SDCC '08 - Sony's DC Universe Online Presentation

Wednesday, at Comic-Con International: San Diego, Sony Online Entertainment presented an exclusive look at DC Universe Online—a new MMO utilizing the DC Universe and its wealth of characters and concepts. Along side, SOE President John Smedley, VP of Development John Blakely, and Studio Creative Director Chris Cao, comic book industry mainstay Jim Lee, the Executive Creative Director of the DCU Online project, rounded out the panel.

The DC Online experience is being billed as an experience that gamers won’t expect—using the Unreal 3 engine with physics based game play, accessible environments, and highly customizable characters that combine elements of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and 1st person shooters to create a truly unique gaming experience.

Members of the press were granted exclusive access to the “sizzler reel” which featured environments and a bevy of DC popular characters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Joker, and Hush; finishing with a voice bellowing “The Future Awaits. The Next Legend is You.”

SOE President John Smedley explained, “…it isn’t until you see Superman throw a bus […] that it becomes a unique experience.” Smedley spoke of Sony’s pleasure to be partnered with DC Comics for the project; he went to talk about bringing MMO games to a larger audience through the iconic nature of the DCU characters. He also stressed the importance of Jim Lee/ Wildstorm’s roll in making the game “an authentic MMO comic experience.”

DC Universe Online is also unique because it boasts a simultaneous release with console systems and PC systems—a feat which has never occurred within the video game industry. John Blakely and Chris Cao both spoke about the necessity of bringing a wider array of demographics to gaming—younger children, females, older comics fans—and that DC Universe had the potential to do just that. Jim Lee added, “We’re at a point in pop culture where comics dominate the landscape. This game is a way to share all the goodness of the DCU.”

When asked about the creation of customizable characters, Chris Cao explained that there would be two different ways to generate an avatar for the game: a “free form method” that is completely customizable and an “inspired method” that allows for theme based concepts to be employed which allow a player to be “like Batman if they want to be.” The customizable nature of the game featured an array of abilities, movement types, costumes, personal effects, and personality traits; for example, a point of interest being the “real physics” nature of the movement which would allow a super-fast character to be able to run up walls of buildings.

Questions were asked in regards to team/ raid based content—with possibilities players grouping in teams of 4 to 6 with the potential for larger raiding groups for world experiences—Cao named the Tomb of Isis as a potential raid-based area. Cao and Lee talked about the ability to gain access to the Hall of Justice via reputation and experienced gained through game play. Cao stated, “The basic story of this experience is the introduction of all these new heroes and villains into the DC Universe.”

One audience member asked about a particular feature that allowed the players to completely access environments in the game; Cao explained, “the action/ physics combat system makes the environment completely accessible to the entire audience.” He then went on to describe a character picking up a bus and throwing into an area populated by other players—describing the necessity for quick reflexes and other player awareness. Cao also mentioned an instance during play-testing where he and another developer utilized the real physics of the game:

“Basically, my character threw a ball of ice at his character. His character caught the ball of ice and charged with energy and threw it back at me—hitting me and knocking my character out.”

An avid MMO gamer himself, Lee lauded the various styles of movement that furthered the uniqueness of the DCU Online gaming experience. When asked if how long he would be involved with the project, he explained that his involvement would be ongoing and that a project of this magnitude is never completely finished; Lee spoke briefly of the nature of constant tweaking and tuning that comes with creating a successful MMO.

When asked about the ability for player versus player situations using specific heroes and villains the panel agreed that the ability to choose the alignment of a potential character allowed for storytelling that suited the players interests—whether they work through a mentor character (like Batman or the Joker) or if they strike out on their own to seek to make a name for themselves with the “patrol or prowl” modes of player versus player interaction which would facilitate point based experience for incentives throughout game play. When asked about “casual game play” Cao explained the unique “mentoring” feature and the ability called “side-kicking for real” would allow players with less time for game play to interact with more experienced gamers easily.

Also, like other MMOs, DC Universe Online will have an economic system—with “brokers” who serve to mitigate the transactions of players within the environment. When asked about connections to the comic book industry and the DCU—Lee was uncertain but explained that several characters may be updated via DC Universe Online first—and that these changes might start showing up in the comic books as well. He went on to iterate that this type of dual continuity between the game and the actual universe where the characters primarily exist provided a constant challenge to the developers.

Blakely spoke briefly of the necessity to keep the “specs” of the game manageable and that “so far, the PS3 and the PC have proven to be adequate for the full gaming experience.”

Finally, when asked about the incentive of playing DC Universe Online and what truly made the experience unique to MMOs, Cao said, “The list of can’ts in other games get quite ridiculous; in DC Universe Online—the physics are what you are. If you pick up a bus and chuck it—everyone around you better move…or they’re going to get hurt. It’s a real superhero experience.” Smedley laughed and agreed stating, “I was playing just yesterday—and tossing a bus on an unsuspecting villain never gets old.”

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