Thousands of players have been diving into the closed alpha of MultiVersus, a brand new multiplayer brawler based around the Warner Brothers’ vault of IPs and characters. With a roster as wild as Super Smash Bros. and a clever combat system to boot, MultiVersus is proving of interest to the fighting game community and casual players alike, thanks to its accessible mechanics and complex, charming character designs.
- READ MORE: ‘MultiVersus’ preview: clever character design shines in a brawler fit to take on ‘Smash’
To understand the making of MultiVersus and its future, we sat down for a chat with Chris White, CTO and co-founder at Player First Games. The debut game from a team of industry veterans, MultiVersus is a colossal project overseen by a daunting entertainment behemoth. Regardless, White painted a picture of a studio that is prepared to be authentic and playful with such storied characters.
“What we’ve seen is that if you think about it from the perspective of what makes the most sense to be in a fighting game, you might not do a character like Velma,” White said. “But when you think of it, like, okay, like Velma is an iconic version of the Scooby-Doo cast – If we had to do her how would we make her fit? And then you get really creative designers to come up with really creative solutions, and now she’s sassing people! And that’s how she deals damage is, is through sass. Now it’s no longer in the category of ‘this doesn’t make sense.’ It’s in the category of ‘Wow, this is amazing, I’m so glad we did it.’”
With characters like Velma, who collects evidence to send other characters to death jail, or Tom and Jerry, who catch other players in the crossfire while fighting each other, there’s a sense that the characters in MultiVersus aren’t just being given the ability to fight without considering whether they would want to or not. Mechanical depth meets thematics in interesting ways in MultiVersus, most noticeably when it was revealed that The Iron Giant would join the game, leading to social media discussion regarding the character’s canonised pacifism. “There’s a fine line between being a reinterpretation of a character and being not that character, and we always want to be on the line of, it’s a reinterpretation, but it’s not a new character who wouldn’t do things that that character does,” White said.
“Characters that are more peaceful in nature or more protective in nature – especially with the co-op aspect of the game – you can make somebody who’s more about trying to protect their ally than they are about trying to be the bruiser or the brawler,” White said. “Steven Universe is a character where we’ve done this where he’s very good about being protective and creating shields and doing things that aren’t necessarily overtly offensive in nature because those aren’t necessarily things that you would expect out of him. I think as you see Iron Giant, you’re gonna see aspects of that as well.”
Elsewhere, interpretations are praised for being somewhat uncharacteristic. Shaggy from Scooby-Doo is mostly authentic in MultiVersus with his scooby snacks and sandwiches, but his neutral special lets him go Super Saiyan, an obvious reference to the ‘Ultra Instinct Shaggy’ meme that circulated online in 2017. White and his team are aware of the opportunity they have to allude to character memes like Big Chungus (Bugs Bunny) and the countless Tom & Jerry memes that flood social media. “I think we definitely want to lean into that,” White said. “I think it’s been great, the reaction that Shaggy has gotten, it’s the reaction that we were looking for. He was one of the very first ideas that we had in the game, and, you know, he’s the first character that we actually put in from the WB universe. Leaning into the memes and how the community is reacting to that – I think it fits in our game.”
As for where future fighters will come from, anyone who has watched the latest cameo-covered Space Jam film will know that Player First Games has a lot of options. It’s interesting to consider the more R-rated IPs in the WB vault like Mad Max, The Sopranos or even Pennywise from It popping up in the game. White says that it may be harder to pull off, but the studio is prepared for the challenge. ”I think we have been able to take characters for mature audiences and still add them to a game where we’re kind of subtle about the adult nature of it in a way that’s kind of not too overt, or in your face, but still has call outs to it,” White said. “I think an example is, is Arya (Stark), when she gets a ringout, she spawns a pie. If you’re familiar with the show, you kind of get that that’s a dark thing that we’ve done, but it’s done in a subtle and tasteful way. You can put that in the same environment that you put Steven Universe in, for example.”
The successful implementation of a human fighter like Arya Stark with cartoon characters like Steven Universe speaks to the flexible art direction of MultiVersus. White described it as “one of the hardest stylistic challenges that we’ve had to solve,” praising Player First’s art director, Jon Diesta. “He’s really done an amazing job of figuring out how to take a character from live-action, and then soften them enough to feel like they fit while also taking somebody from 2D animation and, you know, sharpening them enough to find that medium ground where you can look at something and say, ‘it’s still this character, but it’s the MultiVersus version of this character.’”
This has given the studio a level of flexibility with the IP they can interpret. “We’re not worried about what type of media that character comes from, we feel like we can pull it off,” White said. Even characters from IPs outside of Warner Brothers aren’t necessarily off the table. “This is an area where I think we can’t really make firm statements yet – other than I think that we always want to be adding new characters, and we want to explore a lot of opportunities there,” White explained. “We’re not yet ready to commit one way or the other on this. But we’re definitely open to a lot of ideas that could happen in the future.”
The pool of character brawlers has grown beyond Nintendo’s ever-dominant Super Smash Bros. as of late, with Brawlhalla and Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl picking up some market share. As for collaborations and crossovers between MultiVersus and its genre colleagues, White says that he’s open to it if the community is. “From our perspective, we’re open to a lot of things and we always want to do what we think is right for the community,” White said. “And I think that leaves, from our perspective, the door open to a lot of things. Of course, you know, in order to do something, you’d have to have a partner that was willing to collaborate in a certain way. And right now, we’re primarily focused on our own product. And so we’re not in any kind of talks there or planning anything there. But we’re also not opposed to it in any way. Because in our mind, it’s always about what’s right for the player. And you know, if that means collaboration, then that means collaboration. If not, then… yeah, then not.”
Anticipating most-wanted lists, White described a “half and half” approach between the studio’s own roster and feature plans and the community’s demands going forward. “If the community is really asking for a certain feature, or they’re really excited about a certain potential character, we could potentially swap things around in prioritization or we could make adjustments,” White said. But with so many characters to choose from and some more popular than others, Player First is also conscious of IP overload. “We want a balanced offering, White said. “We don’t want it to feel like it’s one IP and friends – it’s all of these IPs coming together.”
Going forward, Player First is “going to bias towards licensed characters” in the short term. “There’s a lot of really amazing IP that we’d love to work with,” White said. “And we’ve got quite a long backlog of characters to add to the game that people are excited about and already have relationships with.” But White didn’t want to rule out more original characters in the long-term, as the game’s lore is fleshed out. Reindog, the co-op focused character who appears in the closed alpha, was created by Player First for MultiVersus and is connected to the game’s lore.
With little information available at present, White says that the studio is deliberately trying to keep the underlying narrative of MultiVersus mysterious to leave fans guessing and debating. “We’re not going to spoil any surprises there, although there are some elements to the narrative experience that we want to evolve over time and trickle out over time,” White said. When asked about a potential campaign or single-player mode that could provide answers, White said that there are plans in motion. “We’re not yet ready to talk about exactly what that is, but we are planning, you know, additional modes, additional ways to engage with the game,” White said. “It’s a live service game, and we also want to be broadly appealing. The competitive scene will always be the tip of the spear, but we don’t want to end our focus there, we definitely want to have more ways to engage with the game,” he said.
Local co-op, a key feature for any fighting game, is missing in the Closed Alpha but a clear future milestone for Player First. “Local co-op is something that we think is important, not just for casual couch co-op, but also important for the competitive scene as well,” White said. “We definitely want to work with tournament organizers and help them figure out how to run tournaments and work through logistics issues, but we also want to give them choices there … we’re working on making sure that local play is going to work just as well as the online play.”
While the future does sound rosy for MultiVersus, the scariest consideration for a free-to-play multiplayer brawler of its nature is monetization. This hasn’t been implemented in the Closed Alpha beyond a free Battle Pass to climb, but Player First’s philosophy, while unspecific right now, sounds fair. “We want to do whatever we can to really avoid things that are pay-to-win, things that feel predatory,” White said. “We want to think about it like we’re competing for people’s time more than we’re competing for people’s wallets. And if we win people’s time and they want to spend their time – if they’re willing and able – we want to provide ways for them to, you know, give money for that feels good for them. But we don’t want to ever feel like people’s arms are twisted into paying, or that you have to pay to be competitive. Those are all not things that would work well for our game and are not part of our philosophy.”