Exclusive Interview with DC Universe Online’s Mark Anderson

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dc universe online green lantern
Just like Batman answering the Bat-Signal, gamers everywhere are chomping at the bit to play DC Universe Online. With its Spring 2011 release getting ever closer, Ten Ton Hammer’s own intrepid reporter, Jeff “Ethec” Woleslagle, infiltrated the hidden lair of SOE. Once inside, he talked to Mark Anderson, Art Director of DCUO, to get the scoop on movement challenges, lore and roleplay possibilities, and the PvP aspects (including the newly announced Meteor mechanic for open PvP) of this superhero MMOG.

Ten Ton Hammer: First, I wanted to ask you about something we’ve just started hearing more about: movement challenges. What’s involved with those? I’m guessing that there are different ones associated with the different movement powers?

Mark Anderson: Yes. There are multiple beacons for movement challenges and they are tailored to your specific movement mode. So if you’re a speedster, it’ll be about you going up walls and making huge jumps. Same thing with flyers, such as flying through the rings. That’s what most of those are, and they’re all in now. We’ve been working on those for awhile, and we’re now working on some co-op movement modes. That’s in the works right now, and we’ll have to see how much of that makes it down to the final game.

But it’s other stuff to do in a game that’s otherwise combat-oriented. We want to make sure that there’s stuff for you to do that’s fun and challenging, and those are spread out all over the city.

Ten Ton Hammer: Any thought given to leaderboards for movement challenges?

Mark Anderson: Yes. Having that kind of competition within the game is something we want and wish to encourage, but it is something that we don’t have in yet.

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Ten Ton Hammer: Is there a thematic aspect to the movement challenges, such as having to race to stop the Joker from exploding nukes or something?

Mark Anderson: Not specifically, no. They’re pure gameplay in that sense.

Ten Ton Hammer: There’s been a little bit of confusion over what you and others at SOE Austin have called the “wild, wild west” nature of open PvP in DCUO, where level 15s, for example, can gank a level 5. For somebody new coming to the game, that might not sound like the most fun experience.

Mark Anderson: It definitely depends. The good thing is that there is a much, much wider spread than there’s been in most of the games that I’ve played, where level is kind of king. If you had a few levels on somebody, that was it. However, the content is relatively mixed. We have opposing factions occupying the same space a lot more often than other games. We have safe spawn points. We have safe houses that have guards on them. Most of that takes the characters where they can go through the content reasonably well.

In beta, PvP is not so widespread. It tends to be more concentrated. The main thing that we wanted to kill was the spawn camping. It is things like that really detract from enjoying the game, especially if you’re new to the game. If you just want to go out and do the solo content, then choosing a PvE server is the thing to do.
"Do you start with one power? No power? A combo? There were huge polarizing shifts just within our population of just the devs in the office. So we tried to strike that balance."

Ten Ton Hammer: What other types of emerging PvP are you planning for DCUO?

Mark Anderson: We have the Meteor, which I don’t think you’ve seen yet. We have a meteor that is a PvP flag. Once you pick it up, you’re flagged for PvP. You can run around the city and hand it to your friends, which can leads to pockets of PvP. It’s time-based and it is really cool because it creates areas where if you don’t want to be part of that gang fight, you don’t have to be.

Ten Ton Hammer: You keep the Meteor in your inventory?  If not, how long does the tag last? If you put it down, are you not flagged for PvP anymore?

Mark Anderson: You literally pick it up. It’s a physical object. Once you pick it up touch it, you can take it to other places where you want other people to touch it. Once you pick it up, you’re tagged for awhile. I don’t remember the exact time amount right now.

Ten Ton Hammer: Are there any kinds of rewards for open PvP play?

Mark Anderson: Right now, I can’t tell you that for certain if we do. At this point, we have scoreboards on the PvP matches, but not just open world PvP.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is that something you might consider giving achievements for?

Mark Anderson: Absolutely! If we haven’t mentioned achievements yet, it is something that we’ve talked about. A lot of this is that we want to see what people are enjoying in the game and then encouraging them to do that in the game and to do more of that in the game. We’re seeing what’s going on in beta and keeping a matrix of all of that stuff.

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Ten Ton Hammer: Legend play is one of DCUO’s best kept secrets inside the game. With the Legend Gameplay, is there anything that you’re planning on adding to the game to more directly introduce players to that aspect of the game?

Mark Anderson: On some of them, you’ll get the message through the communicator, but on others, you’ll get a quest item in your journal. So you get a mission objective to do a PvP match in the Legend simulator.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is Legend play something you can play from the get-go, or is there a level requirement?

Mark Anderson: Right now, there is a level limit. I don’t think that we’ve publicly announced what we’re going to do with the preorder “play-as-Batman” in terms of level. I think that we’re going to introduce it low enough so that you’ll get a nice experience throughout the game, and we think that it is something that people are really going to enjoy with all the powers tailored to the specific characters and those one-off powers.

Legend play gives you that experience to play as that character. Early on, our biggest question was, “Do I get to play as Batman?” to which we always said, “No.” But, we were sitting around and we realized that we could probably do this and do it in a way to stop the obvious next criticism of that there’ll be a thousand Batmans running around. We definitely didn’t want that. We think that Legend play is a good balance.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you foresee a Batman or Superman infestation happening anyway, especially with players creating heroes based upon inspirations?

Mark Anderson: So far, I haven’t really seen people trying to make themselves as close as they can to a particular character. At a certain point, that’ll be something that we’ll need to keep a close eye upon. So far, I haven’t seen anybody pushing that envelope. I have seen a lot of creative names, and most of them aren’t ones that you say, “Sigh...I have to ban that guy,” but more like, “that’s really cool.” It’s funny that it is the same thing that we’ve done around the office like Chief of Staff, Staff Infection, etc.

We’re working on names in that we want people to be able to get the names they want. We’re working on a filter that’s aggressive enough to prevent people from going, “Really?” but still allowing a creative mix.

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Ten Ton Hammer: I know Champions Online ran into the same thing with popular names.

Mark Anderson: If you alias, you end up with 18 Killer Frostbites, and you don’t know who you’re talking to necessarily. You don’t want to get to the point where you go, “I wanted to name my guy Ice something, but they’re all taken.”

Ten Ton Hammer: I imagine that there’ll be a mad rush to reserve names on day one, no matter what.

"Early on, our biggest question was, “Do I get to play as Batman?” to which we always said, “No.” But, we were sitting around and we realized that we could probably do this and do it in a way to stop the obvious next criticism of that there’ll be a thousand Batmans running around."
Mark Anderson: Yeah. I know a couple of guys here who are saying, “I hope my name isn’t taken.” We’re hoping not to get into the name-squatting. So far, we have a very diverse beta population from a lot of different places, and those people have been very good about it. They haven’t tried to push the envelope of taste or copyright infringement.

Ten Ton Hammer: You have these two massive cities. One thing that we’ve found in large overland zones, which might not occur in a city environment, is that they can feel quite empty. Is the solution to that to concentrate players around objectives so you don’t really notice the open real estate on the map?

Mark Anderson: You need those areas that are empty or ambient for pacing and just to have a space where there’s not something going on. It’s all about making hubs that make sense. We try to keep a close eye on it.

There are areas where we rely upon player density to fill a space, and we try to have places like the Watchtower or the Hall of Doom being hubs that aren’t just player cities, but serve as a jumping off point to get you from between Gotham and Metropolis. Some of those things are done because we want those places to be filled will players and we want players to use it as a hub and congregate there.

We tailor spaces for what we want from them. There are some spaces by the dam in Metropolis that is intentionally a quiet place that is more pastel and pristine from a fictional aspect. It gives you a space as a player to go, “Oh, this is what it was supposed to look like before Brainiac invaded and everything went haywire.”

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Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking of immersion, any plans for those who really get into the lore to be able to play on role-playing servers?

Mark Anderson: Again, if we find that there is enough of a population to support it, then we’ll definitely support it. We have a few guys in the office who are into that. While I’m not into it, having those kinds of players are a great population to have in your game. There are a lot of people who really want that continuity in the universe and are willing to follow the rules to do so.

Ten Ton Hammer: One of the problems that comic-themed MMOGs have had in the past is that, from my perspective, I got too awesome too fast. I got my flight ability, then my other signature abilities very quickly. So why am I still playing?

Mark Anderson: Since most MMOGs are so progression based, it can become a problem. For the action games that I’ve worked on in the past, you want to hook people right away. You want them to feel powerful from the beginning. It’s a really fine line where you have to do a lot of testing and evaluating. Are we making people feel good enough without giving everything away? Early on, we knew that we wanted to give you flight. We don’t want to have you wait until forever to get your wings.

For us, it’s always been about how much is too much. Even as developers, we started out with a full tray when we started to play. As we got deeper into the game, we had to start yanking things out and going progression based, which resulted in people crying, “The game stinks now!” Do you start with one power? No power? A combo? There were huge polarizing shifts just within our population of just the devs in the office. So we tried to strike that balance. The cool thing about the loot chase is that you feel that there is more to find. Once you feel that you’ve capped out, it becomes boring. Half of the game is discovery.

It’s a fundamental thing to all MMOGs, knowing that there’s always more to do. Once you’re capped out, be it visually or combat abilities, your interest starts to wane. Because we want this to be something that you don’t finish, but goes on and on, we want to make sure that you feel that there’s always something over the horizon. That something could be a new area that you’ve never seen before, a story, or a character you’ve never encountered. There’s status associated with the higher gear. All of those things are cool.

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Ten Ton Hammer: One of the things I like about the “loot chase” is seeing the motion graphic cutscenes; I just saw the one from the first part of the Gorilla Grodd story arc a few minutes ago. Those are really well done.

Mark Anderson: Cool! That was something that came fairly late in the development cycle. Jim was very involved and we wanted to do something that told a story.

Someone at New York Comic-Con asked, “I’ve been a hard-core comic fan all of my life. What do I get out of this game?” My answer is that you get to help tell these stories that we only get to tell a little piece of. Those motion comics are really something. If you haven’t experienced comics, they’re pretty cool. They’re right in your face. If you are familiar with comics, it’s in a medium that you haven’t seen them in before.

Ten Ton Hammer: Have you been thinking of doing a cutscene gallery where a player can view them after they unlock them in the game?

Mark Anderson: We’re working on that now. It’s one of those things that we know that players will want to show their friends after they unlock them.

Our thanks to Mark Anderson and SOE Austin’s DCUO team for this interview.

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