So, we’re huge fans of the OG Midnight Sons, from way back in the 90s through those comics and comic book events. And if we look broadly at the Marvel empire now, it’s so expansive across multiple forms of media and transmedia, but looking at that source point, which could be considered obscure; transferring that old concept from the 90s into videogame form, and then looking at those characters separately and where they fit in the modern Marvel crop, can you talk to the process of first landing at the Midnight Suns at all, and then what it took to create a game from that base…
: That is definitely one of my favourite comic book events. I still think unsurpassed as a supernatural comic book event. I've been reading Marvel comics for a very long time; almost four decades at this point. When we knew that we were going to make a game with Marvel
, we knew we didn't want to touch anything that was close to the MCU
. So my narrative director and I, we just started going back through our rolodex of comics we loved and we ended up back into the late 80s, early 90s stuff. I was an X-Men
guy growing up, and there was a comic book event called Inferno
, which was this really supernatural comic book event, which I loved. In the early 90s, of course, the coolest thing in the world was all the anti-heroes; Punisher
and Ghost Rider
As my narrative director and I were talking about all those comics, we kept talking about the Spirits of Vengeance
comic run in the early 90s with Ghost Rider, which culminated in the Midnight Sons event. I still remember the night, very late one night we were talking about this event, we're. like, "Oh, do you remember this character, how crazy this was? And how cool this thing was?". And we knew that night, and into the next day, we realised very quickly this is the story we wanted to tell. So we went to Marvel and said, "Hey, we really want to do a version of Midnight Sons". They were number one, taken aback. They were, like, "That's the one you want?". And then two, they were excited because they were, like, "That's great. Nobody is talking about that!".
So to go from there, it's a good question because if someone were to read, (and I don't recommend people if they're not reading comics regularly), I would not recommend people go back and read The Midnight Sons run without a little buildup to it because it's a pretty crazy comic. To then think about that, well, which heroes in that original run are still popular today? We have Dr Strange
, and we have Blade
and we have Ghost Rider; a different Ghost Rider, but we have Johnny Blaze
from that comic run and then thinking about... We took the villain in Lilith
and [asked] "What's the spirit of that story?". Obviously, we had to tell a much bigger story because the game is almost 60 hours. So we were, like, "Okay, let's integrate more modern heroes, more popular heroes, and then we'll still have this core team of supernatural heroes and build a story around that". And so that's really where the whole idea started for [our] Midnight Suns.
It's not a bad position to be in where you can, over a night of red cordials, just decide that you're going to use a seemingly obscure run of comics that were multiple crossovers and bleeding into different arcs and characters, and then just say, "I'm going to make a Firaxis 60 hour long, single-player, tactical game about it”. And then take it to Marvel and then get the green light on it. It's a pretty envious position, I think. …
: Yeah, actually you should know. Chad Rocco
the narrative director and I, our actual drink of choice was… I'm sorry, it wasn't Australian
, it was New Zealand
-- it was a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. We went through bottles of that stuff talking about what our potential story could be. You make it sound as if we knew exactly what we were doing and we definitely did not.
: I don't think at that point you knew that it was going to be a 60 hour RPG. You knew the story, you knew the story you wanted, but it definitely grew.
: It definitely grew from there, for sure.
I've got a weird question. In Rise of the Midnight Sons, that run which included Morbius: The Living Vampire, which at that time when that comic was released as a standalone back in the 90s, was this hot new thing for Marvel to try and do this different spin on a vampire. I think the Midnight Sons [arc] really helped entrench that character. How do you feel about the whole Morbius movie thing and how meme-tastic that is at the moment, and whether or not that has any implication towards…
: Well, no. But I will tell you we would always talk about this moment. Morbius, especially in Rise of the Midnight Sons comic, is amazing. The Rise of Midnight Sons event happens over six comics, and one of them is a Morbius-named comic. And the crazy thing is in Morbius' Midnight Sons comic, he's still wearing his old Spider-Man
deep-V, I shouldn't say cheesy, but his 'whatever' Spider-Man outfit. In his comic, he realises all the world is ending. (This is why I love the comics in the 90s.) The world is ending, we need Morbius' help to form the Midnight Sons. But he takes three pages out of his comic to go to New York City
and go into a high fashion store, and he’s, like, "I need a new look". He gets a strapped leather look, which is so awesome and I just remember as a kid being. like, "Oh my God, Morbius is actually pretty cool". But then I'm, like, "Why did he do this in the middle of this whole thing?" He was, like, "I need to go down to New York City and I need to get this new look from Fifth Avenue". And he comes out in this cool leather outfit. I think Morbius has always had a 'memeable
' side to him.
That's very true.
: What I love about him. He's a DLC character, but we included him because we're, like, "Well, Morbius is one of the original Midnight Sons, obviously [and] Morbius has always been kind of a crazy character”.
You raise a good way for me to segue, which is the comics from the 90s were pretty crazy because "science be damned" back then. There were cultural touchstones that were really broad as opposed to being really specific like they are now, and I guess pop culture wasn't as widespread. How much of that 90s flair have you injected into the writing in this game, to the point of bordering on cheese for the sake of, versus edging over?
: That's a great question. What we did writing-wise, and this was part of the beginning when we started our writing. With Marvel you've always got to find your footing, but we tried to make sure that they would understand that just like the Midnight Sons comic, we told Marvel “Yeah this is a very dark setting, the theme is very dark. However, we are going for Saturday morning cartoon". Genuinely, our goal was Saturday morning cartoon where the characters are earnest, they take the situation they're in seriously. They're not in on a joke or anything like that, however, they're earnest about what they're doing, but we still have a lot of humour and we're not overly serious.
So we thought of the X-Men cartoon, we thought of those 90s comics and just that Saturday morning cartoon vibe
, like the old Dungeons & Dragons
cartoon where the stakes are high and the characters in them are taking the situation seriously, but it still has a little bit of cheese to it where you can take it. There's some lightheartedness, there's a lot of jokes. Yes, that is absolutely the tone, and so it was a thing where we were finding our footing with Marvel. They were, like, "Whoa". And they were fine with it, but we had to explain to them, "Yeah, we really view our tone as a Saturday morning cartoon vibe". Which I think fits with the original comic.
You've got a few characters that have been announced. Did you have a cutoff point internally where you thought "We're going to go overboard and just try and add too many of our favourites?" Or were you beholden to any inclusions as well through Marvel?
: No. They let us develop our first past roster and they never said, "You can't use that or you should use this character."
: First roster was 20 characters or something, so we very quickly were, like, "Okay, our production is where this is not going to be tenable. We've got to cut this down quite a bit". But yeah, the main thing was we got to our final set of 12 heroes. Everybody was pretty happy with that. But yeah, Marvel was great. They gave us free rein to basically use any of the characters that we wanted and were classified under their licence or under the IP as a Universe game. So we get to use the Avengers
and the Mutants
and the Runaways
, Spider-Man and all of the supernatural characters.
We really had the full roster of heroes to choose from and play with, which was awesome, and they were really receptive to the characters that we wanted to pick. We definitely wanted to include some of the popular characters fans are going to recognise, we wanted to include a bunch of the supernatural characters from the original Rise of Midnight Sons to make sure we had as much diversity on the roster as we could. To include with, obviously, the history of a lot of the characters that are just white dudes, so we did what we could there. Also, we really wanted to introduce some lesser-known characters and characters that people didn't know. So even outside of the Midnight Sons, introducing Magik
and Robbie Reyes
as Ghost Rider instead of Johnny Blaze and introduce Nico Minoru
. [We] really tried to add some new blood to the narrative and the characters that we were able to bring to life and bring them to our band and introduce them to the players.
: Yeah, if you know the original comic, then you're talking about characters like Frank Drake and Hannibal King and [other obscure] characters. So we replaced them with newer characters. We were, like, "Obviously we want Nico and Magik and more supernatural characters"...
: Got our version of Caretaker
: That's true. We did keep Caretaker.
Now I do want to switch gears to gameplay and game setup. But before I do that, because we are still on the topic of franchise, if you will, a lot of Marvel properties that are spinoffs that find their own feet tend to become their own universe. I know there's a developer line -- I've been in this industry for over 20 years now -- which goes by the way of: "We're just focusing on what's in front of us". But could you foresee this being a Firaxis Marvel universe that you can move around within? And have you made strategic decisions, narratively, to allow that to happen, should this be as successful as I assume you hope it is?
: Well, what I can say is, people should stay tuned for our post-credit scene. How about that?
Hey, there we go. There's a Marvel staple now.
: Of course, I'm not going to give you coach speak where it's, like, "Hey, I gotta take it one game at a time, man". We always plan for success, I suppose. We definitely see a future with it if possible, and certainly narratively, it never hurts to plant seeds until... I would say that people should keep an eye out for a post-credit scene.
: It's very easy for us to say we have the entire Marvel Universe and their entire backlog of catalogues and comics and stuff. If there's room to do something else, there's plenty of material to work with, with all the heroes and all of the history there.
All right. So switching gears to gameplay. Obviously the two key franchises Firaxis is known for are 'CIV' and XCOM. Can you talk about what makes Midnight Suns different, how you approached it with those two key pillars in mind, and what manifested, and what you think stands out the most and you're most proud of? Sorry, it's a loaded question…
: No, it's fine. Joe can talk to how
this happened, but I think the truth was we weren't intending for this to be quite as different as it ended up. We are the XCOM team, the team making Midnight Suns is the XCOM team. And our intention was to make a Marvel XCOM, frankly, and umm… we didn't do that. We made something very, very different. But that's not because that was our plan, that's just because it’s how it worked out. I truly believe people who enjoyed XCOM will immediately find a lot to enjoy in Midnight Suns. We were very, very close in terms of… we don't share the same mechanics. We're an RPG, we're a much more full-fledged RPG with a fuller story. It's a much longer, bigger game. But when you're in combat, it's going to flex the same muscles.
: It puts you in the same head space.
: Yeah. But we intended it to be actually much closer to XCOM than we ended up.
: Yeah, mentioning XCOM, I think Midnight Suns ends up in an interesting place for the studio as pillars. 'CIV' obviously is a 4X game, so that's going to be a very deep system-driven strategy at the 4X level. XCOM is extremely tactical squad-based; gritty and punishing and challenging. So that's the premier tactics title. And Midnight Suns is a tactics-RPG, so very narrative driven, very story driven because we have the IP licence with Marvel. But still maintaining that same tactical depth, but pulling a lot of the narrative and story elements and the character elements and emotional beats in there. And really making that a key pillar of the game. Telling this awesome, supernatural story inside of the Marvel Universe. We definitely started from a place of being very close to XCOM and then when we knew were making a superhero game, we very, very quickly realised as we were playing around with the mechanics that certain things just didn't fit, once you start putting superheroes into the tactical map.
So in XCOM you're dealing with your rag-tag group of guerrilla soldiers fighting up against this unknown, incredibly powerful, superior alien force. So having mechanics that are a bit more punishing towards the player of being able to miss your shots that you're taking or needing to take cover from aliens, because otherwise you're standing open, you're just going to get destroyed. Having a grid-based movement system. All of those things really can fit the theme and the emotional experience you want players to have when they're playing XCOM, and none of that really makes sense when you put superheroes on the board because superheroes aren't going to miss their shots, they're not going to have Iron-Man
miss one of his repulsor blasts. Captain America
's not going to miss when he's punching an enemy.
Same thing with taking cover. It's, like, "They're superheroes. They don't need to take cover. They are the most powerful units on the board". All the enemies are scared of them, instead of in XCOM the soldier being scared of the aliens. So when we pulled all those elements out, we very quickly realised that we are building an entirely new and different tactical experience. So the DNA of XCOM is still there in terms of the way that we approach the tactical problem-solving design space and wanting to introduce [a series] of interesting problems and challenges and have puzzles for the player. But even though the mechanics are different, it still resonates the same way and it scratches that same itch of getting deep into the tactical combat.
Would you say there's anything comparable that's been out in the tactics space like what you've kind of managed to build based on everything you just mentioned?
: Oh man.
And I'm not trying to find something where you can like-for-like it. I'm just curious because it sounds to me more like you're sitting on something pretty unique that maybe is a genre unto itself...
: Yes. We feel like it's pretty unique. There are obviously a tonne of games that we pulled inspiration from. The card stuff and mechanics came from Slay the Spire
and those types of games. I even used some of Fire Emblem
for the hero design and the mechanics. You know, looking at MOBAs, looking at Hearthstone
. There's a lot of different genres and elements that we've pulled in and fused together and combined. And I do think the result is really unique and something special and not something that I can immediately think of another comparison to.
Okay, that's very cool. Now over 60 hours. How do you keep the game fresh and interesting when you're using hero characters from the outset? Obviously games are about empowering a player that has a starting point and then they become ever powerful. How do you approach that when you've already got superheroes there?
: That was part of our design philosophy, was to make sure that that heroes had powerful abilities from the very start. The way it works is that, and this is getting into the weeds a little bit, but we have this mechanic called heroism. You have to use your other abilities to build up this resource called heroism, and then you can spend that on your heroic abilities, which are very, very powerful. From the start of the game they're very, very powerful. But what happens is that over the course of the game, you unlock more flexible or even more powerful heroic abilities. You still are very powerful. Iron-Man can do amazing stuff from the start of the game, which is important, but you still unlock more and more flexible heroic abilities over the course of the game.
You're right, it's a very long game, and so another way that things stay interesting is that honestly 25 hours in, we have a full giant gameplay system that unlocks called 'mods'. All of a sudden, at that point you've almost maybe got what you feel is a perfect deck. If you have a favourite character, you're kind of like, "Oh, I feel like I've got this character dialled in". And then all of a sudden about 20, 25 hours in we turn on this whole new gameplay system where, "Oh now these random perks start showing up on characters' cards". And so now you're, like, "Oh man, this ability maybe that wasn't that awesome before, now it has this random perk. Now I need to build my whole character around this ability". And then you continue to get these sort of random perks appearing on your cards, and so you're constantly over the last half of the game rebuilding your deck around these modded cards. So yeah, there's a couple of ways we do that, but it's very true. That's something we definitely kept in mind, is making sure that you're constantly chasing what is the best ability set for all your heroes.
: And having a large roster of 12 heroes definitely helps with that as well because it's difficult to fully upgrade and progress every single hero over the course of the campaign. So you narrow your focus to a core four or five heroes, but everyone else is still on the roster and still can be used. All of those progression systems that we have for upgrading your abilities, levelling up your characters-when you start applying that across the entire roster, it can certainly fill more than the full narrative campaign experience. Then we'll also introduce new enemies pretty consistently throughout the game. We have a couple heroes that aren't on the roster from the start so you unlock new hero characters. There's a lot of things that we feed into the experience as you're going through the story to make sure that it stays interesting.
Was there a combination of heroes that was just too powerful at one point?
: Every combination was too powerful at one point.
: Yeah, probably.
: It's something you go through. Joe and I have constantly been doing a back and forth. To be honest though, I think our design philosophy (certainly mine) is we don't worry about characters being too powerful, we worry about characters being not powerful enough really. So we'll generally be, like, “Overpowered is good”. [And we’ll] try to raise everybody to a state where you're, like, "Oh my gosh, this character can't be beat". Every character should be, like, "Oh my God, if you build them out the right way, they're impossible to take out". I think the most balanced conversations that Joe and I have had over the last year or two years have been, like, "Oh this ability, this is kind of lame compared to everything else. Let's make this one…"…
: Find a way to bump it up more than stuff having to nerfed to bring it down. It's like, "Nah, I don't feel like I can use this that often. We should be more powerful."
: More powerful, yeah.
That's the best answer. I'm going to wrap it up I think, because I'm probably going to get kicked off shortly. Locations. Obviously over that journey you're going to take the players through a tonne of locations. How much is it from the writing team's mind and how much of it is from the Marvel universe? As in iconic?
: It's a mix. We have a lot of your premier Marvel locations. You have your Avengers Tower and some of the old Spirits of Vengeance locations with the Quentin Carnival and hearkening back to Johnny Blaze. There are definitely some secret locations, there's some deep cut Marvel lore to tie into the story that could get a little spoiler-y in there. We knew we wanted to start the game in New York. That's a very popular, familiar location for a lot of Marvel events, a lot of Marvel characters. So pulling in Spider-Man very early on in the New York missions makes a lot of sense, and that's a very familiar place to start and then the game kind of branches out and gets a little wilder and crazier from there. Everything has its place and fits within the Marvel universe, but we try to make sure all the environments feel pretty distinct and varied as you're going through them and still have those Marvel touchstones throughout to still make the player definitely feel like they're recognised in the universe.
Okay, awesome guys. We’re kind of geeked out over that chat and what’s to come in the game and thanks again for your time today.
: Thank you very much. It was fun to talk to you.