Flying through the air, sprinting across the sea, balancing a stack of cars on your pinky finger - no matter how you slice it, superpowers are a never-too-distant dream for comic book fans everywhere. But what was once considered unattainable is headed to the marketplace in 2011 with the release of "DC Universe Online," Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming MMORPG that surrounds gamers with the most iconic imagery that DC Comics has to offer.
At New York Comic-Con, "DC Universe Online" creative director Jim Lee, director of development Chris Cao and art director Mark Anderson hosted a special panel intended to highlight the forthcoming video game's Character Create system, the design process that players will go through to create their very own superheroes and villains. The panel opened with an in-game cinematic cut scene that explained the premise of "DC Universe Online," featuring a futuristic Lex Luthor coming back to the present to warn Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman of an impending disaster: an army of exobytes are raining down on Earth, imbuing thousands upon thousands of everyday civilians with superpowers. A disaster for the heroes, perhaps, but a blessing for video game players all over the world.
The video continued to show exactly how players can customize their characters by deciding their moral alignment, their power seat, their weapons, their sense of movement and much more. Lee informed the crowd that it was very important to make sure that every player is able "to look as aesthetically pleasing as possible," with systems in place to assist in making good design choices. Costumes can range in inspiration from the golden, silver and modern eras, and if a player wants to look like they're a part of "Batman, Inc.," they can do so. If they prefer wearing tuxedos, that's also an option. Color choices are limited, however, to primary, secondary and tertiary colors. It's not so much a limitation, the creative team argued, as it is an appropriate measure to make the costumes look superheroic and not like they were "mugged by Rainbow Brite," as Cao put it.
Although the Character Create system alone allows for some compelling designs, players who progress through the game will have the opportunity to pick up new articles of clothing and armor to further enhance their aesthetic. Cao compared the notion to "Batman Begins," saying that Bruce Wayne did not start out with the Batsuit and all of his various gadgets. Similarly, characters in "DC Universe Online" begin relatively simply - though still featuring impressive designs - and evolve throughout the game. In other words, while there are lots of great customization choices in the beginning, these are just starting points for something even greater.
"You have to have something to play for," said Cao, referring to the extras and costume enhancements. Lee added that there's a difference between infinite variety and cool variety, something that's going to look very DC. Characters will start off looking cool, but they'll get to a point where they can look even cooler.
In fact, character customization may never stop, as "DC Universe Online" will feature continuous updates from the creative team. Furthermore, there's a feature called the style tab in which players have access to every article of clothing and armor that they've picked up in the course of the game. Gamers can swap these items in and out with ease, allowing the character to switch between a cape and a jacket at any given point in time. In changing how your character looks at the drop of the hat, customization is "literally endless."
When the panel opened up to questions, one fan wondered if players would be able to join groups like the Justice League. "Right out of the gate, no," said Cao. Specifically, the Green Lantern Corps won't be featured immediately, since a proper Green Lantern story requires leaving Earth, an ambitious prospect that the game isn't quite ready for. The Corps is almost a separate game unto itself, and "when we introduce it, it will be fully realized and it'll add a lot to the game." As an offshoot, players won't have the opportunity to model their characters after Green Lantern, though that's likely to change at some point in the future. Additionally, Sinestro and various versions of Green Lantern will appear in the game, just not as playable characters.
While most iconic characters like Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor and the Joker are presented as Artificial Intelligence, players will have the opportunity to assume these characters' identities in PvP mode.
The topic of customization was brought up again, and Cao said that certain character features are more constant than others, like gender and body style. Beyond that, most features are easily changed. If a player wants to fix up their costume, they need only visit a vendor or collect it during their adventures, then swap clothes in the style tab.
The maximum amount of players allowed in a group is eight for raids, with the logic being that dividing a group into two groups of four won't cause complete chaos. "When you pick up a bus, you need less people," said Cao.
Once a player decides to become a hero or a villain, the choice is irreversible. A character can't change sides in the middle of the game, ala Sinestro in Green Lantern lore, because the DCUO team didn't want to confuse the casual gamer who isn't deeply familiar with DC Comics continuity. "Knowing what side you're on and being consistent with that is important," said Lee, who added that there are definitely missions where your morals will come into conflict. One example he gave was when a hero would fight a group of corrupt cops, bringing that character into a moral gray area. He also wouldn't rule out the possibility that loyalties could become more flexible with future updates.
Lee was asked if he's considered an incentive program where special DCUO codes could be found in DC comic books, both as a way to reward the publisher's fans and to provide a reason for non-comics readers to explore the medium. Lee said he likes the idea, pushing it one step further with the suggestion of a line of DCUO specific comic books. But it's still early at this point.
An Aquaman fan asked if the character would have any screen time in the game. Lee said he just finished playing a level where he fought alongside Martian Manhunter as they struggled to defeat a brainwashed Aquaman. The fight lasted at least thirty minutes.
While the exobytes teased in the cut scene demonstrated the game's shared origin, Cao stressed that players more interested in roleplaying will have enough freedom to invent their own origins for characters.
The team revealed several of the locations that fans can explore in the game, including Smallville, the Bat Cave, Arkham Asylum, Star Labs and Bludhaven. The locations and cities in the game are so expansive that players can easily get lost in these worlds, said Lee, though there's sadly no ability to cause meaningful destruction to monuments like the Daily Planet. "You can't destroy cities, because while it would be cool for you, it would suck for everyone else," said Cao. Added Lee: "It's a shared experience that's fun, because no matter when you come in, the building isn't missing."
Finally, the panelists were asked about the recent decision to delay the release date for DCUO. A very simple reason was provided: "We decided to make it better!" While playing the game, the creative team decided that there were ways to make an even better gaming experience, leading to the decision to push the release date back.
"There wasn't some big catastrophe that went wrong," explained Anderson. "It was simply playing moment to moment where we said that we could make it a more polished experience."
Judging by the explosive round of applause, it appears that fans have accepted and endorsed the decision to delay DCUO for creative reasons.