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Massively in Metropolis: Why your time online trumps game design

Michael Zenke

We've been exploring the game mechanics and design philosophy of DC Universe Online for the last week. We've talked about superpowers, factions, and questing, among a host of other issues. Today we want to be sure to highlight a fascinating exchange we had with DCUO Creative Director Jens Andersen and SOE Austin Creative Director Chris Cao about the role of fun in DCUO. Check out our back-and-forth on this issue in our new interview-style format below.
What is it about DCUO that's compelling the team to concentrate on the amount of fun a player is having moment by moment? It seems as thought that's a major focus for the the game.
Jens Andersen: It's a design philosophy. The key to us is: the most valuable thing the players have is online time together. So anything we do that provides an obstacle to that means we're wasting your time. It might be a great way to keep players in the game, when we ask you to run across an entire continent to go get something for your group. For you guys, it stinks. We don't want to waste your time.

What we're really interested in generally speaking is: on a given night, what are players going to jump in and be doing? What's the gameplay going to be like?
Jens: It's kind of like what you're seeing right here. We want to make sure is that the city feels like a real city. This is an event that's going on in this part of Metropolis. This is a two-block area in a city that has hundreds and hundreds of blocks, and different zones and different areas and different flavors. Some are friendly toward villains, some are friendly toward heroes, some are kind of in the middle. Something like this might literally pop up, where you have this event come in and take over this area of the city. Ships come down, the Brainiacs are running around, people are getting converted. The group of heroes and villains come together with conflicting – or sometimes similar – goals, because sometimes it's not good for anyone if the earth gets destroyed or taken over, so you might have to ally with each other.
That's for this special event. What can we expect to see in Metropolis normally? We really want to be sure that players understand what their normal gameplay night will be like.
Jens: Normally what you'd do is you'd still see these same kind of encounters. However, they would be flavored a little different. If I'm going down the street and I see a robbery at the jewelry store, I'm going to see cops and some criminals, maybe a getaway car. Some civilians might need to be secured and protected, something like that. And then, that would resolve. If I don't deal with it, that doesn't stay there and play out forever. There's no mob field that we have running, populating the city. We don't have demon crack dealers on one corner and robots from the future across the street, evil cultists on the top of the buildings summoning up things from a cauldron.
Gotcha. It seems, though, like something that other games are still offering. You've implied that there are other elements to take into account that aren't just the same old questing.
Jens: Think of it more like a living breathing city where things happen. And if they're not dealt with, they go away, and it returns to normal. But yes, that's just our base population. That's how we're handling base pop. We have these encounters popping up all over the place, and they're reactive to your presence. Then we do things that are like events, which are more like shared things that'll have a longer duration. And then other gameplay is going into locations, either larger locations like Arkham Asylum, or maybe you get a quest from Jim Gordon in Gotham that Catwoman has been doing nefarious things, burglaries going on in the penthouses of Gotham uptown. So you go uptown, and you get this ability to go into a penthouse in this high-rise, and there's Catwoman there and she's doing a heist, and you actually fight her.
What is the soloability of the game going to be like? From what you've said there are a lot of built-in solo elements as well?
Chris Cao: You're going to be able to play by yourself, if you want to play a little, get in to PvP or PvE, play with a group of people, or play with a raid sized group of people. So we have all of the conventional classifications, we just also have a superhero action game. You'll be running around, and you'll get communications from Superman or Batman, and Superman might say 'Hey, I need you to help me, I got trouble downtown.' And then you get some information about what he's talking about. So you go there and deal with it, or... not! And if you don't, then next time you go, Superman might contact you and say 'hey, you let me down last time, you never showed up.' He'll remember.
So the thing that springs to mind is, what's the balance going to be between just running around and really enjoying being a superhero out in the world? Obviously in the fantasy MMOs right now, questing is sort of the be all and end all of gameplay right now.
Jens: One's going to lead into the other. We have collections you can be doing that are either clues or other piecing things together, and content will actually spawn out of that, these encounters that you have. So we sort of bring it to you, in a way. There's other opportunities where you actually go to a contact. You would say 'hey, dude Gordon, what's up?' or 'Hi Lois Lane, what's up'? And she'd go 'oh, I've been investigating this story... ' And you might go investigate something somewhere and get a clue that would start a collection chain, or a map.
So you're going to be able to go and do this freeform stuff, and quests will sort of pop out of that, instead of going to a new hub and the being lots of guys with their quests?
Chris: Our entire content paradigm is built around making content for you. It's a crazy concept, but we believe we should entertain you! So we look at who you are, what level you are, what quests you've done, what you've completed, where you are in a city, and we spin up stuff around there that's relevant to you. Or we spin up a little ways away, to make you travel.
Is that what you meant about it being a living city? There's no 'default' content that just sits around?
Chris: This is all encounter based. We call it 'content scheduling'. That's what lets us swap out all the normal crime that would normally be in a city for a Brainiac event on the fly. We built the whole thing around the idea that it's not really natural for, as Jens was saying, for there to be a static population of crazy villains or heroes in a city, right? There should be people living there, and things should happen to those people. And so it's a very naturalistic approach. We want you to feel like a superhero really would. You're prowling, or you're patrolling, and you're finding things, and that's leading you on to greater levels of content. And if course if you just want to PvP, or you just want to go into an instance, you can do that at any time.

Did you enjoy this? We've donned our capes and tights to explore SOE's DC Universe Online in-depth. Come explore more of Metropolis and Gotham with your friends at Massively!

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