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Amid losses for Square Enix and changes to the game’s XP progression and cosmetic acquisition, will Marvel’s Avengers be going free-to-play?
We previously reported how Square Enix made a reported $61.23 million USD loss in their last quarter from HD games; with the only notable game in that period being Marvel’s Avengers; launched September 4th, 2020. Final Fantasy VII Remake had launched April 10th that year; four months prior.
At the time David Gibson, co-founder of Astris Advisory Japan KK, tweeted that Square made a ¥6.5 billion JPY loss on HD games that quarter; “driven” by Marvel’s Avengers. He also proposed the game sold 60% of estimated sales goals, and had development costs of $170 million USD to $190 million USD.
Square Enix president Yosuke Matsude stated Marvel’s Avengers did not recoup its development costs in the two months since launch, during the Financial Results briefing for FY2021Q2.
During the Q & A segment, one investor stated his estimate that the loss could be as high as ¥7 billion JPY (estimated $66.64 million USD), and that blaming the loss purely on development costs did not add up. The investor asked if other factors contributed to the loss, and if the HD Games sub-segment would have been profitable if the game had met development costs.
Matsuda responded that there would have been no loss if the game had met the “absent factors.” Along with the game’s development costs, he attributed the loss to a major advertising campaign during the game’s launch to compensate from a lack of advertising due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, there were still more development costs set for quarter three.
The game received middling scores from critics, and harsh scorn from players [1, 2, 3]. Our own review stated “at its highest highs, Avengers is generic.” This was furthered hindered my microtransactions, rarely having enough in-game money to buy want you want (tempting you to buy more), and an out of place loot and leveling system. The game even made our list for our worst video games of 2020.
Now, Square Enix’ FY2021Q3 results have revealed that few improvements have been made. Matsuda notes in the Outline of Results Briefing that in the HD Games sub-segment they “booked a quarterly operating loss in 3Q, owed in part to the remaining ‘Marvel’s Avengers’ development costs that hadn’t been fully amortized in 2Q and to relatively slow sales, on the whole, during the holiday season.”
The Results Briefing Session for Q3 notes that HD games made just under a ¥5 billion JPY loss (estimated $46 million USD). When asked about the outlook for earnings of Marvel’s Avengers, Matsuda stated in the Outline of Results Briefing “We believe it hinges on how well the full game sells going forward and how the GAAS [Games as a Service] elements perform.”
Developer Crystal Dynamics had previously stated they were confident in Windows PC players returning despite dwindling active-player numbers; to the due to new upcoming content and improvements. However, an upcoming March 18th update to the game may be more controversial.
The March 3rd announcement of “Upcoming Cosmetic and XP Rework” notes that the XP curve “isn’t really a curve at all,” and more akin to a straight line; causing pacing issues and “skill points currently being rewarded too fast, which may be confusing and overwhelming to newer players.”
In a later post on Reddit, it was explained that as characters got better at defeating foes, they would level up faster, which would make them stronger still. This resulted in leveling up multiple times during a mission, and gaining more skill points than players could “review, apply, and get used to, before embarking on your next mission and gaining your next few levels.”
To make “each decision to invest in a skill or Heroic to be more meaningful,” a future update will require more XP to level up beyond level 25, increasing the further players get to level 50.
Cosmetics are also being reworked. “Currently, many of these items are only obtainable through a random chance in strongboxes or in Chastity’s store (cosmetic vendor),” Crystal Dynamics explain. “We want to make sure that when you earn a cosmetic item, it is something you have had a choice in working towards.”
Random cosmetic item drops will be disabled to prepare for the change, and “will be available again in places such as the cosmetic vendor once her store is reworked in future updates and will be purchasable with Units.” “Numerous” pattern rewards will also be temporarily disabled from drops, and some replaced with “additional Units that can be spent at the cosmetic vendor.”
The game’s lack of profitability and upcoming changes to progression and cosmetic acquisition could mean there are plans to make Marvel’s Avengers free-to-play. Longer progression and purchased cosmetics would match the tell-tale signs of such a change. Sales of in-game currency, XP boosters, and other in-game items would produce an influx of cash for Square Enix for a time.
While the game already has “Games as a Service” mechanics- micro-transactions and updates of additional content- the game’s lack of profitability would suggest players are not buying them, or additional players buying the base game. This means the game itself needs to be more desirable via its content, or price-tag.
The aforementioned Reddit post had users call out the changes to XP; stating the issue was instead to due with the lack of new content. These posters were praised by other users with Reddit Gold and Awards.
“This is a terrible move. Leveling up was never the issue. The lack of content was.”
“This doesn’t make sense. At all. The reason people were calling the game a braindead button masher at first was because the depth of the combat is locked to the very late stages of each character’s skill tree and after the campaign you were at like level 5-10 with each character…why make it take longer to get to that depth? So that more potential new players can come to the same ignorant conclusion as time goes on? Investing a bunch of skill points at once felt great because depending on whether you made the right decisions your character would feel wildly different next mission and if you really liked where it was going it encouraged you to see it through until 50, this is just a dumb change no matter what.”
“We have been SO loyal for SO long, yet it feels like the people who actually bought in to this day 1 (hell some dorks, like myself Pre-ordered it) KEEP getting punished.
Nerfed loot drops, removing difficulties, removing dailies, removing patterns, increasing xp gain.
It feels like we LOST more than we gained since launch.”
This would mean Crystal Dynamics have several choices. The first would be a major rework of character progression so that it is not only end-game content where combat becomes more complex. This in turn would require a rework of enemies, skills, and practically the entire game; all while needing to pay staff to make those changes.
Crystal Dynamics asking Square Enix for more money to get them out of the hole they made (even if Square Enix had dictated they dig that hole) is sure to go down like a lead balloon. The same could also apply for funding more regular content updates; further held back by quarantine orders. Quicker and better never comes cheaply.
Paid DLC for a game many felt dissatisfied with is also sure to sour moods even more; especially when one of the game’s major selling points was the regular free content updates.
The final option is going free-to-play. While a hard balance, if enough users regularly purchased content and currency akin to a mobile game, it would help recoup losses. While the game’s development and advertising certainly cost more than your average free-to-play mobile game, there is a very slim chance this income would continue until the game becomes profitable.
While going free-to-play can work in some cases, Team Fortress 2 and Fortnite to name two, it needs to be fed with regular content updates. While Team Fortress 2 has only had seasonal events for Halloween and Christmas, Fortnite has exploded with constantly changing maps, costumes, events, and lore.
Marvel’s Avengers going free-to-play runs the risk of alienating more players if the business model is unfair. During the game’s full reveal presentation, Crystal Dynamics Senior Community and Social Media Manager Meagan Marie promised players no random lootboxes or pay-to-win scenarios.
The condemnation of lootboxes starting to grow at that time, and has only grown since with threats of legal action against developers. As such, it is unlikely we’ll see systems that are blatantly unfair; though such systems and lootboxes exist today in other games.
What’s more Marvel’s Avengers will require regular content updates; one of the very things the game was lacking to cause them the issues they currently have. The game’s simplistic nature combined with already asking players to buy in-game currency may be seen as the developers doubling down, and the last straw for many.
Even then it does not solve the core gameplay being too simplistic, a story that failed to capture players, and the need to recycle old assets. Most free-to-play games have some form of gameplay loop that proves enjoyable, “addicting,” or at the very least a Skinner box. Reviews show the gameplay is lacking, while players not buying in-game currency shows possible rewards aren’t either. Uh-oh.
Our own review described how the games as a service model failed Marvel’s Avengers then, and it’s hard to not see this continue in the future if they go down a free-to-play route. New assets may come, but the core gameplay is the same, will become even grindier, and will be for costumes nobody wants.
It doesn’t take comic book character levels of genius to see how this may fail, but desperation makes the prize all the more appealing. A few heavily invested players may be a saving grace, but its hard to imagine they’ll be enough of them able to spend that much to offset the losses. Or want to.
It is going to take a heroic effort to save the Avengers. Let’s hope they go with plan B.
Marvel’s Avengers is available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia; and 2021 for PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X.