Exclusive Interview: DCUO's Game Director Chris Cao

What gamer hasn't wanted to be a superhero at one time or another? Superheroes and comic books have been a part of gaming culture as long as computers. Of course, everyone has wanted to be Superman soaring through the skies of Metropolis, or Batman scaring the pants off the criminal underworld of Gotham City. Sony Online Entertainment has teamed up with Warner Bros. and DC Comics to bring this world -- nay, this universe -- to life. On November 2nd, DC Universe Online will blast its way to game store shelves everywhere.

gives fans of comic books, action video games, and MMOs a reason to come together and celebrate this incredible amalgam of genres. Create your own superhero! Thrill to the art of Jim Lee! Soak up the voice-acting of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy! On top of that, if you preorder this deliciously intense action RPG, you will have exclusive rights to a token that will allow you to join a 2v2 PvP arena as the caped crusader himself, using his abilities, gadgets, and fighting style. Plus you'll get all the other preorder bonuses like confetti bombs and batarangs.

Massively snagged an exclusive interview with DCUO Game Director Chris Cao about this groundbreaking game. Up, up, and away! (OK, that was cheesy. Just hit "read more" to read our lengthy interview after the break!)

Massively: What do Metropolis and Gotham City mean to DC Universe Online?

Chris Cao: When doing DC Universe, what's going to be the core of it? Well, it's going to be these two cities, because they're characters in and of themselves: the dark, moody one, and the bright, shiny, optimistic one. They have to hold the stuff you have to do in the game, but they've got to be more than that. They have to be convincing cities in and of themselves. So we knew they had to be big. We knew they had to be full of life. We knew they had to provide far more than the content itself. There had to be a sense that I'm in Metropolis, and that it's a real place.

Metropolis is over 900 square blocks; it's eight or ten square kilometers. It's an immense thing, but often numbers are thrown around in MMOs to say, "Hey, we're big." Well, we're not just big; we're very rich. We have in Metropolis alone over 45 points of interest that are big ol' buildings like the Daily Planet, the S.T.A.R. Labs complex, the Science Spire, the Ace O'Clubs, and the list just goes on and on. They've been in the comics so obviously they need to be in Metropolis.

What we did was we build all that and then add some systems to feel like it's really going on. Obviously, we have pedestrians and traffic. Ours is a bit different in that regard because [the game] has a full-on physics simulation. If you have super strength, you're going to be picking cars up and throwing [them] around. We did [all this] not because it's cool as a technical challenge but because, in a city were Superman is, you have to be able to pick stuff up, throw it around, and smash it. So we have all sorts of destructible objects in there, all sorts of physics objects. It's not just a bunch of buildings; it's a bunch of buildings that can get smashed. And on top of that, we've added three systems that really fill out the life feel of it.

The first one is a very subtle system. It's called Sighting. Throughout the city as you're climbing up buildings [or] flying through the sky, you [might] see an iconic as they go about their business. So, you might just be crawling up a building in Gotham and see the Dark Knight crouched on a gargoyle. Or you might be going through Metropolis and see Sup streak by. And they'll throw you a VO line or react to you and then be off about their business. [It's] nothing too immense -- just a little bit of DC there to remind you that you're there and what's going on.

It helps with the immersion.

Exactly. We have lots of content that we can talk about specifically where you're fighting alongside Batman. Or like in the first episode, you're defeating Scarecrow's minions and you're in the thick of it, right? If you're in the content, you're well-wrapped in the story and hip-deep in that illusion. But if you're out in the city, it's got to support believability on its own. And that's what that sort of Sighting system does.

The second thing we have are the Incidental Encounters. We call them the random acts of kindness or chaos. These are little vignettes that are around the city that don't have anything to do with any given piece of content, but they're still around to build that sense of life. So, this is were you would have [a] mugging. As a hero, you can go stop it. Or as a villain, you can go beat up both the mugger and the muggee. Instead of being on every street corner, thieves show up every once in a while to surprise you as you're moving through the city, to catch your eye and get you involved. And you can actually get unique clues and investigation items off these various encounters. There [are] actually some pretty cool ones. There's this saboteur on top of a building who's hacking in to wherever there [are] big satellite dishes. And as a hero you can go up there and beat him up and stop him from doing that . The cost is that you get a little VO line and little clue snippets to some of the communications between some of the bad guys. Or as a bad guy you can actually convince him to give you the control, and you use it [to] crash the satellite in the city. There's a cool [vignette] camera that will watch the satellite come down and crash into it. We have [these vignettes] littered throughout the game as sort of a Where's Waldo hunt where he can show up lots of places. It's those little touches that keep things going.

The last system we have is really meant to give you the sense of this rich, deep city. We have a series of exploration quests [for when] you're tired of fighting or just want to get deep in the DC lore. We have Booster Gold, who is this [smarmy], chill, NASCAR superhero. He actually wears the stickers of sponsors, so he's the ultimate sell-out. We use him as the tour guide [for] Booster Gold Tours Metropolis, [with] little kiosks that are conveniently placed [by] safehouses. If you go and take that tour, it will actually let you go to key areas like Crime Alley where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, or the Daily Planet, which is actually under duress here because of Brainiac's attacks -- [places] that really matter in the DC Universe. There's a cool cam that actually rotates around, telling you in Booster Gold's voice about any point of interest. You can just go, do these, and explore.

We have exploration everywhere. You get feats or accomplishments for actually going and discovering the whole rest of the world, to keep you grounded in the DC Universe. [One] random one is going to Big Belly Burgers, which are strewn throughout the city. I don't want to call it an Easter egg, but it's more of an immersion thing. You can go up to the food-ordering place, and it actually has a funny line with the guy inside pretending like you're ordering food at the drive-through -- dozen and dozens of those little touches.

It is Metropolis. This the first time that people can actually fight, talk to each other, and socialize in the Golden City or in Gotham. Always before, it just served one story. Here, it's a world. And it's up to the players and what they're going to do in it. So it's pretty cool that we are able to make it that robust as well as full of content.

I'm really excited about DCUO because it's a known universe and people actually get to live in it. What kind of things would you say (besides the IP) will draw somebody to DCUO over some of the other games that are out there?

What we've tried to do is religiously translate anything and everything and everyone that's cool in the DC Universe and just bring it online, so that you can experience it from your couch or from your computer. That's really the goal of it. That's the heart of it. Every other game might be able to provide you the underwear-on-the-outside kind of superhero with that generic superhero sort of feel to it. They do it from the MMO-side of experience. Which is fine; I'm not one to knock anyone's product here. I really like those things for what they are, but they are very clearly MMOs with capes. What we are really after is the best superhero experience we can give you. We feel that the best one is [one in which] you get to make your own superhero or villain in a known universe. It might be cool in another game to test your strength against random badguy X, but what's it like when you're fighting the Joker or the Batman? When you're a superhero and you can gauge yourself against that -- when you fight Robin or Harley and you beat them -- you say, "I did that." It tells you where you are on the superhero scale of things.

You mentioned something about buckets of powers and how they relate to existing characters in the DC Universe. What types of powersets or buckets of powers do you have available for the player?

Well we aren't going into all the details just yet. In fact, this week we found some things that [made us] fundamentally change the way some powers work. We are actually going to [give a list of powers] once we are pretty certain that they aren't going to radically change. But as far as the actual power types... we have ice, we have fire, we have mental. We have gadgets, which [has] kind of a Batman-approach to it. We have nature, which includes in it shape-shifting as well as a sort of Poison Ivy-approach. We have sorcery, which has magic and summoning in it. So each of those gives sort of a foundational set of buckets. The big thing that we are still working on and debating is light. Right now we want to make sure we have a quality experience on the ones we've chosen. It's sort of deceptive that there's those six buckets, because actually each has two major trees in it. Nature has healing and shape-shifting in it, and there's dozens of powers in there. Everybody can choose from an iconic powers list like heat vision or super strength. We have literally hundreds of powers in there. What we've tried to do is concentrate the coolness and make sure that each one of those really has action-game-awesome to it as well as DC-awesome to it. And again the action-physics-MMO tactical-nature to it.

What are you looking for in standard stats, like strength, agility, intellect? How exactly are you going about it as far as equipment is concerned?

Well, I think I'd like to do full justice to that and describe it all the way through. We do have stats on items and stats are linked to all the typical things you would expect. Think of it more as an action-game MMO-hybrid. Some [stats] are to your powers; some are to your weapons; some are to your movements. Each of the fundamental character choices you make kind of drives it. You see what I'm saying versus a fantasy game set-up? But I'd really like to do full justice to it -- break it down actual in detail -- rather than try to do it right now. I want to make sure everybody understands what the stats are and why they [work the way they do].

More Q&A with Chris Cao on page two! > >