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Why XCOM and Marvel's Midnight Suns will never be forever games like Diablo and Destiny

"We sacrifice the meta sometimes to make sure that the player's first experience of the game really feels awesome."

Spider-Man hangs off a building talking into a microphone in Marvel's Midnight Suns
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/2K

As you might expect from a roster of 12 Marvel superheroes (or 17, if you count the four extra DLC supes and its original, player-designed protagonist The Hunter), the lycra-clad buds of Marvel's Midnight Suns all look and feel substantially different from one another when it comes to combat. When Firaxis were designing the moveset for each hero, creative director Jake Solomon says he and fellow lead game designer Joe Weinhoffer would take turns being "point designers" for certain characters. "Joe was point designer on one hero, I was point designer on another hero," Solomon says, highlighting Magic and Iron Man as two of his own favourite heroes that he designed.

Both are what I'd call quite technical heroes, with Magic relying on careful battlefield placement to boot enemies into nifty magical portals, while Iron Man's most powerful abilities often only come from discarding other cards. But when I ask Solomon at GDC if he thinks he has a particular design 'style' that unites his crop of Marvel heroes, he says he loves being "bombastic".

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"It would be that every character is overpowered," he laughs. "Typically, my feedback would be, as I'm playing through the game over and over and over again, […] 'This ability is underwhelming.'"

Underwhelming abilities are "poison" to Solomon. "If you're never going to take this ability, it feels like it breaks the entire hero. You really want the player to say these are all so good, I want to use this ability, I want to use that ability… So typically, it was always a case of pump it up, pump it up, make it more powerful, make it sexier, make it seem cooler, give it more effects."

In fact, Solomon tells me his pursuit of the ultimate OP hero moves was so powerful at times that it inevitably led him to throwing some of the more hallowed hallmarks of tactical RPG combat out the window. Things like, you know, making sure their heroes were all properly weighed up and balanced against one another.

"That's why a game like Midnight's Suns - also XCOM - in their current iteration couldn't be like a 'play forever' [game] like Diablo, for example, which is such a finely tuned game," he continues. "All the stats are so finely tuned and they're brilliant at that. Destiny, too - brilliant! But they have less leeway in terms of their design. I don't care if you said somebody could matrix out all the [Midnight Suns] heroes and their DPS and how powerful they are. They could score the heroes, and I guarantee they'd be way all over the place."

For Solomon, he's absolutely certain "there's clearly a best hero, and there's clearly a worst hero" in Midnight Suns, but levelling them out to make them more Diablo or Destiny-like wasn't ever a concern for him. "That's not our focus," he says. "We focused on the moment to moment of every time you get something, you go, 'Yeah, that's awesome.' I don't care how it matches up on a very, very fine level. We view it from more of a holistic level, they all feel generally equal, as opposed to something that's really finely tuned, like League Of Legends design or Diablo design."

It worked, too. In my Midnight Suns review, I wrote that it wasn't just the best Marvel game I've played, but one of the best superhero games full stop, precisely because it does such a fantastic job of selling you on that superhero fantasy. It's not a total pushover, of course - the sheer number of enemies you have to face with each passing turn does a great job of always keeping the pressure level nice and high. But yes, I must admit that I also probably didn't actually care too much if Iron Man ended up wiping the floor with everyone thanks to his brilliant missile strike cards, or if Magic was able to set up delicious, ricocheting portal grabs so I could drop a massive crane on top of my perfectly placed goon pile at the end of it. It just felt good in the moment, which is what Solomon and his team were striving for.

"The meta isn't as important in a single player game," he concludes. "I think that's the thing. We sacrifice the meta sometimes to make sure that the player's first experience of the game really feels awesome."

To find out more about the development of Midnight Suns as well as what Jake Solomon is doing next now that he's left Firaxis, you can read my longer, more extensive interview with him right here.

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