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Marvel Strike Force hopes Alliance Wars keeps you playing forever

How does a mobile game keep players engaged?

Marvel Strike Force - a team stands aboard a helicarrier after 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.

The Disney acquisition of Fox is still underway, but there’s one place where you can find Doctor Doom rubbing shoulders with Wolverine, Captain America, and Jessica Jones. Marvel Strike Force, the mobile title by FoxNext Game’s Lost Angeles branch, made $3 million in February, and earned 200k new downloads. While Marvel Strike Force is successful, the game has courted controversy with microtransaction strategies and random unlock bonuses. The developers are set to roll out the game’s biggest addition yet, one centered around in-game battles around other groups of players. Polygon spoke with FoxNext Games’ vice president and general manager Amir Rahimi about alliance wars, in-game rewards in an ongoing service, community sentiment, and more.

Polygon: You mentioned that there will be a focus on community projects in the future. Tell me about that.

Amir Rahimi: The big one is Alliance Wars. It’s hard to overstate how big this mode is. In fact, we began working on this mode at the same time that we began working on the game itself.

Polygon: In a previous interview, we talked about how it was such a huge mode that it had to be staggered due to being too big for launch, and then a January launch was planned. Now, it’s March.

Amir Rahimi: Yeah. That was, I think, because of our commitment to making sure the mode is really good. There are things we really deeply value polishing, and making sure that what we call the toy, the thing that you’re actually playing with, feels good. So we have these helicarriers you can interact with. We have twelve different rooms, and you can move the rooms around, upgrade them to make them more powerful, and each room provides a different bonus to the alliance, and they must be defended.

So your Alliance has to put multiple teams into each of these rooms, and then you battle another alliance in their helicarrier in sort of real time. What’s cool is it’s just an extra layer of depth. The strategy is that you don’t know how the other team has laid out their helicarrier, so they may have moved the rooms around. You don’t know where the rooms are, and you have to destroy the rooms on top to unlock the next layer below them. So there’s a layer of user generated content that deepens the whole thing.

To take a step back, the way that we view our game and our community is that we want players to play our game forever. That’s what we value the most. We know the best way to do that is to add deep, meaningful social features that lets players form a community around the game. That’s the overall intent of Alliance Wars.

Polygon: Would you say this mode plays more like Blitz, where there’s a continually ramping, accessible challenge and working with a limited pool of resources, or is it more like Arena, which is limited in the times you can play with each match having more significant value?

Amir Rahimi: On that spectrum, it’s much more on the Arena side, where each player in the Alliance has a limited number of attacks they can do against the enemy Alliance, and so they have to be very careful and coordinated in which moves they make.

Polygon: You have to be very careful.

Amir Rahimi: Yeah, we don’t want this to be a war of attrition. We want this to be a war of coordination and strategy. For example, there’ll be a ton of coordination around how you lay out your med bay that gives health benefits to everyone in the Alliance. Other rooms give offensive bonuses when you’re attacking. If the enemy takes those rooms out, you lose that ability. You’ll need to coordinate where to put the med bay, who defends the med bay.

Polygon: A follow up question to that is how much power each individual member has. Let’s say I have my Alliance and my friends and I are officers, with a bunch of other members. Do me and the other officers have to coordinate to decide where we want things? Does everyone get a vote? How collaborative would you say it is?

Amir Rahimi: There’s a ton of collaboration that’s necessary, and in the current version of War, the players themselves choose which rooms to occupy. There has to be a lot of coordination. Alliances that have good leadership can direct other members to which rooms and see which, ultimately, will be the ones that are the most successful.

Marvel Strike Force - An Alliance’s helicarrier FoxNext Games

Polygon: Alliance Wars is the biggest gameplay addition since the Dark Dimension, an entirely single player experience. Alliance Wars is very social. Do you think you’ll be offering both types of content in the future?

Amir Rahimi: I think having a good balance between the two is really important. With Dark Dimension, we love games that offer long term goals. So for me, Dark Dimension was really fun because it’s such a high wall to climb that it forces me to think differently about how i approach that particular challenge, and it gave me something to chip away at over a long period of time. With features like Dark Dimension, the goal is 100% to keep players coming back for the long haul. Dark Dimension does that on the single player side, and War is intended to do that on the multiplayer side.

Polygon: Whenever there’s a new feature, something we’ll want to talk about is rewards. What do you think the reward structure might look like for Alliance Wars, and will there be a strong incentive to consistently participate?

Amir Rahimi: We’re still balancing this and working through things to figure out what the reward structure is going to look like, but our intention is to make the rewards that come out of Alliance Wars the best in the game or among the best in the game, at the very least. Alliance Wars will have its own shop, just like raids and Blitz and Arena. We expect some of the top gear in the game, like orange gear, to be readily available and easier to get. There’ll be great characters in the shop as well.

FoxNext Games

Polygon: Speaking of end game, while many players are using purples and oranges, they also have a sea of blue and green materials. Are there any plans to allow players to consolidate those into higher end materials?

Amir Rahimi: That’s a great idea. I’m not aware of that particular feature on our roadmap, but I’m in that exact same boat. That’s something other games have done and I totally see us doing that, so I’m going to take a note on that and take that back to the team and see if we can fit that somewhere in our roadmap.

Players have long term goals, but there are also weeks or months where players feel like their advancement is minimal. I’m wondering how the team feels about that.

Our goal is to have all sorts of different modes, modes that you can make quick progress on — milestone events, or special campaigns — and then longer term cases. Our goal is to provide rewards on a daily basis so players feel like they’re always making progress, then things like Dark Dimension that dangle a carrot and gives you something to chase in the long run.

That’s a tricky thing to balance, and we’re constantly learning ourselves and trying to balance our systems so players feel rewarded every day for multiple years. I think we're doing a pretty good job of that, but I think we can always get better at that.

FoxNext Games

Polygon: Red Stars have been a really controversial subject. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the community reaction to them.

Amir Rahimi: We’re very well aware of the controversy around Red Stars. For us, it’s been interesting to see the actual metrics that have come out of Red Stars. What we’ve seen is that our engagement from players who don’t spend money increased after the launch of Red Stars. We see a lot of players who are not spenders really appreciate the feature. There’s a login calendar dedicated to it, there’s the Blitz that features Red Stars, and we don’t sell Red Stars in an uncapped way. We dole them out.

We’ve found that a lot of players who don’t spend, or spend very little money, have benefited greatly from that feature because it gives them the chance of getting a high Red Star character. What we’ve seen is, overall, the retention and engagement across all different kinds of characters has increased. So there’s a very vocal contingent on some of the different platforms that have expressed frustration about Red Stars, but a huge population of players enjoy them.

Polygon: Have those metrics shown a lot of team variety change? For a while, it was all Defenders or all SHIELD, but has Red Stars actively changed the way people are building teams?

Amir Rahimi: What we’ve seen is more variety. That makes a lot of sense, right? If I’m a player who loves SHIELD and I pull a four or five star Luke Cage, I’m gonna really start thinking about leveling up my Defenders. That’s not a good example, because the Defenders were so dominant in the meta [laughs], but take another team. The principle applies. What you see at the competitive levels is more variety, which was another intention behind the feature, because no one wants to play a game where everyone is using the same two or three teams.

FoxNext Games

Polygon: There’s a lot of legacy content in the game, stuff that was debuted for a limited time, with dialogue and stories attached. Is there a plan to reintroduce campaigns into the game for players who missed it the first time?

Amir Rahimi: We haven’t done a lot of that. We haven’t been great at reusing content. The reason behind that is we look at this game as a show we’re putting on for our players and we strive to put on an incredible show every single night. Because the audience is largely the same every night, we want to mix things up for our players and keep things fresh.

So the priority has been, and I think it will be for at least the short and medium term, is generate a lot of new things and new experiences. At some point, we will start to reintroduce some of these events that we’ve done in the past, but for now I like the fact that we are so focused on introducing new stuff all the time.

Polygon: Following up on that, there are a lot of older campaigns, but also a lot of characters that are a little outdated now. The AIM minions, for instance, could use a little love like the Defenders. Are there plans to go back to these characters and bring them in line with recent reworks?

Amir Rahimi: Yes, I’m 100% on board with you. I was a big advocate for buffing the Kree for a very long time and I’m so glad we finally got around to that. If I have anything to do with it, AIM will one day have their day in the sun.

Polygon: Will we see more minions in the future? What role do you see them taking?

Amir Rahimi: I don’t imagine we’ll have any sort of disproportionate focus on minions moving forward, simply because there are so many great, headline characters left in the Marvel Universe. I think what you’ll see is a lot of cool new characters and then an effort over time to get the minions that aren’t great, like the mercenaries.

FoxNext Games

Polygon: The next question I have is that, like you mentioned, you want to have a reason to log in every day. At certain parts of progression, it feels like you’re operating with the systems around the game more than the game itself. Arena credits, dailies, auto wins for materials. I’m wondering where the perfect balance is for you guys between meta gaming, managing your roster, and upgrades versus actually being in the game and playing matches.

Amir Rahimi: That’s a great question, and one we constantly debate because it’s a tricky balance. We want to be really respectful of our audiences’ time, and we understand you can reach a threshold where we’re asking too much of our players on a daily basis. So we know that every time we introduce systems that require you to play the game more, to do more battles, we’re going to hit a point where we’re asking too much of our player base and we do want to be respectful about that. Where you draw the line on that is tough.

In Alliance War, I think players are going to want to actually play the battles, right? It’s going to be competitive because you’re actually going up against another Alliance and every battle matters. I think with that mode you’re going to see a resurgence of actually playing the game, but also you’re going to see lots of different teams and compositions. So you’ll be doing more battles, and battles against teams you’ve never seen before.

Polygon: Following up on that, we have different teams and characters that have different synergies and counters. How do you manage the challenge of maintaining a large roster and having these iconic power sets while still providing challenges for the player? How do you build puzzle solving skills, roster building, and challenge with the power fantasy of having these heroes?

Amir Rahimi: With a mode like War, the way it works out is that your entire roster matters. I think in a way our game has, maybe, over relied on Arena, for example, where you just really care about your top team. With a feature like War, you’re going to need everyone, so you’re going to be more creative with compositions and different teams that you bring to the table.

On top of that, what we tried to do is create a system where it’s not just your top five characters that matter, but niche picks become important, and that’s fun because it makes you rethink your whole approach to the game.

Polygon: Will we see further expansions to the stores and more characters to buy through in-game currencies and the daily game modes?

Amir Rahimi: Yes, absolutely. I think, you know, our, our goal is to be very mindful of the fact that players like yourself are very dedicated and playing for a long time. Have, you know, probably gotten all the characters that they want out of some of those stores. And so our plan is to, is to update those stores over time.

Polygon: We spoke earlier about the passionate community out there, and sometimes that community gets sour on Marvel STRIKE Force. I’m wondering if you have anything you’d like to say to players who are wondering if FoxNext have a gameplan, or if FoxNext’s top priority is money.

Amir Rahimi: We love the game, we love our community, and we often share a lot of the same frustrations that our community shares.One of the things I would want people to know is that, to a large extent, we’re all kind of in this together. We will make mistakes and operating this game and we will learn from them.

Our goal, 100%, is to create a game that is worthy of devotion over a long period of time. Right? We want, we want players to form a community where they play together forever and ever and ever. Every decision we make is through that filter. We want this game to be around 10 years from now. Our intention is not to try to make as much money as we can as quickly as possible, but we want to keep millions of players entertained for years to come.

We appreciate the feedback, we appreciate the dialogue, and we care about our players deeply. We try to create systems, like War, that our players will thank us for. That really is our intention, and we don’t get it right every time. We understand that, but we learned and we’re trying to get better on every single release that we do.

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