Disney forges new playbook with ‘Avengers Alliance’

Facebook game goes beyond pic tie-in to engage wider auds, build Interactive profile

“The Avengers” is the first Marvel film Disney is distributing itself since acquiring the comicbook company. The superheroes are also now starring in the Mouse House’s first Facebook game since it purchased social gamemaker Playdom for $763 million two years ago.

“Marvel: Avengers Alliance” assembles today on the social networking site, after spending two months in beta mode.

Game is expected to be the first of several high-profile properties Disney will launch as its interactive group focuses more on making casual games for online platforms rather than pricier titles for videogame consoles. Facebook has more than 800 million members, providing a sizable audience for such titles.

In development at Playdom for more than a year, “Avengers Alliance” turns players into new S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, recruited by Nick Fury, who must lead a team of heroes they work to keep New York City safe from an unknown threat.

Given that the game is on Facebook, social elements were added that let players recruit their friends as allies to boost their team’s power.

“This is a social game and the social element is key,” said Robert Reichner, senior producer for Playdom. “We’re trying to blaze new paths but in a way that works for the Facebook audience.”

With “The Avengers” pic hitting megaplexes May 4 (and the U.K. on April 27), the timing of “Avengers Alliance” isn’t coincidental. But Playdom’s designers stressed that the game isn’t meant to be a tie-in to the tentpole.

Outside of the characters, there will be some references to the film found in the game but “the game is a standalone experience,” Reichner said. “This is not a game that ends,” with the storyline, penned by Alex Irvine (“Daredevil,” “Iron Man: Rapture,” “Hellstorm”), designed to unfold over two to three years.

“The thing that’s critical to Marvel’s DNA is story,” said TQ Jefferson, VP of games production at Marvel Entertainment. The Facebook game allowed the company “to break new ground” in how its superhero stories are told.”

The game’s characters were also designed not to closely mirror those seen on the bigscreen.

Artists borrowed elements from the looks of the heroes in Marvel’s comicbooks and the previous films to come up with a new overall design that it dubs “filmic” style — authentic enough for the hardcore Marvel fan, but accessible for a mass audience.

“The core vision was to take the depth of the Marvel world and bring it to gamers in the most accessible way on Facebook,” Reichner said. “We wanted to ground the characters so that they felt believable but weren’t too photorealistic.”

Given Facebook’s age limits, “Avengers Alliance” wasn’t created for kids, instead targeting males age 20 to 40. Designers also wanted to make sure it didn’t appeal just to hardcore comicbook fans or gamers or casual female gamers but a broader audience who may not necessarily be familiar with Marvel’s characters.

“We wanted to reach as broad an audience as possible,” Jefferson said. “Marvel has well over 8,000 characters in its roster. With this game, we had the opportunity to present all of the charters that people may not be familiar with.”

Because of that, “Avengers Alliance” doesn’t just feature Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye, but also X-Men’s Wolverine, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, among other heroes, to battle villains like Loki, Dr. Doom, Red Skull and Magneto.

That broader appeal should help get more moviegoers to see Disney’s Marvel actioners in the future. And a successful Facebook game will boost the bottomline of Disney’s Interactive Media Group, which Mouse House chief Bob Iger aims to turn profitable by 2013.

“Avengers Alliance” will be free, but gamers will be able to pay to skip over certain elements of gameplay, as well as take advantage of other transactional incentives.

Casual games generated $4.5 billion globally for gamemakers last year. An estimated 126 million Americans, or 87% of the 145 million U.S. gamers age 10-65, play games on social networks or casual gaming dot-coms, according to research firm Newzoo. Online casual and social gaming reps 39% of the 215 million hours spent on gaming each day in the U.S. and 29% of the coin spent on gaming. Facebook dominates the social gaming space in the U.S. attracting 60% of gamers, 41% of the time spent gaming and 38% of the money spent on games.

Disney aims for Playdom to tap into the kind of digital dollars Zynga (“FarmVille”) has been able to generate. It’s Facebook’s biggest game publisher, accounting for 12% of the site’s overall revenue last year. But the number of people playing games on Facebook remained flat in 2011 compared to 2010, according to research firm IHS, with around 225 million worldwide playing Zynga’s games at least once a month in December, according to research firm IHS.

Playdom will promote “Avengers Alliance” through its various games, Facebook pages, as well as Disney and Marvel’s various digital platforms.