CCI: Marv Wolfman on DC Universe Online

Marv Wolfman needs no introduction to fans of DC Comics. Over the past few decades, Wolfman has written some of the most revered superhero stories of all time ("Crisis on Infinite Earths"), and created characters that are mainstays of the DC Universe today ("Teen Titans"). One of the skills that Wolfman is most noted for is his ability to write stories that incorporate large numbers of characters and subplots without overwhelming the reader. He's no stranger to video games either, having both worked on games and being an avid gamer himself.

At the "DC Universe Online" panel during New York Comic Con 2009, Wolfman was officially announced as a member of the "DCUO" team, coming aboard to write story arcs and quest lines that connect to the larger story Geoff Johns crafted for the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMO). The room full of fans gave Wolfman a rousing ovation, clearly excited about what he brings to the table as part of the creative team behind the game.

"DC Universe Online" will be getting a ton of attention at Comic-Con International in San Diego this week, and Marv Wolfman took some time to chat with CBR News about his work on the game.

CBR: How did you first become involved with the "DC Universe Online?"

Marv Wolfman: I began writing video games a few years ago. I think because of that, and the fact that I know the DCU, coupled with having done "Crisis On Infinite Earths," which proved I could manipulate large numbers of characters into a cohesive story, it made sense when WildStorm asked if I'd be interested in working on the MMO. I jumped at the chance.

You've talked about how your role is to take the overarching story that Geoff Johns has written for "DCUO" and expand upon it. Could you share how you're doing that?

In a sense "DCUO" has two kinds of stories. The first is the larger story that sets up the universe of the game. That story comes back from time to time and drives the game forward. The second is the individual missions that might or might not be connected to the bigger story. In other words, not every mission in the game is about the bigger story. Sometimes they are about more typical DCU kinds of superhero stories. So where some stories might have, for instance, Superman dealing with the aspects of the larger storyline, others might have him having to stop villains from executing their own unrelated plans. To that degree, Geoff came up with an umbrella overview of where the overarching story could go. He set the direction for the bigger game and why the heroes and villains are doing what they are doing. I'm now coming up with hundreds of the missions the players and heroes have to go through to fill that tent. So I'm working on both levels: coming up with stories that lead the heroes to the major storyline that Geoff developed, as well as devising many of the missions that the heroes and villains go on that are separate but give the game that DCU feel.

It's a bit confusing to explain since MMOs are composed of hundreds of such missions, but in a nutshell that's it.

How closely do you and Geoff Johns work as you are creating new storylines for the game?

Although Geoff and I live only a few miles from each other and often get together for lunch-Geoff is an incredible guy as well as a writer and I owe him an awful lot-we're not actually working together on this at this point. Geoff's job is primarily over; he set up the direction for the game and gave it its rationale. My job is to make what he set up work as the game moves ahead and changes over time as all games do.

How has the process of writing an MMO been different from games you've written in the past?

The normal games I've written-not that any two games can be approached in the same way-usually have a single overarching plot. It's not quite linear, especially when writing an open world game, but the story leads your hero forward. For example, you have to find the missing crew of a starship or you have to find the Zombie leader and destroy him in order to end the undead threat. It's more like an adventure movie that allows for player interactivity. There is also a definite end to the game as it's all contained on a single disk (or two in some cases). Console games also have a lot of dialog, especially in cinematics that tell the story.

MMOs are more about missions, and the number constantly grows. MMOs keep going, so you have many different concerns to worry about. MMOs also have very little dialog per se-missions are usually given in text-based logs-and there are usually few if any cinematics once the game is done. Also, whereas console games are usually for single-players, with a limited multi-player option, MMOs are often played with large groups, from a few friends to giant hundred-person guilds. Consequently, the thinking process is very different. One is devised for the single player to have fun whereas the other often opens up areas in the game that can only be played if you put together larger groups. You have to keep that all in mind as you write.

MMOs are more individual mission driven so my job is to conceive literally hundreds of scenarios that the incredible folk at Sony Online Entertainment then take and turn into even more missions. I can come up with a paragraph that describes a storyline and explain how the heroes are affected by it (in DCU character), how they differ, where the conflict is, etc., then they can take what I wrote in a paragraph or three and break it down into dozens upon dozens of interconnected missions. MMOs are incredibly collaborative.

As a gamer yourself, do you have a mental list of likes and dislikes that helps guide the storylines you are writing for "DCUO?"

Ignoring games like "Portal," which is a brilliant puzzle game, I like character-driven games where I know there is a purpose to what I'm doing and that it's not just a series of interconnected missions designed to keep me busy for X hours. Example, as much fun as it was for awhile to kill zombies in "Dead Rising," I eventually got bored because besides killing them I wasn't sure why I was doing anything. I know there was a story and a mystery, but honestly I didn't find it and I eventually quit before I did. Whereas in "God of War," the game opens with Kratos trying to commit suicide but the Gods not letting him do so because they wanted him for something. In the first seconds of the game I wanted to know why Kratos is trying to kill himself and I want to know why the Gods stopped him. Before I even play the game I'm drawn into the story. In "BioShock," I know I have to find my way out of the underwater HQ, but more than that I want to know about this place. I was drawn into "BioShock" almost before I had to fight my first Little Sister.

As a player, I like games that give me a reason to play beyond fighting. I want to know there is something bigger at stake. I want to know the characters will act in character. In the DCU MMO, I know if Superman is handling a mission he will do things very differently than Batman or Wonder Woman. Therefore the outcome will be different. Also, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman would disagree about how to achieve the result. The same for the villains, who might actually try to sabotage each other even when they're on the same side. When the DCU MMO starts, we will know there is something huge going on but we don't yet know exactly what it is. Also, when the game starts we start in the midst of action, so we hit the ground running. I like that because the player is involved from the first second the game begins rather than have to search around for who knows how long until something happens.

What is "DCUO" doing with its story that you think sets it apart from other MMOs?

We have many characters who will be in character and will do things the way we've seen them do for 50-70 years and who have their own approaches to their thinking. We have heroes and villains that everyone knows and the player gets to play alongside them. We know from the moment the game begins that we the player is desperately needed in order to solve the problem. We actually have a strong story that is clear from day one, characters we already know and mysteries to solve. Also, unlike many MMOs, this takes place in "The Real World" rather than a fantasy land. We will recognize the Daily Planet building and the Batcave. We know Suicide Slum and Crime Alley. But most of all I think we are playing alongside some of the greatest characters in the world and working both with them and against them.

Who are a few of the characters you've had the most fun writing so far?

Aside from Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman I'm not certain who I can talk about right now. Needless to say there are a few characters in the game that I have a particular affinity for and others that I've always loved writing in comics, too.

How are you trying to ensure that the characters and storylines in "DCUO" are as accessible to both new and longtime fans?

We begin the game by meeting the major icons that everyone knows whether they have read comics or not. People know Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Joker and Luthor. They might not know Circe but they'll learn about her very quickly. From there on we introduce the characters in character so if you know who they are there's no problem, but if you don't, you'll very quickly learn about them by what they do.

In "DCUO," players can also choose to be a villain. In terms of story, do you find it more difficult to write villain storylines for the game?

It is, which surprised me. We are usually conditioned to make certain the villain loses in one way or another. But in this game the villain might win as often as the hero. If you're a villain out to rob a jewelry store, if you play it right you will get away. It took awhile to keep remembering to write missions that are player-dependent rather than me as the writer saying what will happen. So yes, it was harder, but I got used to it with time.

Are there any story ideas that you haven't been able to work into a comic that you've been able to bring to "DC Universe Online?"

I don't work that way. With rare exceptions I usually don't come up with ideas for characters unless I have to. So there aren't a lot of stories I wanted to do in comics that I finally got a chance to do here. On the other hand there are many, many characters I never wrote in comics that have sparked story ideas I never would have thought of otherwise.

Are you referencing any events from the comics in "DCUO," or are the storylines completely different from what has come before?

There are definitely DCU MMO stories that will remind you of more famous DCU events, stories very much based on what you've seen in the comics. But there are probably a lot more that are completely original. The game is not set to today's specific DCU continuity but to an overall DC continuity so we don't tie things in that tightly.

Fans have been enjoying the stories you've created in comics for years. How does it feel to know that thousands of people will now be interacting with your stories and experiencing them in a completely different way?

Honestly, I hadn't thought of that before. You've just put an awful lot of pressure on me. Actually, I'm working closely with dozens of dozens of people at Sony Online Entertainment so I don't take the same "auteur" attitude I sometimes do with comics. The last time I flew down to Austin a number of us sat in a small room and threw ideas back and forth. We're all working together here so I don't think of this as my ideas or my stories. I may generate the original idea or someone else might, then I might expand on it or they will. It is so collaborative, which is something I very much like. Comics are usually the product of one or two people, but because of the immense nature of MMOs there are hundreds of people involved, each of whom adds more than you can imagine. I'm one part of a very large team and I think what we're doing will surprise many people who have played other MMOs. I think we're breaking some new ground with this game.

CBR would like to thank Marv Wolfman for taking time out of a busy week to talk with us about "DC Universe Online." Stay tuned to CBR for additional coverage, and check out the game's official website and MySpace page.

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