Directing "DC Universe Online"

"DC Universe Online," Sony Online Entertainment's massively multiplayer online (MMO) action game set in the world of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, is set to release early next year on the PC and Playstation 3 after a development period of more than five years. During a recent visit to SOE's Austin, Texas, studios, CBR News had the chance to speak with Game Director Chris Cao about the experience of creating this much-anticipated and long-awaited game, as well as what players can expect from the world of "DCUO" at launch and beyond.

Cao (pronounced "Kay-o") described his role with Sony Online entertainment as "wearing two hats," as he serves as a Creative Director overseeing multiple games and the Game Director for "DC Universe Online" itself. "As game director, it's basically my job to integrate the art, the audio, the engineering, the game design, and make sure the whole game goes through," he explained. "I had a vision for the game, but it wasn't my job to force other people to do it but to get them to see it. Everybody working in concert here has to see this game and what the potential of it is. I'm simply the one who looks at the thing and says, great - the 5000 pieces that we've been working on actually did form a puzzle. We had an image, and now we have something we can do and play."

Listening to Cao speak throughout the studio tour and during the interview, his passion for DC's characters is clear. It was slightly surprising, then, to learn that up until working on the game he was not necessarily a devotee of the comics. "I think I would characterize myself as a broad DC fan, I've read the comics over the years, but I haven't been dedicated to it because, like most pop culture fans, I like movies, I like science fiction, fantasy, whatever [as well]. So when I came to this game, I knew about the characters and a lot of second-tier characters in the story, but I didn't understand how diverse the DC Universe is," Cao told CBR. "There are lots of comic book universes out there - and don't get me wrong, they've got a lot of cool stuff - but DC has a crazy amount of character diversity - sometimes literally crazy, right? You've got Gleek from the Super Friends - come on. You have Krypto, Detective Chimp - who's not just a detective who is a chimp, but he's also a detective of the occult! At a certain point you've got to go, ok, that's really weird.

"Basically, what's great is we have an entire library here, and we get new comics from DC all the time. A lot of this game has been an educational process," he continued. "We always want to keep in mind the broad audience - if you like Batman or Superman, we're going to open up the whole universe for you. We don't want to just be limited to those characters; we want to show you the breadth of it, and I think we've done a phenomenal job."

Having worked on the game for an extended period, Cao is especially pleased with the world he and his team have created. "A lot of times when you're building an MMO, there's so much promise. It's a world, and it could literally be anything. I am just so happy that we were able to realize the DC Universe," he said. "I mean, you feel like a super hero. We didn't accept previous conventions if they didn't make sense. Yeah, we have guild systems, and banking and trade, because that's all fun stuff. But we give you movement modes right out the gate that are crazy fun. We give you combat modes that feels like super hero battles. To me, five years later, that we tried so many things that didn't work, that there are so many things that did work and that we had the time to find that is phenomenal because this isn't just another superhero game. It's really not just an MMO. It's its own thing. You really feel like, hey, I'm around Batman and Superman. I'm living in their world. You can always pitch that - five years ago, I was pitching that. But then to actually run around the city and feel it? Tremendous."

For a glimpse of the thought behind the finished product, CBR asked Cao for an example of an attempted feature that did not work out as planned. "Actually, we tried a dynamic content system, because one of the things we really liked about the comics was this idea of events happening. Aliens would attack and then you fight them back and go on. We actually built our entire technology around dynamic content, it spinning up for you and you going there and fighting the event - and then we played it," Cao said, finishing with a laugh. "What happened was, as long as you played it by yourself or there were only a few other players around, it was ok because you got the great experience. Sometimes [the events] were there and sometimes they weren't. As soon as your content mixed with my content, though, or your bus flew into my alien, it broke it," he explained, further describing the problem as having an event be both present and not-present at the same time. "Once we made it persistent, once we made [events] stay there old-school MMO style, people shared the same reality a lot more. It felt a lot more real. Even though the monkeys are respawning, it felt more real because it had a sense of place, a danger, you could refer to it. You could say, 'Hey, Gorilla Grodd's forces are on the boardwalk.' So that was sort of a great idea that sounds really good that didn't pan out. It's weird, because that's what everybody seems to be chasing, but we built it and threw it out because we said, you know what, it's just not as much fun as what we ended up doing, it's not as cool as what we ended up building."

As one of the leaders behind "DC Universe Online," Cao has logged a good deal of hours playing the game itself through various iterations. With the character creation system being such an integral and early part of the gaming experience, CBR asked Cao about the first character he designed. "My first beta character was actually named after myself. I thought, if players are going to die, they need to know who's killing them," the game director said. "He's got a beard and hair and glowing emmissive eyes, but other than that, he's dressed normally. A t-shirt and pants and shoes, so I can hide with the civilians, right? And jump out and gank whoever's out there. He's a mental illusions guy, so he'll turn into what looks like a normal citizen completely, and control the minds of others - read into that what you will, but it's a lot of fun to be on a PVP server that way."

Cao explained that the mental illusions are a form of stealth and will be available in the finished game. "If you use the illusion, you can walk around the world and people can see you, they just don't know that it's you. Of course, unless they have x-ray vision - x-ray vision, the iconic power, can see through stealth. So I gotta watch out for those guys," he said.

Describing an unusual or unexpected use of powers, Cao continued with the example of his original beta character's mental abilities. "I'll admit it, I use my illusion powers in all sorts of ways to do whatever I can do. The biggest set of things is to turn other characters into force objects - put them inside of force balls and see how far you can punt them, as they run back at you frustrated and screaming," he said. "And then you do it again. See if you can bank them off the hospital and roll them down main street.

"The physics gives us a very 'toy' approach. It's not that your powers have one application. Instead, it lets you do something," Cao continued. "For instance, one of the fire ones, you can launch a huge meteoric rock on somebody. Well, somebody did that to me earlier, so I picked it up and beat him to death with it. I figured, he gave me the weapon, why not do something with it? I'm sure he didn't expect that when he did it, that he'd lose because of it. It's a rigid body object that you can toss around, and of course it's burning and creating fires. Good stuff."

Continuing on the theme of physics, Cao further explained "DC Universe Online" employs a fairly ambitious system and that he hopes to expand the realm of what's possible in updates beyond launch. "Our physics is obviously superhero physics - things bounce a little bit more than they should, they smash a little more easily than they would. I think, to be honest, we've only sort of tapped the physics. Physics has been in games and has been popular for a while now, but it's never been in MMOs to this scale, in this shared world. So while we have a lot of powers that are based on it, I think we've only just begun," he said. "Because you have to think in different ways - like I said, these are toys now, they're not just abilities that do one thing. If you create a meteor, it can be used against you, it can be used for who-knows-what. Really, I'm excited by continuing to move forward.

"I'm just astounded by people's creativity - giving them a world, they already do a lot; giving them a world, they do even more; and giving them physics, it's kind of crazy," Cao added. "I mean, we've seen people spell things out with buses - that sort of thing, that's kind of difficult. I'm just excited to see what players bring to it, because it's kind of a toolbox for them."

Beyond continuing to manipulate what can be done with the game's physics, Cao said that the "DC Universe Online" will enjoy frequent updates, with new, character-based episodes and raids dropping monthly. "You're giving us $15 a month, so we have to give you something in return. Every month we're going to give you a new episode, a little something more to do," he said. "It's not going to be an expansion, it's not going to be a huge amount, but it's enough that you're going to continue to see the expanded and explored DC Universe. Every trimester or so, we're going to give you a much bigger download, something with new maps, a whole bunch of new stuff to do, new armor to chase and that sort of thing. Really, it's based on what we can build and how fast we can build it for all of y. We want to make sure anything we add actually adds something to the experience and isn't simply 'more.'"

Cao clarified that these updates would be included at no additional cost to subscribers and would not need to be purchased through a marketplace. "They're all rolled in. There's mico-transactions, but that's mostly for cosmetic stuff. We have thousands of items in the game, but if you want something specific or something more, we're going to see what players might like to also buy. But that's more if you're a fashionista and you want to try and get some more out of it."

Though the game emphasizes action, Cao said that it may be possible to add other superheroic activities like Dark Knight-style detective work to "DC Universe Online" if there is sufficient interest and such can be done well. "We've done it a little bit with our Investigations system, where it's sort of a simple approach, where you see these sort of glowing objects around the scene and as you pick them up they give you a little bit more of the story or something to collect," he said of current sleuthing activities. "That's sort of our first foray into it, because we want to make sure to really deliver on the action part of it. I think there's a lot of places to go with the game that we haven't really delved into, but I think the core experience has to be the power fantasy, and now that we have it we can bolster it with other things. That's the great thing about MMOs, the game starts to tell you what it needs. You look at it and say, ok, what's the next cool thing that a superhero would want to do? And if that's detective work on a more granular level, cool. If it's punching more dudes in a new way, then we'll do that."

One thing that most likely not be added, however, is the ability to play through famous storylines. "We thought about it, and in a lot of ways a lot of the emphasis in the game is a touch on those classic stories. A lot of what it comes down to is, you can only do the 'Killing Joke' [laughs]...you don't want to diminish a given story by going, 'and then some random player with exobytes...!'" he joked. "You don't want to be there when the Waynes are killed and Bruce is sobbing and be like, 'I did that!' Or maybe you do, I don't know."

[Disclosure: this interview was conducted during a tour of Sony Online Entertainment's studios in Austin, TX, and SOE provided hotel, airfare, and meals for the site visit.]

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