Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is the return of a series that had largely been left to lie dormant for 10 years. At the height of its popularity, Ultimate Alliance represented the rare superhero game that was both fun to play and offered die-hard fans of Marvel enough meat to sink their teeth into. But in 2019, what Marvel is and who it appeals to has changed drastically.
Alongside the longstanding comic book fanatics, there are now devotees of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and those who have been enjoying games such as Marvel Vs. Capcom, Insomniac’s Spider-Man, the Lego Marvel series, and the now defunct Marvel Heroes (RIP). On the one hand, this means developer Team Ninja–best known for the Ninja Gaiden series–and Marvel stand to capture an audience much larger than ever before. But on the other, expectations are greater, and with so many tastes to account for, the challenge in meeting expectations is bigger.
We spoke to Bill Rosemann, VP and creative director of Marvel Games, writer Marc Sumerak, and head of Team Ninja Yosuke Hayashi about these challenges. In the interview below the trio discuss bringing the series back and working together to create a game that fans can enjoy. We also try and squeeze a few new character reveals out of them.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance as a series has been revered by gamers and also Marvel fans. How did you get to the point where you decided to bring this back, and how did the studio get involved in that?
Bill Rosemann: So five years ago is when we reassembled Marvel Games, and we sat down and talked about what kind of games we wanted to do. We said, “Number one, who are we going to partner with? Who are we going to collaborate with?” We started brainstorming and dreaming and we said, “What matters most?” We want to make sure there is an awesome level of talent, big ambition, [we want the developer to have the] vision to own their game, and most of all passion. [We want them to] pour their heart and souls [into it]. In addition, we said, “Are there any games we want to bring back?”
Top of the list: Ultimate Alliance. The first couple of years when we were on the road at conventions talking about other games, we would be asked, “What about Ultimate Alliance?” We wanted to wait [until we had] all those components, and it was a magic moment of planets aligning where we were shown the Switch. We got our hands on it and then we were told Team Ninja might be available. We said, “That’s it.” Now we can bring back Ultimate Alliance. Perfect studio, with the action and the love that they have for Marvel, and the Switch, all about playing together, bringing your team together. You add all that up and we said, “Now we’re going to do it.”
Team Ninja is known for precision action, whereas Ultimate Alliance 3 is more arcadey, you’re doing large sweeping attacks that take care of a lot of enemies at once–it’s perhaps less focused. So, what is it about Ultimate Alliance 3 that has Team Ninja’s fingerprints on it? What part of your studio are you putting into this game and where can we see it?
Yosuke Hayashi: So, when we first heard about working on this game our first reaction was, “We love Marvel, and we’re really excited to work on the game.” In terms of experience we had with previous games, there’s, of course, Ninja Gaiden. We had characters in there, they had claws, and, to tell the truth, those kinds of characters are inspired by Wolverine.
We had a lot of hardcore fans on our team, and the first thing we wanted to do was play the previous two to see what we could bring to it. Marvel, of course, provided the roster and great story and we thought that we could add feel-good action to the game. We knew that this was something that Marvel wanted. So, our first priority was to make it feel really good playing these characters and we just really felt proud of the work that we did.
As a writer working on this, how do you even find the starting point? How do you begin? Is it primarily coming first from the Marvel side or the development side or is it a little bit of both?
Marc Sumerak: I think it was a collaborative effort. We knew we wanted to tell a broad-scope, original story for this game. We didn’t want to rehash a story that had already been told. We wanted to draw inspiration from the history of the Marvel Universe–from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, other games that we’ve played–we wanted that all to be synthesized into something brand-new.
But there are a lot of moving parts for something this big: there’s what we already revealed, over 30 playable characters. There are dozens of villains, there are lots of NPCs, a slew of locations across the Marvel Universe, and putting all those puzzle pieces together can be very complicated. So it was a matter of working with Team Ninja and Marvel to pick the best pieces, from playable characters to locations, and then finding the right story that connected all of those elements; building the puzzle out of the best pieces. So, for us, it was starting small and bringing the characters in on a ground level of the story and building and building and building into something grand and cosmic.
When you first start the game, it’s with the Guardians of the Galaxy. You’re a small crew, and you’re exploring this mystery, and then things suddenly go worldwide or universe-wide, and you’re back on Earth and you build and build and build towards something new and exciting as the action gets more intense.
Rosemann: Part of the reason why we chose Marc to write the story is, years ago, I worked with Marc. We worked in Marvel New York in publishing, and Marc worked in one of the editorial offices that worked on some of the top hero books like Avengers and Fantastic Four. We knew at the very beginning, as Marc said, we knew the game was going to span the entire universe and unite the Ultimate Alliance. It’s all the characters from across the Marvel Universe, and we needed someone who had that knowledge–and I knew Marc would have that–and be able to understand their voice, introduce them in a very accessible way but then sprinkle it with Easter eggs that long-time fans would appreciate at the same time.
From a story perspective, it’s very different now. Back in the day the series was treated like an arcade game where you could almost turn up and play, and the story stuff was nice but it was on the side. In a post-MCU world, in a post-Insomniac Spider-Man world, in a post-everything happening in the actual comics world, every Marvel product has this incredible weight on it. How do you approach a game like this where it’s an arcadey experience but everyone is going into it wanting an arc for every single one of these characters?
Sumerak: That’s a really good question. As Bill will tell you, at Marvel, the story is first. The story is at the heart of everything we do. So, for us, it was really important not just to tell a good story progression and have the events be unique, but also to have a reason that each character fits into the story. Every character is someone’s favorite. From Captain America all the way to Elsa Bloodstone. They make vastly different characters across the roster but everybody appeals to someone out there, and we certainly never want anyone to feel like their favorite character’s being slighted in the story and not focused on.
Our goal was to find situations where each member of this roster could shine, where their personality could come through and where their talents would be useful. So, it was about building around these characters and finding ways to let them step into the limelight and to really be on the big stage.
Masks and powers are great, special abilities and combo moves are wonderful, but at Marvel, it’s all about what’s underneath the powers
Is Gambit in the game?
Rosemann: No comment.
Because I want my favorite characters to be represented and if Gambit’s not around…
Rosemann: He certainly hasn’t been announced as a character that I’ve seen.
I want Gambit back in everything. I wanted him in Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite as well and he didn’t appear and I was very sad about that.
Rosemann: [Laughs] I’m glad you’re educated. But Marc is right, if you just have two characters fighting, then on the surface it’s fun and interesting, but then after a while, it doesn’t hold your attention. Marvel fans are smart and they want to know, “Why are they fighting?” So that’s what we worked very hard to set up. What are the motivations and goals of the heroes and the villains? So we clearly understand what they’re trying to do and why they’re trying to do it. When you add that, then you get a true, authentic Marvel experience.
Sumerak: Masks and powers are great, special abilities and combo moves are wonderful, but at Marvel, it’s all about what’s underneath the powers and we wanted to make sure that that came through as well.
From a development and design standpoint, how do you approach making sure each character feels unique and different from every other? Something like 30 characters punch stuff, so how do you make that interesting and then how do you balance that with every other character that’s available?
Hayashi: First of all, we thought the Switch was a great match with the Marvel Ultimate Alliance [series], and we pictured families and friends sitting on a couch together, playing and enjoying the interaction between various characters. That’s why we wanted to create functions like the synergy and the alliance exchange so that players can work together to defeat villains. We really wanted to create an action game where people could use these characters to interact with each other on the Switch.
Rosemann: You bring up a great point that many of the characters punch, but we really approach from a character point-of-view: Luke Cage punches, Captain America punches, Captain Marvel punches, but they all have levels of strength, and they all fight differently based on how they trained. It’s a true mixture of gameplay and character together. So, if you don’t know the characters, you’re interested to see how they play; if you do know them you’re like, “Yeah, this feels right.” That’s exactly how Luke Cage would come in and brawl differently from how he interacts with Hulk.
Sumerak: A great example of that are the spider characters. You’ve got Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, and Spider-Gwen. Many people might look at that and say, “Other than the fact that they’re popular and exciting characters, why do we need three Spider characters?” And in terms of gameplay, Team Ninja was able to take them and bring out their unique aspects. Their abilities and their fighting styles are so different that as you’re playing them you barely realize they’re the same fighters, the same Spider fighters style.
They’re really unique in their gameplay. Miles has unique bio-electric abilities that he can use and he can camouflage himself, so those are attributes that Peter Parker doesn’t have at all. Gwen has this ability to use dimensional portals because she comes from an alternate universe. So, you really get this unique twist on a classic Spider-Man fighting style with these other two characters that you couldn’t have with Peter Parker. They shine on their own, and as much as I loved playing Spidey in the original Ultimate Alliance games, I’m hooked on Miles now because he has so many cool little twists on the classic Spidey fighting.
Is Moon Knight in the game?
Rosemann: Well, we all have our favorite characters, don’t we? That does bring up the idea of, how do we choose?
Yes, it does.
Rosemann: And to start with the roster, number one we were like, “If we’re going to bring Ultimate Alliance back, the fans deserve bigger.” How can we deliver more? So our number one goal was, “How many can we pack into the game?” Based on other considerations such as gameplay, family, and who are the characters we want to know about. W began this many moons ago, and we looked ahead and knew Miles would rise, Spider-Woman would rise, Ms. Marvel would rise, and Captain Marvel would rise. So it was a combination of looking ahead at what people would want and then we talked about the true Ultimate Alliance.
We looked across the Marvel universe and in our heads, we created these invisible families. There are the Avengers, Guardians, there’s the Spider-Verse, there’s the X-Men, there’s the Inhumans, and we create these groups and say, “Hey, it’s going to be a true alliance so let’s have all these groups together.” And then [we look at] gameplay, and personalities, how characters interact with each other, and then how can we surprise them with, say, an Elsa Bloodstone, where some people may say, “Who is that?” And then later, “Oh my gosh she’s my new favorite character.” And that continues the tradition of what Ultimate Alliance has done, it’s delivered really popular characters and introduced people to new characters.
And then looking ahead, we have the expansion. Same thing there, we began thinking there was so much we could do. We thought about who isn’t in the game yet that people might want, and who isn’t in the game that may have been in previous games that aren’t playable yet? And then on top of that introduce characters they didn’t know they were going to love.
With that in mind, what’s the process for the development studio making new characters?
Hayashi: [There are] many, many discussions.
Rosemann: That’s what it comes down to. When you have the right people working together and you’re lined up then it all comes down to simple talking and fanning up and being nerds and talking about what would be awesome. A lot of times there will be a request where it’s, “We’d like to have this sort of mechanic.” As Hayashi-san said, they’re great Marvel fans, they’re just like can we get this character, and we go straight for that. And that’s the discussion back and forth, “Okay, yeah let’s do that character.” When it’s like, “Well, what version? What should their costumes look like, what should they look like?”
So, with that in mind, is Black Bolt in the game?
Rosemann: He is mentioned. Yes, he’s mentioned.
Is Cable in the game?
Rosemann: That has not been revealed yet.
I’m going to keep trying.
Rosemann: I know [he laughs].
What makes the Switch unique or more interesting for Marvel’s Ultimate Alliance? The natural thought is that you can play with a bunch of people together, but you can do that on any console. What is it about the Switch specifically that appealed to you?
Hayashi: We talked to Marvel a little bit about this as well but, you can imagine a father playing on his Switch at home, and then one of his kids is like, “Hey, can I join?” And they can easily do that because they can pick up one of the Joy-Cons and play the game. So it’s just an aspect of being able to join the game right away. That really appeals to us. And also the playable characters, you can just switch them at various points in the game. Some of the stuff Marvel had talked to us about the Switch and also, of course, we have, four-player online multiplayer, but there’s something in these kinds of situations where you can just get home and share playing with people who are right there with you.
Rosemann: The versatility in Switch’s co-op is great for this game, because you can play online, you can play at home with multiple Joy-Cons, you can play on multiple Switches that are linked together, you can take it to a party where your gamer friends are hanging out and set in on a table, pop off the Joy-Con and play it together there. There are so many options to how you can play co-op with the Switch. Whereas with other consoles, it would be either online or on the couch. Here you could take it on the go and then when you’re done playing co-op you can click it back on and play it on the airplane on the way back from E3–you can play it any way you want to. That’s what’s really exciting to me about the co-op–the broad range of possibilities to how I can play with other people.
I’ve got loads of family and friends who are huge Marvel fans and huge gamers, so I think I probably have to ask on their behalf … is Toxin in the game?
Rosemann: [Laughs] Wow, that’s a deep cut!
Sumerak: Toxin was–we were just talking about this the other day–Toxin was the offspring of Carnage?
Sumerak: Yeah! Well, there is a symbiote character in the game named Venom.
Rosemann: That’s the only symbiote character in the game that we can confirm.
My family and friends will have to make do with that, I guess. Do you have any plans to bring Ultimate Alliance 3 to other platforms in the future or is it specifically a Switch game?
Rosemann: We are proud that the Ultimate Alliance is explicitly for the Switch and, in all seriousness, it was created for that. We really thought about it, everything from the gameplay to the art style, [and] it was really handcrafted for the Switch. And that’s why we waited so long, until we had the right platform. And I think you will get it when you see the artwork, oh, of course, it’s perfect.
It does look very vibrant and really colorful. I’d love it if I was able to see Taskmaster in that style.
Rosemann: Oh Taskmaster, I love Taskmaster too, I love him.
Is Taskmaster in the game?
Rosemann: I love Taskmaster. I think he’s a great character.
Rosemann: I can confirm that Bova, the cow woman, is not in the game, sadly. I argued for her. She would be utterly cool.
That was going to be my next question. I am very sad to hear that she’s not in it, she would have been great. How far into the future have you planned to support Ultimate Alliance 3 for and how much do you expect players to keep hold of the game and keep playing for?
Rosemann: We do want people to play this game for years to come, and we’ll say we’ve announced expansion packs and we’ll leave it at that. But you’re right we do want people to play this for a long, long time.
Will I be able to play as the Watcher?
Rosemann: [Laughs] Well, Uatu knows all and watches all…
Sumerak: It would be very boring to play as he Watcher. His superpower would be to stand there and not get involved.
Sounds like a good tank if you ask me…
Rosemann: [Laughs] He’s not much of a puncher though. No, no.