Though better known for its comics and cinematic universe, Marvel Entertainment has published video games since the 1980s. From “The Amazing Spider-Man” on the original Game Boy to “Marvel’s Avengers” on the PlayStation 5, dozens of titles over the decades have allowed players to live vicariously through their favorite superheroes and villains. Still, Marvel’s place in the video game industry pales in comparison to its role in Hollywood.
Bill Rosemann, vice president and creative director of Marvel Games, wants that to change. He believes “Marvel Snap,” an upcoming free-to-play mobile and PC title that releases Oct. 18, is a step in the right direction.
“We don’t just want to make a great Marvel game. We don’t just want to make a great Marvel card game. We want to make a great game,” Rosemann said in a recent video interview with The Washington Post.
And who is Marvel Games putting in charge of developing said title? The entertainment titan partnered with Ben Brode, former game director for Blizzard Entertainment’s “Hearthstone,” one of the most successful online collectible card games in history. Brode, and his new team at Second Dinner — many of whom are ex-Blizzard talent — wanted to create a game that would resonate with fans of the superhero genre and video games alike.
“We saw the team that Ben was assembling and we had no doubts from the beginning [Second Dinner] were going to make the best card battler in the world,” Rosemann said.
The game is relatively simple to pick up and understand. Players create a deck of 12 cards featuring heroes and villains from the Marvel universe. They go back and forth playing cards in different locations from the Marvel universe, with an energy allotment determining how many they can play each turn. Whoever has the highest power at two of the three locations after the final turn wins. Games last only a few minutes and are easy to fit into spare moments on the go.
The barrier to entry is low, by design. However, the intricacies of the title lie in the progression system and ranked ladder experience.
In “Marvel Snap’s” sole game mode (for now), players rank up based on the number of cubes to their name. Cubes are won and lost in matches and the numbers vary on how long each bout goes and the utilization of the “Snap” mechanic. Games typically last a maximum of six turns. At any point, a player can Snap to put more cubes at stake. If one person Snaps, it suggests to the opponent that they’re confident they’re going to win, thus making the risk of cubes a calculated gamble. The opponent can play the game out, Snap back to raise the stakes even further or escape and leave the match early, losing a lesser amount of cubes than they would have if they played the game out and lost.
The game’s unique Marvel-themed cosmetics and art were designed to be compelling in their own right, but it’s the mind games that Rosemann believes will keep players coming back for more.
“There’s the bluffing portion of it that is new and innovative and really fun and makes it very strategic,” Rosemann said. “I think you will find it’s a game that you can jump into very quickly, play very quickly, but then discover, ‘Oh, there’s real [strategic depth] here.’ And then that’s infused from the ground up with Marvel.”
Brode, whose history includes working on the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game (now out of print) before acting as an early member on “Hearthstone’s” original design team, knows a thing or two about what makes a card game fun. In 2018, four years after launch, Blizzard announced that its collectible card game reached over 100 million downloads. In the eight years since its release, “Hearthstone” has continued to release content and entertain millions.
In 2018, Brode, whose colorful personality and signature cackling laugh became synonymous with the multibillion dollar company, announced that he was leaving Blizzard Entertainment to start a game company with a few of his friends and former colleagues. The decision was a difficult one, with plenty of risk, but Brode wanted to return to his roots.
“I was getting very involved in leadership and management for the last couple years of my job,” Brode told The Washington Post. “I really enjoyed doing it, but I was itching to get back into actually programming and designing and getting my hands dirty directly.”
Alongside co-founder Hamilton Chu, the pair agreed on the name Second Dinner for their company as an homage to the late nights they’d spent together brainstorming ideas. With a name decided, it was time to get the team together and begin working on creating … something.
“We didn't have any game ideas when we left, but we knew that we wanted to do a blend of really earth-shattering gameplay and a really high business opportunity. And I think that there's kind of a nexus,” Brode said.
Despite his roots in game design starting on desktop computers, Brode found another medium more immediately appealing.
“Mobile is a great place to have a successful game. At the core of it, what I wanted to do was make a game I really wanted to play,” said Brode. “I had just become a father. My son was born basically the day Hearthstone was released and I found that it was much easier for me to play mobile games. So I wanted to build something that I would be able to play more often.”
With no intellectual property to base their game around, the team at Second Dinner began creating prototype mobile games until a familiar face provided them with an opportunity. Jay Ong, executive vice president and head of Marvel Games, worked at Blizzard with Brode in the early 2000s before departing for his current company in 2014. When he caught wind that the team at Second Dinner was looking for a partner for a mobile game, a meeting was set.
“We had a meal, we sat down, and the confidence that they could bring Marvel to life, and would make [the game] as authentically and excitingly Marvel as possible, was evident,” said Rosemann, who attended the meeting. “We just geeked out about our collective Marvel history.”
There was a shared interest in the Marvel Universe trading cards from the ’90s, and the attendees gushed over the comics and the role the characters had played in their lives. It was a perfect fit, Rosemann said.
“[Second Dinner is] like Wolverine: They're the best at what they do,” Rosemann said with a laugh. “Except what they do is very nice.”
The Second Dinner team had experience channeling the vast World of Warcraft universe into a card game. But there were some stark differences between that property, and Marvel’s universe.
“I came from working on the Warcraft IP where there’s tons of creatures and enemies to slaughter by the hundreds, and that’s just not Marvel,” Brode said. “Marvel is much more focused on heroes fighting a single villain.”
It wasn’t long before the Second Dinner team struck creative gold.
“We came up with the idea for ‘Marvel Snap’ pretty quickly. In fact, it was so fun so fast, we actually put it on pause and said, ‘Look, we’ve got to explore some other stuff. We can’t have this good of an idea this quickly,’ ” Brode said, reminiscing. “Like the first idea’s never the best. But after a bunch of iterations, all we could think about was playing this game. So we ended up going back to it and fleshing it out. It’s been fun ever since.”
And while player enjoyment is the goal for any game to be successful long term, many find deeper meaning in titles they dive into. Given the difficulties of life in recent years, an escape from reality is important as well, according to Rosemann.
Before ending the conversation with The Washington Post, Rosemann’s demeanor suddenly shifted, as did his tone.
“It’s a challenging world we’re living in for many, many reasons and what is helping all of us collectively over the past few years is this opportunity,” said Rosemann. “We get to make a game that we know is going to entertain people and, man, people need that. … The power of games, now that we’re all isolated, for many reasons, is to be able to play a game that connects you to people around the world and makes you feel good and gives you some hope. We know that’s so important.”
Tim Rizzo is a freelance journalist with over a decade’s worth of experience in the news industry. He can be found at @TimRizzo on Twitter.