NYCC 2010: ‘DC Universe Online’ Interview with Jim Lee

(c) 2009. Gage Skidmore.Jim Lee, highly venerated artist of Batman: Hush, All Star Batman and Robin, and many other DC, Marvel, and Image properties, was also at the Javits Center for New York Comic Con this past weekend, and he was kind enough to speak with a handful of journalists to discuss the recently-delayed DC Universe Online.

Mr. Lee, Executive Creative Director for the upcoming MMORPG, fielded questions about character creation, art direction, Shotgun Elvis, and more.  Each reporter at the roundtable was given a chance to ask a question, and, while not everyone followed that rule, we had a great discussion about the nature of the game and where it’s going, even though most of us were trying to stifle our fanboyism.

Open the Fridge would like to thank Mr. Lee and the people at Sony Online Entertainment for letting us have a chance to sit down, talk with them and, of course, drink the free beer that came with it!

Check out the sizzle trailer here that was discussed shown at the DCUO panel at NYCC and then read on for the interview!

What made you want to go from the written word in the comic to actually spearheading something like an MMO?

Jim Lee: I got into comics because I loved comics as a kid; I was very passionate about it. Same thing with games. I always played video games – Pong, at the beginning, Space Invaders – but the one that really got me hooked was Everquest. I just found something in an MMO that was very different than in a “normal” video game experience:  that’s community and playing against other people and having that kind of challenge of outwitting, outplaying other real people.  So when this opportunity came up at DC, when I heard they were interested in making an MMO, I said “Well, I have to be involved. This is something that I love playing, and I feel like I can contribute something meaningful.” So I guess they wisely let me come in. I think they needed someone to oversee the creative direction of the game, and obviously I knew something about DC Comics so that helped out. So here we are.

Have you ever been involved with a DC project on this scale?

Jim Lee: No, nothing on this scale. There was a game, Batman the Rise of Sin Tzu, that came out years ago. The Joker was supposed to be the main villain at the end of the game, and they decided that it was too duplicative of another Batman game they had just done — I think this was on the Nintendo Gamecube, I’m not sure. [Ed note: it was actually multiplatform on the PS2, Xbox, GameCube, and GBA.] So they wanted to create a brand new villain, and they asked me to create Sin Tzu.  I worked with a writer that they were working with on a game, and we created this character custom made for the video game.

But that was it; that was really at the end. They had already designed everything, and they really just put this model in instead of the model that they had originally. Something like [working on the DCUO MMO] has been a very different kind of experience. I remember flying down to SOE in Austin for the first time and spent a week there. It was a crash course in learning about videogames, pipelines, infrastructure, and learning the terminology of MMOs; just seeing how much of a logistical challenge it is building a videogame of this size and complexity versus creating a comic book.  Really, us three could do a comic book, and we’d be done in a month. It’s a whole different kind of experience and different kind of mentality and different kind of energy. It’s been fantastic.  Great learning experience.

So I guess it’s safe to say that we’ll see you and maybe Shotgun Elvis playing the game when you get a chance?

Jim Lee: Shotgun Elvis? [smiles] Yeah, you know what? I appreciate the fact that people want to play those kind of characters, but I’m more old school then that. I like the guys that try to look tough and look more like, “I’m the grim defender of the night!” That kind of stuff.  But I know that people like playing zany type of characters. If it was just an MMO of my taste, a lot of stuff wouldn’t be in there, but I fully appreciate and acknowledge that people like to unleash their inner spirit and play what they want. And that character is an awesome one. I remember when I saw that for the first time I was laughing in my chair. It’s hilarious to have that kind of stuff in the game because that’s what makes it feel rich and real. And actually the DC universe has a lot of that stuff in there already from Ambush Bug to Egg-Fu and characters like that.

Because of the beta, are there any new plans for you to use other characters “inspired by” in there from what you have now? [Ed. note: DCUO lets you create a character that is “inspired by” a currently existing superhero; i.e., a character “inspired by” Batman.]

Jim Lee: “Inspired by Jim Lee?” [laughs] I think going forward yeah. I would imagine expansions would expand upon that so you have more variety. What you see in this beta is pretty much the structure of the game. What happens between now and launch is a fine-tuning of all the missions and all that kind of stuff.  To answer your question, we have the “Power Tree,” which is Magic, Tech, and Meta, and we wanted the best examples for all three. Batwoman or Batgirl: they fall along the lines of Batman. So to have “inspired by” all these other characters that people might want to be “inspired by” or “mentored by” would create a level of complexity and confusion – unless you’re a real DC fan – that would make the interface unmanageable and very difficult.

Wouldn’t Captain Marvel be the better choice for magic than Wonder Woman?

Jim Lee: Well, she’s made of clay.  It depends on what origin you go with, but she’s a goddess – I’m pretty sure they’re magically based.  I see your point, and I think that’s a good one; but I think you also a variety between male characters and female characters.  If you really wanted to challenge one, it would be Luthor as the “meta” villain one, but we’re not going to go there.

What was the biggest challenge for you in developing the game?

Jim Lee: For me, personally, it was learning a lot about the videogame business.  There’s a huge difference between being comic book reader/fan and actually creating a comic book.  And there’s as huge of a divide, if not bigger, in the videogame space.  It’s one thing to be an awesome Modern Warfare player, and it’s a different thing to sit down and actually craft a game of that kind of complexity, energy, imagination, and creativity. A big chunk of my early time was really spent sitting down with all the developers and the coders and all the people that make the game happen that you just are not aware of.  When you play a game, it’s a seamless experience, and you’re experiencing what you see on the screen and playing the game and hopefully believing you’re in the space and being this character on this adventure.  But you don’t see all the backbone end kind of networking and engineering that has to go in to make that happen.  It was very important for me to learn all that, or at least be aware of all that, because it impacts what you can do on the creative side.  To give you a bad example, you don’t see a lot of loincloths in the game that run very dramatically long or shoulder pads that are huge because if you move them in space they actually will puncture the person’s head or make it very difficult to do run animations, whereas in comics you’d never worry about that at all. You just draw what you thought and if it didn’t work you would just change it and no one would notice. There’s 3-dimensional virtual reality that cannot be fudged in a game like this. That was definitely one of the initial lessons that had to be learned.

[Ed. note: Asker is too far from the recorder to pick up on the question; however, to paraphrase, she was mainly asking about the direction for the cinematic trailer we’ve seen and the cutscenes revealed at the panel.]

Jim Lee:  When you fight a boss or do something meaningful in the game, it ends with a cutscene, which is essentially a motion comic.  If you’re familiar with motion comics, it’s essentially 2D art that’s done on layers and moved around to create the illusion of animation.  There [are some] things that make it look and feel 3D, actually.  I oversaw or laid out, gosh, at least 5 or 6 of those, and I drew one of them.  So you’ve got a little bit of a storyline reward that you get after completing a mission, and it’s actually very well integrated.  It works great within the fiction of the game, which is a “superhero” game.  So to have actual “superhero” art in the game showing you a little bit of the storyline moving forward makes perfect sense, and it was done by the artists at Wildstorm, myself, Ryan Benjamin, and a couple other motion comic companies that do a lot of motion comics.  I thought it was a nice touch, rather than having to pose 3D assets.

Can those scenes be seen in this demo?

Jim Lee:  I haven’t played this demo, but the one we had at E3 had a Joker/Harley Quinn motion comic that I laid out and did the pencils for.  It’s cool seeing it.  In fact, of all the stuff I’ve done for the game – and that’s looking, revising, and giving notes on all these models that are in the game and environments – the only that are in the game that I actually hand drew are those cutscenes, and I looking forward to seeing them on my big screen TV.

You said that the character customization is very deep. Does this mean that we’ll be able to create superheroes that aren’t actually in the game yet? Say, we want other famous superheroes, can we create Wolverine or Spider-Man, for example?

Jim Lee: It would be irresponsible for us to allow such a thing to occur, speaking as an executive of the company.

[all laugh]

You know what? There are so many different combinations of things. We certainly don’t have a 3 claw option – you might get 2 claws or 1 claw [laughs.] The goal of character create is not to allow people to go in and create their favorite non-DC Universe character.

[paraphrasing] Not even a non-DC Universe character, but how about characters who are in the DC Universe that aren’t represented in the game?

Jim Lee: It’s not in there, and if it were, it’s accidental.  The goal really is you can create things that look like your favorite characters, whether they’re in the DC universe or not, but the goal is not to give you the tools to build something that looks exactly like it. I think some other games do that, or have done that, and that’s fine. Really, it’s the DC Universe Online, and we want to have that consistency in the game. That’s not to say you can’t come close, but we didn’t want to give it to you as an option. If you squint while you’re playing, maybe you can see the characters as you want to see.

If you were to add them later to either content patches or expansions, would you add the assets to the character creator?

Jim Lee:  There’s nothing in the character creator that actually creates assets that are definitive parts of existing costumes.  If they are, it’s because a character has a Roman shield, and you want to use a Roman shield.  Even the goggles and stuff – they’re not necessarily Catwoman’s goggles that are in the game; the jacket is not like Wonder Woman’s jacket.  It’s something that resembles Wonder Woman’s jacket – that kind of thing.  Even the capes… I don’t know if there’s a Batman cape, per se, but there’s a scalloped-type cape where you have that kind of fringe, but it doesn’t look exactly like the Batman’s.

We’ve seen Metropolis and Gotham. Do you have a favorite location or character or event that’s in the game that might surprise?

Arkham Asylum is pretty creepy and eerie in the game.  The idea was that it was this very old insane asylum – or, actually, it was an old house that eventually was converted into an insane asylum so it has areas of it that look like sort of a Victorian mansion.  And it has other areas where you can see, maybe the 60’s and 70’s, there was some sort of health reform where they were trying to convert mental asylums and make them cleaner and safer places and you have that kind of look.  And you can see how that degraded over time so there are all these different kinds of errors of mental institutions that are kind of cobbled together in Arkham Asylum, and it’s just creepy.  It’s a creepy place.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a real mental asylum, but it really captures that spirit very well – like the little flecks of blood on the tile, that kind of stuff.  Not anything huge or gross, but there are little touches here and there that really kind of give it a very nuanced, subtle look. I thought that environment came out really nice.

Last time we took a look at this game, it was over a year and a half ago, and I think what’s been really cool is seeing what, design-wise, you’ve accomplished in the world in that time.

Jim Lee:  It’s not just the world, even the interface – I saw stuff that was really super-simplistic; it’s come a really long way in that time.

It’s possible that the delay might actually be a good thing, because you’ll be able to refine the things you might not have otherwise had time to –

Jim Lee:  Right.  Well, I think, as far as shipping the game, the holiday season is the biggest time of the year to launch, and the fact that they’re going to forego that window and go later into early 2011 to make sure the game is as polished and as good as it can be, I think, is a testament to how important it is that it’s a great game.  It’s not just something we put out, collect the check, and move onto the next thing.  This is something we’ve spent 4 or 5 years on; it’s not going to hurt to put an extra several months in it to make it better.  I think it all came from a really good spot – from the desire to make the best game possible, and that’s something that has been consistently driving us in the 4+ years of making the game.

In the long run, I think it’ll be a very good thing.

Jim Lee: Well, that’s the thing.  This is not a game that you sell in just one quarter and that’s it.  Everquest is, gosh, just celebrated it eleventh?  Right, eleventh year.  There are other games that have surpassed it on a technological level, but it owns a part of people’s hearts and is a part of their real lives.  To me, this is something that will be on that level.  This is a game that’s going to be out for many, many years.  People will create many, many kinds of characters, build real friendships, and have a blast playing because it’s a great game that ties into a universe that’s been around for 75 years and has some of the best characters in the world.


I’m going to clap for that answer! [claps, all laugh]

[my question!] The most important thing in an MMO is the world that you inhabit has to feel real, but the DCU itself is made up of very disparate environments. Gotham is very different from Smallville in the same way that it’s different from Metropolis.  As far as the art direction is concerned, how did you tie all these together to make it feel like a cohesive universe?

Jim Lee: That’s the trick. I get this title of being “Executive Creative Director,” but there’s so many Art Directors that worked on the game from Jared Carr, who is no longer with the company, Mark Anderson, Mat Broome from Sony in San Diego, to all the different artists at Wildstorm.  I was actually doing more art directing then drawing.  It’s a huge undertaking.  Everything you see in the game was concepted or drawn out, designed by someone.  There was no one book of the DC universe that you could go to and say, “This is Gotham. This is what every street looks like. This is what the buildings look like.”  All that stuff had to be pulled from all these disparate references.  Not just from comics, but from other videogames, from TV shows, from cartoon shows, from movies, obviously, and made to mesh into one and have everything be instantly recognizable as something that we know as existing in the DC universe.  An example is The Daily Planet. The Daily Planet looks different in every comic book, every videogame, every TV show, every movie that it exists.  Yet, it all has to look like The Daily Planet.  So we went in there, took all these different references, and we actually created our own version of the DC Universe that ties into a lot of these different source materials.  Even when we did designs on the Teen Titans… the Teen Titans TV show probably reached more kids then the comic book ever did, right?  So do we go and just do Teen Titans that just like the cartoon, or do we do something that is true to the comic book origin material?  Or do we do something that is entirely new all together? We ultimately decided that we’re going to do a mash-up of all these different things and still have it feel and look like the Teen Titans, but have something that is recognizable to a kid that maybe watched the cartoon, buys this game as a teenager, and is drawn into it because they were a huge Teen Titans fan.

You mentioned that this was a game that was about 4 or 5 years in the making. Which came first? Did DC and Sony come to you with the concept?

Jim Lee: There’s a longer story that predates even Sony’s involvement in the game.  I was involved even before then. But then obviously once Sony was involved, and they were producing my favorite game which is Everquest, it completely changed the dynamic of the project and the scope of the project. Earlier outlines for this game, pitches from other companies, involved a much smaller slice of the DC Universe. So when Sony got involved and they sort of painted what they wanted the game to be it was a much bigger slice of the DC Universe and a grander envisioning of what a superhero MMO could be. So it was very exciting to have SOE be involved because of the Everquest connection, but also because Sony is based in San Diego. I live in San Diego, I knew a lot of people that were already working there.

Is there particular character’s representation in the game that you’re particularly proud of – that shines through out of anyone?

Jim Lee: Hmm… good question. There’s a lot. Narrowing it down to one… I spent a lot of time actually in the Beta when they opened it up wider so you could do more missions just running up to characters and looking at them. Which I assume most players won’t do, but I go up and circle around them. I’m like this creepy stalker [all laugh] online MMO player, and I try to get in there and look up their noses.  I saw them all as they were being built, and they’re all in these static poses. Then they get optimized for the platforms they’re on, and you start seeing the art changes and the proportion changes and things like that.  So I was pretty critical, but I’ll tell you that a lot of them turned out great.  The ones that really stood out… Gorilla Grodd was awesome.  Gosh, Wonder Woman looked great.  [For] A lot of the characters, actually, Sony said, “Look, we know that by the end of the game, the end of the development cycle, our ability to produce really nice models and assets will exceed what we had at the beginning.”  So they actually went back in and recreated or remodeled Wonder Woman; Batman was remodeled; Superman was remodeled in the middle and stuff like that.  So those characters are pretty nice because they got the extra pass and love and care to them.  Green Lantern looks awesome.  They all look great.  Let me tell you:  there isn’t another game that has all these DC characters in there, so the DC Comics fanboy inside of me is happy that these characters can finally exist in virtual space for the first time.  On that level, I’m just happy that they’re around. I think they turned out really nice, and it’s a real testament to artists that Sony Online had at Austin who built all these 3D assets.

Written by: Dwight Tejano

Dwight is the founder of Open the Fridge, which he started in 2008 and rebooted in 2010. Due to the nature of early adopting, his bank account is normally empty. He likes to sing in world-renown choruses to forget such things.

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