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
style='mso-spacerun:yes'> 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
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. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "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
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. class=SpellE>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.
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
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 class=SpellE>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 class=SpellE>Smallville is in peril than if it's, 'Hey, I went to the
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 class=SpellE>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 class=SpellE>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."
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 class=SpellE>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. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "Consoles are where superhero games have
shined, because consoles deliver that action experience... People ask about class=SpellE>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 class=SpellE>unitards and tights early in 2011. Keep it right here at DCUO Ten Ton Hammer for all the latest as we move toward launch.
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our DC Universe Online Game Page.