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Lee on the Beginning of “DC Universe Online”

by  in Video Game Comment
Lee on the Beginning of “DC Universe Online”

The long-awaited massively multiplayer online game “DC Universe Online” from Sony Online Entertainment has now been up and running for about a month, with the first major content update due in late February. Available for both the PC and Playstation 3 platforms, the game, which allows the player to create a new hero or villain from scratch to be mentored by Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman (or Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Circe), takes place in a persistent online world that includes locations like Metropolis, Gotham, Khandaq, and the moon, with more locations available later from Sony Online Entertainment. CBR News caught up with DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee, who served as Executive Creative Director on “DC Universe Online,” for his thoughts on the game’s launch and what comes next for the ambitious MMO.

When it was first announced that he would be working on “DC Universe Online,” Lee was a well-renowned artist and the head of Wildstorm; now, he is still a legendary artist but is also Co-Publisher of DC Comics. CBR News asked Lee for his views from an executive perspective on what this game means for DC. “I think there’s two benefits,” he said. “One, it gets our IP — our universe of characters — out there on a regular basis. It’s not like movies where they come out once every other year, once every three years. It’s not even like other video games that might have a cycle of one or two years. This is now a living, breathing entity that has a player base, it has a community, it has a following. A lot these MMOs exist for years and years. This is a continual presence, a continual promoter of our characters and our world. I think that’s super important because everyone knows who all the iconic characters are — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman — but playing the game you’re exposed to so much more about the DC Universe and its history. I think it’s just a great way of getting introduced to the fiction of our universe. If we can convert any of these gamers to readers, that would be a major boon.

“Speaking to the second cool thing about this, since we’ve worked so closely with SOE from Day 1, we’ve got a great relationship and we’re continuously talking about ways for print comics and digital comics to support the game and vice versa,” Lee continued. “We have an opportunity, since the advent of our digital program last June, to actually sell digital comics to some of these gamers so they can access it very, very quickly, and maybe look for ways further down the line to take some of these player-characters that are in the game and showcase them in the print comics and give them a pinup page, sort of immortalize them in print, adding them to the actual history of the DC Universe. I think it’s a great category of game to have because of its persistence and because it’s international. It’s not just about your key iconic characters, it’s really about the entire library of characters and worlds you’ve created over the past 75 years. To kind of showcase that for new generations of gamers and readers.”

After five years in development, Lee was thrilled to see “DC Universe Online” finally reach fans on the PC and PS3. “It’s awesome. As you would expect, right? You work on something for five years, it’s pretty exciting to see it ship, see the pretty overwhelming support for the game,” he said. “You know, I follow it on Twitter, #DCUO or #dcuniverseonline, I love reading all the tweets from players as they accomplish certain feats or defeat certain bosses, or get tier 1 or tier 2-level armor. They actually send me tweets and pictures of their characters with the items they’ve acquired. It’s pretty cool to see that community out there, and also just see comic book fans say they love the game and thank you for the work you’ve put into it. So many people worked on it, you can’t really credit one person for it — there’s so many people that contributed so much to make this game happen. It’s exciting to see the fans’ reaction, I can’t wait to see what it’s like at San Diego. We had a huge turnout the past two years, and we had just trailers and some of the voice actors. Now that the game’s live, I’d imagine that it’s going to be pandemonium.”

Twitter has also provided Lee and Sony Online Entertainment a broad and instant insight into players’ wants and needs, forming a feedback system that has proven especially telling regarding gamers on the Playstation 3, who may be less likely than those on the PC platform to post their thoughts to official forums. “Their phone is their outlet,” Lee said. “I remember when the game launched, I would see these tweets from people like, ‘Is DCUO worth it? Should I join?’ So many of the questions I got were, ‘Is there a monthly fee?’ And it’s like, do you not have Google on your computer? That information’s out there! But people were trying to figure out exactly what it was and, slowly, you see the same people posting — I was following very, very closely that first week — and they’re saying, ‘I can’t help myself,’ or literally tweeting other people, ‘Give me a reason not to buy this! I can’t help myself!’ They’d go buy it, they install it, and are like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ I actually saw that kind of awareness of what the game is and acceptance and enjoyment of it in real time, for a lot of these people as I was following the Twitter feed over the first several days.”

Following the back and forth on Twitter gives a rough, informal guide to who is playing “DC Universe Online,” as well, Lee said, with different sorts of reactions from those coming to the game as fans of the comics and those who may be MMO gamers having less familiarity with DC’s rich history. “You definitely see the people who are geeking out. In fact, they often tweet, ‘Oh my god I am geeking out so hard!'” Lee said, laughing. “‘I defeated Bane,’ right? Whereas other people are more focused on the armor they got, or saying, ‘How do you defeat Bane?’ That kind of thing. It’s a healthy mix, which I think is good because the whole point of the game was to be true to the brand but not so true that you’re excluding the ability of the casual gamer to come into the game and understand what they’re doing. I think we hit that right chord of straddling both worlds, and they accomplished it by introducing every player into the game with a mentor that is well known and then the mentor would sort of guide the hero or villain on his journey, introducing all these side characters and villains and missions. Before you know it, you know thirty characters in the DCU and understand how Metropolis and Gotham are different, and different power rivalries and weaknesses of different factional bosses, things like that.

“I think the cool thing about this game is, it’s not something that just comes out for three months, six months, it’s going to be around for years as this incredible gaming experience but also this educational tool for people to get into the DCU. I think years down the line, people will remember this fondly — “Remember when we used to play ‘DC Universe Online?’ — and they’ll remember elements of the DCU, especially if they weren’t comic book fans, based on their experiences in the game. I’m very excited that it could be the first introduction to the DCU for a lot of gamers out there.”

Last month, Lee closed out the “DC Universe Online” beta playing with and against fans as the Future Batman in a grand finale event, and logged quite a few hours in the first two weeks after launch. But, he said, travel has prevented him from playing during the last couple weeks. “I’m only at level 12, everyone’s probably at level 30 at this point!” he said. “But even in beta I took my time. There’s really no rush. I enjoy roaming around the cities, checking out cool environments and buildings, as much as I like the missions. Sometimes I’ll just log in and do a bunch of PVP. It’s a pretty stress-free way of playing. I know that for people that are on the PVP servers, they’ll say, ah, it’s impossible to do your missions because level 30s are always ganking you and stuff. But if you take a more laid back approach to it, it actually makes no impact. ‘Oh, that guy’s going to camp my guy? I’ll just go do a mission in this other city, or do something over here.’ If you continually confront the same guy, he’s going to keep trying to take you down.

“But it’s cool, it’s amazing. Every time I log in, I see all the variations of costumes that are created from the same character create, and I’m always impressed by the imagination and creativity of the player base in terms of coming up with great names and great looks for their characters. It’s pretty awesome logging in, it’s like entering another world.”

Speaking to the character creation system, Lee said this was largely guided by SOE, who had created such systems for other MMO games, but the sheer variety of possibilities available in a comic book universe required some additional finesse. “We really started thinking about art direction, having costume elements that would give you a Golden Age look for your character if that’s what you want, a Silver Age character, then what was big in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, right? You have pouches, you have trench coats, you have those big swashbuckler boots. You have the ability to put emblems on your chest. And all those things are very characteristic and very iconic for certain decades,” Lee explained. 
”So that gave us some clear direction in terms of what we were going to create, the essentials we needed to have in there if we were going create the DC Universe, to create a character that would fit in with these characters from the ’50s, ’60s on up. Then on top of that, we wanted to allow people to create characters that have not existed in a game before, acknowledging that a lot of characters in a superhero universe have elements that are drawn from history, whether they’re swords or Roman or Greek elements. So we included that type of thing. Then a lot of people wanted to do feral or animal-type creatures.

“When you do a fantasy game character create, you pretty much have the elves and halflings, your orcs, all that kind of stuff, but there’s so much more variety in the superhero world because you not only have that fantastical set of possibilities, but you also have alien creatures, and on top of that you have people that look like neighborhood magicians in tuxedos, right? Characters with gas masks on. You have characters that look like robotic cyborg-type characters,” he continued. “Almost every MMO out there has a specific look for their characters that you can create, and this one, because it’s comics, incorporates almost all of those different looks, and I think they did a magnificent job in giving players enough choices to create the widest variety of characters possible.”

Lee has worked on video games before, but “DC Universe Online” required a considerable amount of art and design to accommodate the vast environments and array of characters. “Luckily, I had probably the best crew in comics with Carlos D’Anda, Oliver Nome, Eddie Nuñez, J.J. Kirby, Livio Ramondelli and Mike Lopez. There was a team of us, everything was conceptualized out of Wildstorm. But then as things were actually built in 3D assets I had to approve every single one and give notes,” Lee said. “SOE was great to work with, because they took even the most minor notes and made sure they were incorporated into the model. I think the sum total of all these kind of minute changes adds to a higher-level fidelity in terms of the style and the coherence of the universe in a visual sense. We’re very very thrilled with the final result, they knocked it out of the park. It’s just a joy to jump in and play, it’s a lot of fun.”

Though the game was written by notable comic book scribes Geoff Johns and Marv Wolfman, Lee said the process of developing a story for games and, as an artist, working from that story is a vastly different process. “In comics you have three acts and your character typically goes through a cathartic change and you have a hero’s journey. In the game you have that too but it’s more plot-driven, it’s more action-driven — get these items, accomplish this, then fight this guy — and you feel more powerful, but the emotion is not brought out by the mission itself,” Lee said. “The emotions you get are from feeling like a superhero, having fun, feeling powerful. Whereas when you read a comic book, you’re drawn into the stories and I think it kind of works on a deeper emotional level. They’re two different things, but at the same time, comic book writers tend to be very good video game writers as well because they know what keeps people interested; they know what’s important to storylines to make them compelling and dramatic. It was great to be able to snag such writers of Geoff and Marv’s calibre for the games.”

The first major content update is scheduled for late February, and further DLC packs are planned to occur at regular intervals throughout the life of “DC Universe Online.” “Right now is just the tip of the iceberg of the DC Universe, and it’s fairly sizable but there’s still a lot more cool stuff, right? We haven’t done Darkseid, we haven’t done the Green Lanterns, we haven’t done Aquaman, we haven’t done Atlantis,” Lee said. “We haven’t done Star City. There’s so many other fictional cities and environments and worlds, parallel earths, the Legion of Super Heroes in the future, there’s so many different directions we can go to add content. So it’s very exciting because we’re never going to hit a wall where we go, ‘Man, we don’t have anything else to add to the game!’ We’ve got a long list of cool stuff we can add. If you’re a gamer, you’re going to be awesomely surprised at each update, and if you’re a comic book fan that’s playing the game you’re gonna be loving it because you sort of know what to expect on the horizon. I think, overall, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure the game feels like it’s a living, breathing universe and to follow through with these kind of updates. We’re excited by it.”

Each update will focus on a specific character, with Catwoman taking the spotlight in February, and seasonal content will also become available for a limited time, meaning Valentine’s Day-themed events for this update. “There’s a two-pronged approach. One is aimed at every fan, the casual gamer who might not know as much about the DC Universe, but when they go into this space it’s a virtual community and being able to do things in the game and wear items or gift items that are around us in our everyday lives. It’s a cool way to interact with other people, so we want to give players the tools and abilities to do that. But on top of that, we want to give cool new content for people who have maxed out their characters and want new content,” Lee told CBR. “Then further down the line, there’s going to be even more cool new content which I can’t really divulge, but which will keep ratcheting up the level of drama, the level of action, the level of achievements you can get. A lot of people made hay about this level 30 cap, but it’s designed to get you quickly to being a fully-formed superhero and then we can add onto that experience in very meaningful ways because we’re all at level 30. I think there’s some really cool stuff on the horizon.”

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