Master of the Universe: TQ Jefferson
Marvel's VP of Game Production talks about taking Captain America across multiple platforms.
While actor Chris Evans defends the world on screen, gamers can do the same from their mobile devices. One of several Marvel games that have been released in tandem with the franchise’s films and comic books, the Captain America: The Winter Soldier game is another step in merging the company’s rich superhero-filled universe across multiple mediums, says TQ Jefferson, Marvel’s VP of Game Production.
“It’s just my own personal belief and experience that a ‘movie-based game’ should never be about the movie,” Jefferson says. “It should always be its own thing. It’s just using the same ingredients so it’s original but familiar.”
Achieving that original but familiar quality comes with its own set of challenges. We caught up with Jefferson at this year’s South By Southwest interactive fest on the heels of debuting a first look at the mobile game.
TQ Jefferson: When we’re making a game, we set out to really tell our own story. The film is going to tell its story and what we’ll do is tell something that’s original that uses a lot of the same pieces as the film so that it’s original but familiar at the same time. This way we avoid spoiling anything that’s in the film and it becomes an additive experience rather than a recreation of the film. We feel that that’s a more effective means of servicing the appetites of fans and consumers. Also, the original storyline gives us the freedom to build the best game story that we can and avoid spoilers and things that are sensitive to the filmmakers in the studio. I think what we end up doing is becoming a sort of complimentary experience. Hey, you’ve seen the Captain America movie. If you really like that, well there’s some more stuff over here in the game if you want to experience that flavor but in a different sort of format.
TJ: At the very onset, I often read the scripts so that I’m aware of what’s going on in the film and I can guide the development team away from sensitive areas of the story. Even though we’re doing an original story, sometimes ideas do converge just organically. Part of my job is to make sure we don’t cross streams there. There’s a lot of communication between my team representing the developers and the film studio and we show them artwork. We share our storylines with them. We let them read everything and take a look at everything and sometimes they will help us in regards to “OK, well Cap’s costume has changed or Falcon’s costume has been altered from the original reference” or they’ll say, “Hey this storyline is a little too close to what we’re doing in the film or it’s a little too spoiler-y.” It’s a lot of back-and-forth communication that starts at the onset of the project and continues all the way until co-release of the game.
It’s very, very collaborative. It’s great that the filmmakers and my team, we’re all in the same floor in the same building, so it’s literally walking down the hall and just going, “Hey, do you want to take a look at this game?” or “Hey, we’ve got the outline for the story done.” We share that information with our development team. The writers will read the script so they understand what’s in the film. It’s not that we read the script so that we can replicate it. It’s more like you need to understand the context so that when we course-correct them on some point in the game storyline, they understand why we’re telling them to zig instead of zag.
TJ: Honestly, it used to be the things like you were saying before of, oh, if the story changes how does it impact the game and so forth, but again we’ve put solutions in place to sidestep that. I’d say now the biggest challenge is getting reference [artwork] early enough to sort of bake it into the game. Sometimes it doesn’t come online until very, very late in the film’s production cycle and games have a much longer lead time than film, so sometimes you have to take a guess, and when that stuff finally comes online, sometimes it’s a scramble to readjust. OK, Star-Lord’s mask looks different than it did at the beginning, how quickly can we change that? I think it’s that. If we’re trying to capture the look of a film then there’s always risk in something changing at the last minute.
TJ: Especially in mobile or on Facebook, like Avengers Alliance, the biggest challenge is it’s not really a platform or an audience that has an appetite for lengthy exposition. On Facebook, you’re not running cinematics or anything like that, so it’s a lot of text. How do you convey a deep story in very small chunks? That’s always tricky because you have to figure out different ways of doing it, different ways of catering to your audience, because we don’t want to sacrifice story. It’s one of our core pillars—true character experiences, fun and engaging gameplay, and compelling story. The challenge is in finding that balance between the sort of limitations of the platform, the appetite of the consumer, and the amount of story that you’re trying to tell.
TJ: One of the things we’re doing now, and if you’re playing a lot of our games currently, you’ll see certain elements are shared across games. That’s because we’re trying to build a Marvel gaming universe that has its own continuity and its own narrative and its own sort of awareness. The real juggling act is getting our partners, the Gamelofts of the world, coordinating them to share and work with other companies that may actually be their direct competitors. That’s the tricky part and we’ve actually managed it.
What I and my team do, being the Marvel component of this, is we sit at the center of this web of game narratives and projects. We watch everything and guide where all the different games are going. That way we don’t have games stepping on the same topics over and over again. Each thing is unique, but we are threading through those elements that give them a feeling that they’re all in the same universe.
TJ: We cherry pick bits and pieces here and there. I don’t think there’s anything that we pull straight from the comic books. I think Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 was focused on the [superhero] civil war, but even that gets liberties and so forth. We borrow some stuff from film. We borrow some stuff from television or animation. We borrow some stuff from publishing and we really do set about telling the best story for this sort of gameplay experience. We’re collaborating more and more with publishing. I personally go to the big publishing retreats that they have where they discuss and lock down the storylines for all of the Marvel books for the next year or two years. I’m sitting in that room and take all those notes back and I disseminate it to the team. We’re always aware of what they’re doing. If it makes sense for our game to align with a particular storyline, then we have that knowledge ahead of time and we can prepare for it.
TJ: Oh, absolutely. I attend conferences like Game Developers Conference, E3, and I’m always on the look out for new teams with something that’s interesting and something I haven’t seen before. Here at South By Southwest, I saw a couple of titles that they were just really amazing execution. They are teams I want to keep an eye on. We’re always looking out for something like that. If someone has something new and something interesting, we want to know about it.
TJ: There’s a game called Lost Toys, which is a puzzle game. I played it for a little bit. I bought it right on the spot from the app store. There’s another coming out soon called Framed and it’s a very interesting means of puzzle game plus storytelling. It was just really brilliantly done. I haven’t seen this presentation before. Stuff like that really, really interests me.
TJ: What will happen oftentimes, we’ll work with a partner like DeNA, who does Marvel: War of Heroes. They may come to us with a concept and we’ll work with them on the creative for the concept until we’re both sort of aligned where we feel good about it and they feel good about it. During that back and forth, we’ll often suggest, “Have you guys seen this title? Or have you seen this?” We’ll flat out say, “We saw this. We thought it was awesome. We’re very interested in seeing a concept like that.” We’ll point them to different inspirations out there in the game space or wherever. … It’s a back-and-forth process with our partners.
TJ: It’s a combination of things. It’s personality, communication skills, an awareness of the industry, a passion for games, a passion for comics, or a passion for whatever it is you’re doing. That’s something that becomes self-evident once you start talking to someone. You can tell if someone’s passionate about something. You can tell if it’s just a job to them. I’d rather have someone very, very passionate and that maybe doesn’t know so much about comics or they’re young, they’re green to games, but if they’re passionate, they’ll make up that gap rather than someone that might know a lot of stuff but doesn’t quite care that much because that’s going to trickle into the product and that’s not a good fit for the team. You just have to have people that are self-starters, autonomous, take the initiative, and they’re passionate about what they do because it becomes evident very, very quickly.
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