Part of creating a video game that feels like a comic is having a suitable comic-book-style storyline - or, in the case of Sony Online Entertainment's "DC Universe Online," hundreds of 'em. To this end, SOE turned to two of the writers who know the worlds of DC Comics best, Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and veteran scribe Marv Wolfman, writer of a legendary run on "Teen Titans" and the multiverse-spanning "Crisis on Infinite Earths," which featured nearly every character in the DC universe and set a benchmark for event comics. During a visit to Sony Online Entertainment's Austin, Texas, studio, CBR News spoke with Wolfman about his experiences working with "DCUO," the differences between writing for games and comics and when a villain is not a villain.
Given the game's rather long gestation period, CBR asked Wolfman how he feels now that the launch date is finally in sight. "It's sometimes hard to believe. I've been working on the project on and off for about two years, but some of them have been working on it for five years or more," Wolfman answered. "Thank God I can now just sit down and play it!"
Surprisingly, playing the game he's helped to create is something Wolfman only began to do in any depth during last week's press event and SOE site tour, where he created a character for the first time (except, of course, for all the characters he's created in comics, Deathstroke and the Tim Drake Robin among them). "Because I'm on a Mac and not a PC, I couldn't get onto the beta," Wolfman explained. "But in a couple weeks, it will be available for the PS3, which I do have, and at that point I will spend the time to create a character. I did it as fast as I could at the event so I could get into the play - I wasn't worried about finessing the character, I just said, 'based on Deathstroke,' and went into it.
"I had an awful lot of fun. I had not had a chance to play it to that degree before, so I really had a lot of fun playing it for a couple of hours and can't wait for it to premiere on the PS3 so I can sit down and play through it!"
In addition to Wolfman, "DC Universe Online" also employed the talents of fellow comics luminaries Geoff Johns, who developed the central Brainiac story, and Jim Lee, who provided the visual designs. Wolfman was responsible for "coming up with hundreds of concepts that were expanded into missions" for both the hero and villain scenarios. "I've been writing video games for about seven years, and I've been playing video games from the very beginning," he said of his own gaming background. "I have all the systems. I've always had all the systems. My first home unit was a ColecoVision. As a person who had been a gamer, though not a major, hardcore gamer, someone who enjoyed playing, this type of game play was not new to me. In many ways, it made it easier - I knew the basics, I'd played MMOs before, my family is very MMO-centered anyway (my wife works at Blizzard).
"In terms of writing this, knowing the characters and having played MMOs and written video games, it wasn't that different from what I've been doing for years," Wolfman continued. "The main difference is not plotting out a story where you're guiding a reader through step by step, which is what any type of linear fiction is, whether it's a comic or a novel or an animated show or a live action show, where you're taking people from beginning to end and taking them along a path that you're leading them. There is no way off that path, we're with you every step of the way. With an MMO, you're sprinkling ideas here and there and telling people there's a really fun story, but they can go wherever they feel like. You just try to make certain the events are compelling so they will get the most enjoyment. They will see the story that you actually have, even while they're exploring the area."
Another key difference is in the nature of the protagonist - whereas a "Teen Titans" story has an established cast, in an MMO the main character's powers, allegiances and personality vary by definition. "You always have to think about, first and foremost, the player. I'm not too worried about Superman or the Teen Titans or Lex Luthor; I'm thinking about a story where the player is the main character," Wolfman said of his approach to crafting the game's scenarios. "What their personality is is less vital because you can't make assumptions for (hopefully) millions of personalities. What you can do is, you present a story and, based on whether they are a hero or a villain, whether they are a meta character, a tech character or a magic character, there are different storylines. Depending upon who you are, what you invest in your character emotionally is up to you - that's not something we guide you on. We create a story that you can play with and go through and hopefully start to piece together what the whole story is. If you play it on all the different possibilities - for instance, first play through it as the meta hero and then maybe as a meta villain, a tech hero then a tech villain, a magic hero and a magic villain - you'll get an entire story that isn't always the same, because they all have their own storylines. But together, you realize that something you may have played as a meta hero, and now you're a magic villain, comes into play again. We cross through all that sort of material."
Wolfman spoke to the difficulty he initially experienced in writing the villain scenarios, which set players side by side with the Joker, Circe, Lex Luthor and other wicked minds in the DCU in order to accomplish a variety of nefarious deeds. "You have to remember, and I had to think about this quite a bit because I was having problems at first creating villain scenarios, the villain is not a villain. He's a character who is doing certain types of things that we would call villainous," Wolfman said. "Once I was able to free myself from the concept of having to deal with a character as a villain, instead of, he has missions - the heroes don't like his missions - but he has missions that he has to succeed at. He might fail, based on how the player plays, but that changed all my approach once I was able to place myself in a different scenario and say, no, this is not a villain. This is a character that has to undergo his missions or her missions - they're just not very nice missions."
Asked about which particular villain missions he felt turned out well, Wolfman cited a scenario early in the game in which Grodd and his ape army are attempting to reverse evolution. "That's a really cool concept, and that's a villain concept," he said of the mission. "If you're a hero, you're trying to stop him, if you're a villain, you're trying to help him. But then maybe you go, 'Hey, wait a second, I'm a human being, I don't want to turn into an ape!' So you may change. Realizing all the different components of that, that's what makes it fun."
As to forthcoming comic book work, Wolfman had offhandedly mentioned during the "lecture" section of the Sony Online Entertainment site visit that he would be writing a project involving Superman next year. CBR asked whether the writer might be able to offer any further details, but Wolfman said that it was too early to speak about the book. "It hasn't been announced. It's finished, so it's really up to them when it will be printed," he said. "But it won't be printed this year, so I can honestly say that it will be sometime in the next decade! Hopefully it will be within the next year, since all four parts have been written and drawn."
[Disclosure: this interview was conducted in conjunction with a tour of Sony Online Entertainment's studios in Austin, TX, and SOE provided hotel, airfare, and meals for the site visit.]