This week, Marvel's Avengers finally hits the consoles of gamers everywhere, fulfilling a longstanding desire for a big, slick, video game adventure starring a version of Earth's Mightiest Heroes that looks and feels close to what we get from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The game, from Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, is certainly one of the most-anticipated of 2020, and it's bound to consume a lot of our collective time over the next few weeks, but as we dig into this particular gaming adventure, it's worth remembering another one we almost got.
Back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, in the lead-up to Marvel's release of The Avengers on the big screen, THQ Studio Australia was tasked with developing a video game adventure that would live up to the hype of what was then an unprecedented cinematic event, and release it in time to into the film's release in the spring of 2012. As the game moved forward, its developers did their best to make it unlike any other licensed game on the market at the time, and for a while it looked like they might succeed.
Then the game imploded, and it became something only people with inside access, like then-Marvel Comics superstar Brian Michael Bendis, could ever actually play.
To commemorate this fallen piece of pop culture, this week CNET dropped a new deep dive into the story of the game's rise and fall, told by the people who were making it, and it's full of intriguing details about what might have been, starting with the earliest development process. Because games take so long to make, it's of course worth remembering that at the time work on this Avengers adventure began, there was no movie to draw from. There was barely an MCU yet, and so developers went in search of inspiration and bought up basically every Marvel's Ultimates — already a heavy influence on the MCU — comic they could find, in an effort to get the world right.
The team also took inspiration from Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was at the time the gold standard for comics-based video games and licensed video game properties in general, and began devising levels based on third person combat. Then came director Christian Dailey, who worried the third-person style was going to make the game too much like other licensed properties on the market, including forgettable ones like the games tied into the first Iron Man films.
"I was looking at what was out there," Dailey said. "Every Marvel movie tie that had come and gone at that point was like this third-person kind of cookie-cutter clone."
Dailey's solution? "F*** it, let's make it first person."
According to developer Charles Henden, Dailey's idea was "like a bomb going off" in the process of making the game, but it also provide the innovative boost needed to push things to the next level. Inspired by Left 4 Dead, Dailey envisioned a first-person co-op game in which players could choose between Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, or The Hulk. While you couldn't see your own player, you could see all of your teammates and the bad guys you were meant to fight, and the co-op of it all set everything up for lots of sweet combo fighting action.
"Now, of course, it makes sense," Henden recalled, "But at the time I was one of the people saying 'what the f***?'"
Despite the team's nerves about selling their idea to Marvel, the House of Ideas also apparently loved it, so what went wrong in the end? We can apparently put much of the blame for never getting this particular game on finances, specifically a confluence of fallout from the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the high license fees Marvel was charging THQ just to release the Avengers project.
"There was a massive guarantee against that game," Danny Bilson, an executive vice president at THQ in those days, explained. "You had to pay Marvel double-digit millions no matter what."
So, in the summer of 2011, THQ's Avengers game was cancelled, and we were left waiting until now for another studio to release the kind of big, action-packed Earth's Mightiest Heroes adventure we've been craving. Even now, looking back on what might have been, Dailey remains convinced that THQ would have had a hit on its hands.
"It was a simple game," he said, "but it was very sticky and very fun."
For more on the development of the THQ Avengers project, including the time a developer basically snapped and started stabbing his desk with a kitchen knife, head over to CNET.
The new Marvel's Avengers game is available now.