MARVEL Avengers Academy

TinyCo, Inc.
February 4, 2016

If you’re a Marvel fan and a mobile gamer, there’s a good chance that you were eagerly anticipating TinyCo’s Avengers Academy. It’s been out for a few weeks now, and has experienced some ups and downs as feedback from fans has been rolling in. The general consensus, and one I agree with, is that the game is more style than substance, and that the gamemakers seem to have misjudged their audience on a few key points, but that it’s not completely without merit, depending on your gaming habits.

MARVEL Avengers Academy TinyCo, Inc., 2016

Avengers Academy Avengers-related Marvel properties as high school students and faculty, and on the visual score, they get top points. The character designs are cute and honor the classic characters while still referencing the cinematic versions enough to make movie-only fans feel at home. Janet Van Dyne as Wasp, a fan favorite who has only appeared as a brief cameo in Ant-Man, is a major character who appears early, and you can recruit Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, as part of the main storyline. Even Taskmaster—a character I never expected to see in a cutesy high-school-flavored game—is a recruitable student, which leaves me eager to see what other characters might end up attending the Academy. Might we get some of the other stars of recent Marvel solo titles, like Hellcat, Mockingbird, and Squirrel Girl?  Will She-Hulk and Daredevil start a mock trial club? Can Miles Morales transfer in?  Is there room for Galactus, or will he eat the school? (Extra credit if it’s located in New Jersey.)

At best, they’re rehashed stereotypes of high school students that feel like a Glee ripoff.

The setting, too, is clever, quirky, and well-designed, with lots of cute references to comic and movie canon alike, and the plot ties in well to the setting. While I’ll avoid spoiling later plot development, we learn early on that the school is surrounded by something called the Time Fog, and that Nick Fury chose the setting for the school based on its proximity to the fog. The students, rightfully so, have their suspicions, and use their growing skills to try to hunt out clues to what lies beyond—and why Fury has brought them all there.

But if all the set-dressing for the game is well-conceived, the gameplay and characterization leave something to be desired.

In the words of several fans I’ve spoken to, the characters “act like something out of a bad fanfic.”  At best, they’re rehashed stereotypes of high school students that feel like a Glee ripoff. Tony is a shameless flirt who’s also the brunt of most of the other students’ jokes. Natasha is portrayed as an aloof ice princess who dislikes her fellow students. Sam is a sort of blancmange “friendly,” as if the creators didn’t know what to do with him, while Amora is a typical “mean girl” who spends her time trying to seduce boys. The fact that she uses magic spells to do it, in a manner that is nonconsensual but played for laughs, begs some questions about the gamemakers’ sense of humor.

Steve is bland and upstanding, and we haven’t seen his famed stubbornness or rebellious nature—he acts the way those unfamiliar with Captain America expect Captain America to act before they become acquainted with Steve Rogers. One of his longest-duration missions is “do the Charleston,” which makes no sense, given that the Charleston was popularized in the 1920s—it’s out of time even for the Man Out of Time, and shows a lack of editorial oversight on the part of the gamemakers.

MARVEL Avengers Academy TinyCo, Inc., 2016

Jan’s characterization has gotten better since the early stages of the game, but in the earliest levels, she’s portrayed as an overexcited, appearance-obsessed airhead who can’t control her own voice or hands (she punches Tony early in the game, and it’s played for humor, even though Tony looks genuinely upset by it). Most of her early missions involve planning parties, taking selfies, and “pretending to study.”  What’s possibly worse is that there is a mission that requires two characters to slack off—given to Jan, one of two girls available at that point in the game, and Sam, the only black student available as part of the regular game recruitments.

Kamala, like Jan, spends an awful lot of her time taking selfies and not much time developing as a character, and with a power that has the most potential for creative animation, what we see of her powers is disappointing.  While I was excited to see what a game design team would do with Kamala’s animation, we only ever get to see her stretch her arms and her legs, and the animations seem awkward and disjointed. She has one mission called “Get Maximum Stretchy” which I was eager to try the first time it popped up as an option, but instead of seeing Kamala “get stretchy” at all, she runs inside a building and remains there until the end of the mission.

MARVEL Avengers Academy TinyCo, Inc., 2016

As for the teachers, Hank Pym cheerfully watches as the students blow themselves up and electrocute themselves in his lab. Nick Fury’s characterization is perhaps the most troubling, though: while Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic Fury is the man whose “secrets have secrets,” Avengers Academy’s Nick Fury is an unreasonably angry caricature that ticks stereotypical “Angry Black Man” checkboxes: there’s even a mission where he shouts at the students about pancakes, of all things.

MARVEL Avengers Academy TinyCo, Inc., 2016

Loki, of all the major playable characters, has perhaps the best characterization in the game: a mischief-maker who seems to be playing all sides of every situation, yet who is also desperate for his father’s approval. I’ve also recruited Jessica Drew, who is a premium recruit, and she’s also better-developed, with a fun story arc in which the other characters question her loyalties to the school. It may just be possible that the writers love anti-heroes: the two characters with anti-hero backstories stand out as being significantly more developed than the others.

Kamala, like Jan, spends an awful lot of her time taking selfies and not much time developing as a character, and with a power that has the most potential for creative animation, what we see of her powers is disappointing.

For a Marvel fandom that knows these characters well and loves all their many portrayals and personality quirks across many different Marvel universes, it feels as if the gamemakers don’t completely know their audience, or perhaps created the characters off of summaries without looking more deeply into canon.  And a lack of deep familiarity with the audience seems reflected in other choices beyond characterization.

When Avengers Academy was released, gamemakers informed audiences that the ability to play romances would soon be available. Naturally, fans asked game creators if same-sex romances would be available, and to date, they’ve received mixed messages, at best. A user on The Avengers Academy Support Group on Tumblr asked about same-sex relationships, and was told that there would be same-sex relationships because there would be queer characters included, and mentioned Loki’s gender identity and sexual orientation as an example: “Loki’s already in there, and he’s very much neither straight nor cis.”

Sounds good, right?  But if no other “canonically” queer characters are included in the game, or the only queer characters are villains (or at best morally-ambiguous characters who sometimes have villainous motivations), where does that leave queer players?  Surely, with story arcs that heavily imply Tony Stark’s bisexuality, such as his relationship with longtime frenemy, Tiberius Stone, in Iron Man V. 3, and even the more recent Superior Iron Man (in which Tony wakes up in bed, undressed, with both a man and a woman after an orgy) or Tony’s reaction to Doom’s new face in the latest run of Invincible Iron Man, it’s reasonable to understand why many fans would expect to see same-sex dating options for Tony. Or take Natasha and her multiple on-page kisses with women over the course of her comics tenure: there’s more than enough reason to open up her dating possibilities to almost any Marvel character.

However, the game’s depiction of Tony as girl-crazy leads me to believe that’s not going to be the case. An anonymous pastebin post purported to be a text dump of all the dating dialogs currently planned for Avengers Academy shows no same-sex options. While this hasn’t been confirmed by the gamemakers, it hasn’t been denied, either—which would be a good call, if the information were faked, as it’s disappointing a lot of fans, who expect they’ll be prevented from playing romances between their favorites, and are vocal about the potential slight.

When Avengers Academy was released, gamemakers informed audiences that the ability to play romances would soon be available. Naturally, fans asked game creators if same-sex romances would be available, and to date, they’ve received mixed messages, at best.

Even for those without on-page evidence available, there is no harm in allowing fans the opportunity to play the romances they want to see in their own games—and many fans would be willing to drop a hefty chunk of change for such an option. As a queer player myself, I’d much prefer to be able to play out romances between anyone I like, and am a lot less likely to hand out cash for these features if I can’t. Loki’s not a favorite of mine—I want to be able to play same-sex relationships with the characters I like the best, like Steve, Jan, and Natasha. At a time when games like Dragon Age: Inquisition are raking in the dough while providing romance options for queer players, and games like The Sims make same-sex relationships with any character a given, it’s becoming more and more the norm—it’s less that games that do provide the option are torchbearers, and more that games that don’t are lagging behind.

But romance options aren’t the only place where TinyCo. seems to have misjudged their fanbase. This week, the game introduced Baron Zemo as a “limited time” premium playable character option—one that requires a lot of “shards,” an in-game currency, to attain. Since shards are expensive (2 USD buys you 100 shards), and rarely available for completing in-game actions, this means TinyCo expects players to pay cash for Zemo—to the tune of approximately 20 USD. Not only is that an extremely high price for a single premium add-on, but I’d expect the highest-priced premium characters to be the most popular characters, like Carol Danvers, Clint Barton, or Bucky Barnes, not Baron Zemo.

If you aren’t familiar with Zemo, who’ll be making his cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War, the Zemo of the comics world is a Nazi. The Cinematic Universe has done quite a few backflips to try to narratively divorce Hydra from Nazism (still an enormous point of contention among fans), but the Hydra of Marvel Comics is explicitly tied to Nazism, and while other Hydra characters perhaps work for Hydra under extenuating circumstances, or due to ignorance of their Nazi roots, Nazism is an integral part of Zemo’s character. His father, the previous Baron Zemo, worked for Red Skull during the war, and was responsible for Bucky Barnes’ apparent death. Zemo’s upbringing was based on Nazi principles that guide his actions as an adult.

MARVEL Avengers Academy TinyCo, Inc., 2016

I’m not sure why anyone thought that inviting players to pay money to play a Nazi was a good idea. Certainly, if a game wants to appeal to neo-Nazis and antisemites, this is a good choice, but for many fans I’ve talked to, Zemo’s inclusion as a playable character has elicited a viscerally negative reaction. And none of the pre-recruitment in-character dialogs with Zemo seem to be as negative as they ought to be. Most of the characters seem downright welcoming, we don’t hear a peep from Steve (who should have a lot to say about this recruitment), and Zemo flirts with Natasha during one extremely uncomfortable exchange.

The possibility that Zemo may be included in the romance options, while many same-sex dynamics may not, is even more off-putting—I’m not sure what to think if the game ends up prioritizing Nazi romance over gay romance.

Until Zemo, the premium add-ons have been more enticing: Vision, War Machine, Spider-Woman, and early access to The Hulk, plus various premium costumes and landscaping features, are all available. But the prices for premium content are hefty: Spider-Woman is the cheapest, and is theoretically attainable through patience, but War Machine costs approximately 10 USD, Vision costs about 20 USD, and Hulk costs about $30USD. As a player who believes it’s important to support software I enjoy using, these prices are extremely high: that’s $60 if I wanted to purchase all three, and $80 for four, were Zemo replaced with a character I wanted to play.

Were the premium characters priced at 5-10 USD rather than 10-30 USD, I could easily see myself buying one or two of them a month, but at the current price points, it’s unlikely. While I’d be happy to spend $10 or $20 monthly on a game I enjoy, instead I find myself spending far less, because the prices seem exorbitant for what they offer. I expect a lot more than a single new character for $30 of premium content, particularly when the gameplay options are so limited.

I’m not sure what to think if the game ends up prioritizing Nazi romance over gay romance.

Right now, the characters have a small number of tasks that they repeat, and no way to assign those tasks for brief periods of time in order to play more casually—for example, to pose characters and take screenshots in between tasks, or to cancel a task you selected by accident. The view of the school is very limited: there are limited camera angles, limited zoom, and no 360 degree rotation, so, again, ability to screencap or make videos isn’t really where I’d hope for a game with such fantastic art and beloved characters. There is no way to replay the plot-related conversations if you miss them, so if you accidentally swipe through them too quickly, or want to go back and look for hints, you’re out of luck. And the game is overly dependent on an internet connection.  Most games I play have some options that are unavailable when the game can’t connect to a server, but at least offer partial gameplay. Avengers Academy completely shuts down the moment you’re out of range, which means that for many who play games in environments where internet access isn’t an option (like daily commuters!), it’s impossible to play at times when gaming is ideal.

That said, all signs seem to point to the fact that TinyCo is listening to players and improving items that players complain about. They’ve shortened the wait for new missions when a mission is canceled, and improved the drop rates on some items necessary to move forward in the game. In fact, some complaints I had when I first started this review have already been corrected, and it’s nice to see a company so responsive to players. That in itself leaves me more optimistic than I might be, given the frustrations I’ve had with the game so far.

But really, TinyCo, give Steve a personality, let him date Tony, Bucky, and Sam, ditch the Nazi, and you’ll be rolling in money and fanfiction. We know you read it.