Jakob Zoepfl, a gameplay animator and 2014 BFA in Digital Art and Animation graduate, says his most recent project has been a long time coming. “Personally, I’ve always been a superhero fan, so working on a Marvel title has been a dream of mine,” Zoepfl says. That dream came true for Zoepfl on Crystal Dynamics’ new role-playing brawler Marvel’s Avengers, where he was one of many DigiPen alumni who helped craft, design, and program the game. Players can bash and blast through hordes of enemies as Ms. Marvel, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Iron Man, or Thor (with more downloadable heroes to come), unlocking distinct new abilities as they progress and face increasingly sophisticated foes.
Zoepfl’s role as a gameplay animator meant he came at the game from both an artistic and a technical angle. “This game has a huge emphasis on combat, so I want to make that experience feel very powerful for the player,” Zoepfl says. “I want every enemy, boss, and player to feel unique and super-powered when the player is interacting with them.” Given that there are six playable characters at release, ensuring that each character felt distinct was difficult at times. Luckily for Zoepfl, there was plenty to draw on whenever he ran into a tricky spot. “Crystal has been amazing at gathering information on the 81 years of Marvel history for us to use in our work, so there is no end to source material,” Zoepfl says. “As an animator it’s great. There’s a deep history of comics to look at for pose inspiration and character choices.”
Matthew Guido, a 2017 BS in Computer Science and Game Design graduate and Crystal Dynamics combat designer, spent his energies focusing on enemies and bosses in the game. “I’ve worked on nearly every enemy in the game in some capacity, so a lot of my day-to-day involves tuning enemies so that they’re fun to fight,” Guido says.
Much of that fine tuning went towards solving one particular balance issue: How do you make the player feel like an all-powerful superhero crushing through waves of enemies, while still making sure the game is challenging? “That’s been a huge challenge for enemy design,” Guido says. “We’re always tuning enemies to ensure that the ones meant to present a challenge are doing so, and the ‘fodder’ ones aren’t dealing too much damage.” Guido and the team were able to get quite specific on that end by gathering data and metrics tracking how deadly certain enemies were during playtests. When they saw enemies doing more or less damage than they liked, they were able to tone them down or power them up.
“While it’s always fun to destroy the weaker enemies, I think we deliver on the ‘powerful superhero’ fantasy when you’re faced with a tough enemy and are able to overcome them,” Guido says. “It’s especially satisfying when you level up a lot and go back to enemies that you used to have issues with but can now decimate, whether it’s because of a new skill unlock or some cool gear you found.”
Zoepfl also had a big hand in crafting the enemy experience, which posed its own unique hurdles separate from crafting hero animations. The biggest one? “There are only so many ways someone can react to getting punched in the face,” Zoepfl says. “To work around this, we spent time on the bigger things that are more impactful, like attacks, how they hold themselves, movement quirks, intro sequences, and a lot more.”
Kevin Do, a 2018 BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation graduate and Crystal Dynamics software engineer, worked extensively on the game’s collision and physics system — a vital feature in a game about tossing foes around as a band of superheroes. Sometimes that meant tackling things most players might take for granted. “Making sure Thor’s cape was not getting in the way of combat or just doing wacky stuff like getting wrapped around his head was a concern,” Do says. Players certainly will notice one of Do’s other big contributions, however — Iron Man’s shrink ray ability, which allows him to zap foes down to size. “I had to work on scaling collision, sending scale data to multiple instances, scaling cloth, and so many other hidden things. It was so rewarding though when we got shrinking to work, and I have been loving seeing peoples’ reaction to that ability,” Do says.
Do, Zoepfl, and Guido weren’t the only DigiPen graduates at Crystal Dynamics who contributed to the success of Marvel’s Avengers. Eight fellow Dragons, including Chase De La Cruz (2018), Connor Tompsett (2016), Joanna Robb (2018), Sarah Bergh (2010), Jesse Vanselow (2019), Kenneth Tan (2016), Nicholas Fuller (2016), and Robert Lui (2012) all helped make the game possible as well. “It is a weird experience finally going from college projects to working in the industry,” Do says. “Seeing other alumni was surreal when I first started.”
The graduates say a few key lessons from DigiPen have stuck with them throughout the years. “Never be afraid to ask for help,” Guido says. “That was something that got brought up a lot during my time at DigiPen, and it’s definitely saved me a lot of time and headaches on this project.”
Do wholeheartedly agrees. “Everyone here is trying make an amazing game, and there is so much going on that it would be impossible not to need help at some point,” Do says.
For Zoepfl, another lesson jumps out. “Always try to learn as much as you can, even if you can’t find any use for it at the moment,” he says. “You never know when you may need to grab it out of your tool bag. Also, don’t put yourself above anything — as in, stay humble and keep an open mind.”
It’s solid advice when playing Marvel’s Avengers as well. Guido and Zoepfl say you’ll definitely need to stay humble when facing the Elite Monotronic Exo, the Skydog, and the Shockmutt, a few of the game’s toughest enemies they happened to help create. “They can be very challenging to beat sometimes,” Zoepfl warns.