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Alter-Ego: Looking at the state of the game

One of the most common questions I get every week in the comments for Alter-Ego is whether or not I think people should come play DC Universe Online. Obviously, I personally like the game, else I wouldn't still be playing and writing a column about it. I freely and openly admit my bias there. I'm a comic geek, so I've played every superhero MMO that's come out to date. While I love aspects of all of them, I currently prefer DC Universe Online for the fact that I get to run around with some of my favorite heroes and take down villains that I've known all my life.

So with my bias openly stated, I'd like to counterbalance it with this: As a veteran MMO player, I also won't put up with things I think are absolute crap for very long. Much like everyone else, I have a life to attend to outside of MMOs, I had to shell out for a copy of the game, and I pay my own subscription each month. I get just as irked when I feel as if I'm not getting value for that dollar as anyone else does. With that in mind, let's take a look at DC Universe Online from launch to current day, and I'll toss out my thoughts on picking up the game afterward.

When it first launched, DC Universe Online had a decent chunk of content and a control scheme that was way outside of the norm for many MMO players. Having been designed for PS3 compatibility, it plays like a console game, which is a bit weird on a keyboard and mouse. The game also offered a different mechanic for gathering costume pieces compared to systems in other extant superhero-themed games like City of Heroes and Champions Online, in that you had to find or earn gear pieces, equip them, and unlock styles that way. Those parts were largely acceptable, even if it did mean a bit of a learning curve and some grumbling about things people wanted that weren't implemented.

The UI, however, was nothing short of a hot mess. Voice chat was screwed up more often than not. If you turned voice chat off to give yourself a respite after listening to other people mouth-breathing, eating, etc., the text chat would drive you to reconsider that decision by virtue of its somehow being even buggier and problematic. Trying to send tells worked only sporadically, grouping was difficult, and the League functions were akin to smashing your head against a wall repeatedly: only fun if you like headaches and frustration.

Some players also felt that the game lacked enough content, an opinion Chris Cao largely rebuffed when we asked him about it. The point, he'd said, was to design a game that is geared for a casual player, targeting at five to seven hours per week.

Since that time, we've seen two major updates go live in the game to add content. While Update 1 was pretty good in terms of increasing the number of things players could do, it also gave us a holiday event that just didn't make sense in the DC Universe. The bug fixes in the first update were also a mixed bag: For every two issues that were fixed, it seemed a new one was introduced in their place.

By contrast, the recent Update 2 addition and the patch that just came out this last Thursday (April 14th) were both significantly better in terms of giving players new content that fits in with the feel of DC's world and bug fixes that didn't break many other things in the process. As Cao mentioned the last time I had a chance to speak with him, the developers are tracking what types of content people spend their time on while logged in and designing new content based on that. Considering the reception from the community for the last two patches, I'd say that's a tremendously wise choice as there haven't been nearly as many complaints this round compared to post-Update 1.

Currently, the major issue faced by the game is two-fold. First, there are a lot of people who get to endgame having never grouped only to find that they're not able to get instance groups as easily since they don't know as many people and aren't trained for roles. Casual players who do log in only five hours a week (Cao's target market above) are not going to be into sitting around roleplaying or doing heavy community building. They want to log in, play, have fun, and log out. As such, if you only have an hour per day to log in and you spend 15 minutes of that time waiting for a group to pop (because you don't have time to develop social connections), you're going to be driven away from the game.

The second thing that I find problematic is that if you don't happen to have a life that allows you to log in during peak hours (currently approximately 6-12 p.m. EDT on my home server Zero Hour), then you're going to have a miserable time finding a group, because even the most populated servers are quiet on off-hours. Mind you, I'm speaking for PC-side. I understand the PS3 players don't have nearly as many issues with server population, and I'm thrilled for them. Logging in and playing for a couple of hours before you lay eyes on another person's avatar is really kind of sad.

As for what could be done, I have a few ideas, but the single most useful thing that Sony Online Entertainment could do is either to consider a server merge on the PC side or to create a cross-server queue system to make getting groups faster. While there is always the issue of collision of names when you're talking about a server merge, that beats the pants off of being unable to enjoy the game because you can't find a group. Some might also argue that a cross-server queue system is detrimental to a community, but if you've built your game to cater to people who only log in five to seven hours per week, you've already set it up to lack a large in-game community from the word go. You also have to consider that by making it more difficult for those casual players to get groups when they do hit endgame, SOE creates a much larger possibility that those players won't stick around, which is detrimental to those who do want a community since they help pay the bills.

Now, with all that said, do I think you should buy the game and come play with us? As I've said, I really enjoy DC Universe Online. I think Update 2 is a huge step in the right direction in terms of content, and I'm hoping the patch on the 14th indicates that we're going to be getting bug fixes and other patches more frequently than the giant monster all-at-once deployments we've seen prior to now. The graphics are still my favorite in any superhero MMO, and getting to beat the crap out of iconic comic characters is definitely using your powers for awesome.

For someone who has the time and social nature to dedicate to getting involved with an active League, who likes running raids, and who does most of his gaming during prime time, I'd recommend it if you're on the fence. If, however, you tend to prefer PUGs, you want instance queues to match you up, you don't want to mess with a League, and you aren't available during that prime-time window, then I'd suggest you wait for a little while, or at least realize that endgame will require a bit more from you than leveling 1-30 in a casual manner will. Something simply needs to be done to allow the current endgame population in off-peak hours to play together more readily.

Hopefully that helps to clear things up on my opinion about whether or not the game is a good investment. Mind you, this is based entirely on how the game is currently. In six months, this will likely change as we see more content added to the game and the population grows, is merged, or dwindles. There's a lot of fun to be had in the game. It's up to SOE to make sure that all DC Universe Online players, regardless of schedule or time constraints, can take advantage of it.

Every week on Saturday, strip off the mask of your Alter-Ego and soar through the world of DC Universe Online with Krystalle, then catch up with Larry on Wednesdays as he showcases the superhero game on the Alter-Ego livestream. Send up a bat-signal to ping Krystalle or Larry with your burning questions. (Packages wrapped in green with a purple bow will be returned unopened.)

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