Community Detective Issue #18: DC Universe Online [Updated]

Welcome to another issue of Detective Comics, er... Community Detective, yeah. Between punching and kicking my way past hordes of villains, riding ziplines up the sides of skyscrapers, and listening to Harley Quinn's hysterical Mistah Jay accent, I'm a little out of sorts. This week I'm going to mix up the format a bit, both because it helps my sanity and because the current title I'm discussing demands it. That title is DC Universe Online, and I've spent the past couple of weeks playing SOE's new superhero actioner quite heavily.

First off, let me start by saying I've been a DC Comics fan for eons, so SOE would've had to screw up pretty spectacularly for me to dislike this game. That said, all is certainly not well in Gotham or Metropolis from a community standpoint, though it's not the community's fault. What exactly do I mean by that? Use the travel power of your choice to get past the cut and find out.

So what exactly is different about this week's Community Detective? Well I'm glad you asked. In a nutshell, it's more my impressions on the game's community (and by extension, the game) than it is a listing of poll questions and associated data. The main reason for this is that DCUO's chat system makes my usual server community snapshot all but impossible. DCUO's PC interface is flat out horrible, and the chat functionality is even worse. Despite SOE's this-game-was-made-for-the-PS3-and-PC talking points, 15 minutes with the game casts considerable doubt on that assertion, and even Massively's DCUO columnist, Krystalle Voecks, expressed her disgruntlement with the UI in her recent Alter-Ego column.

This is a console interface, and it severely limits traditional MMO community interaction.

I mean, you can't even mouse-over the abilities on your power bar to get a tooltip, nevermind rearrange things to your liking, type in guild/league chat with any regularity, or switch chat tabs with a simple mouse click. It's not all bad though, and in fact it's a testament to how much fun the actual gameplay is that I'm willing to be patient with what is one of the worst MMO interfaces I've ever seen.

Community Case File graphic
Why am I going off on this mini-rant in a community and customer service column? Well, because the UI affects interaction with the community in a big way, and SOE has seemingly rushed the PC version of this title to market with no grouping tools, a chat system that is barely functional (and bizarrely unintuitive, yes I used that phrase in the last issue but dammit, it's never been more applicable), and non-existent directions and/or documentation. Basically DC Universe throws you into the pool and hopes you can tread water long enough to find out how beautiful the world is, how lovingly the DC characters have been integrated into the game's progression, and how visceral and un-MMO-like the combat is.

The good news in all this is that the community has thus far been fantastic, at least on the Virtue and Vice PvE server, where I've rolled the majority of my toons. It's been a while since I've seen this many helpful folks dispensing random advice, offers of assistance, and very little trolling to speak of. It seems like everyone is simply having fun in spite (or maybe because?) of the game's solo-centric nature. There's a friendly vibe about the Virtue and Vice hero community that takes most of the launch problems in stride and goes about the business of having a good time despite the considerable social obstacles.

As far as actual grouping goes, it's hit or miss. Regardless of the time of day or day of the week that I played, I ran across random people to group with for the story mission boss fights such as Bane, Harley Quinn, and the Joker, and it was also rare that I was unable to get help for open world encounters like Full House near Gotham's Amusement Mile. But trying to coordinate with your group or to put a group together via the /shout channel is often an exercise in frustration due to DCUO's ham-handed chat.

I have to mention the profanity filter here as well, because it's unintentionally hilarious in its ineptitude. For some technical reason that's probably over my head, the game doesn't stop at filtering out bad words; it goes a step further and filters out portions of them, even when they're parts of G-rated words! For example, I tried to type "let's finish it" during a particularly fun roleplaying encounter. What my companions saw in their /say channel was "let's fini#####." I wish I were kidding, but apparently young eyes might be irreparably scarred by seeing the letters "sh" and "it" next to each other in the same sentence.

So basic communication in DCUO can be a challenge, and some of you may be thinking that voice chat is the solution to all of this. In some cases it could be (raids and PvP encounters basically require it for any level of proficiency). The problem is that DCUO's voice implementation is rather buggy as well. SOE has stated that it's looking into user issues, but there are still many occasions (during high server population times, if you want a completely non-technical and subjective observation) when the voice chat is unreliable. It's also rather limited even when it works, as there is no proximity chat and you're restricted to yakking it up with your guild or group mates. Finally -- and this is also purely subjective -- I don't particularly care to use voice chat with random strangers. I get enough of that over Xbox Live.

These are all issues that can be fixed, of course, and I don't mean to come across as being overly hard on DCUO. I do like the game quite a bit, and the early release community is a fun-loving bunch that adds immeasurable flavor to a fantastically realized game world. Basic UI and communication issues are not something that should be glossed over, though, even during a launch window when people are generally more forgiving of bugs and a lack of polish.

Customer Service Case File graphic
SOE has uniformly excellent customer service across its other titles, several of which I've already profiled in this column. What's the problem with DCUO, then? Well, first off, it's more of a slight annoyance than a bona fide problem, but again it boils down to the UI. In a nutshell, there's no in-game help of any kind. Clicking the giant help button on the game's options screen provides you with a web link (which isn't clickable). Drilling down into the "submit feedback" menu choice gives you a blank screen with options for "feedback," "bug," or "graphical bug" reports, but you're given no indication as to whether your feedback was received after you've clicked submit.

Tabbing out and going to the aforementioned help link does lead you to the familiar SOE customer service web interface, and from there I submitted a help ticket with ease. In this case, I basically filed a petition asking a GM whether the fact that I couldn't get any tooltips or UI mouse control of any kind was a bug or was "working as intended."

The bad news is that the UI is working as intended. The good news is that SOE's customer service is as friendly and responsive as ever. In fact, GM Jiiehmu responded to my ticket inside of 15 minutes with a lengthy explanation, an apology, and an offer to be of further assistance. The usual ticket tracking followups and email trail were present as well, so I can't fault SOE for its support apparatus. I will say that the lack of any easily accessible in-game method for getting in touch with GMs may put off players who have more pressing problems, but this is mitigated by the fact that SOE's website response times are faster than most companies' live support options.

[Update]:
I was recently contacted by Brad Wilcox, SOE's Executive Director for International Operations and Global Customer Service. He sheds a bit of light on the in-game help issue, and says that a fix is on the way. "In the future that "giant help button" option within the game will provide giant direct access to submit your issue without having to tab out or leave the game. In my mind I envision a giant Bat Signal shining on the GM floor each time a customer presses that giant help button," he writes.

That about does it for Community Detective's initial soiree in DC Universe Online. If SOE can be bothered to design a real PC interface, and if the community continues to be as helpful and laid back as it's been for these first two weeks, DCUO could reinvigorate what some folks feel is a stale genre. As it stands, It's already one of the more creative and fun MMOs in recent memory.


Join Jef Reahard every other week as he goes behind the scenes to file first-hand community and customer service reports from the front lines of your favorite genre titles. From Aion to Zentia, the Community Detective case files are an essential part of any game-hopper's research library. Suggestions welcome, care of jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.