SDCC 09: Jim Lee and Marv Wolfman on Going Virtual for DCUO


A little ways down the street from Comic-Con International: San Diego in Sony’s hospitality suite, we caught up with comics legends Jim Lee and Marv Wolfman to talk about their work on DC Universe Online.

We started things off with Marv Wolfman, who is working on crafting stories for the game.

Newsarama: How are you and the writing team structuring the game’s storyline to attract both casual and hardcore comics fans, if at all?

Marv Wolfman: We’re not really worried about that, I think that in terms of the comics we’re following the comics characters, we’re following the personalities, following the type of things they can do and the type of storylines.  For the gamers, if you're coming in as a beginner you have to learn what the game is, but you are meeting the main characters immediately and they are going to help train you and give you over to others to train you.  As with all games the missions get harder and harder and harder as you go along, but I’m not really part of the technical side of how they do that, my job is to come up with storylines and springboards that are totally within the DCU that I can turn into a comic book if I decided to expand that into a full comic book.  So every one of the stories that I’ve done has the ability to be turned into a comic story. So they are pure and simple DC type of stories we're going to do in the game and maybe I hope someday get to do in comics too.  You just tell them differently.

NRAMA:  Are there aparticular kind of stories that work better for an interactive game, opposed to a comic?

WOLFMAN:  Because you're playing a secondary character that is not a Superman or a Batman or a Wonder Woman, you’re telling stories through what they are doing and the characters that they need or fight alongside, so immediately your are telling stories that are completely interactive. The difference is comics are still pictures that tell a

story the writer's way, In MMOs and all games you're in control of the movement of the character, more so in the MMO because you don’t have to follow any order that I decide you have to do.

NRAMA: The Non-Playable Characters (NPC), the Iconics as they’ve referred to in DCU Online, are largely in their current comic configurations; will classic comic events like Crisis on Infinite Earths be worked into the

game or referenced?

WOLFMAN:  There are classic events being worked into the game, nothing as big as Crisis, because that would be it’s own expansion if they ever decided to do that, but there are things that will give you memories of those events certainly encounters between some of our major heroes and villains, the difference being that now you are part of it.

NRAMA:  Can you give examples?

WOLFMAN:  Not really (laughs) I really can’t say, but there are characters like Doomsday in the game, so you can take that as you will.

NRAMA: Can outcomes of the larger events, if playable, be changed from the record?

WOLFMAN:  Everything is up to the player how they decide to play it, so if a player gets defeated one thing happens, if they decide to walk away something else happens, if they bring 30 of their friends and they just destroy the villain or the scenario, that changes things, MMOs are all about player control, so of course, yes.

NRAMA:  What about secret identities?  Is that going to be a part of the gameplay?

WOLFMAN:  That's not something I can talk about either way just yet.

NRAMA:  You're known as a big fan of gaming, is the project a dream come true for you?

WOLFMAN:  I actually never thought about writing an MMO, long before City of Heroes started I talked to all those guys because we were talking about me possibly working on a City of Heroes comic.  [Sony] was talking about 5,000 page bibles and all that stuff and as I got into the game I was hearing all this big stuff and the idea of writing

something that large was almost too daunting.  I didn’t think I’d be so involved, I thought it would be done more in house, and they wanted to make sure it was very DC, not soothing that was generated by another company that just uses the characters.  They brought in Geoff [Johns], they brought in Jim Lee and they brought in me to make sure it was

actually DC.  It was nothing I ever thought I would be part of because these things are so large, the very concept is so large because players have to have almost unlimited opportunities and which means unlimited number of missions and just never even dreamed it.  I was much more used to writing console games which is a long process, but a limited one.

NRAMA: As a gamer why do you think the MMO market has grown so much?

WOLFMAN:  I think because of the fact you can play with your friends. There’s limited multi-player options on a regular game.  You can play with a couple or a few, but I think it’s basically you can play with friends and talk over the headsets and gang up on stuff.  The forming of friends and meeting of friends is such a big part of MMOs.

NRAMA:  The MMO market is growing by leaps and bound, over tall buildings if you will, and becoming crowded.  What will make DCU Online worth jumping into over the others?

WOLFMAN:  I think the first thing is that you’re playing alongside characters you know, it’s not miscellaneous characters.  Secondly you can play the villain, which is really good, and you can play with villains you know, you can be on the side of the Joker and you know he’s going to screw you over at some point.  It takes place in a world you recognize, not just cities, but Metropolis and Gotham.  It’s these characters and the fact they act in character. There are reasons to play beyond the fact that there are great graphics and really interesting fights, the gameplay itself, throwing busses and scaling buildings.  Nothing is like using the DC characters everyone knows in storylines you may even recognize and in areas of cities you know or other areas of the DC Universe.  It’s really unique.

Sitting down with Jim Lee, we moved to more of the design elements of the game.

NRAMA: Jim, Does designing the characters for DCU Online differ from the process used on the comic page?

Jim Lee: Yeah, a little bit, at the end of the day we’re just giving the tools to the players to create their costumes and you don’t know what they are going to create.  Whereas when you create for the comic world, you know exactly what you are going to create from the moment you have your first moment of inspiration.  When you’re creating a comic book character in print you usually start with the name and the power and that kind of helps you down the road in creating the costume, what color it’s going to be.  If he’s fire based, red or orange, in the game space players are just going to click though the available items for helmets and chest-pieces and stop when they find something cool and not just create a character in the same order that we would in the comic book space.

NRAMA:  How much did you and your team have in creating the individual character costume items?

LEE: We concepted all the designs out, save for a few started at Sony, but all the costume design was done by the Wildstorm team.

NRAMA:  Did you find that 3D animation makes certain designs that would work on static comic pages not make as much sense?

LEE:  Yes, there are limitations, even though it’s virtual it’s still 3D, you can’t limit the motion of heads, you can’t make the lats too big or as they ran their arms would run into the sides of their lats.  You can’t have huge spikes coming out of their heads because they’d skewer themselves as they nodded.  That’s stuff you can do in comics all the time, you can draw an Escher drawing but you can’t build it in 3D.  We have a lot more freedom in the 2D space.

NRAMA: Is there a Secret ID mode you can talk about?

LEE: That’s currently being developed, so I couldn’t give you a definitive answer on that.

NRAMA:  Can you share other cities beyond Gotham and Metropolis that will be featured?

LEE:  None will be as developed as Gotham and Metropolis are.  There might be missions where you go to other parts of the DC universe, but they won’t be built out to the same extent as Gotham and Metropolis. When we do other large cities like Keystone or Coast city, or whatever, those will probably be for expansions.

NRAMA:  Will players be able to recognize where they are by landmarks or distinctive neighborhoods with in the cities?

LEE:  Absolutely, I think everyone is aware that you have to have points of interest in every area of the city so the cities just don’t look the same. Gotham is more Baroque and Gothic, Metropolis is Art Deco and futuristic.  Even within those cities you’ve got to have your points of interest, things that are landmarks.  The Daily Planet, a big stature of Superman in Centennial Park, so we did that for every neighborhood of both cities.

NRAMA:  Will there be weather effects? Or special lighting effects?

LEE:  Right now, Gotham is perpetually nighttime, and Metropolis is perpetually daytime.  I don’t think there’ll be weather effects that you’d see to the degree in other games, right now we really want to control exactly what the environments look like down to the lighting, the amount of color in the shadows, the amount the particles in the atmosphere, whether its daytime or night time.  That’s still being developed, so I can’t give a definitive answer on that.

NRAMA:  Can you list any other non-city environments that will be accessible?

LEE:  There’s several, STAR Labs, the JLA Watchtower, there are missions that will take place in other parts of the world, but that final list hasn’t been narrowed down yet.

NRAMA: Any other planets?

LEE: Definitely no other planets, that would definitely be expansion material.  When you get down to it there’s an almost endless amount of material that you can pull from comic book continuity, we wanted to start with the most important, but we will get around to the other cool stuff.

NRAMA:  We asked this of Marv as well: the MMO market is growing fast and becoming crowded.  What makes DCU Online worth jumping into over the others?

LEE: There’s only one superhero MMO that features the DC Universe, and that makes us very unique.  And luckily even the DC Universe is very different from the Marvel Universe, not only in look, but tonality, and the game will speak to that.

NRAMA:  Did you ever think this project would really happen?

LEE: I’m still thinking about that now! (laughs)  I’ve been working on it for four years now and I’m really anxious to see it come out,  the fact you can now play a demo of the game gives me hope that we’re real close to seeing it come to fruition.

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