NYC Comic Con 2009

February 10, 2009: NYCC - "DC Universe Online" Panel

By Scotty V.

A Great Team

I attended a few panels while at the New York Comic Con this year. It was my first time at the Con and I decided to go because I'm greatly excited about the "DC Universe Online" project, which, according to the design team, is still in its "alpha stage." During the panel for the forthcoming game, we the fans were shown slides of various as yet unseen bits of art as well as many we have seen and we were given a sneak peek of a mish-mashed trailer put together specifically for the Con. The panel was exciting with the audience sighing and whispering in amazement at some of the slides and applauding and cheering at things that were said.

Mr. Wes Yunagi, the Senior Producer of DCUO, moderated the panel and began by asking Jim Lee, Executive Creative Director, what some of the challenges were in transferring his artwork into the game. Jim responded saying that he quickly discovered his drawings aren't really created to be turned around and examined from all sides because the characters' eyes tend to be higher on profile shots and in different lower spots when seen from the front. "My involvement on the game is to take what I see as the ideal version of the DC Universe and give that concept art to the team in Austin, led by Jared [Carr], to create." According to Lee, what we will see in the game is not any one version of Metropolis or other comic locations that we may be used to seeing, but instead an amalgamation of all the different mediums and phases of those locales.

Some things, such as the length of Batman's ears or how to display Superman's heat vision were details that often required multiple changes before getting right. For instance, says Jim Lee: "...in print you go well I like the ears kind of short but then you look at it on the screen at that four or five inches high the ears tend to disappear. So you find that you have to beef up or make things larger on screen that you wouldn't necessarily do if you were drawing it because it wouldn't show up." When I asked Wes Yunagi why in the trailer for the Doomsday Caper does Superman press his hands against the side of his forehead while blasting his heat vision I got much the same response. Though Wes assured me that the footage they were showing was by no means final, the theory was that Superman touching his forehead would read better from a distance; especially when you consider that many times during the game there will be various blasts of energy coming from all sides of the screen.

Both Lee and Carr then went on to emphasize how this entire project is really a collaborative effort. Lee stressed that he's had some really great teachers in Carr and the rest of the Austin team and that he's loving working with them all because they're really "great artists." Carr, who is the Art Director on the game, explained that while comic book artists' work from a standpoint of conceptualization and really creating the look that his team works in the opposite way by taking what's already been done and then adapting it for the game.

Panel Crafting the Universe

There will be different factions in the game, according to Lee, and when a player takes a mission, he or she will find that they are aligned with a particular faction for the duration of that mission. Factions such as LexCorp and S.T.A.R. Labs were described as each having their own color scheme, as all factions will, so that players will know exactly what side's faction base or location they are in. The game will have hundreds of locations all over the world and at different times during game play alerts will pop up asking the player to get involved in a mission against or for a particular faction. But in each location, the specific factions will be identifiable by their specific colors.

Lee made it clear that while he's certainly familiar with Superman and Batman, that there are hundreds of characters everyone wanted to have in the game that he wasn't even aware existed. The process then was to start from scratch and "concept it out" to come up with the best version of those characters. Because there's no way one person could do all that, Lee once again commends the great team he gets to work with and says everyone involved has come up with some really great ideas. One example he gives as to how things work in the one office at Wildstorm Studios where they all work together involves the character Zatanna and her trademark top hat and fishnets. "I wanted to keep the top hat and fishnets and Jens [Andersen, Creative Director] didn't." The audience found that rather funny and Lee continued, "I tried to tell him there's just a huge part of our audience that really love fishnets. So, in the end we settled on some comfortable slacks for Zatanna."

I think he was joking.

"We got stumped by some press guys the other day talking about The Red Bee," said Andersen. "Why don't you tell us who The Red Bee is?"

"The Red Bee is a Golden Age character who has trained bees," answered Geoff Johns, responsible for back story on the game. "It's hard to do."

"Are you going to make him a Lantern?"

As the crowd was laughing at Johns' humorous expense, the panel went on to discuss how the characters in the game will all have a unique look to them, but that fans will definitely recognize who each of them are. The Green Arrow was specifically explained as having a really cool look that the designers think we'll love.

Can I be Superman?

Geoff Johns went on to talk about how he was initially approached about the game when he first came onto the project. He said he first assumed that players would get to play as Batman or Superman but when he was told each player would have their own superhero that would enter the world and interact with the environment he was somewhat dubious. "I have to say though," said Johns. "That after playing the game as a hero and getting in Metropolis and seeing Doomsday and going Oh my God there's Superman, and saying, I get to help Superman fight Doomsday, I got it. I got what the game was all about." Geoff says that's when he really decided he wanted to help craft the story that would make players feel as if they were the superhero coming into this environment fresh. Johns idea was that the player would be the secret identity at home while he entered the world as a superhero.

"I know I can't talk about anything," Johns said to which the crowd responded with laughter. "So I took the job and I was very happy Marv Wolfman, all of you know who Marv Wolfman is, but for me he's one of my greatest influences and favorite writers and one of my good friends and so I was very excited to work with Marv on this."

Marv, who serves as the ongoing story and missions writer, then talked about how blown away he was by Geoff's outline and his ideas for the story of the game. Marv says Geoff's managed to take every part of the DCU and just create these blocks where every type of character you can think of can be in the game. This is a very hard thing to do, says Wolfman, because DC is a very different company than a lot of other companies out there because it was built over 75 years. For Johns to take all of that and then figure out who certain types of characters belonged with and then on top of that there's just a really great story and Marv was asked to take all of that and then go to the next level. Wolfman says he's thankful he didn't have to come up with the overview that Johns did because he doesn't believe he could have come up with the "really, really good" story that Geoff came up with.

Panel "Action!"

Andersen then talked about how action was at the forefront of the game and even though DC is a very rich, dramatic world about great stories and characterization, the team really didn't want players having to read massive amounts of text. From a design standpoint then it was their job to take that experience and really hammer it home in a visual way so that the player will really feel a part of the action. Andersen talked about how content is spawned by saying that it's very dynamic and that the objectives you need to do in the mission are right in front of you. How a player gets in is that players will be in the world and simply see things happen and decide to act. The story will be evident by having a player see what is happening in a visceral "right in front of you" sort of way.

Andersen further described the way "cases" and "capers" will occur, with cases being what a hero themed mission is and capers being missions for a villain. Most of the missions will be able to be entered by both heroes and villains and both types of players will be able to interact with the world and see what's happening but obviously, based upon their faction, will be able to act with it in a different way. Types of missions will include the Doomsday scenario debuted at Comic Con, which is the first completed module for the game and others such as heroes needing to protect a certain individual or get them to safety while at the same time villain players will be trying to stop that from happening by perhaps taking out the same individual.

Yunagi then asked Chris Kao, Creative Director for the Austin Studio, about some of the early design decisions made on the game. Kao expressed that in ways it's very easy but it's also very hard to bring the DCU to life in a game like this. For instance, when you're talking about another game, where you're playing as Superman or Batman that's one thing, but when you're entering the universe and you're seeing the Daily Planet and interacting with everything in that world, that's a very different thing. Obviously though, players will need to decide what type of hero or villain they will be. What choices you will make from your appearance, your movement style, your powers, down to the way you approach the game needs to be as individualized from a design standpoint as possible, says Kao.

"At the end of the day," says Kao. "Imagine trying to earn the respect of these legendary characters or the fear if you're on the villain side that you have accomplished enough to actually stand along side them."

Q & A Type Stuff

At the end of the panel, as par for the course, there were questions from the audience. Someone asked if the Atomic Skull would be in the game. Jens talks about all of the characters that will be in the game, saying that there are always a lot of questions about what specific characters will be in the game and as they continue onward working with Geoff and Marv and developing the story, more and more characters will be introduced. Part of the fun will seemingly be which characters appear and whom players will actually have the chance to run into and work with or against.

Jens answered another question about whether Johns' "Blackest Night" storyline will appear in the game. The design team and writers, he said, have so many stories in mind for the game and so many things they're planning that they're not really concerned with bringing the game up to match exactly what's going on in the comics right now. For instance, "Bruce Wayne will be our Batman," he said. "We're not worried about who's currently doing what."

A question I've personally heard a lot and even asked myself once or twice was asked. Will PS3 players and PC players be able to play alongside each other? Before the Con, I'd always hoped that they would. Now though, I'm not so sure. See, I'm not the brightest bulb in the box and even though one side of my brain always knew that Sony was behind this game and that SOE meant Sony Online Entertainment, I really figured it was in the game's best interest to have everyone able to play together. What I mean by that is, if I want to play but feel the game will be more fun for me only if I can convince my friends to join me, but my friends only have one machine or the other and can't afford or don't want to buy whatever one I'm playing on, maybe I won't play. That's just a scenario of course for others, because I will be at least trying this thing out for the free month. The panel really thought it was a great idea to have PC and PS3 players able to play together and added that it was technically supported since they're currently playing it in the office that way, but no decisions have been made yet.

"It would be really cool to have that," said Wes Yunagi. "But it would be nice if everyone would just get PS3s."

The crowd laughed, but I agree with Wes.

Speaking of the free month, people keep asking whether this game will require a subscription fee to play or if it will just be a flat fee. In this panel, someone worded it in a way I haven't yet heard though. Their exact question was whether or not people on the PS3 will have to pay a subscription fee for the game. So what, he expects that because he has a PS3 the entire game and universe of the way things work will shift for him and his superior machine? If you're reading this now, whether you're really still wondering about PS3s or PCs or just whether or not there'll be a subscription fee for you personally, let me answer this for you now. Yes. Unless you're a member of the design team or the president of Sony or hold some other extreme position like, oh I don't know, Brainiac level computer hacker, yes you will be paying a subscription fee to play this game. It makes no sense any other way. For players who have played MMOs before, they already know that the constantly updated content requires throngs of programmers and designers to continue getting paid in order to keep the game running. For those who haven't played MMOs because they refuse to pay a fee or just haven't decided to try yet, it's really something we all have to get used to. I'm not personally thrilled about shelling out dough continuously to play a game. But then, if you love the content, and you want to have continuing things to do that are new and different; not to mention if you'd rather have the servers working and not crashing every ten seconds, MMOs will always require a fee to play. Sure, there are some very basic, sort of blocky free games online you can play without a fee, but they're not all that hot and they certainly don't star Jedi or take place in the DC Universe.

The panel, of course, declined to answer; instead saying no decision has been made.

On the subject of raiding and whether or not there will be a difference between high end and highly experienced players and those players who are simply DC Comics fans who want to play, Chris Kao explained that he expects there to be raids and groups getting together to do different things but that this is a game where players will be fighting with or against forces in the DCU and that it won't be about sitting around in a cave. So where there might be raiding, says Chris, it won't be like anything you've seen before. One explanation for how it might be different is the prospect of having random missions and content spring up actively as you play, which is what has been suggested. It sounds like a lofty and ambitious goal to set, but if DCUO can actually pull it off, it will really be unique. I say this because what typically tends to happen with MMOs is that missions and places programmed in the box, as well as new updates and modules made available for download end up permanent fixtures in the game and players know where they are and know that they can get certain extra experience or goodies or whatever by simply going back and doing the same "raid" over and over again. This tends to get tedious and I personally have never been a player who wanted to do that. I'd rather continue my ongoing story and gain what I gain by doing different things and actually actively participating in the universe.

You might be wondering how the hero or villain types will work. Will you need to pick a specific template and then stick with it or be able to take different skills as you'd like them and make a really extensively skilled character. Jens believes that superheroes are made to be flexible and that they adapt to situations so all players will be able to choose many different skills and that the plan isn't really to do a class type system.

"We want you to bring your friends, right," says Jens. "Not their classes."

Chris Kao elaborates on that by saying that over time your character will gain dozens and dozens of different skills that they'll be able to pick and choose based on the mission or need which to use. On the demo I played, there were 4 abilities on one side of the screen and 4 on the other that came up when you pressed a certain button. Kao explains that these are "presets" that already start to specialize your character. But at the start of each fight you can switch those out or choose what you think is best and those choices go on and on over time where you'll always have the ability to combine your different skills together in many variations.

Regarding updates and how they'll work, Kao says that it's no secret there will be expansions for the game. The team wants to continue to work together as writers and artists and designers and their plan is to keep bringing new missions and new stories to the table but since it's impossible to introduce the entire DCU out of the box, updates will be ongoing. This is normal with MMOs and for those uninitiated there's no need to worry, it always works that way and it's working out just fine. There will also be plenty of live updates and seasonal things players will download as they play.

On NPC reactions, the panel tells us the type of reaction you'll get will depend on where in the city you are. In some places, as a villain, you will be idolized as if you were a hero and other section will have you cheered, jeered or ignored. Then, depending on what you're doing you may also get an unexpected reaction. If you're a villain and you're doing major damage and throwing cars, you'll get the same reaction that a hero would get if he were doing the same thing.

"Will the game be more mission based," asked someone. "Or say some friends and I just want to get together and kidnap people can we do that?"

"That's kind of scary isn't it?" Joked Johns.

Apparently though, rather than it being a completely open world where a player can just go kidnap someone or smash open a wall and rob a bank it will be more that the designers and writers will spin up scenarios where those types of things will happen so you can choose to be villainous or heroic and you can be on the prowl or on patrol. Further, the same bank robbery or mission spawns won't just show up on schedule in the same place over and over. It will be more random and more story driven.

Wondering whether pedestrians would be in the way and constantly in danger during a battle, someone asked if hero players would need to worry during battle about causing harm to innocents. Andersen says that the game would be heavily unbalanced if villains could harm people or start battles but heroes needed to make sure people weren't hurt. "You'll find," he says. "That the pedestrians in the game are extremely agile."

"If you were living in Metropolis," added Johns. "You'd be super-agile!"

There will be no death in the game, per se, but players will find the more damage they get, the weaker they become and eventually they fall unconscious. After a set amount of time players will revive and be able to recharge over still more time. When I played the demo it didn't take very long at all for me to build my energy back up after being knocked down. Further, I did notice that I couldn't activate some of my powers when I was getting low on health.

Is You a Goodie or a Baddie?

Finally, if you were wondering on what side of the law some of your favorite artists and writers would land:

Jim Lee says he's spent so much of his professional life drawing heroes that he'd choose to be a villain. "I wouldn't want to be a mamby-pamby villain," he says. "I'd want to destroy the world."

"Okay." Says Geoff Johns. "Jim wants to destroy the world." Funny as Jim's response was to Geoff, he also chose villain.

Marv Wolfman also said he was excited about playing a villain.

Well friends, I guess we'd better watch out when we enter our favorite universe sometime in the near future, it appears some well known names will be looking to team up with those of you who will also choose villains and come a-gunnin' for use hero types.

Yipes!



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