Ever since it released on Sept. 4 last year, it seems very little has gone right for Marvel’s Avengers. It’d be extreme to label it a failure considering it still reviewed decently (with its average Metacritic scores ranging from 66 to 73 across PC, PlayStation, and Xbox platforms), and its launch sales were strong. According to GamesIndustry.biz, it was the best-selling game of September and the second highest launch month dollar sales for a superhero game ever, losing only to Insomniac’s Marvel's Spider-Man game. Yet it still failed to turn a profit for Square Enix, and since it’s a live-service title that had already committed itself to years of post-launch support, Square and Crystal Dynamics have spent the last 12 months doing what they can to ensure people keep playing it.
At the time of writing, Avengers has successfully lasted a full year, and while its content roadmap only covers the rest of 2021, there’s no indication that the game won’t continue to receive support in 2022. But when you look over Avengers’ first year, in between the content updates and patches were near frequent stumbling blocks and PR nightmares. There remains a dedicated community of players, but you can’t check a single post on the official Twitter account without seeing complaints from those who are ready to give up on the game. Considering the fate of fellow live-service title Anthem, which was meant to be rebooted after its first year, only to be canceled and abandoned a year later, one can’t help but wonder if Avengers will only follow suit and meet the same end before its second anniversary.
A Dwindling Player Base?
A live-service game like Avengers is completely dependent on having a consistently large player base. If not enough people are playing it, then there is little reason to keep spending money supporting it. Anyone who cries "dead game" whenever Avengers comes up in conversation is kidding themselves, but it does appear to have struggled to maintain steady numbers since it launched.
It’s impossible to tell how many people have been playing the game on consoles or Stadia (only Square Enix knows that), but SteamCharts keeps track of player counts on Steam, so we can make some estimates based on the PC version. According to SteamCharts, the peak number of players in September 2020 was 28,145. Only a month later, that number dropped by over 6,000, more than 80% of September’s peak player count. A drop in players can be expected once the hype surrounding a new release has calmed down, but for it to have gone down that much clearly indicates that Avengers wasn’t offering enough to keep people around beyond completing the main campaign.
When the first major expansion featuring Kate Bishop arrived in December, the peak count went up by only a paltry 5.34% compared to November. The Hawkeye expansion in March fared a lot better, bringing the peak up to 2,712, but that was still nowhere near the numbers the game was enjoying at launch. August’s Black Panther expansion was easily the most successful of the three, with just over a 92% increase in players compared to July, but it still only attracted a maximum of 10,224 players. Once they had their fill, most players still chose to walk away, with the peak count dropping by nearly 58%.
Assuming these numbers are similar across the other platforms, it’s very apparent that Avengers can only attract players in the short term whenever it adds a new character. There will no doubt be another spike in players once Spider-Man releases, but given the track record so far, it will likely only be temporary, not to mention limited to just the PlayStation versions (itself a point of controversy since none of the other versions will receive their own exclusive playable character). Its release on Xbox Game Pass has at least been very beneficial, breaking into the top 10 most played games right behind Destiny 2.
As for why people stopped playing, there are no doubt multiple reasons. It’s easy to claim that this is tangible evidence that the core gameplay simply isn’t engaging enough, but some may have just put it down due to lack of time. However, some have likely given up on it not because they stopped having fun, but because of personal frustrations with Square Enix and some of the decisions it has made.
DLC Delays & Broken Promises
The sharp drop in players in October may not have been as bad had Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics not delayed the first major DLC expansion. It was likely meant to release only a month after launch but wound up being pushed back to December. On top of that, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions were delayed too to 2022, and when the Kate Bishop expansion did launch, it was missing some of the additional content.
Admittedly, this may not have entirely been Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics’ fault. This was still during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, which had a severe impact on game development the world over. But a blog post at the time admits that the initial delays were a result of the game’s tumultuous launch. While maybe not as severe as the likes of Cyberpunk 2077 and eFootball 2022, Avengers was not without bugs and glitches which could risk rendering the game unplayable, so the development team was forced to shift priorities and fix things. Hardly a good first showing for a big budget live-service game.
Then there is the infamous grind. With the release of the next-gen versions, the game was updated so levelling up characters would take even longer, a decision that was met with a near universal negative response. The justification was that players were unlocking new abilities too quickly and becoming overwhelmed, but a quick glance at fan response on Reddit shows no one was buying that and saw it as an attempt to artificially lengthen the game.
To make matters worse, the game is now selling booster items that increase how much experience you earn. Don’t like how grindy the game is now? Pay extra to fix it. This would be bad enough, but Crystal Dynamics even explicitly said it would never do this; it would only ever sell cosmetics. Whether plans changed or it outright lied is irrelevant; players perceive this as a betrayal of trust.
It’s not impossible for Avengers to turn things around and become a beloved success. Just look at Final Fantasy 14. But its reputation can not be ignored. Dedicated fans may argue that a lot of critics are just jumping on a bandwagon, but that still requires a bandwagon, one Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics are responsible for building. At this point, it feels like Avengers is dragging itself into 2022, its back broken from the weight of every controversy and critique it has garnered. It needs to make some meaningful changes and not just release a new hero every few months. Otherwise, its second year will no doubt be its last.