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Can Marvel Unify its Video Games With the ‘Marvel Gaming Universe’?

Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) /Marvel Comics recently discussed the development of a unified "Marvel Gaming Universe" at Marvel's House of Ideas panel at C2E2 (Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo). The idea is to connect Marvel's fragmented universe of video games with a cohesive vision, similar to the way it unified its film world as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The plan is to have Marvel's own comic book writers write or oversee the development of Marvel's upcoming video games to ensure that they share a consistent voice with the source material. This isn't the first time Marvel's talked about creating a Marvel Gaming Universe -- Marvel's VP of Games, TQ Jefferson, made the same claim at SXSW in March.

Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Source: Capcom.

Easier said than done
This idea isn't a new one -- Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) /DC Comics accomplished this successfully with the Batman Arkham games, which were originally developed by Rocksteady. The three main Arkham games, which have sold over 21 million copies worldwide, successfully merged the comic book, cartoon, and video game worlds of Batman into a single interactive experience that felt like a natural extension of all three.

Marvel video games are more scattered -- some games are based on the cartoons, others are based on the films, while others are crossover titles with other franchises. Over the past five years, over a dozen publishers have released Marvel titles on various platforms.

By comparison, Warner Bros. has published all of its comic book-based console, PC, and mobile video games over the past five years. Only two arcade games -- Justice League: Heroes United (2009) and Batman (2013) -- weren't published by Warner.

In a clear effort to bring its characters home, Marvel recently asked Capcom, Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ: ATVI  ) , and several other companies to discontinue digital distribution of several Marvel titles. Some of the delisted games include Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, X-Men: The Official Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Licensing agreements with both companies will expire soon, according to EGM.

Marvel will likely bring these franchises home to Disney Interactive Studios, which recently announced the crossover title Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes, which will mix together its Disney, Pixar, and Marvel characters together in a telepod-powered sandbox.

Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes. Source: Disney.

Can Marvel make better games than Activision and Capcom?
Even if Marvel can bring its video game characters home, can it really make better games than seasoned publishers like Activision and Capcom? After all, Activision's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom series are consistently regarded as fan favorite titles.

It's easy to look at Rocksteady's stellar work on Arkham Asylum and Arkham City and claim that comic book writers are the key to creating great games. But that wasn't always the case. Over a decade ago, Ubisoft (NASDAQOTH: UBSFF  ) published Batman: Vengeance, a continuation of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's animated series, and Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu, which featured a new character created by artist Jim Lee. Both titles were praised for their stories and voice acting, but were criticized for bland, lackluster gameplay. Vengeance sold less than a million copies, while Sin Tzu only sold 590,000.

In video games, creating great gameplay is usually the primary objective, whereas scripting a stunning story is secondary. Ideally, a great game would excel at both, but few people want to play a beautifully written game if the game is too clunky or monotonous to finish.

So far, Marvel has only taken baby steps in expanding its own universe. The first step was a Facebook game, Avengers Alliance, which was later tied into a full-featured mobile game, Avengers Initiative. Other games within Marvel's gaming universe include Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign, Marvel War of Heroes, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Last June, In response to Warner's free-to-play MMORPG DC Universe Online, Marvel Entertainment released its own MMO, Marvel Heroes. The game was developed by Gazillion Studios and written by Brian Michael Bendis, the creator of Marvel's "Ultimate" universe. However, Heroes met the same icy reception as Ubisoft's Batman games -- IGN gave the game a 5.7/10 rating, stating that the story was good, but that combat and customization features were mediocre. By comparison, IGN gave DC Universe Online (the PS4 version) an 8/10 rating.

Marvel Heroes. Source: Marvel.

Should Marvel leave well enough alone?
If Marvel Heroes is an early indication of where the Marvel Gaming Universe is headed, Disney would be better off letting Activision and Capcom do the heavy lifting instead.

Disney acquired gaming studio LucasArts in October 2012, but shut it down the following April to salvage its valuable IPs, because LucasArts was redundant with Disney's Interactive division. Disney then signed a deal with Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: EA  ) in November 2013 to exclusively produce Star Wars titles for the next decade, since EA housed BioWare, the creator of the acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the remnants of Pandemic, the creators of the Star Wars: Battlefront series.

Therefore, it might be a better idea for Marvel to sign exclusive long-term deals with its best publishers, instead of pushing them away. The idea of hiring comic book writers to "unify" its entire video game universe isn't clever -- it's overly ambitious and doesn't take into account the different genres of games that are on the market.

Simply put, gamers don't love Marvel vs. Capcom because of the story -- they love it because it lets them pit Chun Li against the Hulk. Gamers adored Activision's Spider-Man titles because Treyarch effortlessly created the adrenaline-pumping sensation of swinging from building to building in an open sandbox.

My final take
In conclusion, if Marvel simply wants to assist studios in developing a unified voice for its games, I'm all for it. However, if Marvel discontinues licensing agreements with Activision, Capcom, and other publishers entirely, that could be a huge mistake.

What do you think, fellow Marvel fans? Is creating a unified Marvel Gaming Universe a clever move or a foolish one? Share your thoughts in the comments section below! 

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