DC Universe Online - Can MMORPGs Work On Console?
Two years since its launch, has DC Universe Online proved MMOs work on console? Executive Producer Larry Liberty tells us how SOE pulled it off.
Published on May 30, 2013
It has been over two years since DC Universe Online launched. Looking back at the game’s launch, what’s your favourite memory of that time?
My favourite memory from the DC Universe Online launch would have to be the Blur intro movie that set the stage for the Brainiac/Future Lex/Future Batman storyline that is only now wrapping up in DLC 7. It’s the stuff of comic fan dreams and something that I would love to see extended to feature length.
If that ever happened, it just might be the greatest comic movie ever. I loved how beautifully it introduced all the new heroes and villains in the world of DC Universe Online. As a long-time comic book fan, I think it worked well as an epic storyline. Who wouldn’t be interested in a story that sees Lex Luthor mysteriously return from a cataclysmic future to offer mankind hope in a war against an implacable foe set on omniversal domination?
DC Universe Online has been successful on both PS3 and PC, which is remarkable when you consider how both audiences differ in terms of demographics, controls and so on. How was the design of DC Universe Online tailored towards both sets of players?
The strength of the core gameplay loop for DC Universe Online is its pioneering action-combat. The biggest platform challenge was to make the system function equally on a controller and with keyboard/mouse.
I think we achieved a great balance. I prefer to use a controller myself, but I know that a keyboard and mouse can work at least as well. In fact, the top three finishers in our first-ever DC Universe Online Legends PvP Tournament at SOE Live last year used the keyboard/mouse setup. The other major system that needed to work with both control schemes was the user interface.
Things have to work well regardless of platform – and on PC we made it possible to go back and forth at will between keyboard/mouse and controller. No need to switch schemes, you can have a controller plugged in and still use the mouse whenever you want.
In terms of gameplay systems depth we had to layer in complexity to ensure that we offered the features that long-time fans expect in a AAA MMO. For instance, crafting is a staple of MMOs, but we had to make sure our approach didn’t overwhelm players new to the genre. We made the system clean and straightforward and we continue to grow and add features that reward players with more power and convenience.
Is there anything you can tell us in terms of how the PS3 userbase enjoys DC Universe Online compared to the PC userbase?
Our PS3 players are generally younger than our PC players, the latter of which are generally more comfortable with Leagues, Groups, Raids, and other MMO staples. For many of our PS3 players, DC Universe Online is their first experience with an MMO.
New players are eased into the genre, as the leveling content is very similar to a single-player, story-driven action-combat game. Slowly, through the course of that initial storyline, players are introduced to Duos (two-player missions), Alerts (four-player missions), and PvP (player versus player) content.
They’re also introduced to the concept of taking on a Role (Healer, Controller, Damage, or Tank), and taught through gameplay that teamwork and synergy are vital as the challenges grow. At the end of the day, we want all players, regardless of their background or platform, to enjoy the game and to be able to see as much of it as possible. Our goal is to minimize the difference between the distinct player bases.
At what point was implementing the free-to-play model discussed and what were the concerns raised?
There were some discussions about adopting a free-to-play model prior to launch, but it was not seriously considered until several months after the game shipped.
The biggest concern with converting DC Universe Online from a traditional Membership-supported game to one that utilized a free-to-play model was scope. It’s a huge game and it was not initially designed to be a free-to-play game.
That made it difficult to retrofit, and there was not a lot of time to complete the conversion. Would we give away too much? Giving too little could drive people away. Did we have the right mix of marketplace and micro-transaction items and services? If we didn’t get the balance right, we would pay the price. There were countless concerns, and you can’t know that you’ve got all the answers until you launch.
As time goes on, it gets a bit easier to gauge, but we will always pay close attention to what we offer with our free-to-play model. MMOs are living, breathing games. They’re services and they need to adapt to changing tastes and player needs.
As someone who has returned to DC Universe Online following its transition to the free-to-play model, it seems to have been key to the game’s longevity. Is there a future for subscription MMOs on console?
I don’t think there’s a future for a pure subscription model. There could be exceptions, but I expect a hybrid or pure free-to-play model to win out, at least for the next few years. At SOE, we’re Free to Play, Your Way. You can truly enjoy the game as a free player, you can also selectively buy just the elements you most enjoy, or you can reap the full benefits of Legendary Membership and take part in all the game has to offer.
I firmly believe that there are people that will never want a subscription, but are willing to spend money for content a la carte. They just want to feel like they’re getting good value. I think we deliver that in spades. We also want to make sure that for our most ardent players, Legendary Membership represents the best value in the game.
As to free players, they enrich our game. They are content for PvP, and they can be allies in PvE (player versus environment) content. They’re our future customers, and are vital to our ongoing growth and health.
There’s still a lot of fresh content being delivered, with Origin Crisis having just been released. At this point in the game’s life, do you focus on the existing playerbase or bringing new players in?
I think we need to do both. It’s not always possible, but it’s crucial that we regularly offer something for those players who haven’t yet reached the highest levels of the game.
For instance, in Origin Crisis we’re introducing a new power: Quantum. The new power can be enjoyed by anyone who has access to DLC 7. Traditionally, the introduction of a new power has proven to be a great way to attract new players. That said, we must also continue to push the content envelope, offering new challenges to our high end players. If we don’t do that, we lose our core. What I think will be key to our long-term health is consistently delivering content that appeals to all of our player types.
It won’t be easy, as there are many distinct groups: players that want high-end Raid or large group content, those that prefer Solo Challenges or Duos, PvP players, and those that simply want more and more character creation options. These character creation options extend beyond powers, though they’re the most popular.
In the previous three DLCs we’ve introduced a variety of non-power player package changes. In DLC 4, The Last Laugh, we introduced a new weapon type - Shield. In DLC 5 we included Utility Belts, devices that give players access to additional trinkets and consumable items at the press of button. In DLC 6 introduced Player Bases and the accompanying Mainframe system – an approach to player housing that offers up several very cool new player abilities.
It’s going to be a tremendous challenge, but the goal going forward is to to deliver new content for all of our core groups every six months or so.
MMORPGs are rare on console. Has DC Universe Online conclusively proved the MMORPGs can work on console?
We proved that we could get a full-featured MMO onto the PS3 and that it could be very successful. The majority of our player base is on the PS3, and we get thousands of new players each day. Despite the challenges, we and our partners at Sony Computer Entertainment have learned so much about how to make this genre work better on consoles for years to come.
Having experienced the evolution of DC Universe Online, what’s the main lesson SOE has learnt about creating MMOs for console?
It’s difficult to narrow it down to one thing. We’ve learned how to work with Sony Computer Entertainment. They’ve become a great partner, and are genuinely interested in effecting change that will make their platforms work better for free-to-play titles. We also learned about the types of content that appeal to console players. Of course, we also have a much better understanding of how to optimize for a hardware specification that is a bit less flexible than the PC.
Looking at PlayStation 4’s announcement and its feature-set, what do you expect to see from console MMORPGs on that platform?
I would expect that, with all of the amazing features that have been announced for the next PlayStation, that it will be a great platform for MMOs.