DC Universe Online interview

With DC Universe Online out now on PC and PS3, we caught up with Sony’s Ryan Peters and Tony Jones to chat about the making of this sprawling MMO…

Sony Online Entertainment isn’t new to MMO games, having developed the massively-multiplayer behemoth EverQuest, and chipped in with licensed online titles like Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online, but its new game, the recently released DC Universe Online, is a tantalizingly fresh prospect.

As well as bringing the incredibly rich, varied and voluminous DC canon to our computer screens, SOE has positioned DC Universe Online as its entry into the console arena, with the game also appearing on the PS3. Fittingly, it’s a more action-oriented affair, evoking the likes of Crackdown or Prototype in its fast-paced combat and huge open-world spaces – where wannabe superheroes are given the chance to scale the dizzy heights of Gotham or Metropolis skyscrapers.

We were recently given the chance to chat with SOE’s Ryan Peters (Public Relations Specialist) and Tony Jones (Community Relations Manager), while they were on a whistle-stop European press tour. In this suitably massive interview, we talked about the process of developing DC Universe Online, their approach to canon, and the input from comics industry veterans like Jim Lee, Marv Wolfman and Geoff Johns – as well as addressing two elephants in the room: Blizzard’s all-conquering World Of Warcraft, and the ongoing debates around whether MMOs, which require weeks of gameplay time to be truly experienced, can be fairly reviewed by video game critics.

So, to start with, can you give me a bit of a history lesson – how did the project come together? Was it on your side, or was it on DC’s side?

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Ryan Peters: Well, you know, it was a meeting of the two. The developer, Sony Online Entertainment, have been in on the MMO game for over a decade. They did EverQuest about 12 years ago, and when that game was released, on Fridays they would post on the forums saying “we’re going out for beers, if you players want to come and meet the team.”

And so, this happened a couple of times, and finally one day they do it and Jim Lee shows up, and he’s a big fan of the game, and that was his first big MMO. And it turns out he was the first on his server to get this epic weapon gear, which, I got to be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about, but apparently only one person could get it…

Tony Jones: …A very big deal!

RP: So he was an MMO fan, and our developers are really heavy DC Comics fans, and there’s definitely an overlap in the culture between a gamer and a comic book fan. They’re not mutually exclusive by any means.

So that started the conversation there, and some time went by, and DC was interested in doing an MMO, and Jim suggested to them to reach out to us, because he knew we had experience in the industry, and something that he was very fond of. So in 2004, that conversation started happening, and then 2005 we got to start working on this game.

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That’s a long development cycle…

RP: So, five years and change later, we finally released it. The thing with an MMO is, it’s a living, breathing game, so instead of your typical console title, where you release it and that’s it, and it doesn’t really change – maybe there’s a short update – with an MMO there’s a world that’s just going to keep expanding. We’ve been doing EverQuest for 12 years now, and there’s still people who are, like, that’s they’re game. I don’t know why, but they want to stick with it.How does that work in terms of team structure? With other companies, who will be working on a triple-A, boxed title, it would be a team, and they’ll release it – and some of the team could relax, take some time off, while a smaller group work on bug-fixes, patching and community support. Do you still have a full team dedicated to your MMOs forever?

RP: Well, I’d be hesitant to say forever, but we have a pretty aggressive plan internally for what the content releases are going to be for this game. Right now, with this game, it was a tremendous effort to get it out of the door. It came down to the wire, so I don’t think anyone’s taken a day off since maybe November, maybe it’s even longer for some of them. I would certainly say I don’t anticipate them shrinking the team any time soon.

TJ: When a game releases, there’s not much demand for art – but even those guys, we’re using them for playtesting, until we do need some art. So everyone on the team is still working very actively on DCU.

So is doing a European press tour a bit like a vacation for you, then?

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TJ: Sort of, yeah.

RP: Doesn’t he look rested?

In that period from conception to release, the last five or six years, the MMO landscape has become filled with lots of licensed titles, such as Star Trek, Lord Of The Rings and Warhammer. Of course, the DC licence gives the game an edge, but did you talk early on in that conversation about how to make it stand out?

RP: Yeah, when the PlayStation 3 was being developed, they actually came to us for development of the backend of the net connectivity portion, and saying, “you guys are the experts of online gameplay, help us design that portion.” So, we knew that our next MMO was probably coming to the console, and this was going to be the first console that was really capable of handling that. So it was a blessing in two ways, that the console was coming to the market, and we had the opportunity to get the DC licence.

How did you approach that? It’s such a huge conceptual and creative undertaking – even when you just think about the comics, the DC Universe has undergone so many changes over time…RP: 75 years of content, right? And to bring all of that into one story that makes sense for the player character, and to have thousands of other people running around at the same time. It’s a tremendous challenge. We’re really lucky that we’ve had the opportunity to have Geoff Johns come on and write the backstory for the game. And Marv Wolfman did a lot of the character mission stories. And Jim Lee’s been incredibly hands-on with this game, he’s so much more than just an artist. He’s a gamer at heart, and has been there to give us check and balance every step of the way.

Our team itself is made up of comic book fans – they wouldn’t be successful in making a game like this if they weren’t familiar with the comics. And I know that Tony would tell you that, when we bring people on in Austin to work on this game, there’s actually a required reading of comics. You get a stack delivered to your desk, and you have to familiarise yourself with the world of DC before you can even start working on the project. So, we’re fans ourselves, and if we weren’t it would show.

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I suppose when you’re working with Geoff Johns and Marv Wolfman, they’re the right kind of writers to work on a big, universe-wide level. They’ve done the crossover narratives before.

RP: Totally, and ironically enough, Marv’s wife works for Blizzard. She’s their Video Director.

Blizzard’s very much an elephant in the room. Are you worried about WoW?

RP: Am I worried about WoW? [laughs] I’m not worried about WoW – I definitely know where WoW is and I know it’s an incredibly successful game, and I’ll give you the same answers as I give most people – as a game developer and especially as an MMO developer, we all stand on each others’ shoulders.

There are things that WoW pulled from EverQuest, because that was the original one. And there’s things from WoW that we’ve incorporated here. But the gameplay experience is something completely different, this plays much more like an action game. It’s not turn-based combat. It’s not a high fantasy setting. We’ve have a physics engine. It couldn’t be more opposite of an experience.

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And I think the WoW player is a different customer. I think a lot of people play that for purely the social aspect, and there’s elements of the gameplay there that don’t really fit into an action game, things like tradeskilling or player housing. That doesn’t really fit into what we’re trying to do here.

We want to introduce the console gamer to what it’s like playing in an environment with thousands of other players, and what a massive PvP scenario feels like. So I wouldn’t say I’m worried about WoW. I would say there’s a lot of great things that we’ve learned from them, and hopefully we’ve taken the right things and incorporated them into something even better.And the crossover with the console audience bolsters that.

RP: Yeah, the expression I use, is we’re taking nerds out of the basement, and putting them in the living room, right? [laughs] You have your best TV and sound system set up in your living room. If you’re a PC gamer, it’s nice to come and sit on the couch, and not be strapped to a desk chair to do your gaming.

This game was built with the idea that it was coming to the console, so we made the user interface as simple as possible, to take advantage of the PlayStation 3 controller. Chat is done through wireless voice chat, so there’s no need for a keyboard. That’s not to say that the experience on the PC is any lesser – certainly you can take advantage of text chat, and if you’re a traditional PC gamer, you’re going to find all the familiar controls that you would normally find. But the game is absolutely identical on both platforms. In fact, we’ve done events at E3 where the two play against each other.

Now, at launch, they are not compatible, we keep the servers separate – part of that had to do with a strictly commerce issue, that the PlayStation Network bank wallet is different to what we use on the PC.

And I guess as it’s a third-person action game, the playing field’s a little more level depending on your controller set-up, unlike with first-person shooters.

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RP: I think you could totally have a competitive experience either way, but we want to make sure that the player is getting a fair shot on either platform.

TJ: And the UI was built from the ground-up with the PS3 in mind, so you’re not as dependent… in fact, you’re almost completely independent of the need for a mouse.

RP: But if you’re like me, and you play open world games like Grand Theft Auto, or Prototype, and you love that tactile feel that the console controller gives you, I think this game really captures that.

It reminds me a lot of Crackdown, actually.

RP: The open world is, for lack a better term, it’s massive. Gotham and Metropolis are each a thousand square blocks – that’s twice the size of Vice City. So you’re talking a tremendous open world – something no one’s seen on the PlayStation 3. Or any console, for that matter.

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When you’re designing a huge game world like that, one problem is filling the space. How did you go about that?

RP: Totally. The good thing is, we have 75 years of content to pull from. And when you go through Metropolis, we actually have an in-game tour mechanic…

TJ: Every neighbourhood has a tour that takes you to points of interest that you’ll recognise from the DC Universe, and give you a little audio background from Booster Gold. He’ll walk you through the city, and tell you ‘ah, there’s a statue of Superman – which one day will be joined by a statue of Booster Gold!’

RP: We’ve left little Easter eggs in there, like you can see the Playbill and the rose that Bruce Wayne’s mother dropped in Crime Alley. Smallville’s an instance zone, and you can see the crater from when Superman came to Earth. And his parents’ house. Little things like that, that the hardcore DC fans will pick up on.

Maybe the casual player doesn’t notice, but at the same time we’ve made mechanics in the game that introduce the casual player. So, every time you have a boss fight, at the end of the fight, it goes to a cut-sequence, like a motion comic, with art by Jim Lee, and that tells you the back story of the character.

There’s so many iconic locations that have been shown in the comics, and it’s funny, because I was talking to Jim Lee about this, and said “you know, you could fly anywhere you want to go in Metropolis, but you can’t fly from Metropolis to Gotham”, and he’s like”‘well, in the comics, we’ve never really told you how far apart these two places are!”

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The loading screen art seems to be Jim Lee, too. So was his involvement very deep?RP: He blessed every single piece of art in this game. So, from the buildings to the characters, and we have over 85 iconics. And the feel of Gotham and Metropolis. Initially, our thought was to have weather in these cities – but when you were going through Gotham and it was sunny and bright outside, it just didn’t look right.

And if he was here, he’d tell you it was a significant challenge for him, because there’s such a dramatic difference in what you do when you’re drawing a comic and creating a character in a game.

When you’re drawing a comic, you’re doing the same character and it’s in a repeated fashion, so you keep them simplistic – you don’t want to go into incredible detail in every frame, because you’d never get a comic out the door.

I’m sure working on a game like this is similar – where you’re continually adding to it or polishing it. But you gave players the chance to try out the game as part of a beta programme. How did that go down? Did that bring about any last-minute changes to the game? Or inspire future development of the game?

RP: You know, when we released this game for beta, it was already in a pretty polished state, but the good thing is about releasing a game in a beta state to a massive group of players, is they find every little exploit, and things that the whole development team maybe didn’t think of, but when you have thousands of people in a game, they’re so incredibly creative at ways they come up with going around whatever system you’ve created.

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We learn a ton from them, and we also see what type of content people are playing, and that helps shape what type of content we’re going to continue to deliver. If there are certain mechanics that we’ve built into the game, and we see players aren’t really taking advantage of them, or there’s not a lot of interest in them, then maybe when it comes to expansion time, we don’t really focus on that direction.

We’re not going to force-feed the player’s content, we want them to get whatever is the most fun.

So what are your plans for updating the game in the future? Have you announced much in the way of extra content?

RP: We haven’t announced anything. We’ve loosely touched on what our content releases are going to be. And, we’re looking to incorporate a new iconic into the game every month, with missions wrapped around it for both heroes and villains.

I think, ideally, we’d like to have larger content updates potentially every three months, and definitely we’re locked into an annual expansion. It’s not like the relationship with DC has come to an end, so we’re constantly thinking of new ways to add content.

There was a lot of talk, back when Mortal Kombat Vs DC came out, that the developers had to tone down their creative urges because of the licence – taking out fatalities and so on. Did that happen much with this game, were DC editorial scrutinising everything?

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RP: Well, there’s no death in our game, either. We have knockouts. So there are certain rules that DC has, their parameters. I think in this scenario that we’ve created in the game, it works fine, it wasn’t a negative effect. But we’re using their IP, so we have to be respectful of what that is.

TJ: And it’s been very beneficial for us, because also, it allows people that aren’t necessarily gamers to give us an additional opinion. It actually allows us to improve the product.

RP: As a team, they have an incredible eye for detail. And there’s so much that they have to pay attention to when they’re evaluating a game like this. It’s amazing to me, the little intricacies that they’re able to find.

TJ: They’re experts. We’re all great comic fans, but they know exactly. The stuff we would have missed.

RP: At at the end of the day, the winner’s the fan. The comic book fan gets the truest representation that we’d be able to bring to you.

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So the look of the game is very much influenced by Jim Lee, but what about the general tone? All these characters have appeared in so many different iterations. Is Mr Freeze tossing out puns like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman And Robin?

TJ: No! [laughs]

In the voice cast, you have Kevin Conroy as Batman, and Mark Hamill as the Joker, which suggests it’s a little more like Batman The Animated Series.

TJ: As a comics fan myself – these are very close. The team has been very respectful of the IP. And for Mr Freeze, it’s all about his wife, he wants to bring her back. It’s very serious. It’s not corny Schwarzenegger, throwing out one-liners. It’s not a Jack Nicholson Joker, it’s much closer to the Heath Ledger Joker.

So you’re not trying to evoke any specific version, or slot in with the current canon?

TJ: It’s a good blend. We aren’t pinning down an exact timeline for this. There are such different iterations. How many Supermen have there been? It’s current, but we’re not addressing 52 or Infinity Crisis. We think we’ve taken these characters and we’ve built them out in a great way that the fans will enjoy.

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And there’s also a spin-off comic adaptation attached to this…

RP: Yeah, and if you purchase the collector’s edition, you actually get issue zero. It’s bi-weekly, and I think we’ve sorted out 16. It follows a similar backstory, the setting is the same, it’s the same premise – this massive battle and Brainiac is trying to take over.

It follows along that premise, but is it directly linked to the game? Not exactly, but it’s definitely in the same setting, and I think there are similarities in the storyline. We throw around the idea of incorporating a player character into the comic – if you became legendary enough. How cool would it be to see your character in a print medium? That’s something we left the door open for.

Now the game’s out there, it’s not only been handed over to the players, it’s also been thrown into the critical spotlight. There’s always a lot of discussion about how MMOs should be reviewed – considering how they’re not only huge games, but they’re not something you can experience in a couple of days of intensive play. Do you worry that people aren’t taking the time to play it before reviewing it?

RP: You know, when I read reviews, I always look at what their criticisms are, and what they point out. So I know there’s so much content beyond just the linear character progression in this game. There’s group content, there’s raids, there’s alerts. You can PvP in arenas. There’s all these different facets that we’ve created.

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So I think, from our perspective, I just want to see that you’re taking advantage of all this, and not just – ‘I’ve played 10 hours, and now I’m going to write my review’. Because it’s so much different than a console game.

The fact that, if it’s an MMO, if you’re not engaging in that group-type content, then you’re totally missing the key components of the game. Otherwise, you could play Arkham Asylum – and that’s a fantastic game, I love Arkham Asylum. But, you know, that’s what makes us different, so I want to make sure that you’re incorporating that into your experience.

TJ: I’ve actually been on both sides. I started by writing a lot of MMO reviews, and it’s really hard to do. I personally hope that people, like you said, just take the time. You can’t just play to level 10, you’re missing out on a huge, huge portion of the game.

Even getting all the way to level 30, you’re probably in the ballpark of two-thirds of our content. Even if you played all the way through the endgame, there’s so much more to do.

RP: This game’s really not so much about the level in a numerical value, as it is your experience and your skill. In a player vs player environment, a player of a lesser level can defeat a player of a higher level, based on their skill level, with using combinations and identifying how to use their powers and abilities in the right scenario.

So many people think that, as soon as you reach a numerical level, ‘okay, I’m done, I’ve beat the game’. But that’s not really how it works, there’s no winning in this game, it’s continued progression, and skill development.

TJ: You’re just getting started at level 30. Level 30 is actually where a good chunk of our game begins.

It’s a shame, because of the pressure of deadlines, and aiming to publish the first review on the internet, people cut corners.

RP: People are in such a hurry to get the review out, and I just hope that they’re not doing it based off their beta experience. Because there were so many improvements that we made from the end of beta and just to the day one patch. I want them to review the final product.

I saw a couple came out in the States the first week, and I shook my head a little bit, and thought ‘I know you have not put in 40-50 hours of gameplay in the first week!’ But, at the same time, all journalists are not created equal, so what can I say?

Gentlemen, thank you for your time!

DC Universe Online is out now on PC and PS3.

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