Green Lantern, a Moon Mission, and More! An Interview with DC Universe Online's Jim Lee and Chris Cao

Ten Ton Hammer recently met with legendary comic book  artist, writer, publisher, and DC Universe Executive Creative Director Jim Lee and Game Director Chris

Ten Ton Hammer recently met with legendary comic book  artist, writer, publisher, and DC Universe Executive Creative Director Jim Lee and Game Director Chris Cao for answers to a wide variety of DCUO questions, from the size, scope, and origin of the DC Universe in DCUO, to the potential for a Green Lantern expansion, to whether DCUO owes more to console action games or traditional MMORPGs, and much, much more!

The Beginning of the Universe

To kick things off, Jim Lee offered a rare glimpse into the very early stages of the DC Universe Online project. His insights confirm what most MMORPG fans already know - SOE doesn't shy away from big projects or big licenses: "There's a longer story that predates SOE's involvement with the game. I was involved even then, but once SOE was involved (they were producing my favorite game, EverQuest) it completely changed the dynamic and scope of the project. Pitches from other companies involved a much smaller slice of the DC Universe. SOE presented a much larger slice, a grander vision of what a superhero MMO could be."

DCUO's Jim Lee (left) and Chris Cao highlight the game's all-star cast of creative and executive talent.

Mr. Lee, now Executive Creative Director of the project (one of the many hats he wears) had a lot to learn about MMO game development.  "I remember flying down to SOE in Austin. I spent a week there, it was a crash course in learning about video games and pipelines and infrastructure, learning about the behind-the-scenes terminology of MMOs - just seeing how much of a logistical challenge it is, building a video game of this size and complexity versus creating a comic book, which the three of us could do and be done in a month. It's a whole different kind of experience and mentality and energy."

"It was very important for me to learn all of that, because it impacts what you can do on the creative side. To give you a bad example, you don't see a lot of shoulderpads in the game that are huge, because if you move them in space, they'll actually puncture the character's head or make it very difficult to do run animations, that kind of thing. Whereas, in comics, you'd never worry about that at all. There's a three-dimensional virtual reality that cannot be fudged in a game like this."

With Jim Lee's resume and title, no doubt he gets exactly what he wants in DCUO, right? Well, not exactly. Asked about the off-the-wall, silly characters players would create, Mr. Lee admitted this sort of thing probably wouldn't happen if his name was on the front of the box rather than the back. "I'm more old school than that, I like characters that look tough and act tough. I know people like playing zany characters, but if it was just an MMO of my taste, a lot of that stuff wouldn't be in there. But I fully appreciate the fact that people want to unleash their inner spirit and play what they want."

Mentors, the Heromaker

Turning to more in-depth questions about the game, we were joined by Game Director Chris Cao. Naturally we began at the beginning of a player's experience in DCUO, and one of the first and most important decisions a player makes in DC Universe Online is his or her choice of mentor. Storywise, the choice of mentor determines the origin of a player's powers. "We have characters split into tech, meta, and magic. Guys who depend on themselves and gadgets are tech-based, guys with inherent powers, like Superman, are meta-based, and those who use magic are... magic (I know it's kind of surprising)." Chris explained, laughing.

But mentors go far beyond your character's origin story or which iconic character you'll be chatting up for the first 30 levels. Mentor choice is also important in terms of where you begin your game experience. If you choose Batman or Joker, you'll start in the East End or Burnley Heights sections of Gotham - "classic Gotham," as Chris noted - and face off against enemies like Scarecrow. If, on the other hand, you choose Superman or Lex Luthor, you'll find yourself in Metropolis's Little Bohemia. If you roll magic with Circe or Wonder Woman, then you'll end up in Metropolis's Chinatown district.

Wonder Woman is one of six mentors players can choose.

Finally, mentors ultimately determine some of the higher-end loot you'll receive. "If you want the batsuit, you need to have Batman as your mentor, because he's not going to hand it out to anyone. If you want the Strength of Hera, Wonder Woman's suit, you need to be working for her," Chris explained, taking care to explain that a less revealing male version of the costume is available.

If you're disappointed that your favorite DC character didn't make the mentor cut, you might find many of the more popular characters as "inspired-bys" - superstar templates that you can mold your character after, should you not wish to get into the nitty gritty of character creation. About a dozen of these templates are in-game at present, but several expected inspired-bys won't be available at launch. "We had more [inspired-bys], like the Flash, but since we don't have electricity or something that really sets him apart, we decided to pull him out. We still have super speed in the game, you can still do that, but we couldn't fully realize an inspired-by Flash, so we decided to reserve that for when we add more of that kind of stuff in.”

The lack of electicity is also why Captain Marvel won't be inspiring new superheroes at launch, but Chris noted that the iconic power pool ability Power Word functions much like Captain Marvel's Shazam, with a lightning bolt descending to destroy groups of enemies.

Going Green

Green Lantern will have a big presence in DCUO, and that presence will only get bigger.

Any discussion of mentors or inspired-bys will naturally lead to questions about why Green Lantern didn't make the original cut for mentors or inspired-bys. Green Lantern, a fan favorite (or, more properly, fan favorites) among hardcore DC fans - the ones that didn't need a major motion picture to cement their Lantern love (that, along with a new wave of fans, is coming in 2011). But Green Lantern will have a big presence in DCUO, and that presence will only get bigger: "It's not that we don't have Green Lantern in the game. The big difference is that Green Lantern can't be part of the core experience because that experience, in and of itself, is almost a whole other game.  We don't want to just throw a ring in your inventory, we want a whole story to go with it. And, the corps doesn't just accept anyone, right? The rings come and search you out. We have to set up a reasonable story for why that goes on."

Chris explained that we also need some schooling before we can handle the power ring. "We've got to make sure everyone that's playing the game knows what a Lantern is. Realize we're the first MMO on the PS3, we're on the PC, we're introducing this license to a depth that a lot of people don't know. A lot of people don't understand that fiction.

"As part of this game, you're actually going to see the story of Sinestro changing and why it happened. That's part of a cutscene. You're going to understand who he is and why he's such a vital villain. He used to be the best the corps had. So, in the same way, we have multiple episodes where you actually fight alongside and against those lanterns so, at the end of it, you know what a lantern is, why it's important, so now in the future we have some context."

Location, Location, Location

Speaking of context, Metropolis and Gotham are DCUO's two huge seamless and persistent areas. During a panel at NY Comic Con in early October, Chris mentioned that Metropolis is a 900 square block city, and he confirmed that Gotham is roughly the same size. "The big difference between the two is that a significant portion of Gotham has been bottled up by Brainiac. There are actually bottles over Wayne Tower, over the other buildings, and he's actively trying to take it up. I don't want to spoil too much, but just as a warning to everyone, the reason the raid is in the Batcave is because humanity is losing ground... I'll tease it in this way: someone's going to have to unbottle those things. A good example is the Daily Planet - it's bottled. The very center of Superman's city has been taken over, now it's up to players to see what they can do about it."

Metropolis is about 900 square blocks, and Chris confirmed that Gotham is roughly the same size.

As for why SOE didn't go with a more traditional chain of zones like you'd find in a typical MMOG, Chris explained that traditional approach simply didn't fit the license. "We conceptualized areas like Suicide Swamp, but found out that it's a lot more exciting to be a superhero or supervillain in a city." That's not to say that players won't be seeing some of the countryside via "alerts" - DC Universe Online's instant access co-op encounters. "The other areas are still big and expansive - Smallville has the Kent Farm, and downtown - but you go there for a story reason and then you leave. Smallville is way more interesting if Smallville is in peril than if it's, 'Hey, I went to the soda shop.'"

And one alert takes you out of this world, literally. H.I.V.E is attempting to gather up stray exobytes that landed on the moon, and it's up to heroes to stop them (or for villains to gather the exobytes for their own nefarious purposes). "You're going up there as either a hero or villain to try and either take the exobytes or stop the exobytes from being taken. It's a completely different setting, but instead of being the moon as an always-up area of the game, you're going in to fight Hive in their crater base. After finishing an alert, you return right to where you were in-game. "There's also a hard mode of each of those at the end of the game where we put a little twist on it and advance the story a little, so you can go back there and see what's going on."

The Hero's Journey (or Villain's Dark Evil Journey of Evil)

Chris likened story development in DC Universe Online to a typical progression from sidekick to journeyman to, finally, independent superhero (or supervillain). You'll start with sidekicky, henchmanlike things to do - for example, free Batwoman from the effects of Scarecrow's fear gas, then take on Scarecrow together. Then you'll move from a Robin experience to a Nightwing experience, where you're battling lower tier guys but are mostly out on our own.

Chris likened the hero's journey in DCUO to the progression from Robin to Nightwing to Batman.

And then... "Ultimately you have a Batman experience, where the day is saved by you, where you actually get to save or betray your mentor. This about an arc; it isn't about keeping players first and foremost all of the time, but it's about making sure you feel like you had almost no powers, now you've learned some, and now you're earning that fame legitimately. The end of that journey is really the starting point of the game... now you're at the endgame where you're going to be doing cooler stuff, and every month we're going to be adding more to it."

I asked Chris to explain a little more about what he meant by betraying your mentor and where that would leave you. "I don't think it would be a satisfying villain experience if all the way along Joker is trying to throw you into the frying pan all of the time - 'Hey, why don't you go blow up the GCPD?' - and you don't get some payback at some point. I mean, he's not a mentor in any classic sense, he isn't concerned about your safety. I don't want to spoil the details, but betraying him is a natural evolution of the story you've been living out with him."

Will DCUO players eventually be able to switch sides? "DC is a very black hat / white hat universe. In the future, who knows? We might let you switch sides, but I don't want to promise anything except to say you're going to know who's in the universe and where you stand with them, so that we can tell you even more stories."

Subscription Friction

As the soon-to-be first MMORPG on the PlayStation 3 (note the '3', forum friends), DC Universe Online might be getting more than its fair share of guff over the $14.99 per month subscription price. "The subscription fee is an interesting thing because console players aren't traditionally used to it in that form. What they are used to is paying more for their games more often than PC gamers do. They're paying $60 a shot versus $50, and you're paying it more often because the games don't last that long. And even if you go and get a rental or a trade-in or a cheaper game, you're still looking at, 'Ok, my game lasted me a week or two... if it's got multiplayer maybe I play it a little bit longer.'

Chris hopes that the promise of monthly content and ongoing support will win periodic payment detractors over. "The way we look at it is, the subscription fee is a lot like DLC. We're charging you a subscription fee because we're going to dedicate developers to bringing you new content every month. We're going to have a team that's going to give you something new every month, even with the expansion coming."

Adding to the mix, cosmetic and costume goods will be available as microtransaction items on top of that subscription price. But Chris took pains to note that RMT is by no means a primary focus for the team. "Without the game being good, the microtransactions don't matter. The rest of the stuff doesn't matter. We have to keep the game entertaining for players.”

Genre Conventions and Unconventional Gameplay

Chris minced no words about comparisons of DC Universe Online to traditional MMORPGs or even "action combat" MMOs. "A lot of times people take an MMO and they speed it up or they dress it up to make it feel action-y. We didn't do that, and the reason the game has been in development five years is because we had to build technology that would allow us to play MMO-scale of action at action game pace. Our servers are way faster; they're way more robust. They  have integrated physics throughout, so you can pick up a car here in New York and if someone's playing in Los Angeles, regardless of latency, it can hit them. That's really important because that's what you expect from a superhero game."

DCUO attempts to borrow from traditional MMOGs without being consumed by genre conventions.

"A lot of times an MMO developer will take a license and say, 'How do we translate this to an MMO?' The question you want to ask is, 'How do we translate an MMO to the license?' We have this license, we're doing this game, because we want you to feel like a superhero. We don't want your superhero game to feel like an MMO."

So is DC Universe Online the PC's first great console game, so to speak, not just a strong multi-platform MMO? Short of making any grandiose pronouncements, Chris did state that DCUO owes much of its inspiration to console games, perhaps much more than it owes to traditional MMORPGs.  "Consoles are where superhero games have shined, because consoles deliver that action experience... People ask about tradeskills. Is there some MMO checklist somewhere where you've got to make these things to thrive? There is, in a lot of people's heads, and that's fine. I get it. But if it doesn't make sense for the license, we didn't put it in. That's really key, because every choice you're making that's not DC diminishes your game."

Our thanks to Jim Lee, Chris Cao, and the entire SOE team for their time, and we look forward to pulling on our DC Universe unitards and tights early in 2011. Keep it right here at DCUO Ten Ton Hammer for all the latest as we move toward launch.

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