In the early part of this decade, "superhero games were cursed," said City of Heroes
designer Matt Miller during this year's Comic-Con
. Now, even the superhero MMO genre seems to be a hot ticket, with City
as well as Cryptic's imminent Champions Online
, unannounced Gazillion-published Marvel MMOs, and Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming DC Universe Online
DC Universe Online
is coming to PC as well as PlayStation 3, and embeds players into the world inhabited by Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, and other DC heroes and villains -- although players will control their own custom characters, not the DC icons themselves.
Gamasutra sat down with the game's senior producer Wes Yanagi to discuss the genre, development issues, the involvement of well-known DC creators including Jim Lee, and more.
All of a sudden the superhero MMO genre is getting crowded. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for your game?
Wes Yanagi: I think it's a great thing, because this really shows there's a lot of interest in this type of game and this genre. It's something that goes beyond the traditional fantasy MMO. For us, we really want to use the license and take advantage of the fact that we're DC Comics, and there's 75 years of content around here.
Superman and Batman are probably the most well known superheroes in the world. Just being able to build this virtual world where people can go in and actually play and exist in this environment is something we're particularly excited about.
You can't be those characters, though. How do you manage expectations for players who just say, "I want to be Batman"?
WY: Really, the goal and the vision of the game is for players to build their own legacy, and I think in some ways that's a more powerful experience for them because the iconics -- Batman, Superman, Lex, and the Joker -- those are all touchstones you can measure your progress and your character against.
The story in this world is vast. That's why we wanted to bring in professionals to help us out with that. Jim Lee is the executive creative director for the project. He and his guys at WildStorm pretty much concepted every piece of art in the game, so that we have that authentic DC comic book look and feel. Then Geoff Johns and Marv Wolfman [came] up with the storylines for this, and established why there are thousands of new players entering the world.
The player fantasy, to eventually build their character so that they might get invited into the [Justice League of America] or the Legion of Doom, is something that is also very powerful.
How does the studio work with guys like Lee and Wolfman?
WY: Well, Jim's guys start out giving us the concept art. We have our initial eye level story sketches and environments we want to do. We get concept art from them, and our guys build the models and build all the assets. Then he looks at them and makes his comments and tweaks here and there, and then finally we get them into the game.
Very similarly, that's the way we work with Marv and Geoff Johns, where Geoff is establishing the uber storyline, and Marv builds the specifics from that, and that goes to our content designers who actually build the actual missions, and then we go back and iterate that with Marv.
You said right now you're running the game with cross-compatibility between PC and PlayStation 3. Is that a goal for the shipping game?
WY: Definitely. That's a strong goal for the team. I think that being able to have cross-console-PC play is something a lot of people are excited about. Technically, that's at the forefront of everybody's mind on the team.
We had daily playtests with both PC and PS3 playing against each other. The designers are really trying to be really cognizant of making sure the game is balanced with both control schemes. I think they're doing a great job so far.
Have the differences between the open PC platform and a closed console platform presented any issues?
WY: So far, they haven't. Being an MMO, we have our own servers that we have to hit, so we're basically in control of a lot of that traffic. There haven’t been any major hurdles right now.
The PS3 is the only current console does allow mouse and keyboard support for actual gameplay, although few developers have taken advantage of it. Are you allowing that for this game?
WY: Yeah, there's no reason not to.
Going the other way, has it been a challenge fitting an MMO onto a console controller? Have you figured it all out?
WY: No, that's going to be an iterative process. As new types of powers come online and new tactics come online, I think both the UI and the controllers are going to be iterated on throughout the process. Also, once we get into beta and have lots more people playing the game, we'll have to carefully balance out all of those things.
Do you have a target date for beta at this point?
WY: Not yet. We're still pre-alpha. We're really close to hitting our alpha goals, so hopefully in the next several months, we'll start talking about it.
Will the beta be on both PS3 and PC?
WY: Yeah, definitely. We'll look to do something like that. Logistically, we're still trying to figure it out, but yeah, that would be a good goal.
Are you looking to launch next year
WY: I really couldn't say at this point. We're focused on our alpha goals and then our beta goals, and then we'll start looking at launch after that.
You call this game a massively multiplayer action game, not an MMORPG. Where's that distinction exactly? It definitely seems to share a lot of the more traditional MMORPG traits.
WY: Our combat is a visceral action game. We want it to feel more like a console action game than a traditional MMO. That's to deliver on that superhero power fantasy. When you push a button, you throw a punch. If you push a button several times, you throw a combo of attacks. You hit a bus and knock it down the street, or you can pick up objects and throw them at your enemies and they get knocked back.
It's that feedback loop and that connection to your character that's really important to deliver on that power fantasy. It's that action and reaction. You do something with the controller, you see it on screen with your character, and something else happens in the environment as a result of your character's actions. I think that really pays off on that power fantasy.
Have there been development issues involved with those kinds of real-time mechanics in a heavily server-based game?
WY: Yeah, definitely. That was early on. That was one of the big risks that we had. The physics simulation in a client-server latency-filled environment was something we spent the good first year and a half of the game developing.
Last year, we had most of that in place, and we've been improving it ever since. As people play the game, the comments so far is "Wow, that feels really smooth." So, I think we're pretty happy with the progress.
What are some of the games that have influenced the combat in DCU?
WY: It's really hard, because I think a lot of the games out there right now are so specific to their genre. But if I had to draw some loose comparisons, God of War
is definitely a good example, [and] the action feel of something like the GTA
franchise or the Marvel or Spider-Man games.
All of those are definitely games that we look at and think, "Yeah, this feels good." But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we have the MMORPG aspects of persistence and progression.
I know you have extensive character customization, but how much have you tried to safeguard against the inevitable emergent phenomenon in online games where people figure out the optimal type of character, which ends up getting propagated out as the build of the month? It seems like a game like this, where the idea is to have all these unique heroes, that would be particularly undesirable.
WY: That's always going to be a challenge in any game that has a lot of different varieties of tactics, powers, and strategies. I think the best way to combat that is to get the game out in front of people as early as possible with as much content.
Ideally, [we'll] have as long a beta as possible so we can tweak the different powers. Because I guarantee you that some designer or someone is going to create a power that looks cool by itself, and once we put it into the game, oh my god, a combination broke something.
So, it's really about being able to get all the cool things in and ferret out any broken issues, balance setup, and make sure that when we release the game, it's as balanced as it can be.