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Massively exclusive: A chat with DCUO's Chris Cao, part one

Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. All are iconic characters, well known to fans of the DC Universe. And when it comes to DC Universe Online, Game Director Chris Cao certainly holds his own as an iconic character to fans of the game. Between Cao and DC Universe Online's Creative Director, Jens Andersen, we've had open, humorous, honest, and occasionally not-entirely-PR-cleared news of the game from the earliest days leading up through its recent launch.

Even though Cao is keeping crazy long (and late-night) hours as both a passionate gamer and a developer with a freshly launched game, we had the chance to sit down with him last night for a very candid interview. Among the myriad topics covered, we spoke about his thoughts on launch, some of the team's experiences with the game, the potential differences in platforms and communities, and more. Additionally, Cao took time out to answer some of the burning questions we've heard from our readers. So without further ado, join us behind the break for part one of this superpowered interview. Also, be sure to check back tomorrow for part two -- we're sure you won't want to miss it!

Massively: So tell us a little bit about what's going on since launch.

Chris Cao: We've opened up the new PvP servers because players are flooding the other ones. There's lots of good carnage going on with players mixing it up. We only released a few servers for PvP initially because we wanted to make sure they were nice and full, that way PvP is at its best. The players spoke, so we lit up two more: Cry for Blood and Blood Will Run, on PC and PS3 respectively. We also threw out a fix earlier [Thursday] morning to address a few issues. Other than that, people are rolling, they're leveling and doing heroic or villainous things in the DC Universe. I was here playing until 4 in the morning -- sure, I was keeping an eye on the boards -- but it was awesome to be here and playing with everybody.

We hear you're a PvPer!

I am! I've been playing and making MMOs for a long, long time, so while I love raiding too, I also love the juice of PvP. For example, yesterday I happened to run across some guys who were farming noobs outside of the Joker content. I'm a villain, so I decided to farm them back. Then there was an aerial battle going on above me with six flyers chasing each other all over Gotham. I'm an acrobat, so I climbed up to the top of a building, flew out into the middle of it, and comboed this one guy all the way down to the ground, knocking him out. I haven't done that before in any game I've built or played, so that was pretty fun. Later I got jumped by a group of level 6 characters. I'm level 23. They actually took me out because there were four of them and they were working me back and forth and up and down.

We have a few people here (one of our camera control engineers, actually) who [are] huge comics fans and very much against PvP. A few things, I think, go in our favor. First, you can get away fairly quickly if you need to, especially if you get jumped and you don't fight back. You can move very quickly and very easily as well. Of course, the fighting is very skill-based, so it is a lot better than "I'm going to lose an entire level and I'm going to die," as you've actually got a few more chances here and there. We actually noticed in beta (and now in live) that there are a lot of folks who said, "I won't do PvP," but then they try it and decide that it isn't bad after all. Now some people just don't like it, and that's totally fine. We've built out PvE servers and raid content for them. Ultimately, it's about making sure that we've built the game for a lot of different folks with a lot of different tastes in a way that they'll like. I think we did pretty well on that front.

Yes, some of us did hit problems that stopped a few of us from rolling PvP, such as when you're caught in a cutscene. You'll get hammered and be unable to react...

Yeah. I'm laughing because PvP is pretty much the ultimate petri dish of evolution. It's the place where every tactic and ability is used against every other tactic and ability. One of our engineers actually goes into stealth, but he leaves his collector's edition pet out, which doesn't stealth. He uses it to fish for people. They'll attack his pet because they're not quite sure what it is. He'll be able to jump them from stealth. On a PvE server, the Booster Gold kiosks are a fun way to give you some more information about the lore. But on a PvP server, your eyes are dancing around, and you're wondering if you have the 30 seconds it's going to take to make it through the cutscene without getting jumped.

What about those who don't want their PvP quite so hardcore?

We basically built in three different kinds of PvP for players to enjoy. There's the open-world PvP, which is always going to be a little bit like a riot -- right on the edge -- because there's such a free-form nature to it. We have Arena PvP, which is much more gear- and level-based. Then we have the Legends PvP, where players are going in order to get their skills up. In Legends, you get to play as an iconic character who has all the blocks and dodges that go with it. That said, PvP is not the entirety of the game. There are only three PvP servers (four for each with the newly launched servers), and the vast majority of our players are on PvE servers. We simply wanted to make sure that there were different options for people to enjoy.

How is the community going since launch?

We have projectors up in the studio that have what we call a dashboard, which show us all the stats, server populations, and who is doing what. Our community team is out there on the boards, and lots of people are playing every night. We're also playing too. We have our own league going on the development side.

How are the non-MMO players adjusting?

What's really interesting is that we have a lot of people who came from the action-game side to help build this, and they don't know all of the intricacies of the MMO space. As such, they're learning how leagues work and how you can call on people to work together. Of course, to an MMO crowd, this is very, very expected. That socialization is what MMOs are all about. We are seeing players, especially on the PS3 side, who are getting that first-time MMO experience like we all did. We actually had one animator who had never played an MMO before turn into a hardcore raider. When we shut beta down, he was saying, "I've just got to get in there!" I thought, "Cool! We've made a convert. We've turned someone else on to what we think is so cool about MMOs." Especially when it's a game with the kind of combat that we've got going on.

Are you getting different kinds of feedback from the PC and PS3 players?

Both in our own forums and across the web, we're seeing the audiences resonating due to it being a different kind of game. Since DCUO is not a traditional MMO, people are having to put a little bit of a different hat on and say, "OK, let me approach this as what it is." It's a transition both ways. It's not like a normal MMO where people launch it and immediately know all the conventions.

The major differences are in how we get comments more than anything. The PC players are more used to forums and posting their ideas more fully, whereas the PS3 players are much more in the moment and make comments in more of a tweet style. For us, the major difference is about how we're reacting to the audiences communicating about the game. The game itself has been developed to be very similar on both platforms. For example, you can plug a keyboard into a PS3 or you can plug a controller into your PC. We've given you different ways to play it, even though it's just one game. So no, we haven't seen truly major differences.

Any comment on the decision to restrict powerset availability at launch?

"I understand that we have less, but we have far better, and I'll say that."

It's an interesting discussion point because people say, "Hey, your character creator is restricted," or "Hey, your powersets are restricted," and I'm not sure what they're talking about. I understand that we have less, but we have far better, and I'll say that. At the end of the day, my job is to play every permutation of the game and to make sure they're all as much fun as possible. The more powers you have, the more they're going to be the same. At the end of the day we have to make a fun game, especially for raiding and PvP, and make sure that those powersets are balanced and fair.

We actually have 12 powersets; we just have six powers that have two trees each. On top of that, we have the movement tree, and additionally we have the skill systems. I'm not looking to make a game that has the most of something; I'm looking at making a game that has the best. We have the best super-hero experience. Our combat is an action-game superhero experience. It's not like anything else -- it's an action game in an MMO setting and world. I understand that there are people's opinions and perspective on it, but if you're playing a game because of the number of things instead of the quality of things... I personally don't do that. I play a game because it's a great game, because it offers me cool options and because I have fun doing it, not because I have a lot of stuff that may be mediocre. That's just the way we think about it. We have one chance to entertain you. Every month and every update, we have that chance, so we want to put our best foot forward, and not just for options' sake.

So how about people who are complaining that there's no physical-only tank-type superpower like Superman?

The powers that don't have powers? I think this comes back to an interesting thing that is unique to superhero games in particular. Superheroes are the most varied, most imaginative, most creative space in all of the popular genre. They can break any rules, do anything, and it basically comes down to whatever is in the mind of the original comic book author to do. However, in a game you have to choose: Do I want to try to represent that to the exclusion of the fun gameplay, or do I want to try to find a way to marry the gameplay as much as possible, perhaps using a facet or several facets of that character, and give us a place to build on. The reason I say that is because I would rather make sure I give you something because it's fun to do, not just because it happens to match a character concept that someone may have had.

I know that may sound like a little bit of heresy, but let me explain. My job is make sure that I entertain you, to make sure that you're having fun while playing DC Universe Online. I can't make up for it if I say, "Hey, I gave you what you wanted" but it winds up kind of boring to play the game with that power. I can't make that tradeoff. Instead, I'm going to give you 12 great powers, folded into those six powersets. I'd hate to take some abilities and powers away just to match a power concept. If I do that, I'm sort of chickening out on entertaining you. If I'm giving you a physical-only set, I have to make it cool, to make it as awesome as ejecting flames from your hands or encrusting yourself in ice. I've got to make it feel that powerful. To do that, a set of powers that doesn't have powers is something we would want to spend more time on and figure out how to do correctly as it's actually very hard to do. For us, we didn't feel that it was something we wanted for launch.

Can you speak to where you plan to expand as far as powers?

The biggest thing that I could add to the game, the most complex and difficult to implement, is a power type. This is because it affects every single facet of the game all the way across the board. This is not something where we're going to change some effects and release a similar power. Powers have such a deep implication to multiplayer role balance, to raids and PvP balance, and everything else. To us, that's not the first thing we want to look at purely for variety's sake.

I'll be honest with you: We want to make sure that what we have is great, and that we find the full expression of it. A good example of it is the physics. We have a lot of powers that include some of the physics elements because we have this never-before-seen physics-action-combat. I'd rather make sure that first we blow that out, get it really robust, focusing on adding iconic powers, filling out the trees, and maintaining balance. As a long term, we want to make sure that players gain mastery over the powers in the game first. That's really our focus in these first few months. If we add a power type, it will be story-driven and part of what's going on.

I don't want to cheapen a powerset just to give you variety for variety's sake. I want to give you something awesome and fun and distinct that doesn't feel like any one of the other things that we have. To do that is probably the single biggest effort we have. Our combat took us four, almost five, years to develop because it's so different and it has so much synergy in it. I want to make sure that, if I give you that next powerset, it actually serves the end of being fun. I can tell you right now that players in general haven't even fully explored what all of the current powers can do. Between the combo system, the synergy system and the rest, there are effects and combinations still waiting to be used.

Are there any plans for RP-PvP or RP-PvE ruleset servers or perhaps any unofficial RP servers at this point?

I think it works best if the players figure that out for themselves. I worked as lead designer on EverQuest II, and players anointed roleplay servers themselves. Right now we're introducing so many new players to this concept of what an MMO is with the PS3 and even with some on the PC that for right now it's best for players to understand what they're doing first. As time goes on, we're going to listen to the community; we'll see what makes sense and take strides to work with that. But for right now, we don't want a roleplayer accidentally stumbling into, say, a PvP server, and then not having fun. We need to keep it straightforward up front while people get used to a new kind of game.

Thanks for your time Chris! We'll post the second half of our interview tomorrow on Saturday, January 15th!

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