Jim Lee Reveals ‘DC Universe Online’ Story Details [Interview]
Yesterday, ComicsAlliance’s hands-on preview of “DC Universe Online” showed the game’s character creation feature, but what about the story behind the powers and game options? Does choosing a look inspired by the Joker mean being just another clown-themed villain, or will in-game appearances run more than pixel-deep? To answer these questions, ComicsAlliance’s Alan Kistler spoke with Jim Lee, Co-Publisher of DC Comics and DCU Online’s Executive Creative Director, and Game Director Chris Cao about the role of characters and teams like the Green Lantern Corps, the Teen Titans, Brainiac, and Ambush Bug in the upcoming MMORPG set in the DC Universe.
ComicsAlliance: Now this game focuses on a possible future where Brainiac screws us all over and so older Luthor comes back to the present day to prevent this. And his plan is to make a new generation of fighters by giving a bunch of people powers with “exo-bytes” he stole from Brainiac, little robots programmed with stolen powers and abilities.
Chris Cao: And I’m sure he’s doing it for the good of mankind. Being Luthor, I’m sure he has no ulterior motive whatsoever!
CA: Magic is a major force in the DC Universe. How does magic work in the game play?
Jim Lee: There are actually three major power sets you can choose from. There’s meta-based powers, where you possess them as part of your DNA, it’s something that’s intrinsic to you. There’s ‘tech’ where you would rely on gadgets, gas-bombs, whatever. And then there’s magic where you tap into the forces of order or chaos. We really looked at those three power types as a way of defining all heroes and villains in the DC Universe.
CA: And is there a limitation? Because magic is a tricky and sometimes undefinable thing in the comics.
Jim Lee: [laughs] Sure, of course. With any of these powers, there has to be limits. Flash can go through time and to other worlds, so if you create a game where you are completely true to that level of power, it would be very unplayable. The character would be constantly going back in time to do battles over. With powers, you have to define them and make them something that people can understand and can use over and over. One of the tricks actually was not so much with magic but with tech guys. How can players with no powers take on players who can melt steel? It’s the classic Batman vs. Superman situation. So that gave us more concern than magic.
CA: And these powers and tech expand as you gain more levels?
Jim Lee: Every power gets more powerful and you actually broaden the tree of powers you can draw upon. You’ll develop more attacks and more defenses. In a lot of MMORPGs, it’s typical that players will fit into certain basic functions. One player’s like a walking tank; one is really geared for defense more than anything else; one player’s a healer but not great on attack; one is good for crowd control. What we wanted to have in this game was not have classes like that but to have everyone be able to pull from a power tree where they could fulfill different functions in a group. In this game, you can get anyone together and switch off where you say ‘okay, you were healer last night, so you get to be a tank tonight.’ We think it gives more variety. You can gather any group of friends together instead of being careful to match up skill sets.
CA: If you choose to be a hero, you go one missions where someone like Superman, for instance, will contact you to say that there’s a problem in Metropolis or something like that. What happens when you’re a villain? Does Grodd call you up and say, “Hey, I need you to blow some stuff up?”
Chris Cao: Well, it depends on who you choose as your villain or hero mentor. Think of it as there’s a Big Six that drives the DC Universe. [With] Batman and Joker, we have order and chaos. Superman and Luthor, selflessness and selfishness. Wonder Woman and Circe, truth and lies. So depending on who you choose as a mentor, that’s the kind of hero or villain you’re going to be. It’s not just determined by powers. So if you choose Joker as your mentor, your first mission is to blow up cop cars. By the same token, Talia al Ghul actually sends out alerts in the game to send you on side missions. Likewise, J’onn J’onzz will sometimes ask you for help if you’re a hero. Even Ambush Bug will show up to alert you to some stuff happening in the DC Universe.
CA: The fact that Ambush Bug is even in this game just warms my heart. Now, it’s been said that the Green Lantern Corps will have a presence but players can’t become members of the Corps right now. Is this just to prevent a hundred Green Lantern players from getting into a big brawl in one city?
Jim Lee: Well, Green Lanterns and Sinestro are in the game and there will be missions involving them. But to have that many Green Lanterns just for Sector 2814, we thought that wouldn’t be great right now, especially since for the moment the fights are focused on Earth. On the Green Lantern front, obviously there’s a major motion picture coming out and for us not to support that in some way would be a mistake, I think. But once you involve the Corps too much, at least at this stage, it becomes an intergalactic adventure instead. That said, you could definitely build on what we have and expand things into other worlds and the Corps in the future, especially since there are different colored Corps. But those are things to explore in the future with downloadable expansions.
Chris Cao: You don’t want players who have no idea about the DCU to just get a ring in the mail and they figure okay, it’s just a light-based weapon. You want them to understand the real power and nature of the Green Lantern Corps. You should first understand Sinestro’s history, what Hal’s about, how Kyle and John Stewart fit into things. So that way you can get a real appreciation and develop an aspiration for the Corps and what it really means.
CA: Might we also see adventures to parallel worlds in the future? Is it possible that players might encounter the Crime Syndicate or, dare I ask, the Zoo Crew?
Jim Lee: [laughs] Yeah! Any of that is possible!
Chris Cao: You and I and fans like us are familiar with the DC multiverse fiction. But we want millions of other people to become familiar with that fiction, using this game as an intro. But later on, you see that Brainiac is actually targeting Earth because it’s the center of the multiverse. Once we get players familiar with enough of the DCU to then explain that aspect of the game and introduce them to what the multiverse means, then we can start exploring other realms and universes. We can start visiting Qward. And we will be seeing Trigon.
Jim Lee: We can expand it in so many ways. We could do time travel adventures where you go back to the Golden Age. This is all stuff on the board that we can explore as things go on. We’ve also got the future with the Legion of Super-Heroes and that itself is, like the Green Lantern Corps, a huge thing that wouldn’t necessarily be good for the launch because that would be an entire game in itself, but it can definitely be incorporated going forward. When we talked about how to launch this game, we decided this would be the DC Universe in its prime and not tie into current continuity so much. This would be the classic idea of the universe. That way we wouldn’t have to deal with Batman not being Bruce Wayne.
CA: It also might alienate players who don’t read the comics and only know the movies and the cartoons, where Dick Grayson is definitely not Batman.
Jim Lee: Exactly. But as we go forward, we can craft new missions that add new players and history to it all.
CA: If this is the classic DC Universe, does that cause a problem with a group such as the Teen Titans? Because we have had several groups of them over the years and the die-hard comic book fan may argue about what and who the classic Titans are when faced with a player who only knows them from the cartoon series. So what was the criteria for the Teen Titans and how they’re portrayed?
Chris Cao: Well, luckily [long-time Teen Titans writer] Marv Wolfman wrote the backstory for most of the content in the game.
CA: Ah, well never mind then!
Chris Cao: [laughs] Right. So we chose classic comic book Titans, but Dick Grayson is Nightwing, not Robin. You’ll see Cyborg and other familiar faces. Without spoiling too much, the Titans are a big part of the game and one of the early missions of the game involves the fight for Raven’s soul so you’ll either fight alongside the Titans or with Trigon. You’ll see heroes be demonically possessed too.
CA: In the trailer, we see Brainiac’s ship but not the villain himself. Is this a particular version we’ve seen before? Is this 90s animated Brainiac or Geoff Johns/Gary Frank Brainiac or Pre-Crisis “I like short-shorts” Brainiac?
Chris Cao: Jim actually drew us an entirely new version of Brainiac who is really big and really tough. Because he’s not going after just Earth, he wants the multiverse, he wants everything. So this isn’t a game that’s just about saving Earth, you need to save everything. If this doesn’t stop here, everything fails. And a step of that involves Brainiac trying to capture the Batcave because he wants its technology, so you’ll have to save Batman’s lair from him.
CA: This whole game feels a bit like authorized fan-fiction to me, especially when you can design your own take on a Batman-style character or a Superman-style character.
CC: Well, we didn’t say let’s take the license and adapt it to an MMO, we said let’s adapt an MMO to the license. And DC Universe Online is your chance to really live and play in this world.
Alan Kistler is a comic book historian, freelance writer and actor living in New York. He is the creator of the web-series Crazy Sexy Geeks, the writer of the comic book fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E.