Assets courtesy of 2K Games, Inc.

Firaxis Games talks about designing and developing the superhero tactical experience of Marvel’s Midnight Suns

Mike Williams |
April 5, 2023
Founded in 1996, Firaxis Games is a world-renowned game development studio with an unwavering mission to “build games that stand the test of time." Home to legendary game designer Sid Meier, Firaxis Games has developed some of gaming's most successful and award-winning titles including the Sid Meier's Civilization© franchise, XCOM© franchise and Marvel's Midnight Suns. Firaxis Games is a 2K studio; 2K is a wholly owned publishing label of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. For more information, visit www.firaxis.com.
Firaxis Games knows a thing or two about strategy games. Not only is it the developer behind the best-selling Civilization games, it also has handled the XCOM franchise since 2012. That year saw the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, followed by its sequel XCOM 2 and spin-off XCOM: Chimera Squad. All three titles are tactical gaming at its finest, each offering a unique spin on the genre.

When Firaxis Games had the chance to leap into the Marvel Universe, it didn’t want to approach the opportunity by just mashing XCOM and Marvel together. Instead, the team looked to develop a game with a more bombastic superhero flair. It also leveraged an older, deeper-cut run from Marvel Comics as a starting point. We talked to Firaxis about how it changed up the XCOM formula for Marvel’s Midnight Suns, how it approached giving players a real connection to the Marvel heroes, and why it decided to put a supernatural twist on the property.
Assets courtesy of 2K Games, Inc.
Firaxis Games is a veteran studio when it comes to strategy games. Were there any goals you had when starting the development of Midnight Suns?

Joe Weinhoffer, Lead Designer:
The team was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to work with Marvel Games and create something new in their universe! We had several goals with Marvel's Midnight Suns. As Firaxis, we knew we wanted to create a deep strategy experience in the Marvel Universe and tell a unique story that put the player at the center of our narrative. We wanted to have characters from across the Marvel Universe, creating a real unique team-up moment for Marvel fans. And we also wanted to have players experience a part of the super hero fantasy that often goes unexplored, getting to know the heroes outside of combat.

Did you have any inspirations coming into the project? Why did you decide to explore the mystical side of the Marvel Universe?

Weinhoffer:
Many members of our team at Firaxis are huge Marvel fans; our creative director, Jake Solomon, grew up reading the comics in particular. From the narrative side, we are huge fans of the supernatural side of Marvel and our story is based on a popular 90s comic run called "Rise of the Midnight Sons."

Can you elaborate on how the team chose the specific Marvel superheroes that make up Midnight Suns’ cast?

Weinhoffer:
There are so many amazing Marvel superheroes, it was always going to be a challenge to pick only a handful for our roster. We settled on a mix of popular heroes, like Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine, along with introducing some less familiar characters like Nico, Magik, maybe even Blade, and giving them the chance to step into the spotlight. And, of course, we had to include members of the original Midnight Sons team, such as Doctor Strange and Ghost Rider, though ours is the Robbie Reyes version. Our final roster is a diverse mix of “young blood” and the “old guard," and that ends up playing out in the narrative!
Assets courtesy of 2K Games, Inc.
In your previous XCOM titles, player squads were made up of balanced character classes. Can you explain how you designed the Marvel heroes in Midnight Suns to achieve the same gameplay balance while still showcasing their distinct powers?

Weinhoffer:
Although Marvel heroes cover the spectrum in terms of power levels, we absolutely want every character on our roster to feel equally viable and powerful in combat. Each hero has a unique style or mechanic for their combat abilities to give them a personalized feel which resonates with their abilities and superpowers. It was more important for us to ensure every hero felt powerful, dynamic, and unique in combat, and then numbers can be adjusted for gameplay balance once we have their core established.

The gameplay in Midnight Suns is fast and cinematic. It lacks the standard movement grid and adds explosive combination attacks with your chosen squad of Marvel heroes. Can you talk about the development and iteration of this style of strategy?

Weinhoffer:
When we started development, our intention was to use a traditional grid along with a cover system, since we knew those tactical elements were very successful in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2. But when we put the Marvel characters into that setup, it just didn’t feel right to have Spider-Man constrained in how far he could move each turn, or to have Iron Man miss a shot with his repulsor beams. These are super heroes, after all! They don’t miss shots!

Once we realized we needed to make some significant changes to our design to better reflect these characters, many conventions went out the window and we built up our open movement, no grid, card-based combat system in its place. It took many iterations, but the resulting combat design matches how you would expect a hero to behave in combat.

Can you share more about your decision not to include cover mechanics into the game?

Weinhoffer:
Cover is a core mechanic in XCOM due to the narrative that an extraterrestrial force has invaded Earth, and the player is controlling a band of soldiers facing down that unknown and terrifying enemy. Many of the mechanics in XCOM reinforce that narrative of the enemy being extremely powerful, from taking cover to having a percentage chance to hit shots… and miss them. In Marvel’s Midnight Suns, we want players to feel like they are the superior force on the battlefield and that the enemy is afraid of you, so a mechanic like taking cover no longer made sense.
Assets courtesy of 2K Games, Inc.
Firaxis’ XCOM series has been known for its super challenging gameplay with permadeaths and fail states, which are absent from Midnight Suns. Why was this more accessible approach a good fit for the game?

Weinhoffer:
Similar to cover, certain mechanics like permadeath fit really well within the narrative and tone of XCOM but feel out of place in a superhero story. We always strive to have our gameplay match and reinforce the narrative, and the changes we made for Midnight Suns to better fit the Marvel heroes also helped increase our accessibility and a “pick up and play” approach to combat, so it was a win-win decision!

The card-based combat system, which allows players to craft decks of attacks and support abilities, is something completely new to Firaxis and unlike anything in the previous XCOM titles. Where did this concept come from and why was it the right choice for the game?

Weinhoffer:
The card system came out of finding a new tactical combat design which fit our characters. In XCOM, the player is controlling a squad of soldiers going up against a superior foe, and the mechanics reflect that: Soldiers have a preset and known list of abilities, but those abilities may fail or underperform when used.

In Midnight Suns, we flipped that idea on its head, instead giving our heroes abilities which always hit and do exactly what they say, but the abilities which are available on a given turn are more variable. This allows us to keep the strategic depth of combat through randomness, but also fits our theme and powerful hero characters. After we made that design change, cards quickly became the best option for how to present the hero abilities, as players have an inherent understanding of mechanics such as a hand, draw, and discard work, and cards are also an excellent vehicle for additional gameplay information.

Another new addition in Midnight Suns are the relationships between The Hunter, the player-created main character, and the rest of the cast. There are lengthy segments of the game focused on interacting with the Marvel heroes and building connections by chatting about their day-to-day lives and hobbies. Can you talk about why this feature was added on top of the overall strategy experience?

Weinhoffer:
We wanted to deliver on two parts to the super hero fantasy in Midnight Suns: Fighting alongside the Marvel heroes and experiencing their awesome powers in combat, but also living alongside them and seeing how these characters behave in their downtime between missions!

The Hunter, as the player character, allows you to interact directly with the Marvel heroes and learn about their backgrounds, build friendships, and make interesting choices to impact their relationships. The day-to-day interactions between characters provide a lot of the heart and emotional drive for our narrative, and that helps to forge stronger bonds in combat as well.
Assets courtesy of 2K Games, Inc.
Can you talk about how the team achieved the game’s visual art style?

Dennis Moellers, Art Director:
We had a treasure trove of inspiration to work from in Marvel’s vast lexicon. Our challenge was to make art that was rooted in the character lore while also giving the fan base something they hadn’t quite seen before. We decided to translate Marvel’s comics style—energetic, visually clear, powerful, with explosive action—into gameplay by keeping the character designs instantly recognizable and pushing the animation to extremes. Our characters don’t walk into a room—they fly, or burst through a wall. We studied the spectacular, dynamic poses of Marvel comic artists like Jim Lee and Andy Kubert.

We had a lot of fun animating each enemy Lilin to fit their specific character traits and design, because we wanted the individuality to stand apart as a point of interest. For instance, the Guardian is mainly a rock-golem protector of more important Lilin, so his movements are heavy, like stone, and he rages and roars when he’s defending an ally. In contrast, the Nest Mother, a direct offspring of Lilith, has an ethereal, regal power that translates into a proud, intimidating, and graceful floating creature. Our goal was to push the Lilin’s animation to the level of expressiveness and creepiness you find in comic books like the 90’s Spirits of Vengeance.

While designing the heroes, we saw their suits as a way to pull together this diverse team into one super group. They all come from different teams—the Midnight Suns, Avengers, and X-Men—some of which have a much brighter look, so we knew we wanted to somehow bring them all over to the darker side of Marvel. It became pretty clear that the punk, black leather, metal studs style was the most exciting way to unify this team.

Visual clarity is really important in a fast-paced Marvel story—everyone needs to be instantly recognizable as the action is flying. So, we had to prioritize clear silhouettes and color blocking over too much texture or detail, to give everything that necessary pop. But of course, we also wanted to draw upon the history of these characters and incorporate that into a meaningful design. When the heroes upgrade to their Midnight Suns armor, glyphs appear to represent the ancient Strange’s magic, and gold enters the palette to mirror the metallic sheen of Iron Man’s armor. Our goal was to make them look as though they’re radiating supernatural power—a modern twist on the traditional superhero suits.

Can you talk about your approach to designing the game’s world and levels?

Moellers:
It was important that the environments have dramatic set pieces to hit the Marvel style. Instead of Doctor Strange’s Sanctum merely being partially covered by vine-like corruption, we pushed it up into the sky like a dark cathedral. We always asked ourselves if we could make something more dynamic or exciting in the environment, and if it could help push the story forward. And really, living up to the Marvel art legacy meant a lot of pushing the art as far as it could go—making it more powerful, more bombastic.

When Lilith starts to take over, it was important to get a supernatural feeling to the world. We used lighting and color grading to create this uncanny mood for each environment. We amped up the greenish tones and desaturated the warmth to give the player an uneasy, unnatural feeling. Chthon’s corruption was also visually represented in the vines that spread everywhere.

The Abbey, the heroes’ base of operations, is a supernatural structure, yet it needed to be an inviting place for our heroes to live. We focused on balancing that in the look and feel of the environment. The Abbey is powered by a demon’s hellfire, yet still feels warm and inviting, like a wood burning fire drawing you into a traditional manor library. When you get further from the structure to the more corrupted sections of the Abbey grounds, the lighting and color grading changes to a greenish-yellow toxic, sickly tint that ties back to Lilith’s greenish fire. The Abbey contains classic elements of hearth and home, balanced with supernatural corruption and lighting that hints at danger around the grounds.

The Season Pass also comes with 23 Premium Skins for the existing cast. Given the Marvel Universe’s long and colorful history, how did you decide which iterations of each Marvel hero would be represented in the skins?

Moellers:
Our creative director Jake Solomon was really excited to see some of his favorite 90’s comic versions of certain characters, so some of the skins were chosen for their fun, classic designs. A few of the designs were just so iconic that we picked them for that reason alone–Magik’s Phoenix Force, for example. And then we created some skins so that we could riff on the character designs a bit more, like Nico’s Shadow Witch, Iron Templar, and the Demon Spider for Spider-Man. What’s fun for us as artists is often the most fun for our players, too.
Assets courtesy of 2K Games, Inc.
Firaxis has worked with Unreal Engine for a very long time. Why has the engine continued to be a great fit for your titles and Midnight Suns in particular?

Will Miller, Lead Engineer:
Our relationship with the Unreal Engine dates back over fifteen years to Unreal Engine 3 on XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Back then, Unreal was optimized for building shooters, not tactical strategy games. To give us a jump-start, we enlisted developer Psyonix to help us learn Unreal and build the first XCOM prototype (We also enjoyed this crazy prototype of theirs about cars playing soccer.) With some effort, UE3 became the core technology underpinning XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and XCOM 2: Enemy Within along with numerous expansions.

Unreal Engine 4 was a game-changer. The engine’s versatility and scalability made it the perfect fit for Marvel’s Midnight Suns, our most ambitious project to date. Development on Marvel's Midnight Suns was easier than XCOM because the engine makes few assumptions about the kind of game you’re building and provides a rich set of tools and metaphors that combine easily in novel ways.

Were there any Unreal Engine tools that have proved helpful in the development of Midnight Suns?

Miller:
Sequencer played a massive role, not only in our cinematics pipeline, but also as the foundation for the heroes’ combat abilities. Niagara was key in fulfilling the super-powered heroic fantasy of Marvel's Midnight Suns tactical combat. The game had about 65,000 lines of dialogue, which we translated using Unreal’s localization system. In the final stages of production, Unreal Insights was essential for dialing in the game’s performance.

There were countless less-glamorous things that made our lives easier every day, from VisualAssist hotkeys that just work in the editor and smooth Perforce integration to BuildGraph and the editor’s Python integration.

Thank you for your time. Where can folks learn more about Firaxis Games and Midnight Suns?

Weinhoffer:
For more information on Marvel's Midnight Suns, visit our official site and sign up for the 2K newsletter, become a fan on Facebook, subscribe on YouTube, follow on Twitter, and Instagram, and join the conversation using the hashtag #MidnightSuns.

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