More than five years in the making, Sony Online Entertainment's"DC Universe Online" is nearly ready for launch, setting players in the role of new heroes - or villains - fighting alongside and against some of the greatest characters of DC Comics' pantheon. The massively-multiplayer online (MMO) action game begins with users creating their own characters, then propels them into one of several storylines depending on who the player chooses for a mentor - Superman/Lex Luthor, Batman/Joker, or Wonder Woman/Circe. Last week, I was invited to represent CBR in Austin, Texas, at "DC University," a tour of SOE's headquarters with "lectures" about "DC Universe Online's" various features and a generous "study hall" period of hands-on time with the game. [Disclosure: Sony Online Entertainment provided airfare, hotel, and meals for this visit.] Vice President of Development John Blakely led the tour of SOE's offices, while Game Director Chris Cao, Creative Director Jens Andersen, Senior Producer Wes Yanagi, and writer Marv Wolfman were also on hand for discussions of the game. Check back with CBR later for interviews with Cao and Wolfman.
Blakely began the tour in the reception area, which featured a rotating selection of inspirational images projected against the wall - inspirational in the sense that they remind the developers what can go wrong, what should go right and how to keep a sense of humor about things. Blakely acknowledged that his crew do sometimes make mistakes but added, "as long as we're making mistakes, we're making progress." He added that the studio conforms to a "prove through play mentality;" saying that the question to ask at each stage is, "is the game fun? If it's fun, we're moving forward."
Moving on into the office space, images that Blakely called "future screen shots" were tacked to the wall separating the hallway from the cubicles. These images were artwork developed by Wildstorm to illustrate key moments in the game "to make sure artists, engineers, and animators are on the same page," Blakely said, adding that it was important that the action in the scenes depicted would actually be possible from a programming standpoint before work began. There were also printouts posted on this wall of various mustaches, such as Val Kilmer's "The Huckleberry" from the movie "Tombstone." Blakely explained that this was related to a certain challenge the team undertook. "At some point, we decided we would all grow mustaches until we got beta acceptance," he said, "and then it got creepy around here and we found out how much our spouses did or didn't love us."
The next stop was a room in which the animation and geography teams mapped their progress on various goals on a huge bulletin board. Blakely explained that the goals are related to "user story," or things a player might be interested in doing. He gave an example of "I want to have fun with ice powers" as a goal, which would then be divided into tasks, and that each task would then be moved around the board until it was complete. "It shows what's been accomplished, and makes them accountable to their peers - who can be way scarier than I am," Blakely said. The board also promotes decision making in real time, so that features can be added, changed or dropped in a nightly build rather than waiting for a specific benchmark. Blakely said that the game launched internally on 7/7/07 as "a really crappy MMO," and that since that time he and his staff have consulted the board as they vote up or down different issues and features.
The "DCU Online" audio suite (top) and Marv Wolfman in the library
A library deemed "The Citadel of Oa" was next on the tour, featuring two glass cases full of trades paperbacks and hardcovers plus a spinner rack and reading table stocked with single issues. Blakely said that there is a required reading list for new staff on the project, to which Wolfman joked, "Start with everything I write!" Then the tour moved on to a room where testers, usually college students, were brought in so that they could give feedback and be observed in their gameplay by the SOE team. Blakely noted that there are three distinct audiences for "DC Universe Online" - DC Comics fans, MMO gamers and action gamers. While there is undeniably a lot of overlap, the Sony Online crew did discover some surprises, such as when a player decided not to equip a piece of valuable "green" loot because his character's outfit was blue.
After looking in on an audio editing suite littered with action figures as the tour continued down the hall, another array of concept images showed a whole host of character designs, stamped in the corner with "approved by Jim Lee." "Not all these characters are in the game right now, but it will continue [to grow] after launch," Blakely said.
Entering the auditorium, the lecture session began. Game Director Chris Cao and Jens Andersen, the Creative Director, led a presentation that also included commentary from veteran comics writer Marv Wolfman. Wolfman began by noting, "I can honestly say that I worked on Superman for six decades," recalling that his first story appeared in 1969 and he has another (previously unannounced) project coming next year. Wolfman wrote the mission stories for "DC Universe Online," which he said would interconnect in unexpected ways. The writer said that he really enjoyed writing the villain episodes, which was a different way of thinking for him, writing in such a way that the bad guy has something to accomplish rather than being an adversarial force for the hero's story. "Once you drop out the idea that they're villains, they can succeed or fail on their own."
From there, Cao took over for much of the presentation, beginning with a few words about the gameplay. He described the action of the game as being based on "a huge amount of physics" and players would get the chance to experience their own version of some iconic scenes. "How many times have you seen Superman holding that helicopter above his head? Now, you can do that," Cao said. He also explained that incorporating the player into the story was a big part of making the game feel special. "We had to justify all these new characters," he said, referring to the player-characters, and fans who have seen the opening video know how this was accomplished - essentially, after Brainiac has conquered the future, Lex Luthor returns to our present with stolen "exobyte" technology that bestows powers on whomsoever it encounters. "We didn't want the player to feel like an afterthought," Cao continued, "we wanted them feeling integrated into the universe, to have a place and a purpose."
Cao shared an anecdote regarding the opening movie, as well. Though there were internal guidelines imposed regarding certain types of violence and other subject matter, Luthor's murder of Superman made it through the approval process without conflict. "We were allowed to impale him because he's an alien. That's what we were told," Cao said. "Metallo is beheaded, and we were originally going to show the head rolling, but we couldn't do it because the head looks human," he added. "They had more trouble with us killing Metallo than Superman."
The Batcave and Superman's statue
Cao also discussed the character creation system, describing the themes of players' mentors as each being two sides of a coin: Batman and Joker represent order and chaos, Superman and Luthor are altruism and selfishness, and Wonder Woman and Circe embody truth and lies. The themes will suggest the types of missions players will undertake under each tutor. A player's choice of mentor will also determine which battle suit he receives toward the end of the game - "If you want that Bat suit, you'd better have Batman for your mentor," Cao said.
Relating "DC Universe Online" team battles to familiar MMO terminology, Cao said it would be possible to divvy up roles into the traditional tank/healer/damage dealer arrangements, with the difference being that in "DCUO" "everybody's a damage dealer." He added that there would be special abilities useful for different roles within each set of powers, such that a fire wielder can "use fire to help protect yourself and your team," and an ice-based hero can turn into an ice golem for the tank role.
Though base powers are chosen in the character creation system, as the game progresses all players will also be able to add "iconic powers" such as heat vision, super strength and "robot sidekick." Similarly, fighting styles will be determined by initial choice of weapon, but all players will be equipped for both melee and range attacks and can customize their weapon technique throughout the game. "We don't want character creation to ever end," Cao said. "This is about earning your powers and your look - growing is the point of the game."
As Cao spoke, Andersen crafted a new character, projected on a screen behind the speaker. At some point, the character began to grow gaudy, with a bright red suit shouting against aqua skin and purple hair, with the "flirty" personality type giving him a Jersey Shore swagger. Cao laughingly called the design "a general disaster," so Andersen named his hero "General Disaster." "At least we jumped the shark early today," Cao said.
Rather than continue on with the General, Andersen loaded a previously designed character called Heatstroak (correct spelling), a fire-powered hero based primarily on Deathstroke wielding a staff. Andersen and Cao demoed the Gotham hero scenario, in which the player must hunt down and defeat the Scarecrow, though Cao mentioned that the first episode in the Superman campaign is against Gorilla Grodd. "So, yes, you get to punch a monkey in the face," Cao said. He added that two-thirds of the game takes place in a shared world, with the remaining third being "instances," or boss fights, though Cao added that players could bring friends along to these, as well. As the demo continued, a beta tester going by the screen name "Lady Gaga" was quite vocal. "Keep an eye on Lady Gaga's chat, she's quite entertaining," Andersen said. "Or he."
Ambush Bug appeared in Heatstroak's communicator to tell him of a new mission, at which point Cao explained that the infamous humor character would break the fourth wall in-game as he does in his comics, which was evidenced in the character's direction to "complete my quest through your communicator."
If a player falls in combat, the penalty is wear on his or her equipment, which then has to be repaired, and the player is returned to a safehouse such as Gotham City PD, meaning a potentially long slog to get back on track. If, however, friends or teammates are present (or even a sympathetic NPC like Batwoman), allies can revive exhausted players to keep them in the fight.
The demo progressed to the fight against Scarecrow, which Cao described as "a staged boss battle" more typical of action games than RPGs, as players must fight through several different hallucinatory challenges the villain throws at them before the "real" Scarecrow appears. At each point, Scarecrow explained which fears he was playing off, at one point naming "ballistophobia - the fear of bullets and explosions." Cao laughed, "I'm pretty sure that's not a phobia. That's pretty normal."
Moving on to a geography lesson, Heatstroak flew through the skies of Metropolis, which Cao said encompassed 900 city blocks. The tallest building, Lexcorp Tower, had to be reduced from its original design - "it kept punching through our skybox," Cao said, referring to the game's ceiling. Kiosks throughout the city feature tourism information (and occasional quests) from Booster Gold, delivered in his glory-seeking style. A kiosk near the giant Superman statue in Centennial Park, for example, explains that "one day, there will be a solid gold statue right next to it - that's right, a Booster Gold statue!" Metropolis contains several districts, including the futuristic Tomorrow District, Chinatown, Suicide Slum and a Mystical District, where Wonder Woman-mentored storyarcs begin. (Themyscira will not be a location at launch, but is likely to be included in a future update.)
Heroes and villains also have headquarter cities; the Watchtower and the Hall of Doom, respectively. Here, players can meet, trade gear, visit specialized vendors, speak with iconic characters (Nightwing, Harley Quinn, etc.) and enter the "Legends System," a PVP battle arena in which players can play as Batman, Joker and the like. These cities are also divided into districts specific to tech, meta or mystical powers, though players are free to wander where they wish.
The Legends mode also allows players to access locations that have been taken over by Brainiac and thus are not accessible, at least at launch, during normal gameplay. One such locale is the Batcave, complete with dinosaur, giant penny and the Batmobile. "Jim Lee bought a Ferrari about two weeks before he designed this," Cao said, "and, shockingly, the Batmobile looks a lot like Jim's Ferrari."
Other locations in the game include Khandaq, where Black Adam is trying to resurrect his wife Isis; the Moon, where HIVE is farming stray exobytes in an effort to make super-soldiers; Smallville, where present-day Luthor is experimenting with Doomsday's DNA; and other destinations not shown, including Area 51, Oolong Island, BlÃ¼dhaven, Hell and the Australian Outback. To facilitate the worldwide tour, Andersen entered a developer code for "God mode," which significantly reduces damage taken and gives access to areas that would not normally be available, such as the villains' HQ for heroic characters. Cao joked that the chat function "broadcasts worldwide when you go into God mode, and after that [beta players] are like, 'How'd you do that?'"
After a short break, Senior Producer Wes Yanagi gave his physics lecture, which also included descriptions of how some gaming mechanics would work. For his presentation, Yanagi brought the action to Smallville and the Doomsday story, switching to an ice-powered hero. He said it would be important for players to learn their characters' combos, which does require some skill - after a few attempts, his character managed to demo a spinning attack, though he was preceded in this by a beta player showing off his or her own skills. Cao jumped in to advise, however, that if you're going to attack an enemy with a combo like this, "you'd better have done something to him first or he will smack you in the middle of it."
A hiccup occurred when Doomsday, freed from his test-tube prison and confronted by Yanagi's hero and the JLA, simply stood still and allowed the Leaguers to pound on him. "Our raids have varying levels of difficulty," Cao joked. Eventually, the action kicked back up and a group of eight players, plus the NPCs Red Tornado, Green Arrow and Zatanna, found themselves playing "keep away" with a device that would reduce Doomsday's power to a level at which they could hurt him. One mode of attack included hurling nearby tour buses and tractors at the powerhouse villain, with Cao noting that any such tossed objects gradually degrade and respawn. "We didn't want you to just stack buses forever," he said. "We experimented with permanent physics, but we think you'd use them in...interesting ways."
Concept art for future missions
Regarding the idea of permanence, there was some discussion about whether locations like the Daily Planet that have been bottled by Brainiac would ever become accessible and, if so, how this would affect the world. "We've bottled the city, the idea is that somebody's going to have to unbottle it," Cao said. Yanagi added, though, that any permanent changes to the world would occur as part of a seasonal event and there would still be ways for newer players to play through the pre-event world.
For players who like to boast, there will be an "achievements" system called "Feats," as well as trophies on the Playstation 3 version of the game. Feat points will help players acquire additional weapons and equipment, and there are role-based bonuses for group play. Also in group play, it will be possible to form a guild but there will not be guild banks at launch.
On the subject of leveling, Cao said that level 30 is the cap at launch. "We've invested more than half of our content in PVP and PVE end game," Cao said, adding that the idea was to keep grinding to a minimum and allow players to unlock abilities fairly quickly. "This game is meant for you to have fun and come back the next day," Cao said. "You can have a meaningful experience in a one, one and a half hour session."
At least for the present, PC and PS3 players will not be able to play together, which Yanagi said was to keep "a fair playing par," since PC users have access to more peripherals and can more easily use macros. The division, too, "will allow us to customize [updates] as needed."
To this, Cao said that "every month there will be a focus feature character" that will receive a new episode of content and be added to the Legends system. These content updates will be smaller than an expansion but, Cao hopes, will generate excitement "on an 'I got new comics' level" and make players feel like they're getting their money's worth with the subscription fee. Bigger events will also be added from time to time.
As the presentation ended, Cao mentioned that the beta testing phase for the PS3 version "is opening as we speak." With that, the group was led to "study hall" for four hours of gaming. I chose to play on the PS3, since I'm more accustomed to console games, and went about designing my hero. Though tempted to play the baddie, I created a hero who would be mentored by Superman, have a "flirty" personality, wield a bow and possess mental powers. This combination actually created a fairly well-rounded character - archers have sometimes felt weak to me in other games, but I've always loved the idea of a guy fighting crime with a bow so I figured, for a day, can't go wrong. But the ranged weapon combined with mental powers - soon including pyrokinesis - worked out very well; more on that in a bit. The costume was the really fun bit of character create, and again, for the beta session, I took a why-the-hell-not approach. Through earlier demos and screenshots, it was clear users could make pretty cool looking fighter, and the SOE hosts demonstrated during the lecture it was possible to create "a general disaster," so I went with something that would be amusing to me, even if it wasn't to anybody else. I knew from the start I wanted his costume to be formal attire of some sort, and as I made my selections I went back and forth between a private school uniform and a business suit, ultimately deciding on the latter. (Flipping through the trouser selections, my hero briefly had no pants, which made me laugh out loud each time the option went through the scroll - but "why the hell not" only goes so far.) In the end, my character had a fairly simple design, a salmon-colored business suit with no shoes. I named him "Cool Luke."
Cool Luke in action
Cool Luke's first task was to break out of a Brainiac facility, with Superman providing an assist toward the end. The controls were fairly intuitive, and the character's abilities did allow for some action movie-style shenanigans right from the start - lock target, jump around shooting arrows, then lift a guy up with your mind and smack him down to the floor. It does feel like a superhero world. Emerging into Metropolis, there were a few more choices - combat Gorilla Grodd's invasion on the boardwalk, venture to Metropolis University to fulfill a Booster Gold sidequest or climb a few buildings just to get a better view of the city. I ended up taking a speed test which, though I don't think I did very well as I was still finding my footing, bestowed a reward upon completion. Then, on to punching monkeys.
Without spelling out every single task or quest I undertook, I'll simply say that this first long-form impression has made me very excited for the game. There are the geek moments - creating a hero, the fact that Ambush Bug and Booster Gold factor in very early, the chance to explore Metropolis from street level - but more than that, the game is quite breezily fun and easy to pick up. As a less-than-expert action gamer, I was prepared to fail spectacularly at even the most introductory tasks, and while I didn't reach the first big boss fight (looking around, I don't think other DC University "students" did, either, though I could be mistaken) I did feel like I carved out some ground, held my own in a firefight, and really enjoyed doing it. My biggest problem in the game was sticking to walls when I didn't mean to, and not sticking to walls when I did. (There was another problem, though, in that my game crashed several times - this seemed to be an issue only with the PS3 players, likely because beta for that system is only now beginning.) There is challenge,as well, since players will undoubtedly want to fight against their friends, master their character's skill set and acquire all the hard-to-find items - plus, the promise of continuous new content should keep people engaged for a good long while.
Despite the bugs (and flaws that might just be down to my own skill level), on the whole, the experience came together very well - fighting hordes of gorillas, blowing up de-evolution machines, making mischief with traffic, and adding some cool gear to the arsenal, all of it works. The ultimate effect, in short, leaves you feeling like a superhero.