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AGDC08: Jim Lee and the artwork of DC Universe Online

Michael Zenke

It's a generally busier day in Austin as the second round of AGDC sessions kicks off. Tuesday began for Massively with a look at DC Universe Online, Sony Online Entertainment's four-color physics-enabled brawler. Presented by none other than Jim Lee, the well-known comic book artist, the session was a look deep into the game's art direction and vision bringing the DC world online. Jim was joined by Jared Carr (art director for the game), Jason Smith (lead character artist), and Jens Anderson (creative director for DCUO).

Read on below the cut for hints into everything from character customization to the unadulterated fun of bus-flinging,

After introductions, the panelists ran footage from the the game to give attendees a flavor of the title. They began with the gameplay footage trailer we've shown here on the site before and followed with a screenshot trailer that offered impressions of the game's concept art and style.

With the trailers at an end, the panelists opened the floor for attendees to ask questions. The following is a synopsis of the panellists comments; direct quotations are in quotes.

What was the first hurdle to overcome from an art perspective?

Jens Anderson: The first challenge was to nail the look and feel of a superhero experience. The rich history and story of the DC universe is something we really needed to understand. We spoke to Jim Lee right away, we knew we were making a big game - an MMO and an adventure game at the same time. "Truly trying to deliver on the vision."

Jared: There are a lot of people working on the project, and there are a lot of people with a lot of different styles - we all needed to get onto the same page. Here we're going from Jim's style in his books. We all worked to get archetypes worked out - we have a Z-brush pipeline - so that everyone has a good starting point for muscle detail, proportion, and inspiration.

Jim: One of my first hurdles was to figure out what a Z-brush was. Several issues came up; we tend to draw female characters with really long legs, but in animating that they look clumsy and ungraceful. Trying to figure out the length of Batman's cape, figuring out what fixed shapes to use for costumes and proportions are big challenges in an MMO space. Just the angle players are looking at - which way they're looking at the characters. We've worked to figure out how to include those cool comic book tricks in an online space.

Jared: Often we look at concept pieces and they're different depending on which side or front you're looking at. Wonder Woman was a problem - often Jim draws out her face from a front view. We actually had a version that looked like a gelfling from Dark Crystal. I sent him comparison between the two, and he changed how he drew it.

How do you deal with these iconic silhouettes, translating them to a player experience?

Jared: Player characters will be able to work from a range of archetypes that are very similar to the iconic heroes. Green Lantern is very recognizable, for example, and players will be able to work from that base if they want.

Jim: One interesting thing is that there aren't a lot of oversized characters in DC lore. We're always trying to make as many different shapes as possible, but there are gaming issues about giant characters. We want you to create a character that looks like it could fit in the DC universe. We've named them things like 'Minx' and "Olympian', getting at the body type impressions.

Jared: All of our body types were designed by Jim, too, so they're all right from the source.

Jens: Itemization is important, of course ... think of Batman with his gear. Sometimes he puts on different gear to deal with specific situations. You'll be able to put on gear over your costume, customizing it to your look. You'll look ready and prepared for your in-game situations, but will always be looking like your character.

Jim, your art has definitely changed over the years. Has seeing your art in 3D make you think about your art in any new ways?

Jim: It's made me fix my three-quarter shots. Definitely it's made me think about it. It's made me think about things that I'd done sort of subconsciously, things I'd internalized. It makes you more self conscious about how things work; I'm not sure it's changed anything but it has really made me think about how I put characters together. I've been drawing ankle bones wrong all along, I didn't know that. There are a lot of things we do when drawing humans in comics to exaggerate, stylize characters. I'm basically asking these artists to do something 'wrong', just because it looks cool.

Jim you've had the chance to draw a lot of characters over the years. Was there any character in particular you enjoyed playing with for this project that you hadn't been able to do before?

Jim: Well, most characters in the game are already in the DC lore. A lot of the ways the characters look really resulted from picking and choosing from the best elements of past costumes. Creating something that looked cool, creating a vision, making sometimes a not-so-cool character look cool ... there's a lot of fun stuff to get into.

How did camera moves and controls come into play, given art and style requirements?

Jens: The most powerful camera moves are in-combat, when players are fighting. You want the players to feel powerful and exciting; you don't want to 'jack the camera' away from you, but we're going to want to zoom in and show powerful knockouts or powers. It's not only a chance to showcase you, but the iconics as well. We want to be wary of doing a cutscene or something like that because it is a multiplayer game.

Was there any sort of movie elements included, or did everything come from the comics?

Jarred: Jim and the team chose the aesthetic direction, but the level designers were the ones responsible for the level's look. The most important thing is a fun combat experience, that's the ultimate goal. Once something is blocked out loosely, it goes back to Wildstorm for further concepting and refinement.

Can you elaborate on those aesthetics?

Jim: Yeah, the Daily Planet was one of the first places we put together. It's different from the comics to the movies to the cartoon ... we kept in mind the Metropolis look (art deco) and came up with a design that is unique to our game but really communicates the Daily Planet ideas. That went to the design team, who decided that we needed more ledges for players to bounce around on. We refined it, added more ledges, tweaked things a bit, and then shot it back.

We had a map for Gotham, which we based ours on, but Metropolis was a clean slate. Their art guys didn't like our first pass at the city, so we did a repass on it ... a lot of concrete decisions have to be made that just aren't issues in the comics.

Jared: If we weren't working with DC and Jim, we just wouldn't be able to make these kinds of decisions. It's great.

Jim: There's a tight pipeline for this sort of thing. After talking with Jarred and Yens, I can turn right around and talk to Dan Didio and say things like "Should Blue Beetle have a new ship?" This is not a normal licensee/licensor relationship. We do quite a bit of back and forth.

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