The secret Avengers video game the world never got to play

First there was a bang. The sort of noise that comes from steel-on-steel impact. An unfamiliar sound in an office used to the peaceful clatter of mechanical keyboards. Still, no one batted an eyelid. 

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? 

Slowly, 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.

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“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 even 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. 

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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. 

Execute crisply

“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.

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avengers

When development started, few understood just how big the Avengers movies would become.

Marvel

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

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A team presentation at THQ Studio Oz.

Charles Henden

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.”

Avengers Assemble

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Robert Rodriguez/CNET

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.

The team did a great job of recreating The Incredible Hulk.

Warwick Mellow

“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.”

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