While most luminaries from outside the industry who put their names on a video game project get away with providing little creative input to the title, DC Comics' Jim Lee guarantees that that's not the case with DC Universe Online.
Here, the esteemed DC Comics-owned Wildstorm publisher and artist -- well known for his work on X-Men and WildC.A.T.s -- talks with Gamasutra about his hands-on approach as executive creative director on Sony Online Entertainment Austin's DC Universe Online.
Due out later this year for PlayStation 3 and PC, the title features dozens of characters (from Batman through Superman to Lex Luthor) and settings from the DC comic book universe.
Users create their own customizable superheroes or super-villains, setting traits like super strength and speed. As players complete missions, advancing their character and building up their "threat level," they'll interact with more and more powerful licensed figures, in both team-ups and battles.
In that consultative role, Lee is providing out-of-the-box solutions for converting the 2D medium and characters to a massively multiplayer online 3D game, and talks about it here in an interview conducted late last year:
How exactly do you fit into the pipeline?
Jim Lee: You know, there's no straight line or chart. If you were to draw a chart, my contact with Sony Online Entertainment is all over the place.
On the art side, I sort of act as art director for the concept team we have at WildStorm, so we're creating a lot of art, sending it to SOE; then they're building on that stuff and then sending it back to us. And I tweak the models—but even that is a very back-and-forth process I have with [art director] Jared Carr and with [lead character artist] Jason Smith.
I interact with ... [studio creative director] Chris Cao on the design side, and all that interacts also with [DC Comics executive editor] Dan Didio because we want some of the cool stuff we're developing in the game to show up in the DC Universe, and we want cool things that are gonna happen in the DC Universe to show up in the game.
The only part I really don't deal with is the infrastructure and the tech side because I actually have no idea what they're talking about. I'm interested in how the technology impacts our ability to create a game and to do certain powers and things like that.
But for the most part, my main focus is on the art and design, and then ultimately the storyline for the game. That involves interacting with Geoff Johns, who's sort of lead writer on the game.
When you're doing tweaks and models, are you making suggestions, or are you actually getting into [the changes]?
JL: I go into a Photoshop file, and I use liquefy and paint over it on layers. Then I write up a description of the changes I made so that they can see some of the subtleties, and then I shoot that back.
Sometimes, it's not a thing where I'm just saying to them, “Do this.” A lot of times, they send stuff back and say, “We did this; it looks funny. What do you think about this?” So, it's a very organic back-and-forth process, creating the final looks, the final models for the game.
You're talking about considerations for taking these characters from 2D into 3D and how you have a lot more leeway in 2D...
JL: Absolutely, yeah.
Has it been a mental struggle to kind of let go of that?
JL: No, not so much. I knew going in that we would have to make changes and compromises and alterations. At the same time, I have argued and pushed some points, and they've been great about going to that and actually trying to incorporate those changes into it.
I think one of the things I bring to the table is that, since I'm not normally part of the process, I can think out of the box. That usually means that ninety percent of the time, I have really awful ideas that they just laugh at.
But ten percent of the time, I have ideas that make them go, “You know what? We never really thought about... Let us try to figure out a way to do that.” And when they do it, it's something new and something that helps us get to our eventual goal, which is a great game.
Do you have any examples of that off-hand?
JL: I don't know if this is going to make it to the final game because it's one of those things where you have to pick your battle and ask. A lot of stuff I want to put in are subtleties.
If I pick up a heavy object -- a car or something --I would probably draw it with a slight bend in the middle of it. What happens when you don't do stuff like that is that you pick up an object, and it looks like a toy; it doesn't have weight.
You can show it has weight by sort of animating the figure to show stress on the joints and whatnot, basically being a good mime. But if the object itself isn't bending or doesn't show any damage, then it's less convincing.
So, we did some tests early on where you pick up a long telephone pole and it actually sagged --it's wood, and they actually did that. We had discussions: well, is it worth having this feature in the game?
Another one was, some characters use zip lines to sort of travel around. [SOE] wanted a shot where an archer was coming in on a zip line and shooting his bow and arrow. How do you do that if he's holding the zip line? How does this work?
I drew something where he's flying in upside down, where the zip line's wrapped around his calf, and he's shooting upside down. They were like, “That's crazy! You can't do that.” Basically I keep going, “No, it's cool; it's cool. You gotta do it; you gotta do it.”
So, they made an attempt to try to do it and put that as one of the moves for an archer in the game. I don't know if they'll make it -- whether it works or not -- but that's one of the things I do, just come up with things.
That's the way I would draw it, and maybe it goes against the grain in terms of what a game developer would want to do because it's not really usable across different character types and different powers, and it might be too difficult to animate.
There are all these sorts of issues that they have to deal with that I don't have to deal with because I don't have a memory budget -- I don't have any kind of budget at all; it's all imagination.
It's interesting hearing you talk about this stuff because you sound more invested in it than a lot of people who are outside the main game industry that are trying to make things -- you know, famous directors that are like, “I just want to make a video game!”
JL: I've done that, too. I've done stuff where DC had games where they said, “Look, Jim. Can you design one character they want to put in as one of the bosses for the game?” And I've done that where it's really kind of an arm's-length transaction.
I actually was involved with this project before any of the people here, before it was even at SOE. But even when it got to SOE, that was a different creative team that was in charge, and that was a transition -- they hired all these new people to come in and work on the game.
So you're kind of the overarching project director, in a way? [laughing]
JL: In some ways, since I was there from the very, very start. I'm heavily invested in it. This was a voluntary decision. I heard that DC was interested in doing something like this, and I raised my hand and said, “Look, I really, really want to be involved in this. I love MMOs; I love games. This is like the perfect project for my twin passions of comics and games.”
I wish I actually had more time to devote to the game. Early on, I actually wanted to move out here and get an apartment and live here part time, but the family kind of ixnayed that. But if I were single with no kids, I definitely would have done something like that.
I wanted to ask how cartoony you can get, like with stretching and squashing, because you were talking about having to have fixed lengths of everything, like Batman's cape and stuff like that.
Were you able to get any of that stuff in there to make it easier for you, or not? I mean, it makes it harder for them...
JL: I've asked for it and talked to animators about it, specifically in some of the run cycles where legs were looking kind of long. They looked great when they were standing; when they look long, they look a little gangly and clumsy, and I was like, “Well, can't we just take a calf and squish it up into the knee joint a little bit [laughs] and that kind of stuff?” There are technical reasons why that's difficult.
Another thing was, why can't we make thighs kind of curve a little bit as they're running, and that would require a joint in the middle. They wouldn't really require much use for that joint other than that specific kind of animation, so it makes no sense to do it.
But these are the questions I raise -- a lot of them are stupid, but at the same time, that's the kind of stuff I want in the game. To me, the next level of art in video games will have those kind of subtleties and will have more of that animation where things are much more flexible and rubbery to give you that full range of dynamicism and action because a lot of art in video games looks very clunky and stuff.
There's definitely that kind of puppet scenario that happens a lot in games. But if you're wanting to go in that direction, perhaps the next time you do this you should consider looking console-side because obviously with an MMO, they have a lot more things going on at the same, so an extra joint is a big deal. But in a console game, perhaps, you could actually...
JL: Yes, move in that direction where it's shorter gameplay, but the experience is much more lifelike and incredible, where the game footage is the same quality as the cut scenes. But MMOs are really my gateway to the video game world, and so this is where I wanted to be. But that would definitely be a cool project to do.
You also have the ability to kind of frame things in a similar way to how you could do it in comics.
JL: Yeah. One of my favorite games in the last couple of years was Call of Duty 4, and there were certain times when I was like, “Wow. I would definitely not want to be in combat because this feels way too real, and I'm terrified.” Yes, it's some really cool stuff.
I think that maybe one of the reasons that your suggestions work more than, say, those of a random director that comes in, is because you're coming from an art side. I've never actually heard of somebody with this kind of collaboration being like, “Maybe we can make this kind of art tweak” because you have some concept of the kind of thing that they would be able to do.
I think it's a neat perspective to have someone who's actually an artist; it gives you a different kind of aesthetic and consideration when you're dealing with this stuff.
JL: Thank you. Someone asked me if it really has impacted the way I draw, but it definitely makes me think about how I construct things and all the weird exaggerations I make to the normal human form.
When you draw it day-in, day-out, you don't think about it; it feels normal to you. But then when you have other people that are more used to building models based on real life, you start seeing where you take liberties with the human form.
Sometimes, I look at a comic book cover, and I don't think half those muscles exist.
JL: Sure! Yeah, but at the end of the day, you just want it to look cool and have this very visceral impact. You know, there are all these different ways that people draw comic book characters.
I think as far as my style, I really try to take what I think are the best elements of different artists and kind of combine it into one sort of grand, unified style. It seems to have worked for me, so hopefully it will pay off for us in the video game space.
Do you feel that this game actually represents your style?
JL: I think it's loosely based on my style, the same way all these statues that they build are based on my style but to me don't look like my style. I'm more concerned with the game looking great and it looking cool than it being like a rubber stamp of what I do.
Meaning, when someone creates a model based on concept art, I'm not there going, “You know what? That's not the way I would draw it; keep changing it until it looks like I drew it.” I'm more concerned with, “Wow; that looks awesome.”
I can give you specific examples of that. The Mad Hatter character -- probably not the way I would have drawn it in the comics, but the model looks so great that I had no comments on it other than “run with it.” It just has to look cool.
I think if you try slavishly to do everything to my style, you get this uniformity there. My style is not so great for cartoony characters like Mad Hatter or even Clayface, and you have to have that range in the world. There are all these sillier type characters -- there are all these talking gorillas and things like that and these different environments; you don't want Gotham City to look exactly like Metropolis.
To make it look different, you welcome the input of different artists,not just different artists at Sony, but also within my own consult team. You really try to tap the best abilities of all the different artists that are working on a project.
How did it break down in terms of who's deciding what characters are in the world and how the story is put together and that sort of thing?
JL: It's sort of back-and-forth between us and Sony. There's probably a short list -- everyone knows that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman are going to be in it, and even Green Arrow and Aquaman...
The funny thing is, most of the characters that we were kind of on the fence about are in the game, which has been really, really cool because some of the very initial ideas that other companies threw out for the MMO were very limited, as they wanted one city, fewer characters -- that kind of thing.
There are characters like Lana Lang; is she essential to have in the game? I would probably say yes, but you could make an argument that she's less important than most.
How many companies pitched before you decided on [all that]?
JL: It's not so much companies; it's just approaches to the game. Are you doing it internally, externally? There are a lot of different scenarios that were pitched. I'm not really at liberty to discuss all of them.
But at the end of the day, it got to where I wanted it to be from the start because I knew Sony had all this incredible experience with MMOs. I loved EverQuest and felt that they really would give us the best shot at producing the best game.
Do you know if they're doing outsourcing? Have you had to deal with that at all?
JL: I think every game these days does outsourcing, so yeah. Usually it's done with lesser assets, the assets that are less important in the game. All the iconics are being hand-crafted at Sony, mostly with Jason [Smith] and his character team of modelers.
We built all these archetypes of sort of body forms, but all the iconics are actually unique body types. They might start with one of the archetypes, but they always kind of tweak it; so they're all subtly different from one another, which is cool.
Are you worried at all about how these characters are going to balance against each other? Because obviously fans get real uppity about that stuff.
JL: Sure, yeah. If you decide you're going to do like a Batman-inspired character -- no superpowers but just gadgets -- and you're going up against a Superman-inspired type character, that's definitely a challenge. I mean, you have to nerf some of these powers to make 'em playable.
You can't have a speedster that can run at the speed of light in an MMO space; that would be a little difficult to do. That said, luckily, Batman-type characters are ingenious, and they have all these kind of toys and items that empower them to interact and defeat and be the equal of Superman-type characters. So, yeah, we've got all that stuff.
There is a lot in superheroes that's just really goofy, and you just kind of have to take it for granted. How much learning had to go on on the SOE side about your universe?
JL: A lot of the team members are die-hard comic book fans; a lot of them are new comic book fans. Luckily, if you have sort of the nerd gene, it gives you great adaptability to new nerd activities.
So, even if you weren't a childhood comic book fan, you could probably pick it up as an adult and get into it. Maybe not to the same degree as someone that was collecting comics when you were a kid -- which would be like me -- but it's not like most civilians that aren't into this stuff that are like, “I just don't understand it.”
In fact, some of them probably know more about the DC Universe than I do because they're actually reading every single thing and memorizing it as opposed to just sort of reading it as entertainment and putting it aside, you know? I'm less concerned with the data and all the statistics; more [focused on] the storylines.
I like how you call them civilians. [laughs]
JL: Definitely. [laughs] I have to treat them with extra care because they're not combat proven. You know, when I talk about what I do, I definitely -- and I don't want to say dumb it down -- I simplify it.
I say, “I draw Superman and Batman,” even if I'm not drawing those characters, because if I say, “I'm working on a Green Lantern trilogy,” 98 percent of people -- civilians -- will go, “What?” It's easier.