Coming Full Circle

My Journey from 'City of Heroes' to 'DC Universe Online'

by Rick Dakan

27 January 2011

As someone who spent a few years thinking hard about how to make a massively multiplayer world where thousands upon thousands of superheroes fly around a single city, I could see the DCU Online developers struggling with the same challenges.

I began and ended my career as a video game designer with superheroes. I had an idea for what I thought would be the next big thing in online gaming—Everquest, but with superheroes! This was in the days before World of Warcraft when Everquest was the big dog with its hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Luckily for me, I knew a guy with a ton of internet bubble money who wanted to get into game development, and we were off and running. Three years later, I was fired—although I stayed on as a freelancer through the eventual launch of City of Heroes in 2004. It was quite a ride for me personally, but the end result (owing only a tiny portion of its success to my influence) was a cool, fun game that was a best seller out of the gate. I was even a fan and played it more than was probably good for me. Of course then World of Warcraft came later that year and blew everything else away. Even I switched over to WoW for a while before eventually giving up on MMOs for other pursuits. I’d had my fill.

One of the many odd things that happened during my time working on City of Heroes was that the word “superhero” and the phrase “super hero” disappeared entirely from our vocabularies when it came to speaking publicly about the game. It turns out that Marvel Comics and DC Comics hold a very, very dubious trademark on the term. I still think that this is total BS, but no one wanted to have that fight or pay those lawyers. So, our game was instead about “super-powered heroes.” I don’t know if my old company’s second game, Champions Online, used the word or not, but it began life as a Marvel Comics-based MMO, so maybe it did. But there’s a stupid, semantic argument to be made that now, seven years later, the world finally has its first “real” superhero MMORPG—DC Universe Online.
That’s a distinction without a difference though, and in the real world, this is the third such super-powered game in the genre. It’s also the first MMO that I’ve played since early 2006 when I briefly dipped into Dungeons & Dragons Online. I bought DCU on a lark, mostly because my brother was going to play it and because it’s available on the Playstation 3. I prefer couch-based console gaming to PC gaming, and I liked the idea of built in voice chat. We both bought it on launch night, and after suffering through three hours of day one patch downloading, we jumped in and got going. The thing that struck me immediately was just how little has changed.

DC Universe Online is certainly a very streamlined experience. It gets you right into the action very quickly and that action is generally pretty solid fun. I like that it plays well with a game controller, and I enjoy pounding out combos on the buttons. But before you get to that point, there’s character creation, which is also super streamlined. This is most obvious when it comes to creating a costume. It’s fine, but not nearly as comprehensive as City of Heroes had at launch—seven years ago. I find this really weird, since I know how few people we had working on it and I assume that Sony Online Entertainment had many, many more. Maybe it was a decision to keep the game simple? That makes some sense, but the lack of scaling for body types is pretty disappointing, as is the general lack of options in the non-tights and cape areas. Still, there’s a lot of variety here, and when playing the game, you see a cool range of costumes out there. It works just fine.

As someone who spent a few years thinking hard about how to make a massively multiplayer world where thousands upon thousands of superheroes fly around a single city, I could see the DCU Online developers struggling with the same challenges. How do you organize players? What role do the big heroes of your fictional universe play? Why all these heroes now? How do you have a city that’s both inhabited by people and yet a constant source of adventure for players? Ultimately it involves a lot of compromising, some inventiveness, and a general suspension of disbelief. DCU does a decent job of handling all these problems but only a decent one. There’s nothing very new or very inventive here, even if there are plenty of incremental or evolutionary improvements. DCU has basically answered the questions the same way, just with clearer handwriting.

Playing through a solid ten days of DCU, I’m now just about done with it. I’ve seen a lot of content from both the hero and the villain side (which aren’t nearly as different as one might like), and aside from the many technical issues, I’ve had a good time. It is annoying that voice chat with my brother only worked that first night, and the grouping functionality has been super-buggy. But luckily it’s a game that you can solo with ease, and so I have. Throughout my play, it’s all very comfortable and familiar. Ultimately that makes it, for me, a kind of disappointment. I’ll get my $60 out of it, but there’s no way that I’m renewing my subscription. The novelty of DC Comics characters has already worn off, leaving me with mostly just nostalgia for the past. That’s nice and all but not anything that I’m willing to pay a monthly fee for. Unless it’s to my therapist of course.

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