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

As promised yesterday, today we have the second portion of our chat with Chris Cao, Game Director for Sony Online Entertainment's newest offering in the MMO space, DC Universe Online. Along with yesterday's talk of powers and future plans, today we get into some of the things players can expect on the near and far horizons. From immediate needs to far-flung plans of the future, this second section should give those interested in DC Universe Online some great food for thought.

We'd also be remiss if we didn't note that there are some mild spoilers in the second portion of the interview, which we're going to be sure to note so you can skip that particular response. For now, join us past the break for the second part of our very candid interview with Cao!

Any word in regard to the auction houses, which are still not active in the game?

Chris Cao: Yes, definitely, with the first update. We're actually working on it right now. We had some issues in beta with making sure that fonts were readable and the UI was working well. We've worked hard to fix those things, and [it is] basically the very next thing on the docket to get out to all of you. You have stuff in your bags, and you need a way to trade it -- we understand that.

We've seen some complaints about social interaction, especially on the PS3 side. What kinds of things are you putting in to address that?

There are some improvements for chat and social interactions that we're planning on. Basically, as we're playing and continuing to react to feedback, we see that it's not lightning-fast like we had before, so we're looking at improving usability and the UI.

We actually have, in the next update coming out, a resting mode. In some games it's called "sit," but in superhero games, they look far different than that. For example, on the Serious type characters, it's very much like the Batman-styled crouch-on-a-gargoyle kind of look. For the comical, it's a fall-down-with-legs-splayed kind of thing. We're adding a few more of those to buff up the social side overall. Where it's coming from is less the PS3 and more those on controllers, as we have quite a few people on PCs using controller as well.

Overall, there are some usability issues for chat and social things that need more polish than anything else, things like making sure you can set your default chat channel instead of having /g to talk to group, being able to more easily control which channels you're in, improving push-to-talk on the controller. Basically there are some little things that we need to do to make it easier for you, in that sense of things. Audience-wise it's interesting because there's actually quite a bit of shout-casting going on for the PS3 right now, as MMO players who have been on the PC come over and teach social conventions to the PS3 guys. They need to know that since they're not used to [a game in which] everyone in a city can actually hear, they can shout out and hopefully get some people to help, or ask a question. I think half of that is not just the UI, but also people getting accommodated to this kind of game.

Now that the game is live and you have more users, are you finding any issues in pushing patches to the PS3 players?

We're obviously a part of Sony and part of SCEA and SCE, so we work through them through the processes. They have their guidelines and the way that they work things to make sure they go through. We're obviously the first game of this kind to work there, so there's a lot of shared pathfinding going on. We do some things that other games just don't do, and so we're working with them (and they've been really open with working with us to get this out) as part of the Sony company and the Sony family. It's really making it a lot easier to figure out these problems together and to make sure that game experience is kept up-to-date on both platforms.

Can you talk a little about the next step in the evolution of the game, story-wise? What's next for players in their bid to defeat Brainiac? [NOTE: SPOILERS]

Right now, no one has beaten phase 1 of the Bat Cave, let alone any of the other phases that we beta tested and will be releasing to you guys. Essentially, Brainiac has taken over the Bat Cave; he's taken over Brother Eye and the O.M.A.C.s and is dominating technology. He's using all the technology on Earth. He's even attacked the Watchtower and the Hall of Doom, so he continues to be a huge presence. I mean, Batman can't even use the Bat Cave -- he's got to operate out of the Watchtower right now, so it's up to players to go in there and take [Brainiac] out, to stop him. It's up to villains to do it too, to smash him, because Brainiac isn't good for anybody.

So, that's the setting of the game -- and it's day three. I'm going to let players get a chance to play a little, raid a little, and get some gear and the like before we push them back a little and take the next step. Because while it is three days, nobody's had a chance to beat him yet or even gotten to the first phase of Brainiac. The Avatar of Technology, which some people may have seen in the end of beta event, is the end-boss of that first raid-cycle in the game.

There's some ways to go, really. DCUO has a full gear progression, raid progression. You start off with the first set of gear; the [next set of] gear, you work towards that, and then you get a com badge for the Batcave 1, which is the first section of that raid content. We did a lot of betaing on them and are actually changing them a lot, continuing to up the quality on them as we go. We're also making it more and more challenging. [In] any other MMO, there's a lot of things to do with your friends to make sure you can accomplish things, and of course you can show it off with the gear you get. The difference here is that wearing a Bat symbol in your tier 2 Dark Spectre Batsuit is pretty cool since no one is going to have that for quite a bit.

There are a lot of comments from players who feel that there isn't enough story in the game as it stands. We wondered if you'd be willing to speak to that claim?

There are two major storylines in the game -- hero and villain -- and then there are six origin storylines that thread through the story. They are not completely different storylines, and I would like to make sure that everyone is clear on that. Hero and villain are very, very different from each other. The mentor lines weave their way through that.

To me, I think it comes down to an interesting perspective. As a player, you only ever have other games to compare anything to. That's where you start. When a new game comes out [and you have] a game that starts to redefine what it means to be an MMO like DCUO does, you compare it and say, "Cool, OK, compare it to that." But I have to ask the question: In a lot of other games, what is that content you're doing? In DCUO, you have episodic progression that always ends in a boss fight and has a cool comic cut scene. Almost every level, you're in a boss fight that has a very action game (almost a raid) feel to it, and it's fun the whole time. We've taken as much of the grind out as we can.

A good example is that we don't make you run back for quests. Just think, in a normal MMO, how much of your time isn't actually spent playing [but] spent traveling. Sure, that gives you a great sense of the expanse of the world, but let's be frank about what that content is and where those hours come from. For some reason we've accepted that for many, many years (and I've even built games where) travel is more than half of the time of what you're doing. Just going from point A to point B. Now I like that in an exploration-based MMO. Don't get me wrong. If this is a game where I'm trying to find new frontiers, it totally makes sense. But in a superhero game, you're in a known place, and you're doing something very different. As a superhero, [you don't have] the classic rags-to-riches heroic journey. In this case, it's you understanding your powers and coming to control them and apply them for good or for evil.

Our travel is fun. You're climbing a building like a jungle gym or you're flying through the skies. At level 10, you can get your travel power boost, which is essentially the equivalent of a mount so you can get places faster. Superheroes don't run across a barren landscape to go kill rats. That's not what they do. Plus, we have an endgame like no other MMO has launched with. Starting from challenge-mode stuff that you can do as a solo player, you can redo some of the stories or do some of the new Toyman content that's out there, which gives you something to do if you're waiting in the queues for something else to pop. Then you can go duo [and] start to learn group tactics with another person. From there, there are seven four-man Alerts that you can do (six per side, with one for heroes and villains) and then there are two raids you can do. That is equivalent to many MMOs that have been out for years as far as endgame wise, but honestly where do you want to have your fun?

The concept for us wasn't that more is better -- it's that better is better. We've tried to make the best superhero game possible and put that into an MMO setting, rather than putting in hundreds of hours because we need you to take hundreds of hours before the first month is up so we can charge you a subscription fee. Instead, we want to make this game as rockin' fun as possible then give you all sorts of cool stuff to do at the end and then continue adding more stuff into it so you pay the subscription fee because you're having fun in our games. Not just because you couldn't make it to the mountains since you didn't have enough playtime to walk there.

That's what we've had in MMOs, and I don't necessarily think that it's fair to gamers, especially gamers who have growing families or ones who want to play other games. In DCUO, I want to entertain you. We've designed the entire thing for 5-7 hours a week. You'll get a piece of raid gear every single week if you raid for a few hours. It's meant to be fun while you're playing it, and at the same time it frees you up to do other things. It gives me something that I know is going to be fun as opposed to feeling like another job for me. I will put it toe-to-toe with any other MMO out there and say it's more fun to do it in DCUO.

There's also other content like collections, which you haven't even touched on as yet.

I think the Feat system was actually a missed gem in all of beta; it actually gives you an awful lot of player power if you go and get all the feats because you get more skillpoints and you get more weapons and more passive abilities. The reason I bring it up is because you can collect, you can explore, you can fight, you can redo content -- it's an achievement system that means something. It's actually a way for you to continue to broaden your character. Now I understand it shouldn't be the main form of entertainment, but it is a supplementary thing to give you that sort of break when you don't want to go frenetic-paced and maybe just relax while your friends are online. There are hundreds of them around, and many of them offer up unique loot.

My favorite is the cowboy hat, and the only way to get it is through Area 51's blue collections. You can't get a cowboy hat anywhere else. While it might seem like a small thing, I know from playing other MMOs with achievement systems that it feels good to get even that little, incremental stuff now and then.

Everything we've done has been about making an MMO that is more fun for more people. If your readers are asking if this game is going to dominate their playlives for years and years and they're going to sink all their time into it? I'm going to say no, because I built it not to do that. I built it to be fun every time you come back and to give you lots of reasons to come back. An example is the vaults. Every day you can go in to the vault and try to score some cool loot. It equalizes it, it democratizes loot -- you can get the Toyman illusion in there, which is one of the coolest illusions in the game. It's just a reason to come back, to enjoy, to play the game a little bit, to do whatever you want to do daily like advancing a character or raiding. But we've designed it to be fun every time you come back and not take an enormous amount of time. I think that's the biggest difference. When I look at an entertainment product, I want a really great movie as opposed to a really long one.

With people setting up their own leagues, are there any plans for players to be able to get a spot in the Justice League Watchtower or the Hall of Doom for their League?

Superheroes and lairs are a good thing, but I want to make certain that our combat and everything else makes sense and is fun to do. That way [systems like housing don't] become an extra thing that's kind of cool, and maybe some people take part in it. It should be important and rewarding. There are some MMOs where housing is a huge part of it; there are other popular MMOs where there still isn't even housing. You've got to ask: Is it housing I want, or a cooler feature and a better thing to do raiding, PvP-wise, or general gameplay-wise? We ultimately only have the resources we have to make a fun game. There are a lot of things we want to do for players right now [other] than to implement housing. If we do implement housing, it will be something much more dynamic than that, more reactive than that, because we don't just want to give you a closet to put your stuff in. We want to make it an important part of what's happening in the game.

Thanks so much for your time, Chris! We really appreciate it!

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