David Nakayama Discusses Creating Marvel Avengers Academy’s Fun and Colorful World [Exclusive]
Outside of a few family friendly exceptions, Marvel's video game catalog over the past few years has been decidedly mobile-focused. Currently, there are four different Marvel video games that can be found on iOS and Android devices almost exclusively, including this year's latest addition to the catalog, Marvel Avengers Academy.
Where games like Avengers Alliance and Future Fight feature takes on the familiar characters which are inspired by their current comic book incarnations, Avengers Academy took the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe is a bit of a different direction. The bright and cheerful aesthetic is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon series, and aging all the characters back to their college years has given us some inspired takes on the tried and true costumes we've grown accustomed to over the years.
We spoke with Marvel Avengers Academy Art Lead David Nakayama about designing this world and these characters, and setting Avengers Academy apart from the rest of Marvel's current gaming library. We've also got an exclusive look at some of the concept art for the hit mobile game.
ComicsAlliance: Marvel Avengers Academy offers a more unique style than the other Marvel games available at the moment. There's a lot of fun and creativity in this game world. Was it important that Marvel Avengers Academy be so different from its contemporaries stylistically?
David Nakayama: Yes! Thanks for noticing. In the first weeks of the game’s development, we spent a lot of time trying out different potential styles for the game (literally everything from Cartoon Network to Alex Ross realism), but it became clear pretty quickly that we needed something in the middle of the spectrum — fun and colorful, but not too "young," tough and super-heroically strong but not too "core."
Tonally, we’re a really unique game in the Marvel stable, and that requires a unique style. But as you say, our goal was to stand out from the crowd and also to be as inviting as possible to the largest possible audience — you know, the Marvel movie audience, which is equal parts young, old, male and female.
CA: You're no stranger to the Marvel Universe, so you know these characters are no strangers to being de-aged for story purposes. What were some of the challenges of making this interpretation of these characters stand out from similar attempts in the past?
DN: Good question. It’s something we thought about a lot. How do you change a character in a meaningful way but not to the point where they're unrecognizable and the fans cry foul? Our approach was just to stay as true as possible to each Avenger's core characteristics and to work outwards from there.
On the art side, that meant embracing each character's traditional color layout, accessories, and especially --- really important in this game --- their clothing style, which we extrapolated from their unique character traits. For example, we've got Tony Stark in a flashy motorcycle jacket because he's a showboating exhibitionist. Conversely, there's Maria Hill, who wears a serious-looking SHIELD sweater.
As long as the clothing tells a story about the character that the audience recognizes from the comics and movies, it totally works. So really, our main challenge in making these is figuring out how to communicate a character's personality instantly and in a youthful way, in that initial read.
CA: The ultimate versions of every character has them earning their recognizable comic book costumes, but even at their earliest stages, Black Widow or Wasp or Loki are all immediately recognizable. How did you arrive at the various stages of these looks? Did you work backwards, deconstructing each costume to be a functional outfit every step of the way?
DN: We get the final look (visual Level 3) from comic and film inspiration and treat that as the hero fulfilling his or her destiny, finally becoming the hero (or villain) we know. We do our own thing with it, but that outfit's kind of a gimme because it exists already in other media.
The casual Academy look (Level 1) requires a lot more thought and invention of course, but it's also the most fun, both for us and for the players, I think. Along with the Allen Warner's pitch-perfect dialogue, it's the unique "secret sauce" of this game.
Level 2 is the one we do last, and the challenge there is figuring out how to move logically from Point A to Point B. Silhouettes and percentages of color have to scale in a linear way, or the sense of growth doesn't come across. Sometimes, the middle point results end up being unexpectedly interesting in their own right.
Fun aside: with each design, we actually ask ourselves "could you cosplay this easily?" as one test of whether the design's working and feels "real" enough. It's been really fun to see the designs start to show up at comic conventions --- we love it!
CA: Beyond the Avengers Academy, we have Hydra Academy, AIM Academy, and the Guardians of the Galaxy just showed up from space school. Marvel has all these factions built into its history, so did that make it easier to design all these rival schools' different aesthetics?
DN: It only makes sense, right? If the Avengers have a school, then of course they must have a few rivals. And who better than Hydra and AIM? We have a storyline where Avengers Academy and AIM Institute are both trying to recruit the most powerful new free agent out there, and it turns out to be Kamala Khan. Really fun stuff.
It's amazing how well and how seamlessly these characters and scenarios work in alternate scenarios like ours or 1602, Marvel Zombies, or you name it. It's because the characterization's just so rich and strong at this point. Fans know the Avengers intimately by now --- who they are as people --- and that core holds up no matter what alternate trappings happen to be on top.
CA: In addition to the look of the characters, a lot of time obviously went into the action and conversation animations to bring the personalities of characters like Wasp and Tony Stark to life. All the actions aren't just based around the hero abilities, but also the campus layout. When working those aspects out, how do you balance where characters can interact with their known powers?
DN: My favorite meeting of the week is the one where the Art and Animation Leads sit down to brainstorm the unique suite of actions for each new character. The goal is always to show, in equal parts, the character’s powerset and their personality, both in as fun a way as possible. So far example, we recently released Pepper Potts in her Rescue armor, and one of her actions is to fly around Stark tower and literally put out Tony Stark’s fires. I love that one because it’s got action and super powers but also sums up Tony and Pepper’s relationship in an entertaining way.
We try to use every part of every building (and the campus paths as too) as stages for actions so when the player zooms out, you get this amazing real-time snapshot of a campus that’s very alive and colorful with dozens of cool super-heroic feats going off all at once. Makes for an awesome screenshot, and you get such a satisfying sense of “yeah, I built this little Avengers world!”
CA: There's been a steady stream of new content and characters since Marvel Avengers Academy launched, and some characters teased in the very first promotional materials still have yet to find their way into the game. How much of what you've worked on is already in the pipeline to arrive, and how much longer will we have to wait for Hawkeye?
But seriously, with mobile, the updates can be a bit more frequent, so how far ahead are you working to ensure the game stays fresh and attractive to players?
DC: Ha ha — Hawkeye is coming for sure. His models exist and I’ve drawn his shop portraits already, so he is in the pipeline. I’ll say that much. It’s just that there’s so much other cool stuff to do, and obviously there’s a need to balance progression and event content, but yeah, everyone you care about is in the plan somewhere. It’s just a matter of when.
Our planning and calendar documents chart out well over a year’s worth of content, with so many cool (and unexpected!) characters you wouldn’t believe it. Wait ‘til you see what happens at Halloween!
Marvel Avengers Academy is currently available to download on a number of mobile platforms for free.
Notice of disclosure: David Nakayama is the current cover artist for X-Men '92, which is co-written by Chris Sims, a regular contributor to ComicsAlliance. Chris Sims had no participation in this article.