When the long-awaited MMO DC Universe Online hit shelves (for PC and PlayStation 3) last week, countless gamers got the chance to live their dream and create a superhero (or villain) to inhabit the same world as Batman and Superman. Complex took the opportunity to chat with Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics and executive creative director of the game, to pick his brain about the development process, how big it really is, and how his own character is faring.
By Stu Horvath
Complex: What role did you play in the development of DCUO?
Jim Lee: I am the eyes and ears for DC Comics on this project. My job has been to make sure the game best represents the DC Universe and captures the essence of being a superhero—that it looks, feels, and sounds like the DC Universe because there is no manual to the DCU. What we have instead is a humongous catalogue of incredible comics filled with stories and characters built up by countless creators over a 75-year period in what is probably the largest collaborative work in history. And that history is essentially in the collective memories of all the current creators working in comics. So it's my job to take what I think the DC Universe is and make it appear in playable game space.
On a more tactile level, characters need to look "on model": aside from having the most iconic versions of their costumes, it's about making sure they are represented as impressively, dynamically, and heroically as possible. [I have to make sure] the environments match the fiction within the comics, and when we don't have that kind of pre-existing reference, that me and my concept art team at WildStorm Productions—which is a part of DC—expand on the pre-existing canon in a seamless and contemporary way. It's a huge task, but fortunately we have some incredible people at DC like John Morgan, Shawn Kittelsen, and Victoria Setian, who pored over every single element within the game, making copious notes to ensure that the DCUO remains incredibly faithful to our source material. And it shows...so many fans have noted all the insider jokes, nods to historical events and figures in DC's history and the incredible attention to detail throughout the game.
Luckily, Sony Online was a dream team to work with as they really knew the material very well, having many, many comics fans in their ranks and because they saw an opportunity in this license to really push the envelope...to take a chance by creating an all-new, all-different kind of MMO, and it seems that it's paid off.
How much experience do you have with MMOs? Do you play any?
Jim Lee: Yeah, I started my MMO career playing Ultima Online and then followed into Everquest, which sucked up an ungodly amount of my free time. I used to draw late into the night, camping spawns in all the different zones. I played a paladin and was the first to obtain the epic weapon on my server--the Fiery Avenger--which was a big deal...at least at the time. [Laughs.] The GMs announced it on the server at the time and my entire chat window went purple with tells of congratulations. Got about 700 direct /tells in a two-minute window! I also played a lot of World of Warcraft with everyone else, but really loved it as me and my kids would play on it on three or four different computers in the house.
Development for DCUO was a long road. How does the final product measure up to the original concept?
Jim Lee: I think the final release stacks up really, really well with the initial concept. SOE Austin head John Blakely and Game Director Chris Cao were talking about this the other day when I was in Austin for a visit. We had an initial meeting over dinner at a BBQ joint talking about what this game could be; to their credit, they really took the long shot of doing something new and different rather than going with tried and true MMO elements you see in MMOs today. The action-packed, physics-based engine combined with super movement modes tricks this MMO out in ways that make all other MMOs look last-gen.
Were there any obstacles that came to define the project? How were those overcome?
Jim Lee: Well, I don't think you can do a project of this scope without encountering obstacles and roadblocks. It's part of the journey of any huge, creative endeavor. I think the hardest part for me and my team was maintaining the focus and attention to detail when you're creating hundreds and hundreds of designs, assets, and environments over a five-year stretch. From writing to art to production, comics are done in a couple of months; this was the Moby Dick of art projects.
Is DCUO aimed squarely at DC partisans or more general comic fans? What in the game is meant to appeal to a total rookie who just happens to have liked the Dark Knight movie?
Jim Lee: DCUO is really aimed at both casual gamers and hardcore comic fans and everyone in between. We are blessed to have a AAA license in that EVERYONE in the world knows who Superman and Batman and the Joker are, and that really makes a tremendous difference. It essentially gives you the gateway characters and mechanism to introduce the casual gamer into the deeper, richer, broader fictional world that is the DC Universe. So we start with known reference points and weave a story that continually builds a narrative as players do missions on behalf of these iconic characters—and along the way, based on feedback from players, they come to see how fun and exciting and rich and diverse the DC Universe really is.
Do you expect to see this game become a kind of gateway of discovery for fans of both mediums?
Jim Lee: Absolutely. There's a huge demo overlap between gamers and comics fans, and what's great now is that through the proliferation of digital comics and e-readers, we see a great opportunity to convert DCUO gamers into comics fans and vice versa in that we can reach directly to their computers, PS3s, and mobile devices with content they can download on the fly. It's a game changer.
With established gaming voice actors like Geoff Johns, Marv Wolfman, Kevin Conroy, and Mark Hamill all involved, there's plenty of TLC coming from the DC end of things. What kind of role did fan service and love for the history of the DCU play in the development of the game?
Jim Lee: Like I mentioned before, this game was created by a huge number of talented creative folk who love comics and everything associated with comics. So when it came down to adding voices to the game, it was a no-brainer to go for the most iconic versions of these characters as expressed and created by some of the best known and versatile actors in the world.
How did you strike a balance between Gotham and Metropolis?
Jim Lee: I think the game does a great job of straddling the dark, gritty world of Gotham and making it mesh with the gleaming, shiny spires of Metropolis. I don't think it would service the DCU well if we went too dark and gritty, and if you went too playful and light, Gotham would feel out of place. To the credit of SOE's former and current art directors, Jared Carr and Mark Anderson, I think we were able to make it all internally consistent and make it look contemporary and edgy at the same time.
Have you made a character yet? What are his/her powers?
Jim Lee: I made a hero named Orange Chicken on the PVP server The Killing Joke. The league name is Panda Express; members are encouraged to be named after their favorite fast food dishes...I've tried to save the cool names for the comics themselves. When I'm in DCUO, I'm off the clock. [Laughs.]