The Demise of Marvel Universe Online

By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

By Cody
“Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

"Better to have loved and
lost, than to have never loved at all."
style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">City of Heroes/Villains,
it wouldn’t have compared to what would have been possible
with Marvel Universe

style="margin: 10px; border-collapse: collapse; float: right; width: 50px; height: 50px;"

title="Marvel Characters"> src="/image/view/22021/preview"

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 href="">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, href="">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, href="">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
, style="font-style: italic;">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. style="font-style: italic;">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?

style="margin: 10px; border-collapse: collapse; float: left; width: 50px; height: 50px;"

href="" title="Shane Kim"> src="/image/view/22020/preview"

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 style="font-style: italic;">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
. For many individuals, the style="font-style: italic;">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 href="">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.

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title="The New Avengers"> src="/image/view/22019/preview"

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 href="">earlier
edition of Loading… the necessary units needed to
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 href="">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? href="">Voice
your opinion on the

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