DC Universe Online interview - Part 3: Characters and Heroes

I want to be just like these guys, except that Grundy fellow. He's kinda gross.

Today, we talk with DC Universe Online's Game Director Chris Cao about character creation, future Power Sets being added to the game and how the development team had to choose between quality and quantity in development. If you're playing DCUO as much as we are, be sure to read the earlier parts of the interview, where Chris talks with us about animation glitching and developer priorities and the planned monthly content updates (hint: Penguin's coming!), and tune in each day this week for more insight into our current favorite MMO.

PCG: A few of my comic book-savvy friends are upset that they can't perfectly recreate a character like Superman or Flash because the game's six power sets don't really match those characters. Do see that as a problem that needs to be addressed or is it just a side effect of turning a comic book universe into a fun MMO?

Chris Cao: I know there are a lot of people who want to make a specific character, maybe you have a character concept in your head. There are other comic hero MMOs that create power sets that have no powers because it lets people do certain things. We are looking at it, but what it comes down to is that there are two types of people playing DCUO: those who want to create a specific character concept and that's more important than the game play or cosmetic variety, and those who want rocking gameplay and abilities that tie together. That's the spectrum: I don't think players are one way or the other, you're somewhere between that.

For us, the developers, we're staying towards the gameplay more than anything, because adding a new Power type is the biggest change we can make in the game. A new power type affects literally everything we do. So our options are either give you a Power set that really isn't very different because that's the only safe way to add to it (giving you something that you already have and put different effects on it). Those character concept guys [want that sort of thing]: they're like, "I don't care if it's different, at least cosmetically, I can get more into my character."

The other alternative (on the gameplay-leaning side) is to say, "Hey, if we're going to add more powers (and we will), let's do it as totally different powers that feel different and provide different gameplay choices." I think our weapons show how different we try to make things. Two-handed feels very different than Bow or Dual-wield and the rest. We're trying to strike that balance [between new types and truly different types], and I think we're always leaning on the gameplay side of those options. I'm not trying to stretch the answer out, but it's really about different people playing the game and a lot of different points of expectation that they're going to have. And we are always going to err on the side of things that makes the gameplay rock and gives it tactical combos and tactical multiplayer choices, rather than just trying to satisfy a player's specific type of hero/villain concept.

One particular case is the Superman and Wonder Woman thing: they have power with no powers. We have their powers in the system, its just people want it called something else. We have Brawling in the game, and if you want to punch guys and smack things around, take the Brawling power set and Super Strength skill and you're doing the Superman thing. Yes, you may have to pick Ice as a Power set, because we made a balanced system where everyone has a weapon, power, and movement mode. But if you want to get into that debate: we do have flexibility in our system. You can role play Superman no problem. You don't have to use the Ice powers that are offered to you for tanking and those sort of things. You can mix your Power and Skill points, but its fundamentally a MMO, and that means it needs to play well as a multiplayer game with roles and abilities. That's always going to be our first foot forward. On the cosmetic side, we'll always try to put stuff in for it, but its gotta work as a game first.

PCG: The iconic powers that everyone can access seems to be a good container for things like Superman's laser eyes and Wonder Woman's lasso.

CC: If you made a system that was perfect on the customization side, it would fall onto the gameplay side because they are at odds. You can choose one or the other. Really, DCUO's the kind of game you want to play and we want to make it fun to play with your friends as well as give you the cosmetic side of it, but that's secondary.

PCG: As far as adding new powers in the future, the most obvious one currently missing is the Green Lantern's light powers. You could also do Cyborg's techno-augmentation. Are there any power sets that aren't implemented yet, that you peronsally want to see added sometime in the future?

CC: Designing power types based on one specific hero or villain is the main paradox in making a superhero MMO--if you're making a game that only has one main hero: like a Superman game or Batman game, its probably less of a problem, because the abilities are customized to that character. But anytime you create something that's more broad (like a power set in DCUO): your inspiration is specific, but your results have to be general.

Superman is a great example: he breaks all the rules. He's super strong and super smart (he's actually an incredible scientist). His story is full of alien technology, heat vision, cold breath, all of the sonic clap abilities, the pounding and ripping, and everything else that goes on. He's a very specific case that people identify with and if you're making a game about Superman, you can replicate those abilities one for one. If you're making a system of abilities [for players to pick and choose from to build their own character] you have to generalize and ask yourself, "OK, what bucket does this ability fall into?" Like th Ice power set in our game: ice is actually two sets of powers (all of the power sets are broken up into two main buckets of abilities). And even though they're different from each other, they are not radically different, so we put them in the same bucket so, anybody who has elemental-like powers will be using, at the start, either Ice or Fire.

PCG: Do you think there's room for more weapon types to be added as well?

CC: Totally. We had 15 or so weapons that we played around with in development and we boiled it down to 9. In some cases, we did stuff creatively--like we had this Wand weapon type that's a little bit like a Harry Potter superhero. And while it was cool and there are characters in the DC universe that used wands, we just couldn't come up with enough badass combos. At a certain point, the guy with the wand is bicycle kicking and back flipping. It just didn't work. So the quality-over-quantity thing came into play and we said "OK, lets boil down".

Another example is we had Single Pistol in for a while, instead of Dual Pistols because there are a lot of DC characters that use just a single pistol. Again, we looked at it and ask ourselves, "Whats cooler? OK, dual pistols it is." And how different are single pistols going to be from dual? We thought our time was better spent making a Two-Handed weapon type or making a Hand Blaster that will really be radically different [from anything else], rahter than making a Single Pistol.

A good example [of making weapon types feel unique] is Martial Arts vs Brawling. They're different, but both are hand-to-hand. So really, we wanted to be different. We wanted you to be cool because, there's a lot of weapons and powers that we give you, in addition, there's a lot of cool stuff in movement types. Like the Flash is a great example. A lot of the Flash's abilities come from Super Speed, not a power type. If you try to re-make Flash in DCUO, you're gonna be bigger and better in a lot of cases, because you are gong to have more options.