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Marvel Strike Force’s latest update is pay-to-win mobile gaming at its worst

The mobile title and its community are at odds once again

Marvel Strike Force - Captain America, Spider-Man and others 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 is, on the surface, a perfectly unassuming mobile game based around collecting Marvel heroes, leveling them up, and building strategic teams to take out opposing superpowered teams. It’s a great premise for a game, and when everything goes right, it’s a fun distraction with some interesting tactical choices.

However, the game has been plagued with issues on and off since its launch in March. While the developers have reached out to the community and asked for feedback, the latest update inflamed the fan base even further. The latest “Red Star” update changes the game for a lot of players and deepens the cracks in Marvel Strike Force’s design.

What’s in a game?

In Marvel Strike Force, new players start out by spending the majority of their time engaged in actual combat, via the campaign and Blitz and Arena matches. The higher level a player becomes, and the more heroes they collect, the more their game becomes focused around meta game elements. There’s the typical mobile model of spending energy on campaign missions, which grant experience. Heroes level up, allowing players to upgrade their abilities with ability materials (which have four ranks), and craft gear for them. Leveling heroes up and crafting their gear costs gold. That’s four separate currencies for players to juggle, on top of various credits for individual storefronts for each game mode, and the purchasable Power Cores.

It costs $10 to buy 750 Power Cores; most orbs are 450 Power Cores, limited-time orbs are 675. (For comparison, $2 in the buy-to-play title Overwatch buys two loot boxes, and $10 buys 11 loot boxes. Overwatch loot boxes only contain cosmetic items.)

Heroes are unlocked via orbs, which are essentially loot boxes. You don’t get the full hero, but a variable number of hero shards. Once you’ve unlocked a hero, you continue to collect hero shards. Sometimes, this works well, like the Blitz and Arena game modes granting credits each day that can be exchanged for hero shards. Other times, finding a hero requires spending massive amounts of campaign energy over time on missions that have a chance to grant a variable amount of shards. The worst case scenario is that players cannot obtain hero shards from any other source than orbs.

FoxNext Games via Polygon

There’s not just one kind of orb, either, like Overwatch’s crates. There are a half-dozen competing orbs at any time. Here’s where Marvel Strike Force’s progression model shifts from opaque and labyrinthine to frustrating and exploitative. The game’s progression system is fraught with choke points where you can’t progress due to a shortage of gold ... but some orbs would solve that problem. The newest hero composition in the game, Brotherhood mutants, heavily relies on new hero Sabertooth who is exclusively available through premium orbs.

Add in the fact that Marvel Strike Force’s cash offers relentlessly spam your screen as you navigate between objectives, and it feels as though the game itself has fallen far behind in importance to the convoluted mass of progression systems built around that. While the deals haven’t reached the level of the $100 offer for a group of Kree minions back in August, they do range from $10-$40 for hero shards and gear. You could purchase a new game for $20 (say Supergiant’s new game, Hades), or you could “power up your gear” with a selection of mid-tier gear components for your characters. Even the $30-40 offers only give a few dozen shards — usually not enough to unlock a hero or boost them an entire star level.

A line in the sand

There’s already been a volley of feedback and changes back and forth between Marvel Strike Force publisher FoxNext and fans on pricing and rewards. The developers restored Power Core rewards and apologized for bundle pricing. “We were making changes that were a little tone-deaf and blind to the perspectives of players,” executive producer Amer Ajami told Polygon. As for the orb model, Ajami noted, “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.”

The introduction of Red Stars has inflamed the issue, pushing the community to another breaking point. Marvel heroes can rank up to seven gold stars via collecting shards. Red Stars is a new system that introduces yet another orb with yet another progression system, upgrading gold stars to Red Stars. Red Stars are another system that is entirely based off randomness via orbs. There are now Red Star orbs, which can be granted via the log-in calendar. Red Star orbs will also be available via the Blitz game mode once a week.

A hero in the game, along with his gear and upgrades. FoxNext Games via Polygon

At first, Red Stars seem like they’re a refreshing change to FoxNext’s system. You don’t get Red Star shards, you just get a bonus to a character. It doesn’t reset the progression treadmill, forcing a player to farm shards for a hero they thought complete. Then, once you see how powerful Red Stars make other teams you must face in the Arena, Blitz and eventually, the Alliance Wars game modes, it becomes clear that it’s another dice roll that gates player power.

Red Stars are the most powerful single upgrade in the game, trumping gear tiers, gold stars and ability upgrades in terms of sheer stat increases. Their random nature also extends to every single character, including those you do not own; you could conceivably sink an entire week’s worth of effort and Power Cores into your Red Star blitz and get no usable upgrades.

As Red Star offers become available, and high paying players sink their power cores into Blitz, we’re likely going to see a gap widen between spending players and those who are remaining free to play. Cash offers are going to be a powerful, simple way for players to boost their teams, and a sizable chunk of end-game progression is based off going against other players and their rosters. Those who are left behind in the Red Star dust could see less rewards as a result, which is painful in a system that is already built to have multiple chokepoints and choices.

Ultimately, the Red Stars issue has left the Marvel Strike Force community demoralized. FoxNext floated the idea far before its launch, and the community spoke out against it. Red Stars are in the game to the displeasure of the community. It’s a conversation that goes beyond just Marvel Strike Force and expands into the entire mobile ecosystem. When does a game stop being a game and start being a platform for a microtransaction ecosystem? How do you balance progression and profitability in a free-to-play game? If the reception to Diablo Immortal is any sign, we haven’t even started to figure out the answers to these questions. From the looks of Marvel Strike Force’s community, neither has FoxNext.