The Avengers Video Game the World Never Got to Play
First there was a bang. The noise that comes from steel-on-steel impact. An unfamiliar sound in an office used to the peaceful clatter of mechanical keyboards. Then came the second bang. A third. A fourth.
People began to take notice. One ear at a time, the headphones peeled off. Hordes of men and women, peering over office dividers like confused meerkats. What was that noise? Where was it coming from?
Then it became clear. A full-grown game designer, enraged. He'd picked up the nearest blunt instrument, an umbrella, and began rhythmically battering it on a filing cabinet.
For Charles Henden, who witnessed the incident, this wasn't out of the ordinary. This was game development.
"You know, we've all been there," says Henden. "We've all beaten up a filing cabinet with an umbrella at some point in our careers."
Henden, like everyone else watching, was a game developer, working at the now defunct THQ Studio Australia in Brisbane. In high-pressure environments like this, with incredibly tight deadlines and huge financial stakes, meltdowns were almost common.
"I could probably, from each of the projects that I worked on, give you a story that would just blow your mind," says Rex Dickson, who also worked at the studio around that time.
But in a universe where crushing work hours are normalized and outrageous behavior is commonplace, this time the stakes were higher than usual. This was no normal project. No normal video game.
The year was 2011. The THQ Studio Australia team had a reputation for creating licensed video games within tight time frames. This time it had landed a big one. In 2012, Marvel and Disney were set to release the first Avengers movie, launching a franchise that would change cinema forever. Avengers would ultimately become bigger than Star Wars, bigger than Harry Potter, bigger than anything. This was a huge deal, and everyone on the team knew it. They worked as though their careers and livelihoods depended on it.
But despite being an innovative, high-quality video game that wowed almost everyone who played it, the Avengers project would never see the light of day. Everyone working on the game would ultimately lose their jobs.
A global financial crisis, a surging Australian dollar, a licensing deal that all but guaranteed it would never return a profit: The Avengers was a video game caught at the center of a dozen competing hurricanes.
And despite the best efforts of everyone involved, it was ultimately torn apart.
"So what's this Avengers thing?"
After being told he was working on an Avengers video game during a Christmas meeting in 2009, that was Charles Henden's first question.
In the cold light of 2020 the question seems quaint, but in 2009 the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as we now understand it, didn't really exist. Iron Man had hit cinemas, but Marvel hadn't yet sold the public on the broader concept of the MCU. Henden understood a video game based on an Avengers license could be big. But how big? The scale was unclear.
After shipping a number of video games based on the Avatar TV show, and another based on the movie MegaMind, THQ Studio Australia was on a roll. It was a collective that helped execute one of THQ's most straightforward missions as a company: high-quality, quickly made video games based on licensed properties.
Henden's second question: "What comic books should I buy?"
Details were sparse. THQ wanted to make a video game that would launch alongside the Avengers movie, but no one really knew much about the movie itself. "There were pockets of people who sort of knew," says Henden, "but they weren't really allowed to say."
The team decided to create a movie that would focus on The Ultimates comic books, a series the movies themselves would heavily draw upon.
So Henden bought those.
"I wanted to become an expert," he says.
In 2009, the benchmark for comic book video games was Batman: Arkham Asylum, a polished third-person action game with slickly integrated puzzles and exploration elements. But it was the exception that proved the rule: Most video games based on comic books or movies were bad.
Like Iron Man, a Sega title rushed through production to hit the movie's release date in 2008. Iron Man scored an abysmal 45% on Metacritic and won GameSpot's "Worst Game Everyone Played" award that year.
THQ Studio Australia didn't want to make an Iron Man, it wanted to make a Batman: Arkham Asylum, and, in the beginning, much of the design work reflected that. That meant single-player, third-person action featuring weighty, close-quarters combat.
It was six months of "solid work," remembers Henden. The core design was mostly figured out. Levels were beginning to take shape with the help of some beautiful environment art.
Then everything changed.
Ships that pass in the night
It was common knowledge that the then-general manager of THQ Studio Australia, Steve Middleton, was often at odds with THQ corporate. But those sorts of conflicts rarely filtered down the chain.
"With THQ," Henden explains, "you never really knew whether you were in the good books or the bad books as a studio."
You could keep your boss (or even your boss' boss) happy by doing good work, but the larger machinations of how your studio fit into the macro THQ picture were mostly obscured.
At one point the THQ Studio Australia team was taken into a room and informed that a host of new developers -- a new lead designer and some production leads -- were being recruited to help with the Avengers project. That felt relatively normal. Less normal was the meeting that followed.
Steve Middleton, the man largely responsible for running THQ Studio Australia as an entity, was being let go.
"It was a huge shock," remembers Henden. "It was crazy. It was like, 'what are we gonna do?'" He believes Middleton was a scapegoat for any potential delays that could occur with the Avengers game. Steve Middleton didn't return a request for comment.
Alongside Middleton, a core group of the art team was also let go. Some were key to the development of Avengers. One sound designer, hired by the outgoing general manager, had packed up his entire life in the UK and headed to Australia for a job that no longer existed.
"This guy had paid to relocate to Australia," says Henden. "He had all of his personal stuff in a shipping container, all of his things were on a ship.
"He arrived in Brisbane and was told he didn't have a job anymore."
Left 4 Avengers
Christian Dailey's time in Australia was something of a roller coaster.
He arrived from San Diego to Pandemic Studios in Brisbane in 2007, to work on Batman: The Dark Knight, a canceled video game based on the then-upcoming Christopher Nolan movie. Dailey then worked alongside George Miller, the creative genius behind Mad Max, at his Kennedy Miller Mitchell game studio.
But when Dailey was offered the job of game director on the Avengers project, he signed on almost immediately. Having spent time at THQ in San Diego in a past life, he was already well aware of the team's technical acumen. He was also a huge Marvel fan.
Upon arriving, Dailey spent his first month at THQ Studio Australia getting an idea of where the game was headed and how he could contribute. But one thing kept nagging at him.
The Avengers game looked familiar. Too familiar.
"I was looking at what was out there," remembers Dailey. "Every Marvel movie tie that had come and gone at that point was like this third-person kind of cookie-cutter clone."
There were some good games, admits Dailey, like Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, but third-person action games directly tied to Marvel movies had traditionally been rushed out the door to hit release dates. Games like this, relying on brand name over quality, rarely got the time or attention required to create a truly polished superhero experience.
Dailey wanted to do something different. So he made a big call with huge ramifications for the Avengers project.
"I said, 'Fuck it', let's make it first-person."
It wasn't quite as abrupt as that, Dailey says, but regardless: It wasn't a popular decision at first.
"It was like a bomb going off," says Henden.
A first-person superhero game. It was a unique idea. The traditional thinking back then -- and even today -- was that licensed video games should be third-person. The prevailing wisdom: Players who bought a superhero game would want to see the superhero they were playing as. A first-person game does the opposite, hiding the licensed character from view, forcing players to watch and play through their eyes.
Dailey was heavily inspired by Left 4 Dead, a 2008 cooperative first-person shooter that had players teaming up to fight off hordes of zombies. Featuring an AI-driven "director" that made each playthrough completely unique, Left 4 Dead was hugely influential at the time.
Much like Left 4 Dead, which allowed players to pick one of four distinct characters, Dailey wanted to take the Avengers -- Captain America, The Hulk, Thor and Iron Man -- and create a game where players had to team up, like the Avengers tend to do, and tear through hordes of bad guys.
For people like Henden, who'd just lost multiple senior members of their team and had already worked through tumultuous change, the perspective shift was a direct shot to the solar plexus. Dailey absolutely understood.
"Some new guy had come in and flipped everybody's world upside down," says Dailey. "But I knew it was the right thing for this particular game."
It was a bold move. Dailey wanted to create a first-person, four-player online co-op game at a time when online gaming -- particularly on consoles -- was in its infancy. But he knew it would work. If the game was four-player, then you could see the other Avengers -- be they Hulk, Captain America, Thor or Iron Man -- playing alongside you.
"Now, of course, it makes sense," Henden admits, "But at the time I was one of the people saying 'what the fuck?'"
"I thought it was just nuts."
Dailey knew he had his work cut out for him. On a number of levels.
"The biggest thing was the terrifying thought of trying to sell this to Marvel."
Dailey knew he had the support of THQ on the publishing side and, in time, the development team would firmly get behind the move to first-person. But if Marvel didn't support the decision, none of that would matter.
"It was really Marvel that worried me."
Dailey and the bigwigs at THQ Studio Australia invited Marvel out to Brisbane to sell them on the idea of a first-person Avengers game, cobbling together a presentation that included an early prototype of what the team was hoping to achieve with this bold new vision.
"It really took them by surprise," remembers Dailey. "But in a good way."
"They were like, 'This is great, this is different. It's unlike anything we've done before.' And once we got Marvel they were a huge ally."
Marvel and Disney didn't respond to requests for comment.
Despite early reservations regarding the move to first-person, everyone I spoke to agreed: There was a point at which the entire team came together on the Avengers project and went full speed ahead as a cohesive unit.
"It was a dream team," said one designer, who asked not to be named. "The absolute cream of the crop."
The studio split into small squads, each working on one specific Avenger. There was Iron Man, who could fly and shoot enemies from a distance. Hulk was all about close-quarters combat. Thor had lightning abilities, and Captain America had range attacks with his shield.
The team was most stressed about Captain America. You have to remember: This was before Chris Evans had even been cast as Cap.
"I remember thinking, Captain America? What a reject," laughs Henden. "I couldn't imagine a world where Captain America would have his own movies and be a lead character."
Danny Bilson, then executive vice president of THQ and head of THQ's core games division, remembered arguing about Cap with TQ Jefferson, a vice president of production at Marvel.
"I was like, Iron Man can fly, he's got the rays. The Hulk can smash. Thor has the hammer. But Captain America just had this... shield. And it was like a frisbee? It's not gonna cut it."
What about a gun, Bilson asked.
Marvel did not want Cap to have a gun.
"I was like, what do you mean? Cap was in World War II running around with a gun. That was a tension that I remember being really passionate about."
As the game progressed through development, a few stars emerged. Like Chris Palu.
He anchored the team working on The Hulk. Three separate people we interviewed referred to Palu as the best designer they'd ever seen. "I've worked with a lot of combat designers in my day," said Rex Dickson, a 20-year-plus industry veteran, "but he was something special."
Palu was in charge of making sure the Avengers combat felt weighty and meaningful. First-person, close quarters combat was traditionally tricky in first-person games, but by all accounts Palu pulled it off with aplomb. Hulk could rip enemies apart, he could catch bad guys in midair and slam them to the ground seamlessly.
The team was razor-focused on finding opportunities for the Avengers to team up during combat. Considering how action sequences evolved in the Avengers movie, the team was on the right track.
The team also secured Brian Bendis -- the award-winning writer referred to as the architect behind the Ultimate Marvel Universe comic book series -- to write the story.
"The game was really coming together, really starting to look good," says Henden.
He remembers playing as Iron Man and attacking an enemy in midair, then watching as Hulk jumped up, double-teaming the same enemy with spectacular special moves.
"That sort of stuff would get the combat designers amped up. Like, 'now we've gotta figure out ways for all four Avengers to team up'. There was just this massive momentum behind the game."
But once again, things were about to change.
'We were the Americans'
Dailey still maintains the shift to first-person was the right choice, but it put the team under enormous pressure.
"We were always behind, schedule-wise," he says.
That's where Rex Dickson came in.
Rex Dickson had a reputation as being a closer. He'd just finished working on THQ's Homefront, a game with a development period so tortured it was referred to as a "death march." Some within THQ believed he could help THQ Studio Australia get the Avengers project finished in time for the movie.
In early 2011, Dickson played an early build of the game and liked what he saw. It was enough to inspire him to leave New York City and fly halfway across the world to Brisbane, Australia.
"I thought they had something really special," he says.
Following him was Lance Powell, an art director. He'd worked with Dickson on tough projects in the past. "We made a pact to go together and bring stability to the IP," says Powell.
Initially the new arrivals clashed with a very Australian Avengers team. "I'm sure people felt like their toes were being stepped on," says Dickson. "We were the Americans."
Henden remembers butting heads with the new arrivals.
"These new guys come in and they're wearing Yankees caps in Brisbane," says Henden. "One guy was jacked, wearing these tight V-necks. He had like a liter bottle of rum on his desk, and was always like, 'Bro you wanna drink? Let's do shots and do overtime!'"
But "the Americans" believed overtime would be necessary, particularly if Avengers was to hit shelves in time for the movie release in 2011. THQ Studio Australia, Powell estimated, had a year's worth of work to do in six months.
"That's a difficult pill to swallow if you live by a 38-hour workweek," he remembers." But everyone knew what was at stake."
Dickson says things never got to the stage where they were "hitting it hard." But there were casualties.
As a result of the way certain pipelines had been established, one designer ultimately became solely responsible for a sizable part of production. It was this heightened level of pressure and stress that resulted in him beating up a filing cabinet with an umbrella.
"He'd have meetings with team leads, and they'd say, 'You're not pulling your weight', but they didn't understand how much stress he was under," explains Henden.
Things escalated. In addition to his gigantic workload, the designer was also a high-level World of Warcraft player. As production ramped up, Henden remembers him mentioning he was scaling his WoW time back -- to 70 hours a week. To him, a 70-hour World of Warcraft week was "casual."
One day it all became too much to handle. He imploded.
Most remember hearing a loud bang, but the first thing Henden heard was a shout. He saw one producer, in a defensive stance, looking like he was about to disarm someone.
"Mate, just put the knife down, OK? It's gonna be alright mate, just put the knife down."
The designer -- the high-level WoW player -- had gone into the kitchen, grabbed the biggest knife he could find and had been stabbing it rhythmically into his desk. Allegedly, one woman asked if he was OK, and in response he'd swiped the knife toward her. Thankfully, no one was injured.
"Just put the knife down. We'll go outside and figure this out."
The producer confronting the designer was an ex-bar bouncer, he had experience dealing with situations like this. He wasn't able to convince the designer to put down the knife, but managed to escort him outside, away from the rest of the team at THQ Studio Australia. Soon afterward, the police arrived.
"We had no idea he could become so unhinged," says Henden.
THQ got the designer help, paying for counseling and treatment, but he lost his job for that outburst. Later, Henden remembers, he attempted to come back to work as if nothing had ever happened.
"He really did rock up, press the doorbell and say, 'Hey I'm back, ready to work'."
The legacy deal
"I didn't make that deal."
Danny Bilson already knew that video games based on movie licenses were on the decline. He'd seen as much at EA, where he'd worked on licenses like Harry Potter. He loved the Avengers game, but he didn't like the deal.
"There was a massive guarantee against that game," explains Bilson. "You had to pay Marvel double-digit millions no matter what."
From 2008 until 2012, Bilson was the executive vice president of THQ's core games business unit. His role represented a transition for THQ. Back then THQ's bread and butter was children's games based on movie and TV licenses. In 2006, for example, THQ made a game based on Pixar's Cars that sold a ridiculous 8 million units.
But that business model was on the outs. In response, THQ had become obsessed with developing its own intellectual property. Video games like Saints Row, an open-world game designed to compete with Grand Theft Auto. Or Homefront, a first-person shooter built to take on Call of Duty.
With his Hollywood chops (Bilson wrote The Rocketeer and is the father of actress Rachel Bilson), Bilson's job was to manage the transition from licensed properties like Cars to original games like Red Faction: Guerrilla, a story-driven sci-fi game set on Mars. The Avengers project sat at the center of those two worlds. It was a game based on an expensive license that also needed to hit the same quality bar as Saints Row or Homefront.
In many ways, Avengers was doomed from the start.
"Avengers was an expensive game," says Bilson.
There were a lot of moving parts. Bilson guessed that THQ needed to sell 6 million units of Avengers to break even. Back then, he believed the best they could do was 3 million. At best.
The cost of the license was the deal breaker. Some joked that Marvel, having been burned by Sega's Iron Man, spiked the cost of the license to make sure THQ invested time and money into making a quality game worthy of recouping the initial costs. Many we spoke to thought there was truth in the joke.
But the odds were stacked against the Avengers project on multiple fronts. The world was in the process of recovering from the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. THQ felt the full weight of the crash. It had made mistakes. Big, costly mistakes like launching a tablet for the Xbox 360 and PS3 at a time when consumers were all tapped out on expensive peripherals.
In 2007 THQ shares traded at $30. Six years later, in 2013, those same shares traded for 11 cents.
Bizarrely, the resilience of Australia's economy, relative to the rest of the world, also made life difficult for THQ Studio Australia. In November 2001, the Australian dollar was worth 51 US cents. Ten years later the Australian dollar cost over one US dollar. Over the course of a decade, operating costs for an Australian studio like THQ Studio Australia had effectively doubled. That sea change had been the root cause of almost every major studio closure in Australia.
Soon THQ Studio Australia would succumb to the same fate.
The Avengers cancellation, when it came, was a surprise to some. Others saw it as an inevitability.
"As a gamer, I wish we could have shipped Avengers," says Bilson. "But as a business person? No."
For Christian Dailey, the Avengers cancellation was a slow-moving train.
"It wasn't like one day you go into work, and the next day it's 'Surprise, the game's canceled'."
Dailey watched as the competing storms surrounding the video game he'd become invested in conspired to tear it apart. The economy, THQ's mismanagement, an untenable licensing deal. Dailey saw where Avengers ranked alongside the other projects THQ desperately needed to succeed and knew the writing was on the wall.
"My spidey senses were tingling," he remembers.
In August 2011, the Avengers project was canceled and THQ Studio Australia was to be shut down as part of a companywide restructuring effort.
Chris Wright, who worked in THQ's Melbourne office and was tasked with helping to build marketing around the game, was one of the first to hear. He remembers the "awful" pain of knowing that developers in Brisbane, feverishly working on a game that would never be released, were oblivious to the fact they would soon lose their jobs.
Rex Dickson was also told ahead of time. Having moved his entire life from New York to work on this game, he was disappointed. But the "worst day" he says, was the following Monday, when Dickson and upper management informed the whole team that THQ Studio Australia was being closed and Avengers was being canceled.
Dickson was used to seeing these sorts of closures play out, but this felt different.
In the US, if a studio was closed, those left behind would have options. Within hours they'd be discussing next moves. But this was Australia in 2011. The surging dollar had left the Australian games industry in ruins. In 2009, EA closed Pandemic Studios. Krome Studios shut its doors in 2010. There were no other options. For some of the younger members of the team, this was a "fairytale" job, says Dickson. Many would never work in the games industry ever again.
"It just tugged on my heartstrings to see so much talent just thrown away in an instant."
Charles Henden found out via the phone. He'd taken leave, and was on a snowboarding trip with some friends. He was sitting in a cramped camper van playing drinking games when he got the call.
He hung up the phone, immediately grabbed the bottle of vodka resting on the table, withdrew to the corner of the van and polished it off in one tremendous, sorrowful gulp.
A sweet memory
Christian Dailey has a resume few can match. He's worked at EA and Blizzard, and is currently a studio director at BioWare. But few games mean as much to him as the Avengers project that never was.
It's inextricably tied to his time spent living in Australia. His daughter's first days at elementary school, armed with sunscreen and the mandatory floppy blue hats school children are forced to wear in Australia's scorching summer heat.
"It's such a sweet memory for me."
He still talks to many who worked on Avengers, almost 10 years later.
Rex Dickson was engaged when he first flew from New York to Brisbane, and flew back three months later to get married. Three weeks after arriving to start a new life in Australia, they had a baby on the way.
"I remember having to tell my pregnant wife, who'd just moved her whole life to Australia, that we were gonna have to move back to the US again."
Avengers was a special game for the entire team. Some still reminisce about the project to this day. Developers, even in sister studios in the US, kept debug consoles with the game still installed, so they could continue playing on their lunch break after its cancellation.
Christian Dailey believes that if they were given the time and the resources to finish it according to the team's vision, THQ Studio Australia's Avengers would have been a massive success.
"It was a simple game," he says, "but it was very sticky and very fun."
Dickson agrees, but given the time constraints the Avengers project would have almost certainly come up against, he believes the game might have sacrificed on depth and story. "I think it would have probably ended up shipping as an arcade brawler with a lot of potential in the core mechanic, but not fleshed out enough to be a AAA 90 rated title."
Like Doctor Strange contemplating multiple different realities, Chris Wright struggles to imagine a timeline where the Avengers project could have made it to store shelves. Marvel could have reduced the licensing fees, and THQ could have used those savings to fund the remaining development of the game, but THQ filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy just over a year later in 2012, and began systematically liquidating its assets immediately afterward.
Ultimately it was a project caught in transition. Avengers never got the chance to become the masterpiece Christian Dailey envisioned, but Avengers will also never disappoint us.
"Part of me is happy it was never released," says Chris.
"It got to remain frozen at its ideal point. All the potential yet to be realized."
Originally published Sept. 3, 2020.