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How FoxNext is pulling off a mobile mea culpa with Marvel Strike Force

This mobile RPG has made a remarkable turnaround

Spider-Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Crossbones, and Gamora line up before a battle. FoxNext Games
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Marvel Strike Force has all of the tools a game needs for success: a fun, engaging core combat mechanic; a series of characters from all across the Marvel universe, regardless of intellectual property rights; and enough systems and goals that players always have something to focus on.

Strike Force takes place in a branch of Marvel continuity that acknowledges that there are many, many worlds out there. As a commander of STRIKE (Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies), we have to play through a variety of role-playing missions with a team of uniquely powered heroes from Marvel canon, in order to stop the Eternal Ultimus from claiming our world: the Nexus of all Realities. Strike Force is built around short, RPG combat sessions against a wide variety of enemies, and players recruit new heroes, level up and gear their existing roster, and take part in campaigns, events, and challenges to earn rewards and advance the story. The gameplay is fun, and even the story is a light-hearted, fun romp that takes jabs at past Marvel decisions like Secret Empire or the naming conventions of SHIELD.

When these pieces work well, the game always has some kind of challenge to offer and work toward. Players can raid with friends, climb the Blitz or Arena combat ladders against other players’ teams, or work through the campaign or challenge events. But when the rewards or currencies feel overly restrictive, Marvel Strike Force feels like a series of unforgiving brick walls, with cash transactions tempting players with a way through. Players nearly derailed the game over these criticisms this summer; the largest content creators were vocally quitting, and the community was right behind them in outrage.

FoxNext has proactively addressed the concerns, and Polygon sat down with FoxNext Games to address the controversy, how the developers addressed it, and the next steps that this mobile title plans to take throughout the holidays and into 2019.

FoxNext Games

Turning things around

There wasn’t any one change that led to the uproar over Marvel Strike Force, and hence, there was no single magic fix. Players felt like they were getting fewer free rewards for interacting with the mobile game, and the developers expected them to pay more. It was a crisis moment, but executive producer Amer Ajami tells us that the heat was deserved.

“A lot of that community sentiment was deserved on our part. We were making changes that was a little tone-deaf and blind to the perspectives of players,” Ajami admits. “It’s a shame that it had to get to that point for us to open our eyes to the community and how to empathize with them. It did get there, and it did force us to re-examine how we get there and how we think about community.”

FoxNext identified two factors that led to the blow-up: a cadence of updates that seemed to strip away value instead of adding it, and a lack of communication behind changes. “One of our theories is that if we had done nothing different with how we changed the economy, except do a better job of communicating those changes beforehand, we could have stemmed a lot of the anger the community was feeling.”

One of the first things the team did was re-add power cores, the game’s paid currency, back into the free log-in rewards. “There was a larger change to log-in calendars,” says Ajami. “If you looked at the holistic amount of rewards you got at the month, you did get more value. We underestimated how much appreciation players had for power cores.”

It sounds like a minimal change, but it was an important lesson for FoxNext — the developer needed to focus on player empathy over raw stats and spreadsheets in the back-end. The team now posts weekly blogs about upcoming changes and have tripled its social media manpower, including executive access to the team’s Reddit account. Instead of cutting and running or doubling down, FoxNext decided to root out what they had done wrong and proactively solve it.

Mobile, microtransactions and merit

Marvel Strike Force exists in the mobile market, and while the game is free to play, it offers microtransactions. That went too far this summer, with a $100 Kree minion bundle. The Kree minions are literal no-name characters who can make up a crew; their only real purpose was to unlock Nick Fury in a limited-time event. Paying $100 for the Kree pack essentially gave you an incredibly niche team that still needed levelling and gearing up, draining your resources. The randomized Kree orb was a cheaper alternative, but one that could be so random it could not give you Kree shards.

“We learned a hard lesson with that Kree bundle, and that does not reflect our best thinking,” Ajami says. “We fully admit we were too aggressive there, in the pricing of the Kree orb and the way the rewards dropped from that orb in service of pushing people who wanted to be competitive towards Nick Fury.”

FoxNext wants Strike Force to be accessible to a broad audience, pulling in Marvel fans from the movies and comics. That means it’s free to play, and players who don’t partake in microtransactions can access the full game and pursue goals (even if they’re not competing among the top ranks for the best possible rewards). Since this summer, I’ve encountered a range of new prices in my Offers tab, ranging from a dollar to 10 bucks to 30 bucks; there hasn’t been anything as over the top as the Kree bundle.

Even loot boxes are meant to stagger the amount of pay-to-win power a player can earn. “The random nature of loot boxes has the benefit of mitigating the pay to win nature of a lot of these mobile games, which was something we wanted to avoid in Strike Force. It prevents people from lasering [sic] in on the subset of content that they want in order to gain a competitive advantage, and spend money to gain an advantage against other players.”

Now FoxNext is dedicated to fixing the lasting side effects of the Kree bundle and orb errors. “We heard that feedback loud and clear. We’ve taken a step back. That orb is no longer in the store. One of the things we promised to do is go back and buff the Kree. For better or for worse, people invested in the Kree offers and Kree orbs.” FoxNext will be going through and re-balancing the faction, along with other less powerful groups like the Defenders.

Captain America, Crossbones, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Daredevil are five popular heroes in the game. Marvel Entertainment

The future of Strike Force

FoxNext has reduced, removed or rearranged the parts of the game that have drawn ire — forced meta-changes along with wildly expensive bundles, limited-time events that ask players to pivot on their goals and chase a new character, and slowly stripped-down rewards. The future of Strike Force will still include unlocking and upgrading new characters, but there will be a stronger focus on social, ongoing content.

“Alliance War is a feature that we wanted to include in the launch version of Strike Force,” says Ajami. Unfortunately, the looming launch date of the game and dev resources forced the team to put it off. Now, Alliance War is incoming. “We’re hoping to have a version of that feature ready for some members of our community to play and give feedback on in a closed beta test closer to the end of the year, around the New Year, with the hopes that we can launch it globally in the January-February time frame.”

Right now, Alliances work together to clear raids; it’s a single social layer on an otherwise single-player activity. Alliance Wars will give every Alliance access to a helicarrier that they can upgrade, make choices in and ultimately defend. It’s an ongoing process to build up your helicarrier with the rest of your Alliance. The med bay, for instance, could give a heal over time to rosters, or a flat health boost. There are 12 rooms total, and each will grant a bonus and upgrade trees.

Once you’ve made your choices and set squads, you and another Alliance will storm each other’s helicarrier in phased turns, in a back-and-forth between Attack and Defense that sounds reminiscent of the best moments of modes like Blitz or Arena.

This event cycles daily, and requires collaboration, communication, prep ... but not a chase to the top, with the most meta-possible teams and heavy microtransactions to unlock. Alliance Wars is just one piece of upcoming content; Dark Dimensions, a single-player challenge, is also on the way. Quality-of-life improvements and additions to existing modes will continue throughout 2019.

“We’re fans of the brand. I’ve been reading the comics since I was in junior high,” says Ajami. Despite missteps around event launches and microtransactions, this seems clear from the game. Even the detail on character models, like the sour, grooved face of the Punisher to the languid, cocky animations on Deadpool do a lot to convey FoxNet’s earnestness.

As Marvel Strike Force continues to grow and evolve, FoxNext has pulled off the tricky task of changing to suit a passionate community. Next, the developer will look to build off that foundation to keep the game accessible, social and, most importantly, fun.

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