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The Demise of Marvel Universe Online

Updated Wed, Dec 16, 2009 by Cody Bye

By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

"Better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all."Saint Augustine

When the news broke that Marvel Universe Online was no more, you could almost hear the thousands of anguished cries from across the world. Comic book and MMOG fans mourned the premature death of a game that could have been the roleplaying/super hero/massively multiplayer combination they were always looking for. While gamers had experienced super hero fun entertainment with Cryptic’s previously released City of Heroes/Villains, it wouldn’t have compared to what would have been possible with Marvel Universe Online.

The Marvel Universe may never see the flickering light of a computer monitor.

The worst part about the whole debacle: No one ever saw the game, except for those folks actually working on the product. Since the title was announced in September 2006 (with a teaser trailer unveiled shortly thereafter), both the press and general public had little interaction with the product. No screenshots, gameplay trailers, or even basic mechanics were released about the game.

Even at San Diego’s International Comic-Con, where comic book excitement is at its highest, Cryptic’s Jack Emmert was fairly hush-hush about the title, but did mention things like having the ability to play as your favorite super hero in combating the forces of darkness. Still, the little leaks of information that the press and public did receive felt like a mere tease when the months continued to roll by. Things were quiet. Too quiet.

Shortly after Comic-Con, 1up.com released its strangely prophetic column, citing an anonymous source that extolled how the death of Marvel Universe Online was imminent. Although many fans declared this to be little more than rumor-mongering, the talk didn’t dissipate. Finally, MTV’s article was published, with Shane Kim, VP of Microsoft Game Studios, burying another MMOG in a grave that was dug far too early.  

The demise of Marvel Universe Online seems to be just another notch on the belt of the MMOG marketplace. Like a small child’s first look into the swimming pool, many investors find that the shallow end of the pool is too safe and with small rewards in the end, while the deeper waters hold the large predatory fish with their big budgets and sharp teeth. Auto Assault, Asheron's Call II, Earth and Beyond and Gods and Heroes all succumbed to these treacherous waters (along with countless unreleased titles), and there seems to be little room for error in the ever-growing industry. Despite this, more and more individuals are willing to jump in and test the water, which leads to more quick exits and hasty retreats.

The strangest part of this whole scenario is the fact that Cryptic was far from a new face in the industry. City of Heroes/Villains was a well-received success and still enjoys a modest population with NCsoft, and many of the employees at Cryptic are veterans of other MMOGs. So why did Microsoft and Marvel decide to pull the plug? What scared them so much that they had to leap from the water?

Shane Kim, VP of Microsoft Game Studios

On one side of the coin, Microsoft doesn’t have a tremendously solid track record when it comes to massively multiplayer games. From their first efforts with Asheron’s Call, Microsoft has either canceled or sold off every single massively multiplayer game that they’ve touched. And it’s a fairly extensive list: Asheron’s Call, Asheron’s Call II, Mythica, True Fantasy Live Online, and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. For many individuals, the Marvel Universe Online cancellation will serve as another reminder of the massive games that Microsoft decided to drop before their time.

The other possibility exists that Microsoft didn’t like what they were seeing at the Cryptic Studios and Marvel Universe Online. While this scenario does exist, it seems odd that an MMOG of this caliber would be poorly made given money at both Microsoft and Marvel and the proven caliber or designers at Cryptic. Cryptic had already proven their worth with CoH, what could have been done so wrong that they couldn’t fix it?

However, given Kim’s explanation for MTV, it seems that a totally different issue seemed to be bothering Microsoft. Kim argued that to be successful, MUO would need to have a payment model that allowed for international appeal. Here’s the quote from the article:

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of what went wrong,” Kim told me. “I don’t know that that’s the right way to put it. For us we look at our priorities and all of the things we have to do. It’s a tough space. It’s a very competitive space. And it’s a space that’s changing quite a bit. …When we first entered into the development and agreement of the development of ‘Marvel Universe Online,’ we thought we would create another subscription-based MMO. And if you really look at the data there’s basically one that’s successful and everything else wouldn’t meet our level or definition of commercial success. And then you have to look [and say]: ‘Can we change the business model for that? Is that really viable given how far we are in development? And so forth. Does Marvel want to do that?’ There’s a whole bunch of factors.”

So the true question remains: What does it take for a massively multiplayer game to be deemed a success in Microsoft’s standards? Is World of Warcraft the only game that can fall into that category? Even if Marvel Universe had been sustainable on an alternate business model than the simple subscription fee, that doesn't mean it would have succeeded internationally. Given the popularity of Marvel comics outside of North American and Europe, it wouldn't really make sense to waste too much man-power on localizing a Marvel branded product for the Asian markets. Unless MUO was to be an experimental game, that leaves only the subscription based product to remain.

Was it due to design, fear, or other problems that caused MUO's downfall?

As Ten Ton Hammer’s very own Boomjack noted in an earlier edition of Loading… the necessary units needed to make Marvel Universe Online  a success would need to be fairly significant, but that wouldn’t be difficult in a game based around the Marvel license.  If you look at the Marvel-based movies, the Spider-man flicks are all in the top 25 of the highest grossing films of all-time (in the U.S.), and the X-Men movies are also in the top 100. Although comic book sales are not what they once were, graphic novels continue to sell very well in book stores again lending more credence to support a high sales number for any Marvel-based MMORPG.

So why did Microsoft and Marvel pull the plug? Was the game really in poor shape, or were they simply scared to take a risk? What might have happened if they had continued to pursue the game? We’ll probably never know the truth behind the whole situation. These stories tend to be covered up with smoke and mirrors, but that doesn’t keep the Internet from talking, and Ten Ton Hammer will keep listening.

In the end, it’s the fans that really take the full impact of this blow. Yet another MMORPG bites the dust, leaving us with fewer choices and even fewer games to cherish in our hearts. As Saint Augustine once said, “It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.” With Marvel Universe Online, we never even had the chance to love.

With all the information presented for you, what do you make of the demise of Marvel Universe Online? Do you think it was due to poor design? Fear of WoW? Or something else? Voice your opinion on the forums!
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