Marvel Universe Online: A Gazillion to One Shot?

In my previous post on Gazillion’s Marvel Universe Online, I ended with the comment “… if it comes out.” In my opinion, there is still a strong chance MUO isn’t going to appear for the fourth time, with the one reason being Disney and the other reason being Gazillion.

My Superpower is Cynicism

As a quick recap, Gazillion announced its Marvel MMOs back in March 2009, while Disney announced it was buying Marvel Entertainment in August 2009. Some sources indicate that the takeover was a surprise to those with Marvel video game licenses. Disney’s initial stance was that they were going to leave Marvel’s existing video game licensing alone, but would reconsider what they could bring in-house (to the Disney Interactive Media Group, who look after Disney’s video game interests).

Acclaim Studios London logo

Thanks to Disney, that lizard is now homeless.

Since that acquisition, Disney has been pulling back from video games that aren’t social network oriented and / or quickly profitable. Disney bought social game developer Playdom (who owned Acclaim Games) in July 2010; in less than a month Acclaim did a long walk with a short rope.

Disney has also recently hit a number of its gaming studios with pink slips while indicating its future focus is in social and apps titles over console titles i.e. smaller, cheaper titles that can be released relatively quickly to market. A MMO isn’t small, cheap and quick – it’s a high risk, expensive venture that can serve as a millstone around a studio – and it doesn’t appear to fit with Disney’s current gaming focus. As such, there is a chance that Disney may cancel MUO on the grounds that the risk-versus-reward calculations don’t work out. How DC Universe Online fairs will probably factor in to an extent (and in this area having something like 600k sales five weeks post-launch over two platforms – including PC direct downloads – isn’t exactly smash hit numbers… and the NPD numbers that indicate only 195k retail copies of DCUO were sold in January show something worse).

Disney isn’t scared of MMOs – it has Club Penguin, Toontown Online, Pirates of the Caribbean Online (all released) and World of Cars Online (in development) – but MUO would be a step beyond those titles in terms of budget and expected return.

Iron Man 2 box art for the Xbox 260

Whenever I hear anyone talk about Marvel wanting quality titles, I think of the products they actually release.

There is some separation between Marvel Entertainment and Disney; it is Marvel’s TQ Jefferson – who has appeared along side Gazillion at public events – who is the most direct link between the three companies of Marvel, Disney and Gazillion. Depending on the deal signed, it may be completely up to Gazillion to fund the development of MUO, with Marvel / Disney in an oversight capacity. But again, a Marvel MMO is an expensive, high-risk venture, which generally means oversight becomes pretty stringent from on-high.

To date Marvel appears generally loath to cancel a video game based on one of their IPs, regardless of quality (both the Elektra game and EA’s Marvel fighting game were cancelled by the publisher, not Marvel; Cryptic’s MUO shot saw Microsoft publicly out themselves as shutting down that project) so if the plug is going to be pulled, Disney is more likely to be behind it than Marvel.

I’m not saying that the above scenarios are guaranteed to happen. However, Disney is moving away from the big budget AAA titles after failing to meet market success recently, and MUO requires a big budget to become a AAA title, so I’m not going to be surprised if it does.

Billion Squillion Entertainment Are At Least Gajillion Times Better

Secondly, there is Gazillion Entertainment, who raised an additional US$60m investment last year from a Singapore government-backed company but has a lot of studios to cover with that (and other) money. To recap, the studios in Gazillion’s portfolio are NetDevil, Slipgate Ironworks, The Amazing Society and Gargantuan Studios Secret Identity Studios. At this point in time:

Having one MMO in development is a big thing, but Gazillion has several. Its first title was Lego Universe, but it isn’t hard to find MMO players unaware that this game has even launched. Maybe it is doing well in non-traditional MMO markets, but I’d expect Gazillion to be trumpeting any success at all here and they aren’t. Plus selling the game after only four months post-launch is hardly a sign of a strong performer.

Super Hero Squad Online image

I'm looking forward to giving this a shot. Really. I am.

Add in that SHSO is allegedly launching early this year – hopefully not Q1, because there is almost no awareness of this information, even on the game’s site – and Gazillion’s ability to communicate with its potential players doesn’t look particularly good.

What is happening at Secret Identity Studios is unclear, but it is curious that at the same time as David Brevik, then head of the MUO project, was named Gazillion’s President and COO, the need was felt to rename the MUO studio and then put that studio into stealth(ier) mode. There had been an early indication that MUO was scheduled to launch in 2012 to coincide with the Avengers movie, but even December 31 2012 seems unlikely for a developer creating a MMO from near scratch.

In short: Gazillion has a lot of things it needs to stretch its resources over. One MMO is expensive – a AAA MMO can cost US$50 to $60m easily – and Gazillion has one recently launched title that didn’t do well enough for them to keep it and potentially four or more titles in development. Which means they are relying on investment / venture capital to fund development, and those investors will want to see some big bucks back. MUO offers the best chance of generating that kind of revenue for Gazillion, but it is two or more years away from launch.

Hero Up, Up and Away

Rocky road

MUO (and Gazillion) appear to have a rocky road ahead.

SHSO is actually the critical deliverable for Gazillion. As a game it walks into a child-friendly / social model that Disney is quite familiar with, so the success or failure of the game to gain traction is going to be very clear to those involved. MUO holds huge potential to be Gazillion’s flagship, but Marvel / Disney is going to be watching SHSO’s performance closely – if SHSO isn’t a success, it is going to be hard to convince executives to get behind a bigger, more expensive title with a greater chance of falling flat on its face.

… unless of course the plan is to make MUO an internally-published, free-to-play game”, possibly browser-based, which would be a interesting choice for an IP of that size.

Which is all very doom and gloom, I know. I’m looking forward to SHSO and MUO, but can’t help but see the odds stacked against MUO launching successfully as things currently stand.

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