Assembling Marvel’s Avengers: Iron Man

With his fascinating story arc and impressive mobility, Tony Stark was one of the more challenging Avengers for Crystal Dynamics to develop.
By Duncan Heaney

Anthony Edward Stark: billionaire genius, inventor, philanthropist… and now also one of the most purely entertaining videogame characters around.

But getting Iron Man to feel this way in Marvel’s Avengers was no easy feat. In fact, this hero took longer than any other character to develop. It was a process that required imagination, experimentation and constant refinement.

But before they could do anything, the team had to ask themselves a question: just who is Tony Stark?

The Man Inside the Suit

Marvel’s Avengers sets out to tell a powerful story that’s about more than just action and superheroics. The game’s Creative Director Shaun Escayg wanted to explore the human side of Tony Stark - much like the greatest stories from the comics do.

“I was particularly inspired by the Demon in a Bottle storyline,” he says. “This famous arc looked at Tony’s battle with alcoholism. I was compelled by the damaged version of the character - you see him completely broken down and have to pick up the pieces of his life to rebuild.

“That, to me, is what a good Super Hero story does. It takes a look at the person underneath the armor and that examination is just as compelling as all the action and explosions.”

The team wanted to really drill down into Tony as a character. After A-day - the devastating event that led to the destruction of San Francisco and the death of Captain America - Tony has essentially lost everything. According to Escayg it was necessary to strip him down to his rawest form.

“What if you took away all of Stark’s toys? What if he lost all his money, and all his gadgets? How would he survive, how would he endure, and what would he be like when he got it all back again?”

Hulkbusting Makes Me Feel Good

However, while the grounded approach for Tony Stark made for a powerful narrative, it did leave a few things to be worked out on the gameplay side. For example, everybody on the team wanted to be able to use one of Iron Man’s most famous outfits: the Hulkbuster armor.

This iconic suit was originally designed by Tony Stark to take on Hulk’s raw, unrestrained power. It’s bulky, powerful and inescapably awesome. What’s more, it opened up exciting gameplay opportunities, so as far as the team was concerned, there was no way it wasn’t going to make it into the game.

Except… how would that make sense? The game’s story stripped Tony of his tech, so the creative team had to find a way to organically bring it back.

Escayg says: “We took all the toys away from Tony, but we still wanted the Hulkbuster - it’s too much fun not to have, right?”

“The combat team and I had many conversations about this. Essentially, how do we keep the emotional impact of Tony’s journey, but not force players to wade through a bunch of story before they can unleash as Iron Man?

“In the end, it was a bit of a compromise - but we got there in a way that serves both gameplay and story. And it’s worth it because when you summon that Hulkbuster into play, it’s such a spectacular, satisfying moment.”

The Challenge of Iron Man

While the story arc for Iron Man was established early on, nailing his combat mechanics took a lot longer. In fact, the character proved one of the most difficult for the team to get right, requiring a number of revisions and refinements before he felt authentic to play.

Iron Man is one of the most versatile Super Heroes in the Marvel universe. He can fly, shoot, fight hand to hand and bring out a dizzying variety of tech to suit almost any situation. In many ways, that was a gift for the developers - with such a rich and diverse toolbox available, there was no shortage of inspiration for what the character could do.

But it also presented them with a challenge: when your character can do nearly everything, how do you make him feel distinct and unique?

Vince Napoli, Lead Combat Designer at Crystal Dynamics, explains: “We experimented with different types of gameplay. For example, early on Iron Man played as a ranged character primarily. The problem was when you were targeting enemies and such, it was difficult to refocus the camera to show those iconic Iron Man poses that you’d expect.

“So we looked at melee combat, but we wanted to make sure he didn’t have the exact same paradigm as some of the other characters. For example, Tony Stark shouldn’t have a combo-based approach like Black Widow - we wanted him to have a style that stood out as being entirely his own.”

“It actually took a little while to find it, but eventually we stumbled onto the concept that brought everything together: Iron Man will be the only character in the game where ranged and melee attacks kind of bleed together.”

An Exciting Breakthrough

Unlike other characters in the game, Iron Man can seamlessly switch between close hits and ranged attacks - standard attacks launch a punch, and heavy attacks fire a repulsor blast at foes. This simple concept really energized the team - and sparked major ideas about where the character would ultimately go.

“Vince Napoli and his team had been working on Iron Man for a while,” recalls Escayg. “One day, Vince called me over to his desk, handed me a controller and said, press triangle. And I said ‘Oh my God’, because this suddenly was Iron Man.

“At that point the team had mapped all his moves onto a single button and you could press it to cycle through them all - and it was incredible. All the iconic poses were there, it looked amazing and, more importantly, it felt amazing. You could fire from afar, get in quick for close-range hits… it perfectly captured that power fantasy of being Iron Man.

“It was like a switch was flipped for me - I was so excited! For me, that was the moment that the character came together.”

Flight and Mobility

Now that the team had the fundamentals of the character down, there was another challenge to overcome. Iron Man is a very manoeuvrable hero, as capable in the air as he is on the ground. How could they replicate that in gameplay?

Napoli says: “If you look at Iron Man in the comics and the movies - and the cutscenes in our own game for that matter - you see him do really amazing stuff. He’s flying around, spiralling in the air, shooting missiles - it’s really cool!

“It’s also what people expect from the character - so when you play, and you can’t do those things there’s a disconnect.”

In early Iron Man builds, there was a clear separation between aerial traversal and ground combat.

“The scripted Golden Gate Bridge sequence at the start of the game gives you a real taste of what you expect from Iron Man,” says Napoli. “But that wasn’t the case in the main gameplay - the aerial stuff was one thing, and the ground-based combat was another. There was a hard divide between those two elements of the character.

“We wanted to get rid of that, which may not sound particularly complicated, but it really is. And to be honest, there was a bit of pushback from the team because it’s easy to make the argument that it wasn’t really needed. For example, flight is a traversal move - you can get out of that mode to fight.

‘But that wouldn’t really be living up to the fantasy of being Iron Man, so even though it would require a new targeting system, or a new control scheme to be built, it’s worth all the hard work to make the character feel right.”

Ultimately, Crystal Dynamics was able to overcome all challenges that came with Iron Man. The version of the character you play as in Marvel’s Avengers feels both satisfying and authentic - as you’ll see when the game releases on September 4, 2020.

But what was involved in the creation of the other characters? Read our full series on Assembling Marvel’s Avengers:

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