Superman soars above the skies in Metropolis. Batman swings from rooftop to rooftop in Gotham City. The world of DC comics is an extremely venerable IP, with numerous evocative characters, locations, and villains. It's set to be the backdrop for one of the most ambitious new titles planned by Sony Online Entertainment: DC Universe Online. We had the chance to talk with DCUO Creative Director Chris Cao and SOE-Austin VP of development John Blakely all about the game.

Join us as we explore the game from top to bottom, uncovering tidbits about the game's raid gameplay, the underlying technology, holiday events, and the game's business model. We even ask about the game's launch date, with pretty well expected results. For a taste, here is what the game is capable of as far as world events: "We actually have a dynamic content system. What that means is that we hand-craft each event (like an armored car robbery or a hostage situation) and then we spin them up dynamically based on who is there and what they're doing. It allows us to easily replace every single encounter in Metropolis and Gotham and suddenly have Brainiac Attack or the Thanagarians Invade. Next week at Comic-Con you'll be able to play through that event."

Is DCUO built on a proprietary engine or are you licensing something?

Blakely: It's Unreal 3 engine. The concept art is of course being done by Jim Lee. Underneath the hood on the server side we've distributed a Havok server across multiple servers. We're simulating from both the client and the server perspective, emulating the environment we're playing in. That means this is a more visceral experience. There are some games, like Battlefield: Bad Company, they're adding MMO-like conventions to traditional games. Moment to moment, though, you push a button and something happens. It's like a turn-based metaphor, almost.

"You're this new class of villainy or heroism. You've come into the world, and you're going to be playing against everyone's reactions to that. How does Batman react?"

Cao: A good example is our projectiles. I'm a ranged fire guy, and I'm using my bow to shoot. I'm actually shooting fire arrows and they can hit other things, be deflected, be intercepted. Everything moves around that action element. If a guy walks through the fire zone where I'm shooting, he's collateral damage.

How much of the game is open world vs. instanced space?

Blakely: The majority of your time in the world is going to be spent patrolling or prowling as a hero or villain working your way up the food chain. The basic story we haven't revealed yet, but if you can imagine we have to come up with a reason why suddenly millions of heroes and villains have shown up in the DC Universe. You can't just sort of slip it in and go "oh yeah, there's Batman and Hero X here as well." So that's the story we're going to reveal later but you're going to play up through a hero or villain's journey. You're this new class of villainy or heroism. You've come into the world, and you're going to be playing against everyone's reactions to that. How does Batman react? Well, probably he tags everybody and watches them all of the time. Superman is probably the generous guardian and you're going to play up through that and eventually gain heroic or villainous status equal to them if you actually have the will to do it.

Cao: As far as the shared world vs. instanced experiences, it's more about what kind of story we want to tell than it is overall playspace division. So Metropolis is enormous, right? The one section we're showing off at Comic-Con is already a couple hundred blocks and the city itself is probably six or seven times that. And that's going to allow for a number of different parts of Metropolis, a lot of places you've seen in the past, that you've always wanted to go to. That's your shared world experience. Big zones around the world, and of course the Watchtower, the Hall of Doom, these places which should be places where villains and heroes see each other. If we want to get you directly in touch with Batman, and have you be on a mission with him, then we instance it.

If you want to go into Arkham with your friends to raid, then we instance it. It's less about a resource thing and more about "how close do we want to get you to the characters?" It's about how we want you to feel in that shared experience.

You talk about raiding Arkham. When you say raid do you mean a group of five friends, do you mean 15-25?

"Because of that scale of action you're going to see dozens of players together, but how many actually depends on how chaotic it gets. At a certain point we've given so much freedom to the players , we have to make sure it's not confusing."

Cao: One of the things you're going to see with DC Online is that the heroes and villains take up a lot more playspace. When you can freeze an entire area and then chuck people down the block, it's a little bit bigger than "hey I'm beating on a single orc right in front of me." So because of that scale to the action, players are almost like vehicles. Right now as a speedster you can run up the side of a building [ed: something SOE CEO John Smedley mentioned enjoying in our chat] or underneath a bridge. You can fly anywhere. Because of that scale of action you're going to see dozens of players together, but how many actually depends on how chaotic it gets. At a certain point we've given so much freedom to the players , we have to make sure it's not confusing. We need to make sure you don't sit there in the middle of fifty different physics objects being thrown at you, with no clue as to what is going on.

So we're basically playtesting it right now. We have different scales on it, but you will see dozens of people together, fighting with each other and especially since heroes and villains like to fight each other - PvP events as well.

Blakely: Some of those will cross over, so in one case - you saw a little bit in the video of the Tomb of Isis. That's where Black Adam's wife is buried. You're going to go in there as a PvP battleground and you're going to go back and forth and there are some control points in there that you have to control. As you progress through that story, at some point Black Adam shows up. When he doesn't, he's just pissed off that there's anyone in his wife's tomb. It doesn't matter if they are heroes or villains. He'll go after all of you. At that point it turns from a PvP event into a PvE environment. You have to band together. There's also that backchannel, the subtext, of other guys going around trying to undo the objectives you've already gotten, all while you're trying to hold off 'the big bad guy'.

Cao: Really we used the comics are our guide. If you've seen it in the comics, you'll see it here. There you don't see hundreds of heroes and villains against one thing, but you do see dozens, right? Especially groups of people working against each other.

This seems like a question for further down the road, but: this seems like an ideal game for regular patching rather than the expansion pack model. Do you guys have any sense of where you're going to go on that?

"Being a part of the PlayStation family is a huge thing. That makes us fundamentally change what we would otherwise do if we were just making a PC game."

Blakely: We generally don't. What we're going to do is make sure there is valuable content being released at a reasonable rate. We've done that very successfully with Galaxies, I think we've done very well without the expansions. EQ and EQ II have been doing similar things for a while, we have a lot of experience in there. Also we have a lot of unknown places with the PS3. What do the consumers want, how are consumers going to respond to that, what's best for the product? We'll make sure to tie that together.

Cao: If you look around the room you can see SOE taking next steps. Being a part of the PlayStation family is a huge thing. That makes us fundamentally change what we would otherwise do if we were just making a PC game. Because of that all sorts of new ground is going to be broken. What do people want to pay for? How do they want to pay for it? How do they want to get it? Because we're part of the PlayStation family we'll actually be able to fit right in. It was really cool to sit in on that press conference and realize, "Hey there's this big functioning group there that's doing all these other things. All I've got to do is just go ask and they'll go, sure here's how we do this."

Blakely: They're also taking steps in our direction too. MAG, that action game, that looks really cool. It has some of the fundamental elements we're used to. They're like "256 players!" and you can hear the gasps. I'm like "I've been doing that for a long time. I'm glad we're headed in those directions."

Cao: That's like a slow day in Freeport. [laughs]

How are you folks looking to do events once the game goes out? Are you planning to do holidays, or live events?

"We hand-craft each event (like an armored car robbery or a hostage situation) and then we spin them up dynamically based on who is there and what they're doing. It allows us to easily replace every single encounter in Metropolis and Gotham and suddenly have Brainiac Attack or the Thanagarians Invade."

Cao: Actually the Comic-Con demo is just such an event. "Brainiac Attacks!" It's actually a live event where Brainiac is invading the city and your job is to stop him. We actually have a dynamic content system. What that means is that we hand-craft each event (like an armored car robbery or a hostage situation) and then we spin them up dynamically based on who is there and what they're doing. It allows us to easily replace every single encounter in Metropolis and Gotham and suddenly have Brainiac Attack or the Thanagarians Invade. Next week at Comic-Con you'll be able to play through that event.

We'll also definitely have holiday events. At SOE I think we've set the standard for that kind of personal events, that kind of fictional specific moment. What do the Holidays mean inside of Norrath, right? Here we have the same thing with DC, but even more. Let's face it: Earth gets attacked all the time. It needs some saving regularly.

Have you decided what kind of business model you're going to go with?

Blakely: We really haven't yet. What we want to do is make great content and then figure out how much to charge for it. We have experience with that, we have experience with microtransactions, we also have to look at platforms and what players think of about those platforms. That's something we'll talk more about as we get closer to our release times. We're all about making a great game, making sure it's fun to play moment-to-moment and then month-to-month. From there we'll figure out the best price tag.

Cao: That's funny, because I just asked him that. [laugh] And his answer was really good. He said, "make me want to play tomorrow." If you always want to play tomorrow, there's always something you want to log in to do, some continuation of the story, people will pay for that. How they pay for that is a lot about the market and the platform and who is comfortable with what. But as a game developer it's freeing to not have to think "how many hours do I have to make you play?" Instead I go, "what are the juicy experiences I can give you. Where can I give you replay and physics to make the game immersive and replayable? At some point they'll put a price tag on it, but for now you're going to want to play tomorrow.

To follow up on that, do you folks anticipate collaborating with SOE Denver on a project?

Blakely: We definitely will, and we definitely are. It's called Champions of the Force for Star Wars Galaxies. [laughs]

Sorry, to clarify, how about for DC Universe?

Blakely: We haven't talked about that in-depth yet, but we have a great relationship with those guys. We'll see what happens.

Are players going to be able to change their costumes down the line?

"What is your movement type? Are you a speedster, are you a flyer, are you a teleporter, are you an acrobat? What kind of power do you have (ice, fire)? How does that power manifest?"



Cao: For us it's all about player choice. I don't know what super-hero you've always wanted to be. Or what villain you've always wanted to be. As a game designer that means I need to come up with a system that lets you do all of that. Other games have great character customization and we're going to definitely have that. And we have Jim Lee's style on top of that. That means it's going to be righteously accurate to what you would expect.

There are other choices that make a lot of difference. What is your movement type? Are you a speedster, are you a flyer, are you a teleporter, are you an acrobat? What kind of power do you have (ice, fire)? How does that power manifest? Is it a sword you carry, does it spring out of your mind, your eyes? Those choices matter a lot. What is your personality? Are you stoic, are you cute? There are a lot of choices that will composite a possible character that you could be imagining. What I have to do is come up with a system that integrates those ideas together.

Appearance is a great and important choice, but those other elements will be surprised by how varied a character you can create.

Any hints about the target release date?

Blakely: When it's done.

Thanks so much for your time.
Hungry for more DCUO news? Massively got the scoop at E3 from Creative Director Chris Cao, SOE-Austin VP of development John Blakely, and Executive Creative Director for the project, Jim Lee. Check out the roundup of all the DCUO coverage from E3 including interviews, screenshots, a full breakdown of the trailer and analysis of DCUO's role on the console. Plus, don't miss the rest of our E3 coverage!

This article was originally published on Massively.