his scandals, and what's kept him going all these years.
Ten Ton Hammer: Let me start by asking you then about Marvel Heroes. The game came out in June of last year, how has the reception been so far?
David Brevik: Well, initially the reception was pretty chilly. The game was not super great. There's two things you can do at that point, two different directions [you can take]. One is, “Well, that didn't work. Let's move on to something else.” Or you can kind of buckle down and try and make it better. I really wanted to stick through this because I believed in this product. I believed, and I still do, in the merge of superheroes and action RPGs. I think there's a superb game to make there.
I said, “What's wrong with it? Let's start getting feedback from the community.” I opened up the forums to everybody in the entire company so we started interacting with the community, getting feedback, iterating on the game. We changed it so that we started patching every single week. There were no sacred parts of the game design that couldn't be changed, we were willing to change anything, business model, whatever, and try to make the game better and better and better. That's what we really focused on and I think that we made vast improvements.
TTH: Would you say that the 1.2 patch that came out in September of that year was a big part of that push?
Brevik: Well, I mean, maybe. Definitely it was because of the change - I don't know if 1.2 was when we did Eternity Splinters or not, the ability to earn heroes through play instead of just buying them. Yeah, I don't remember exactly which patch that was. It would have been a lot. I think that right around the time that we started making the Asgard content that's when things really started to take off for us. From that time until now we've had a huge increase in the amount of players that we've had. Even on a daily basis, everything is up. Everything is way, way up since then. It's the culmination really of that fall where we had a big initial rush, then kind of dropped off and then really started to climb around September, October.
TTH: One criticism that I saw when the game first came out, was that development seemed to be focused on monetized content, like new heroes, which at the time you couldn't get except by buying them. The criticism was therefore that the game was favoring whales.
Brevik: It was a money grab.
TTH: It was not a great monetization model. Do you feel that you guys have addressed that to the utmost extent?
Brevik: Yeah, that was also something that we heard loud and clear. People thought it was super greedy and that was the last thing I wanted to do here.
TTH: You don't get into the video game business to make money.
Brevik: Right, yeah. A lot of people say this, but it has really been my mantra all along that money is the side effect of what I do, not the point of what I do. I wanted to give the game away for free and I thought that was amazing, right? Here was a way to convince the investors and businessmen that, “oh, I can give my game away for free and still make money,” and getting that initial push. However, there are a lot of people that are saying, "Oh my god, we're giving this away for free," they're freaking out a little bit. We got to have something for people to spend money on. However, I think that the prices were too high. We've lowered them twice, they're about half of what they originally were. We gave the ability to earn the heroes instead of just buying them, and lots of things like that. We give a lot of items away for free, boosts and things like that, to try and have a fair system, really.
That was mainly feedback from the community that told us, “Yes, we were too greedy at the beginning, let's try and be more generous.” I think that we've really shown time and time again how generous we can be.
TTH: I'm curious, has the process of evolving your monetization strategy been primarily listening to the community? Have any other games, like maybe League of Legends or any others, influenced you?
Brevik: Obviously League of Legends. It's almost identical to their business model, which is, buy costumes, earn heroes. Same kind of thing for us. You can buy their heroes as well, just like us. We have a slightly different thing. They have some of their miscellaneous things you can buy and boosts or whatnot. Ours are most related to experience and items and whatever because it's an RPG versus a MOBA, but the business model is largely based on them, and how gamers viewed that as being "fair." Since that seemed to be a business follow that we could replicate, we could simply change our game to, it was a good business model to follow. It seemed to make a lot of sense and they led the path with that and we've used that to really hone where we are.
TTH: When you have, say, multiples of the same hero, like three Spider-Mans in a group, do you guys use comic-book logic to explain that away or is it just ignored, and treated as just a consequence of the game being a game?
Brevik: It's largely ignored; however, the story revolves around Dr. Doom, who has the cosmic cube, the cosmic cube can do funky things; alter reality, et cetera.
TTH: So standard comic book kind of thing.
Brevik: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. At the same time, in a lot of ways we didn't really address it that much. I didn't want to get into midi-chlorians kind of detail. I wanted to keep it loose. In a lot of ways I doesn't really matter, it doesn't really come up. I mean it seems like something that people would be opposed to, until you actually try it and it turns out that it doesn't make any difference. It's sort of like Halloween: If you're dressing up as Spider-Man and see some other kid walking down the street in the same Spider-Man costume, you're not like, “Halloween's ruined!” It's not like, It's over. I'm Spider-Man!” Because you don't really care, you're just like, "I'm Spider-Man. Hey, he's Spider-Man too! Yeah, Spider-Man!"
Brevik: Yeah, exactly. I feel like there are people that think, “it's kind of weird,” but once you play it, it turns out it's not really a big deal at all.
TTH: You have a history of working on home-grown IPs like Diablo and then Hellgate: London and others, what was it like to transition to an established IP with a lot of caretakers, like Marvel, and also what was it like working with Brian Michael Bendis, a famous comic-book writer in his own right?
Brevik: The first part is, I've worked on IP games before. I did a bunch of sports titles. I actually did a DC Justice League fighting game way back in the Genesis days. I'm that old! I've worked with IP before and so I knew what I was getting into, but I love Marvel. It was well-known that I wanted to do Marvel products. I feel blessed that I can do the projects I want to do and this was a choice of mine, to do something here, because I believe that there have been very few superb IP games. Some of the Batman: Arkham Asylum type games, this new Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor is getting rave reviews. There are a few superb IP games. I think that IP and gaming can work together. That's an intriguing problem to me. Not only that, but to do it with the franchise I love was just an opportunity that I couldn't pass up.
As for working with Brian Michael Bendis, it was amazing. The first time I met him I was geeked out, like, "Oh my God!" I had a stack of stuff I wanted him to sign. I was like, how nerdy is this? It turns out he's super nice. He's really easy to work with. He's very enthusiastic about the project. This is something that he wanted to do. He pitched to the people at Marvel and reached out to them and said, "I want to work on that project," so it was a no-brainer for us. How could you not use him? It was super exciting for me personally to be able to meet him and it was quite an honor. Since then, through the years have gotten to know each other pretty well and he's a really nice guy.
TTH: Great. What's coming up? You guys have rebranded as Marvel Heroes 2015, can you talk to me about that and what's coming next?
Brevik: Sure. We rebranded as Marvel Heroes 2015 because, when products come out the press, in general, tends to focus on big releases. Either the initial release of a product or expansions. But we don't do those things, because our game is free to play, we just give out stuff all the time. Every week we're patching, new features are coming in when they're ready. We don't save them up for a big release. There was no opportunity for us to get any kind of attention or any kind of notice. The game's changed so much in a year, it's not the same game that was reviewed a year ago.
Other games are afforded that opportunity through an expansion or some big event so we decided to do the same kind of thing and that is one of the reasons we made Marvel Heroes 2015. It's to give the press a chance to go back and take a look at what we've done in the last year, notice all the changes and make sure that we've adhered to this promise of making it a better game. The rewards were great. People really responded to it. The new reviews were very, very favorable. We raised our Metacritic quite a bit, about 25 points. So it was very effective for us.
TTH: In terms of content, stuff for players to actually sink their teeth into, what do you guys have in the pipeline that you can talk about?
Brevik: We have a lot. We just announced that the advanced pack which details a lot of the heroes that we're going to be doing for the next year. Some of the highlights we've got Dr. Doom coming up, we've got War Machine, we've got Iron Fist, She-Hulk, and Winter Soldier. It's really a very strong lineup. We're very excited about that. In the near term we have villains that are going to start. We're going to do playable villains: Juggernaut, Magneto and Venom are the first three. I'm super excited about Venom. Venom's one of my favorites.
TTH: He's a perennial favorite.
Brevik: I'm really looking forward to that.
TTH: Do they share the same story with the previous lineup?
Brevik: There's story justification for why it's happening. There's some new story that's coming into the game that gives weight to the entire thing. We have a bunch of new game modes that we're going to be doing. We have a new raid coming. We did our first raid a couple months ago and [Marvel Heroes] 2015 was the first action RPG with raids - because it's not just an action RPG, it's also an MMO at the same time. There are thousands of people in the world at the same time. Being able to have raids is not something that other action RPG's really can do well.
TTH: It's not something I usually see in that space.
Brevik: Right, exactly. We did our first one. We've got our second one coming up. We're super excited about that. We've got some new game modes. There's a new version of a very popular mode we call Midtown Manhattan, or Industrial City Patrol, I can't remember its name this week. We keep changing the name. That's really fun: There's ten people in the zone working together on quests and events and as well, there's lots of enemies spawning at the same time so there's tons of action while people try and work on zone-wide quests and cooperative zone stuff.
And then we have a big crossover event with the comics. This is the first time where we're going to do something tied with the comics. Comics has an event called AXIS that's starting right now. Marvel's publishing the first of the comic books and that story line is going to get integrated into our story line. So, a lot. Achievements, all sorts of stuff are coming out.
TTH: Awesome. I'd like to also ask you about some of the stuff from your past.
TTH: Because you have a storied past, to put it lightly.
Brevik: Yes, I do. I'm very fortunate.
TTH: I'll start with the big one: Back in 2012 you made some pretty mild comments about the direction of Diablo III, and there was a now-infamous leak of a Facebook screenshot that showed [Diablo III game director] Jay Wilson taking it a little personally. A lot of industry figures jumped to your defense and it became a bit of a drama. Do you have any further comment on that how that sort of gone down?
Brevik: I've made comments on it before - it went down the way it went down. In the end I'm still really good friends with the Blizzard guys. I love Diablo, I love Blizzard. Those guys are my friends. They've sent me signed copies of Diablo III from the team and things like that. We still talk a lot. [Ex-Chief Creative Officer at Blizzard] Rob Pardo and I were talking last week. There's no animosity between myself and them. It was what it was, and it was an unfortunate situation, but we've moved on.
TTH: Blizzard North started out as an independent studio called Condor. Blizzard bought you guys out about nine months before Diablo came out.
Brevik: That may be right. The process started about a year before, but yeah, that sounds right.
TTH: How far along were you in development when Blizzard approached you?
Brevik: About a year.
TTH: What compelled you to accept Blizzard's buyout offer?
Brevik: Lots of things. First, is that it's really hard to survive as an independent developer. It's difficult. We were scraping by, paycheck to paycheck. We signed the original deal to do Diablo for, I don't remember the exact figure, but it was between $300,000 and $350,000 to make Diablo I, so that didn't quite pay the bills. We were scraping by and we were able to renegotiate that deal eventually but it was tough as an independent developer. We had multiple projects going on, and to not have to worry about the business so much? Blizzard was owned by Davidson & Associates, which was, at the time, this educational entertainment company that made Reading Rabbit and Math Blaster and stuff. It was number one educational company in the world. Sorry, edutainment.
They owned Blizzard and so they had enough to pay our paychecks.
TTH: Which is nice.
Brevik: For a little while, without the stress of having to live paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth and trying to be a developer and having to have other projects and stuff to try and balance out all of what's going on. It was an easy decision because the companies were so similar. We originally met doing that Justice League Task Force game. We were doing Genesis version, and Silicon & Synapse, this was before they were Blizzard, they were still a developer, they were doing the Super Nintendo version of that game.
We were at CES, which is where the games were showed off before E3 existed. We show up and, wait, there's another version of this game? Another development company is doing the Super Nintendo version of this game? We met through this process and it came up, "oh, we're making this PC game, you want to come check it out? We have a little booth here." "Okay. Yeah, we'll come check it out," and that was WarCraft 1 so I kept bugging them, talking about their game, if they needed any beta testing because a lot of people were interested in playing it because we were big PC people.
Because of that relationship, because we had this similar design mentalities, we had the similar view on what we were doing, it was an easy decision. We actually had offers from companies like 3DO at the time that were over double what Blizzard was offering to buy us. We sold to them because of the relationship and the trust we had gained because of the design sensibilities that we had working together.
TTH: You released Diablo and it was great, and then Diablo II came along and it was industry-changing. Then you and a number of other employees from Blizzard North decided to move on. Some of you worked on Hellgate: London. What was the seed for the decision to leave Blizzard and strike out on your own again?
Brevik: Blizzard was owned by Davidson & Associates, and then this other company came in and bought Davidson & Associates, which was Blizzard at the time, and Sierra Online at the time, which were the largest edutainment company, as well as biggest PC-software company. They bought them at the same time, this company called Comp-U-Card and then that merged and became HFS and then became Cendant. Cendant, it turned out, was completely corrupt. It was the largest single sell-off of a stock in the history of the New York stock exchange still to this day. It was the Enron of the '90s basically. Because it was all corrupt, we were up for sale, and this French water company called Vivendi bought us. Anyway, we were owned by weird mega corps. Who knew what was going on above us? Then Vivendi gets in trouble and they're trying to sell us. In the end we tried to get an agreement to be involved in the process of our futures. Vivendi was unwilling to give that to us.
TTH: You just wanted more agency?
Brevik: We wanted to make sure that we were treated with the respect that we deserved for what we had done and make sure that we weren't taken advantage of. We tried to work on this for two years and eventually we just could never see eye to eye and so we said, "Well, we can't do this anymore." That was really the infamous "we're leaving."
TTH: So you left, to strike out once more on your own. It would be safe to say that after Diablo II there were a lot of expectations for your next project.
Brevik: Yeah, absolutely.
TTH: Again, Diablo II was such a huge success. Hellgate: London was not a bad game, but didn't change the world to the extent that Diablo II did.
Brevik: It's hard to change the world that way anytime, but yes, absolutely. It was not super great.
TTH: Would you like to talk about that? What went wrong, or did people just set too high a bar?
Brevik: That's about a seven-hour conversation. But in the end, it came down to a lot of things. We signed a deal with NAMCO and then the people that we signed the deal with were gone within a couple months so all the support within NAMCO that we had evaporated within the first few months of the project. We had signed way too many deals with too many other partners, and we had to appease Microsoft and Intel and Havok, and all these, we had 18 deals. We had way too many localizations. We were trying to launch worldwide. We were trying to do everything for everybody. It was, in a lot of ways, too ambitious. In the end, I was doing too many things. It was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. I was doing design, and I was programming, I was doing a lot of low-level systems programs. I was doing the collision-detection and I was trying to help run a company.
I was wearing too many hats, and I was doing three jobs poorly instead of one job well. In the end everything suffered because of this.
TTH: You were spread too thin.
Brevik: We were spread too thin, we were too ambitious. To go from an environment where we were at Blizzard and we could dictate our own terms and money was not really a reality, to a new environment where we were trying to balance all of those things and hadn't had to balance it in a long time... In fact, originally we were doing pretty poor job balancing that and that's one of the reasons we sold to Blizzard. And to get back in that seat, we just weren't ready for it. We were just too ambitious.
In the end, it was a game that was way ahead of its time but wasn't complete. It was not what we wanted it to be. There was struggles within the team internally about design direction and all sorts of stuff. There was mismanagement in different locations. In the end, you could write a nice 800-page page-turner about all the drama that was there. There were a lot of things that went wrong. And there were a lot of lessons learned! I learned more from doing that project than anything else I've ever done in my life. In a lot of ways it's good that I failed. I mean I wouldn't really count it as a failure, it actually broke even. I've tried to buy that IP again because I still believe that the core of that idea is fantastic. I think that there's a great game to be made there and someday maybe I'll do it.
TTH: Hellgate: London came out in a time before crowd-sourced funding, before new wave that's really changing the way that people can develop games. It's giving more tools to indie developers, it's making traditional publishing less necessary. Have you thought about that at all?
Brevik: We have. It's a little bit different for us. I think the reality of us in the public space is different than the reality of what it actually is. Gazillion's been around a long time. It has investors, like Silicon Valley big time investors. If we can perform well there's really no limit to what we can do.
TTH: You're not constrained?
Brevik: We're not really constrained in the same way that I've been in the past. I mean, we're constrained in that success will untie any kind of binds that we have. We've been afforded the opportunity, in a lot of ways a blessing, to be introduced to some really amazing investment opportunities that really could fund us for as long as we need.
TTH: In the trajectory of your career I see the opposite of another developer who's been pretty influential in his time. Brad McQuaid, who made his name working on EverQuest and then he had Vanguard; which in some ways was analogous to Hellgate: London in that there's a lot of hype but it didn't ultimately deliver to everyone's expectations. You have landed on your feet, have a new solid product and are looking at the future, whereas he's bogged down trying to get Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen going, his MMO that failed to kick-start and was then mired in allegations of mismanagement. [McQuaid allegedly took a career advance of one third of his studio's available funds, leaving his company with virtually no money]. Now he's hiring volunteer developers for no pay.
Do you ever have the sense that, there but for the grace of God? Do you ever think that could have been you?
Brevik: Absolutely. It's strange but a lot of times success isn't just about talent, it's about timing, it's about luck, it's about a bunch of things. I have been super fortunate. I think that success comes from, I don't want to brag here, but it comes a lot from my humility. It's not about me, it's about my team. I've been fortunate enough that there are a lot of people that still work for me that have worked for me for a long time. The very first person I ever hired in 1993 still works for me. There are people that stick with me for 10, 15, 20 years and I think it's because I know that I can't do it without them.
I am a voice for an entire team, it's not just about me. That is important to always keep in perspective; that the only reason I have a job and the only reason that I can do what I can do is because I have the support of so many amazing individuals. I think that that ties into my philosophy. I came on to this project to be the creative director of Marvel Heroes. I'm now the CEO of the company, of a heavily invested company. They don't put people like myself in charge, they put MBA's in charge. It's only because of the support of those people, and only because I stuck with it because of those people. It's a two-way street.
I sacrificed a lot. I did everything that I needed to do to make sure that they had the ability to get the product done, and get to work together to make this thing happen. It's this mutually beneficial relationship that we all know works, and they want me to do this. I don't really get to design the games, or code the games, or do the things I used to do. I do design on a macro level but I'm not in changing numbers and stuff on Squirrel Girl. That's just not happening. It can never be that way, it's just too big of a project. Luckily I have very, very talented people doing that with me and we have to have that relationship in order for this to succeed and I always remember that whenever I'm doing anything.