Sock! Pow! Bam! DC Universe Online – An Interview with Senior Producer Wes Yanagi

Since our first glimpses at DC Universe Online, Ten Ton Hammer has been panting like the fanboys we are to get some details on this upcoming MMOG.
Since our first glimpses at DC Universe Online, Ten Ton Hammer has been panting like the fanboys we are to get some details on this upcoming MMOG. Fortunately, Doctor Fate owed us some favors and, therefore, he summoned Wes Yanagi, senior producer for DC Universe Online to the Tower of Fate to answer our questions. Forcing Wes Yanagi to choose between answering our questions or being locked in an enclosed room with Ambush Bug, Wes Yanagi chose to answer our questions!

Ten Ton Hammer: Ever since E3, we’ve been practically salivating over DC Universe Online and we have a lot of questions to ask. For those people who have been under a rock or living on a distant planet, what can you tell us about DCUO and what can they expect when they play the game?

Wes Yanagi: At its highest level, DC Universe Online is a massively multiplayer action game. The fantasy that we’re trying to fulfill is you being able to create a superhero or supervillain and build your own legacy in the DC universe.

TTH: How would players go about doing that? What sort of role do they play? Are they sidekicks or are they their own superhero? Do they help out the famous superheroes? What kind of cool things can they expect?

Wes Yanagi: What we really want to do is that hero’s journey, from zero to hero. Initially, you’ll create your own superhero/supervillain. You’ll choose what kind of powers you have, such as fire or ice powers, and combine that with a power source like a rifle or dual pistols. On top of that, you’ll add a super movement power like super speed, flight, or acrobatics. From all of that, you’ll be able to create practically any hero you have in your mind’s eye and take them into the world and interact with those iconic characters such as Superman, Batman, the Joker, Lex Luthor, and many more.

TTH: When you say you start from zero to hero, does your character have any sort of back story that you can give them or do you start out as Joe Blow on the street who decides one day, “You know what? I think I can do this!”

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Wes Yanagi: It’s actually part of the game. That’s what we’re initially launching with. We’re working really closely with a bunch of DC writers like Geoff Johns and Marv Wolfman, and alongside Jim Lee, who’s overseeing a lot of the art direction. In fact, he’s the Executive Creative Director for the game. One of the biggest challenges is explaining why all these superpowered beings are suddenly appearing on the Earth, and that’s what the initial story is all about.

TTH: That’s a very good plot point because that’s something that we would have overlooked to ask: why are so many superheroes all of a sudden. The fact that you’re going out of your way to write a story about that is great.

Wes Yanagi: That’s how it’s all going to fit in together.

TTH: DC Universe Online was confirmed to use a subscription based model over this new free-to-play one that everyone is getting hammered with. Why did you choose to go in that direction as opposed to free-to-play?

Wes Yanagi: At the end of the day, we felt that this was the best decision to provide users with the best experience. This is a game that is going to constantly grow and change with monthly updates. We’re going to be adding new missions, new adventures to uncover, new areas to explore, new rewards, and new storylines so it’ll be constantly growing. In addition to that, we want to provide really strong support to the live community. We want to make sure that we ensure fairness, security, and overall integrity of the game.

TTH: What I think is great is that the PS3 and the PC versions of the game are being separated. A PS3 player will only be playing with PS3 people, and a PC person will only be playing with PC people. Does this mean that there’ll be a large difference in the actual games in the way they’re played?

Wes Yanagi: Independent of the platform, we really wanted to deliver on the superhero fantasy and we wanted to get that experience from launch in, and so all our decisions and everything we decided upon, such as how the input works and how the controls work, were bases upon these goals. At launch, they will be the same game. That being said, we understand that there’s differences between the two player bases in terms of how they communicate and socialize, so moving forward, we’ll evaluate the needs of each group and adjust accordingly.

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TTH: How did you come up with that decision originally? Instead of combining them, why not separate them?

Wes Yanagi: Well, what I think it really comes down to is the IP. What do you imagine yourself doing as a superhero, and that’s driven the type of gameplay that we’ve developed. It’s an action game. It’s not like a typical MMOG that most people are used to with kind-of turn based combat. It’s very visceral. We have a lot of physics in the game, and you move around in the environment and position yourself as well as launch your attacks and feel really connected to the character. All of that has kind of wrapped into the type of game that we’re building and that is kind of independent of the platform.

TTH: So what you’re saying is that the actual process for developing the game for both platforms is based upon the player base you believe plays that particular platform? Like a PC player is different from a PS3 player?

Wes Yanagi: No, no, no. Basically, we want to play an action game play experience that you can play with lots of people. All of our decisions were based on that, and that is separate from the platform.

TTH: Alright. Does developing a game for both platforms affect the overall design and development process?

Wes Yanagi: Mainly, it’s affected through the input and the UI. Most PC players play keyboard and mouse, and virtually all console players play with controllers on the PS3. So, we had to spend a lot of time making sure that they work well together. That you could support moving around the world and firing off your powers. Instead of using hotkeys, we could have all those controls available on your controller, even with little things with the UI, such as how you enter text in the game, how you communicate, or even how you navigate through menus.

TTH: Is it safe to say that that’s been the biggest challenge so far to the game or has there been a bigger challenge in creating a game in the DC universe?

Wes Yanagi: I think that that’s been kind of a layer on top of everything else. The core of what we’ve spent years developing is the action combat, making sure that it feels visceral and that it works really well in a latency filled environment. A lot of what you saw at E3 was running off our live servers in San Diego and it didn’t feel like it was running in a latency filled environment there. The other part of it is that we have a full physics simulation. One of the rooms that we showed in the Joker’s Funhouse, we had thirty to forty balls bouncing around the room and those were replicating over the server to the client, so if you were in the room with somebody else, you would both see the exact same thing being modeled. Bringing that kind of action experience to this online experience is something that we’ve spent a lot of time and is probably the biggest challenge in making sure that it feels right.

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TTH: Did you use your own proprietary engine for that or did you have something that you could go off and help build that up?

Wes Yanagi: Well, we’re using havoc for the physics and we built our own server on the back end and we’re using Unreal on the client side.

TTH: This game is being pitched as an action-packed experience where players are going to love beating the crap out of all sorts of things. How fast paced is the game? Is it faster? Slower with more thought processed combat? Is it a quick beat the crap out of somebody fast and then move on type of game?

Wes Yanagi: It plays like a third person action game. We do have tactics in the game; a lot of it is using the environment positioning something between you and your enemy giving you something to hide behind or if they shoot at you, the projectile will hit the object and not you. Or if you’re an acrobat, climbing up the side of a wall and you can fire down on an enemy that might not be able to get up to you. It’s all of that, plus the visceral combat like, “If I push a button once, I punch once. If I push a button twice, I start going into a combo.” It feels like an action game you would expect on a console.

TTH: You’re talking about a lot of abilities, which is great. What sort of system is in place to prevent something like me creating a character named $uperman with all of Superman’s abilities? Or can players do that? Is it encouraged?

Wes Yanagi: Obviously, we don’t want a million Batmans running around everywhere. What we do want to do is to let you create a character that is inspired by Batman or some other superhero/supervillain that you have in your mind’s eye. The way you go about that is you pick your super power, which I mentioned earlier such as fire, ice, mental, or gadgets. Then you pick your weapon like a rifle, dual pistols, unarmed, maybe a staff, and then your movement mode. So if you wanted to create somebody like Batman, you’d pick gadgets as your power; you’d be unarmed because he’s kind of a brawler, and then he’d be an acrobat.  If you wanted to do somebody more like Green Arrow, then you’d pick gadgets because he has all of those trick arrows, and you would use a bow as your power source, and then he would also be an acrobat. For somebody like Mister Freeze, you would be ice powered and his power source would be a rifle.

TTH: From what I’m hearing, basically, whatever your base power is, say nature, is it possible to have a weapon that shoots naturey stuff at people? Is that what we’re getting at?

Wes Yanagi: Yes. Nature has powers that would have healing or being able to shape-shift into different forms.

TTH: Ok. So you could…FORM OF EAGLE…and then fly away. I like that.

Wes Yanagi: Yes.

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TTH: You mentioned all these powers, and what if, at some point down the road, I realized that I made poor choices. Is it possible to change powers later on?

Wes Yanagi: Yes. There are going to be some mechanisms that you can do that with. We’re going to have your standard style level progression with talent trees and stuff like that which you can reset to reconfigure your character. There’s also going to be a core set of elements that you can’t change, like your faction (hero or villain) or your base power or origin. The reason is that those mainly cover your story experience or that they’re really the key foundational aspects to your character. For example, powers are probably our closest analogy to a player class and to change that would be effectively changing classes. So, you would want to start up a new character.

TTH: So, if you’re from a distant planet and your power is nature, there’s no way that is never going to change. But, if you wanted to change from dual wielding to brawling, that’s possible?

Wes Yanagi: Yeah. Also, in relation to the nature thing, we have different sub-specialties in nature that you could reconfigure. So, if you really didn’t care about shape-shifting into different forms and you wanted to focus more on the healing aspects of the power, you could change your specialties.

TTH: That makes sense. The game is separated into episodes. What does that mean exactly?

Wes Yanagi: When you think of the DC universe, you think of all the stories and all the things that go on in the world, and we want you to feel like you’re a part of that. So, as you’re progressing through the world, what’s driving you are these little vignettes or storylines that are weaving their way throughout the game. They might take place in Gotham with a storyline about the Joker or Mister Freeze, or it might take place in Metropolis with a storyline with Zantanna or Gorilla Grodd. Basically, as you’re going through, you’ll get these missions, progress through, and develop your relationships with the iconics in those areas as you progress through your hero’s journey within the game.

TTH: How does one gain these episodes? How do they become available? Do you have to do one to unlock another or is it from an item or ability or level gain? How do you get the new episodes?

Wes Yanagi: For the most part, you’ll get them automatically as you progress through the game. There’s going to be some along the way that you’ll unlock, but those are going to be more like side missions.

TTH: So, are the episodes different if you’re a villain as opposed to you being a superhero?

Wes Yanagi: Yes, absolutely. To various degrees, they will be completely different experienced and will be like the opposite sides of the same coin to that mission.

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TTH: If you play a villain, then the heroes of this world will be your enemies. They’ll be the guys you’re fighting in the game. How does that sort of thing work? If I make a hero, and you said that I can get in good with other heroes, is that factions where I can gain reputation or something like that with them or is it something different?

Wes Yanagi: There’s going to be various lines of heroes. We have the major iconic lines in each of the sides. Everybody knows Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman while on the villain side, there’s Lex and the Joker. So as you’re going through these lines, you’ll be building relationships with those iconics and progressing through the story that way.

TTH: So if you’re a villain, you can do it the exact opposite? You can be buddy-buddy with the Joker? I don’t know what level of buddy-buddy you can get with the Joker, but is that possible as well?

Wes Yanagi: Definitely.

TTH: How is the gameplay different from any other MMOG out there? What can a player expect from this fast paced action paced, episodic game? What else is there that sets this game apart from the others?

Wes Yanagi:  Like I mentioned earlier, it’s the fast paced combat, that console based combat model, that, to my knowledge, I’ve never seen in another MMOG before. Some of the games that we’ve used as an inspiration are Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Infamous, Prototype, and those types of games. We thought it would be awesome to have that kind of experience, but with lots of people online.

TTH: With the combat being action based and with heroes and villains with an almost infinite amount of abilities, movement styles, and weapons, how do you design an episode so that it’ll be challenging for all the different kinds of players?

Wes Yanagi: Lots of gameplay. We have a philosophy around the studio here where it’s proof through play. A lot of times, we’ll put together a power set or movement type or something like that, and then we’ll put it in front of the team and the company and start playing it. We’ve been showing the game to the public for a couple of years now and collecting lots of feedback. We spend a lot of time doing that: getting feedback and using that to balance the game and then putting it right back in front of people again.

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TTH: Along those lines, we’ve talked to a lot of developers in the past and there always seem to be the challenge that whenever you design something new or add something new to your game, players are going to find a way to use it to their most advantage. My question is if you introduce a new power, for instance during the development process, and you find that it’s a little too bit overpowering. Say it doesn’t work too well in a certain episode or it makes a group too powerful, are you more inclined to adapt the power or the ability itself or are you more inclined to tweak the episode that’s causing the problem?

Wes Yanagi: I think it depends upon where it is and what kind of problem it is. I know that for us, it’s been balancing the power in an episode versus PvP play. It’s great to go into a combo and juggle an enemy and then hit them in the air, go up into the air with them, punch them a few times, and slam them into the ground, but it’s not too much fun if you’re a real player on the receiving end of that. So we’ve been kind of tweaking the different powers, adjusting counters to them, and how you break out of them. It’s really a case by case basis.

TTH: Let’s talk solo versus grouping.

Wes Yanagi: We actually have three core elements or tracks for the game player. The first is playing by yourself, the second is playing with others, and the third is playing against others. The solo gameplay experience is following the storyline, the hero’s journey of starting out, learning your powers, proving yourself, and ultimately getting invited into the Watchtower or the Hall of Doom and possibly, at the higher levels, getting a suit of raid armor given to you by Batman. That’s one part of the journey. There’s another part that is the group play, and that’s similar to our typical “dungeon” experience. And finally, the PvP experience, which we showed at E3 this year.

TTH: Is there different sort of abilities for group play rather than solo play? How does group play work? Are we looking at our standard holy trinity of tank, healer, DPS, or are we looking at something different?

Wes Yanagi: It’s similar to that in that we have a set of powers and abilities that you’ll unlock and learn over time, and the analogy that we use is that you have a golf bag full of abilities that you can use, but you can only take so many clubs with you. It’s the same thing with powers. You’ll load out a certain set of powers, and if you’re in a solo kind of area, then you’ll probably want to take a certain set of powers with you. If you’re with a group or going into an instance with a group, you’ll want to take a different set of powers, and if you’re playing PvP, you’ll probably want a different set of powers.

TTH: How much of the game is solo based and how much is group play?

Wes Yanagi: It’s pretty balanced. We do have the solo lines culminate in what we call our alert instances, where you queue up and get put into a group instance similar to a public quest. You can be playing solo at home, jump into a queue, go into an alert instance, play with a bunch of folks through that instance, and then go back to your open world stuff.

TTH: What if I don’t like a particular style of gameplay? What if I don’t get into PvP, for instance? Will I be missing out a lot of the game if I only do solo or group play or any mix of the two?

Wes Yanagi: Absolutely not. We really want to have something for everybody. If you’re just into the PVE, perhaps part of a guild or a group of people you play with every night going through these epic missions, then we definitely have a lot of content for that. If you’re the type of player who loves that thrill of playing against another human being, we’ll have a bunch of missions for that too.

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TTH: Speaking of epic missions, can you explain to us how one of those would work? How does, I don’t know if the word “raid” applies here, but how would something like that work within DC Universe Online?

Wes Yanagi: Without revealing too much, there are a lot of cool areas in the universe that are awesome. Just imagine breaking into Arkham Asylum to break out Mister Freeze or Poison Ivy. You could have a huge, huge set of adventures along those lines. Or something like Star Labs or Stryker’s Island or other well known areas in the DC universe.

TTH: If this is episodic, can you go back to those things? Episodes don’t section off parts of the game, they’re more of storytelling devices, right?

Wes Yanagi: Yes.

TTH: So, anytime you can go back and, for example, whoop up on the Arkham Asylum security guards again just for fun if you wanted to?

Wes Yanagi: Yeah. If you went back there and depending upon which side you were, if you were on the villain side, there might be some JLA guys helping them out.

TTH: Is there any point and time in the game where grouping is forced or can you pretty much solo the entire thing?

Wes Yanagi: You’ll be able to solo the entire game. Like I said, there are lots of opportunities that it’ll be easy for you to get into a pick up group, but you’re not required to do so.

TTH: What is your absolute favorite part of the game right now from what you’ve seen and played?

Wes Yanagi: For me, it’s really the PvP. I just love playing against other people and it’s really exciting just being able to use my powers. We have a gadget power set where you can actually encase someone in a force field, pick them up, and beat his buddy over the head them and then throw them off the top of a building or something. It just has that fast paced, adrenaline rush action that I love.

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TTH: How do you defend against something like that? If someone has powers to control you, how would you, as the other player, defend yourself against that ability?

Wes Yanagi: We have different mechanisms for that for contesting abilities like that, so you can actually break out of that encasement through a mechanism in the UI.

TTH: Are there any items that can negate powers, say something like Kryptonite?

Wes Yanagi: You know, that’s a great idea. Right now, no.

TTH: Everybody at Ten Ton Hammer wants to play this game badly. When is the beta and how do we get into it?

Wes Yanagi: We haven’t announced it yet, but we should be announcing it very shortly, possibly at an upcoming event in the near future.

TTH: Hmmm…I wonder what is happening at the beginning of August?

Wes Yanagi: I was thinking more of the end of July.

TTH: Is there anything else you want to share with us about DC Universe Online?

Wes Yanagi: I guess I should elaborate a little bit more. We have a big event coming up at the end of July in San Diego Comic-Con and we have a lot of cool reveals for it, so keep your eyes peeled for it and look out for the news.

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