NYCC 2010: Interview with Chris Cao, Game Director of ‘DC Universe Online.’

In the Sony Online Entertainment press room, we at OTF had a chance to sit down and discuss the minutiae of the game’s focus and development with Chris Cao, game director of the upcoming superhero MMO DC Universe Online.

In the second of two interviews conducted at a roundtable, Mr. Cao was kind enough to discuss the MMO’s “inspired by” system, the development challenges in defining  the game world, and what exactly is being done to make the player the star of the game in a world where Superman flies the skies.  We also talk about the dreaded subscription fee ($14.99/mo) and why that subscription fee may be “the cheapest thing you’ve ever spent on video games.”

Read on for the interview and the character creation trailer released at NYCC!

DC Universe Online is slated for release on the PC and the PlayStation 3 early next year.

At the panel, you were going over the create-a-character – that you could align yourself with certain characters or motifs. How many characters are we looking at that you have the opportunity to align yourself with?

Chris Cao: There are sort of two different parts to this. One is choosing your mentor, which is really a choice of what kind of hero or villain you are. We have the game is split into three buckets: tech, meta, and magic. Guys who depend on their own skills are tech-based; guys who have inherent powers, like Superman, are meta-based; and those who use magic are magic – it’s kind of surprising [laughs.]

DC Universe Online’s Character Create Trailer

Those mentors actually [determine] your choice of content through the game and ultimately what kind of battle suit you get. If you want the Batsuit, you need to have Batman as your mentor because he’s not just going to hand it out to anybody, right? If you want the strength of Hera, which is Wonder Woman’s suit, you need to actually be working for her. That’s the first choice in character create.

Now, on the other side of it, when you’re talking about “inspired by,” that’s sort of like who you’ve downloaded, whose abilities you’ve taken on. Right now, we have about a dozen of them. We’ve actually tried others out: in other another build we’ve had, some other characters in there, like the Flash, but since we don’t have electricity or we don’t have something that really sets him as the Flash apart, we decided to pull him out. We still have super-speed in the game, you can still do that, but we couldn’t fully realize an “inspired by Flash,” so we decided, “You know what? Let’s reserve that for when we do add more of that type of stuff.” So, [in the end, we have] about a dozen of them. Some of them are top-tier, some of them are a little bit, maybe – I mean, Deathstroke a lot of people know who are comic fans, but the broader audience may not, but they’ll get to learn him this way.

Is Captain Marvel one of mentors?

CC: We actually had him in, but the problem is we really need electricity to get the “Shazam!” off. We do have, in the game itself, “iconic powers,” which are one-offs like heat vision, super strength, or power word. In this case, it’s not the actual “Shazam!” word, but it’s a lot like it: you actually call a lightning bolt down, and – boom! – you blow up guys. You can put those in and pepper your style. Maybe I chose fire, but I have heat vision and super strength, too. You just pull that out of the iconic power pool, and those are what are going to resonate with the DC comic characters.

Shazam! …sort of.

DC has a huge list of dynamic, deep characters. What does the game doing to make the player the star? I think that’s a big concern – we have all of these great characters; how do you keep them from overshadowing the player? When you’ve got a player in an MMO, you want “it’s my game, it’s my character.”

CC: I think the best answer is to say, “Well, you get to turn the Flash into a gorilla.” [laughs.] At a certain point as a villain, you’re actually working with Gorilla Grodd with one of his devolvers. You have two of the Flashes – and I don’t want to spoil the whole thing – but they’re attacking Gorilla Grodd, and you’re defending him. You’re flipping the switches on this devolver, and you’re turning them into gorilla versions of themselves. So, literally, they’re running around with tatters of the Flash costume hanging off – big, gorilla form going on. The main reason of that is not necessarily to make fun of them, but to show, “Hey, in the comics, this has happened,” right? You have this type of thing, and the villain is the guy who did that. Gorilla Grodd needs you help him out because otherwise, yet again, he’s going to get defeated by the Flash. So in a weird way, as a villain, you’re actually saving the day. You’re actually saving Gorilla Grodd and going, “All right, now you owe me one because I was in there helping you out.”

Help (or stop) Gorilla Grodd from being beaten by the Flash!

What we really do is we have a hero’s journey, where you have a Robin experience, where you’re almost a sidekick level fight. So, in that case, you fight Scarecrow; but, when you fight Scarecrow, you fight alongside Batwoman. She’s there, and she’s under the effects of the fear gas, and you actually free her and help her out. That’s a very sidekick-y thing to do: come in, the hero’s down, help him out, and together beat Scarecrow.

Then, you move into a Nightwing experience. At E3, we showed our Harley demo, which we also have upstairs. That’s where you’re getting into trouble on your own. There still are other characters involved – in this case, Robin’s trapped there – but you’re saving a lower-tiered guy because you’re out on your own. Now, you may not know everything just yet, but you’re getting there.

The actual Nightwing experience.

Ultimately, you get a Batman experience, where the day is saved by you, where you actually get to save or betray your mentor. You’re actually going to save Batman – and I don’t want to spoil what goes into it – but it’s about an arc. This isn’t about keeping the player first and foremost all the time. Instead, it’s about making sure you feel like, “I had no powers. Now, I’ve learned some. Now, I’m making that journey and I’m earning the right legitimately,” and not just “Oh, I got it.” Once you go through your whole journey, at the end of it, that’s just really the starting point of the game. Because at that point, you’re someone they can call on as an auxiliary member of the JLA, or you’re someone the society fears enough to go, “Hmm… maybe we should include him in our plans.” [At that point,] we can start telling the other story: you know the universe as a casual player; you’re dedicated to it as DC fan; and you’re at the endgame when you’re going to be doing even cooler stuff. Every month, we’re going to add more to it. That’s the way we’re going to keep you focused because we give you new cool adventures to do.

You mentioned betraying your mentor. Where does that leave you as a character?

CC: Well, betraying your mentor… What it comes down to is, if you’re working the Joker: 1) you’re already crazy, 2) there’s got to be some other side effect going on. Really, it’s that I don’t think it would be a satisfying villain experience, if all the way through Joker’s trying to throw into the frying pan all the time – because that’s what he’s doing, right? Even from the very first episode, he’s like, “Hey, sure, why don’t you go attack the GCPD and blow them up?” He doesn’t know if you’re going to make it; he’s not really concerned about your safety. He’s not a mentor in any classic sense, but he just keep throwing you at stuff and seeing if you’ll do it. Hey, you keep surviving, and then he’s like, “Uh-oh.”

At the end of the game, betraying him – like I said, I don’t really want to spoil the details that go into it – is a natural evolution of the storyline that you’ve been going with him. Half the game is hero, and half the game is villain, so, literally, you will need to play both sides to see both sides of all the DC characters. There’re also the mentor throughlines where we have those big beats, where, at certain points, you fight alongside Joker against Batman himself, in that sort of Nightwing-level experience. Then, you have to decide what’s best for you, what’s in it for you. Of course, as a villain, why would you help the Joker? At the end of the day, it’s about what you want, and we try to play that out at the end of the story.

So, betrayal is more a villain storyline?

CC: Well, we don’t let heroes go, “Aha! Thank you for the Batsuit. I’m outta here!” That’s because we’re really setting the stage for your character. DC is a very black cat, white hat universe; we want you to know who’s who. Once you’re up there, in the future, who knows? We may let you switch sides. I don’t want to promise anything, except to say you’re going to know who’s in the universe and where you stand with them, so that we can then tell you even more stories. Gorilla Grodd is a great example: most people might not know who he is, but at the end of DCUO, you will for sure, and you’ll be looking for more stories from him.

Metropolis and Gotham have been predominantly showed so far in the game. You mentioned we’re going to have Smallville. What other locations will we have in the game, and how will we transition between one and another?

CC: We’d originally built the game as a series of huge shared spaces, like a typical MMO. We actually had zones that were just terrain-based, like Suicide Slums and various places. What ended up happening was [it’s] just not as interesting to be a superhero not in a city. When you can climb up anything or superspeed over anything, and there’s nothing except trees and grass, it’s just not as interesting to do. It starts to turn into a much more conventional MMO. Hey, there’s some guys by the river; hey, there’s some whatever going on. When it’s set in Metropolis or Gotham or even in Smallville, it needs to be focused.

Want to know how I got this face?

So, what we actually did is we came up with the concept of an “alert.” An alert is like co-op for your MMO. It’s based about you fighting lots of guys at once. You’ll go in with your friends. You either have Talia or J’onn J’onzz – and they’re the mentors or directors of alerts – as thing light up around the world, they send you a message and say, “Hey, you need to do this.” Then, you queue for it. Basically, you sign up to do it. When there are enough players to do it, you guys are grouped, teleported away to Smallville, you go do the adventure, and then you’re put right back to where you were. So, you can be going on your journey doing your episode, then sign up for this, go do that adventure, and come right back and pick up right where you left off. Same thing happens with PvP. You have Hawkman and Black Adam as the guys that watch what’s going on there. That’s where you’re playing against the other side; you’re actively in a fight against them.

So, Gotham and Metropolis are the two big shared persistent areas of the game, as well as the Hall of Doom and the Watchtower – those are the places that are always up, always public, people can be there, and they’re immense. The other places we’ve focused down – and they’re still big, they’re still square kilometers. Smallville is still expansive and has the Kent farm and downtown and all of the various things going on, but you go there for that story reason and then you leave. We didn’t try to make Smallville a place that somehow existed that you went back to again and again. It’s way more interesting when Smallville’s in peril than if it’s “Hey, I went to the soda shop.” [laughs.] Doesn’t really play as well. Well, we know Clark does that, but why would you go there for any reason? There has to be some trouble.

They’re sort of mini-games within the missions that give you a more — ?

CC: They sort of give you the idea that around Earth, things are happening. One of them is on the Moon with Hive. What happened is when the exobytes exploded as you guys saw in the movie, he just blew up a bomb to drop them. Some of them hit the moon. Of course, no one’s on the moon, so they never activated. They’re just sitting there, and they just have power. Hive is up there trying to harvest them, because, hey, it’s untapped exobytes – that’s the most powerful thing there could be. You’re going up there as a hero or as a villain, trying to either take that or stop that. It’s a completely different setting, but instead of being the moon as a zone that’s always up, you going there to fight Hive in their crater base to resolve that situation.

And then right back to Gotham.

CC: And then right back to the Gotham or Metropolis. If you want to, and you’re friend’s doing it, you can jump right up there with them again because it’s on demand. Whenever you want to do it, it’s there for you to do. There’s also a hard mode version of all of those at the end of the game, where we put a little twist on it, where we advance the story a little and then go back there to see what’s going on.

You mentioned Metropolis is 900 sq. block city and Gotham is the same size?

CC: Yeah.

What’s the difference between the areas? Is there a level difference?

CC: The story is thread through each. It actually has to do with who your mentor is. If you choose Batman or Joker, you start in Gotham, starting in the East End or in Burnley Heights – very classic Gotham. That’s where the stories unfold: there’s a gang war going on in Gotham, and Scarecrow is doing his thing. So if you want very classic Batman stories, choose those characters as your mentor, and that’s where you’ll start off. If you want very Superman or Lex [type stories], then in Little Bohemia in Metropolis is where you face a lot of those kinds of characters. If you want a more mystical side of it involving Trigon, [Felix] Faust, and the rest of it, then choose Circe or Wonder Woman and that’s in Chinatown in Metropolis.

Clark Kent’s alma mater.

So, it’s not so much level-based, there are events going on through both cities. The big difference, actually, between the two is a significant portion of Gotham has been bottled up by Brainiac. There are actually bottles over Wayne Tower and over other buildings; he’s actively trying to take it up. I don’t want to spoil too much so it’s a warning to everybody, but the reason the raid is in the Batcave is because humanity is losing ground. If the players hadn’t shown up, then that future would have happened, and Brainiac would have bottled everything up. If you go into Gotham, you can actually see it there – huge bottles are over these things. And I’ll tease it in this way: someone’s going to have to unbottle those thing; someone’s going to have to fight to free these cities. A good example is the Daily Planet – it’s bottled. What’s going on? What’s happening at the very center and the heart of Superman’s city? It’s been taken over and it’s up to the players to see what they can do about it.

For combat and gameplay, there’s a very standard dynamic in MMOs – the trinity. What have you done differently? How has DCU broken away from that and taken what others games have done to make it its own?

CC: A lot of times, people take an MMO and speed it up or dress it up to make it feel “actiony.” We actually didn’t do that. The reason the game was in development for so long is: we had to build the technology to make MMO scale of action at action game pace. Our servers are way faster, way more robust. They have integrated physics throughout them, so you can literally pick up a car here in New York, throw it, and, if a person’s playing in Los Angeles, regardless of latency, it can hit them.

The reason this is so important is because that’s what you expect, honestly, from a superhero game. A lot of times an MMO will take a license say, “How do we translate this to an MMO?” They don’t instead ask themselves, “How do I translate an MMO to the license?” That’s actually the question you want. We have this license; we’re doing this game because we want you to feel like a superhero. We don’t want your superhero to feel like an MMO. That’s actually backwards if you think about it, right? So, it was a very brave thing for our engineers to do, but they accomplished and they did it on the PS3, which, if you’ve noticed, that’s where the best superhero games are. The PC has a few of them, but, really, consoles are where superheroes have shined. Why is that? Because they’ve been able to deliver that action experience.

So we said we ourselves, “Hey, we’re going to adapt the MMO to the license; we’re going to adapt the action game to the license.” We aren’t an MMO in all aspects; we’re not an action game is all aspects. We’re DCUO. We looked at the license and said, “All right, you’ve got to punch dudes. You’ve got to be able to fly. You’ve got to be able to throw cars. At the same time, you’ve got to be able to trade, auction house, have a guild, and chat with people and do all those shared things.” We took every feature and put them together.

This is a good example: trade skills. People ask, “Why don’t you have trade skills?” I don’t know – is there some MMO checklist somewhere you have to make these things abide? There is in a lot of people’s heads. That’s fine; I get it. But if it doesn’t serve the license, then we didn’t put it in. That’s really key. Otherwise, every choice you’re making that’s not DC diminishes your game. If you put stuff in that’s not DC, you’re purposefully saying, “Well, I have this license, but I’m going to make it different from that.” We tried our best to not do that because DC fans love the universe, and everybody else is going to know, “Wow, this is really cool. There’s a lot more than Batman and Superman here. There is a lot more to have fun with.”

There have been a lot of rumors about the subscription. Is there a set price yet?

CC: Yes, $14.99 a month. The subscription fee is an interesting thing because console players aren’t traditionally used to it in that form. What’s interesting is that what they’re used to is paying more for their games more often than PC players do. You’re paying 60 bucks per shot versus 50, and you’re paying it more often because games don’t last as long. Even if you go and get a rental or a cheaper game, you’re still looking at, okay, the game’s lasted a week or two weeks. If there’s multiplayer, you might play it a little bit longer. The way we look at it is: we’re going to giving you a subscription fee and it’s a lot like DLC. It’s like we’re saying, “Hey, we’re charging a subscription fee because we’re going to dedicate developers to fulfill that.” This isn’t just something that might occasionally comes out, we’re going to have a team that every month is giving you something, even with the expansion coming. Really, this is about quality of service. If you want to have a game that’s going on and continue to go on, the only way you’re going to get is if we’re able to build it because we’re able to staff it. Now, I understand. It’s not a great, familiar thing, but I do believe if you have fun playing the game, and you continue to have that fun, then $15 a month will be the cheapest thing you’ve ever spent on games, if that continues to be a fun game for you going forward. We do have microtransactions on top of that, but they’re for things that are purely cosmetic. If you want to expand even more, great, but there’s a lot already in the game. In our priorities, we always say, “What does the subscription get you?” That’s first. Everything else comes second because it serves. Without the game being good, then microtransactions don’t matter, the rest of the of the stuff doesn’t matter. We have to make sure to keep entertaining the players.

Will there be pricing packages?

CC: We haven’t announced all the details on it, but SOE has been doing this for a while. There are definitely grouped bundles of these things that get you more of a discount deal. I don’t know all the peculiarities as far as the PlayStation versus the PC and whatever, but we’ll let the pricing say, “You give us that commitment, we’ll make sure we’ll give you a discount on that.”

So, the Green Lantern…

CC: Yes! The Green Lantern question! I love that people are asking the Green Lantern question because that means now we have to make it. At some point, we have to put it in. It’s not that we don’t have the Green Lantern in the game, but the big difference is you can’t be part of the Corps because that experience in and of itself would require us to really dedicate to it. We don’t want to just throw a ring in your inventory and say, “Cool! Run around!” We actually want story to be associated with it. The Corps doesn’t just accept anyone, right? The ring actually has to search you out. We actually have to set up a reasonable story for why that goes on.

In brightest day…

More importantly than that, we have to make sure everybody that plays the game know what a Lantern is. Realize, we’re the first MMO on the PS3, we’re on the PC, and a lot of people don’t know – they just don’t understand that fiction. As part of this game, you’re actually going to fight and see the story of Sinestro changing and why it happened. It’s actually part of a cutscene. You’re going to see who he is and why he’s such a vital villain. He used to be the best the Corps had, but, instead, perverted, that story. In the same way, we have multiple episodes where you actually fight alongside and against those Lanterns, so at the end of it, you’re saying, “Okay, cool. I know who a Lantern is. I know why that’s important. Now I get it.” Now, if we do things in the future, we have some context established.

Written by: Jay Imhoff

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