DC Universe Online - Zatanna
Given the popularity of Batman, Superman, and the rest of the DC Comics license, you'd think an MMO based in and around Gotham City and Metropolis would be nothing short of wildly successful.

If anything, though, DC Universe Online (as well as dearly departed Sony Online Entertainment titles like Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online) has proved that big-name IPs are not a surefire recipe for an MMO blockbuster. While DCUO has picked up a head of steam over the past couple of months, it took a free-to-play business model conversion to help the superhero title achieve success in its rookie year.

DC Universe Online - Batman prepping for PvP
DCUO launched on January 11, 2011, and settled firmly into the trendy "action MMO" niche that's come into vogue in recent years. The game features a heavy focus on combat, and though the devs have just recently announced the addition of crafting mechanics, the extensive character customization and player-generated content tools from City of Heroes are conspicuously absent (nor is there any hint of player housing or dedicated social spaces like those in Champions Online).

DCUO does feature the usual gear progression, raiding, and instanced PvP options, and though the game's current level stands at 30, there's quite a bit of content to be had throughout the curve.

DC Universe Online - traveling by ziplineThe game's draw rests largely on its underlying IP as well as its brutal, brawling combat that feels more like a console beat-'em-up than your typical MMO. DCUO is powered by the Unreal engine and features a who's who of DC Comics talent behind the curtain (Jim Lee and Geoff Johns worked on the art and storyline, respectively, while voice-acting stalwarts Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin reprise their roles from the various film and television series that make up the DC animated universe).

Players choose a hero (or villain) mentor and set about working their way through open-world and instanced PvE content, much of it driven by a storyline involving Brainiac and his attempts to subjugate earth (and wipe out the legions of new player-character heroes who have risen up in the planet's defense).

Update One: Catwoman

The game's first major patch hit the live servers in February 2011, and it brought a new Batcave raid, new collections and appearance items, and auction house functionality to DCUO.

Update Two: Heads or tails

The second big content patch brought a Two-Face mission series to Gothamites as well as the Batcave: Brainiac Sub-Construct raid. New races, collections, and the ability to play as Two-Face in legends PvP matches were also featured, and SOE began to tweak the game's bare-bones friend and guild interface functionality.

Update Three: Ra's al Ghul's Revenge

You get three guesses as to who was featured in the game's third major patch. If you said the nefarious patriarch of the League of Shadows, you get a gold star. The update continued the villian-focused mission series trend courtesy of a new four-player alert, and SOE also added a hard-mode version of the Oolong Island group instance for good measure.

Update Four: Enemies Unite

Update Four shifted the focus from Batman to Superman by introducing new 8-man raid content (The Chasm) as well as new tier three Kryptonian gear. The Fortress of Solitude PvP deathmatch map also debuted in this patch, as did 12 new character creation body types and a new Batcave alert instance.

Server merges

While the game added content at a fairly generous clip, it also suffered from population issues, which came to a head during the August 2011 global server merge. SOE trimmed its DCUO hardware to four "superservers," and players ended up with one PvE and one PvP shard each for Europe and America.

DC Universe Online - Sorc blastingFight for the Light

September 6, 2011, brought the first of two downloadable content packs, and the Fight for the Light update introduced the game's seventh power set (light) as well as three new group alerts and a duo instance. Thematically, the new content centered around the Lantern Corps and its Sinestro Corps nemesis, and SOE made the pack available free of charge for DCUO subscribers.

Update Five: The Fate of the Fortress

October saw Superman's Fortress of Solitude take center stage in Update Five, and new raid content saw players joining forces with Kal-El to fight off hordes of Brainiac's Sunstone minions as well as the beastly Avatar of Meta. The Hive Moon Base alert also received a hard-mode option; SOE added individual PvP dueling functionality as well as the Batcave Deathmatch PvP arena to DCUO.

The F2P conversion

We broke the news that DCUO was jumping on the free-to-play bandwagon on September 19th, but SOE didn't actually flip the switch until early November. When it did, login queues were the order of the day, and the company reported a significant spike in the title's playerbase thanks to F2P.

Update Six: The Deadly Double-Cross

This update brought the Fortress of Solitude raid series to a close; it saw players assisting both Superman and Lex Luthor in the fight to stop General Zod and a hoard of Kryptonian villains.

Lightning Strikes

The second DLC pack came our way on December 6th. Lightning Strikes was all about the Flash and the game's eighth power set (electricity). A new Central City map was also added, as were new gear and weapon sets and a Flashback duo instance that put player heroes in charge of ensuring Barry Allen's rendezvous with destiny. Lightning Strikes was free for all DCUO subscribers and $9.99 for free-to-play folk.

Update Seven: Season's Greedings

DCUO's first winter holiday patch featured Larfleeze, the greedy leader of the Orange Lanterns. Players had the option of picking up new missions from Green Lantern or Sinestro as well as partaking of a new Watchtower PvP map and various holiday-themed vendor items.

The future

And that's pretty much DCUO's first year in a nutshell. While SOE still has a ways to go in terms of making DCUO a feature-complete MMORPG, the title has grown significantly thanks to its business model shift. With interest in the DC license sure to rise over the next couple of years thanks to Christopher Nolan's final Batman opus and the upcoming Superman franchise reboot, the game's best days are likely ahead of it.

DC Universe Online - gliding over Metropolis

This article was originally published on Massively.