Sneak Peek at DC Universe Online With Chris Cao

DC Universe Online, which launched in January for the PC and PS3, presented some unique development challenges. MMOs are notoriously difficult to create, but Sony Online Entertainment and Everquest veteran Chris Cao rose to the challenge. DIG caught up with Cao, the game director of DC Universe Online, to talk about the game’s launch and what’s next.

DIG: You launched DC Universe Online on multiple platforms simultaneously. It couldn’t have been easy to develop for PC and consoles at the same time. Are you happy with the way the debut went down?

Chris Cao:
There were a few initial issues that resulted from being the first MMO on the PS3, but our service is solid, we’re adding new and diverse content to the game, and a whole new group of players was introduced to the next generation of MMOs. That’s good stuff.

DIG: The launch was a long time coming. Your game has been known to exist since as far back as 2008. Was the long gestation a matter of not wanting to release until the game was perfect?

Worlds take a long time to build. Add to that the fact that DC Universe Online is multiplatform, and you have an immense, complex game that deserves and requires a lot of attention. We have multiplayer physics. We have action gameplay. We have an enormous shared world. We have thousands of players playing together. That’s a lot of things -- a lot of game to make.

DIG: How did you settle on the subscription model?

C.C.: Sony Online Entertainment has a lot of experience building and maintaining subscription-based games. Based on that experience, we went with our internal standard (which is also the industry standard). It’s still hard to beat the ratio of dollars to entertainment hours that an MMO gives you. DC Universe Online adds even more to that with its unique gameplay and setting.

DIG: Working with a beloved license can be a tricky undertaking -- both the rights holders and fans have many expectations. What were the greatest challenges in this regard?

C.C.: We set out to make a super-powered game you could play with your friends for months. It was as simple as that. We believe that if you make a great game, you can find good ways to monetize it. Our focus, first and foremost, was on that DC, super-powered experience. We delivered on that and, along the way, brought a whole new kind of MMO and game to the industry.

DIG: Based on your research, did you know whether your subscribers would be comic fans, MMO veterans or both? How did this change your approach to creating the game?

C.C.: We identified three basic audiences for the game: comic fans, action gamers, and MMO players. All three, however, want the same thing: to feel like a superhero. That, in turn, led us to our action combat system and the physics that supports it. We didn’t so much design for an audience as we did for an experience -- and the results are definitely super.

DIG: Sony Online Entertainment has a long history as an innovator in the MMO space. What lessons were passed down from prior games that helped make DC Universe Online the game it is today?

C.C.: Listing out all of the lessons learned would be an imposing task in and of itself. From art to engineering to design, DC Universe Online is the result of a decade of online expertise. Add to that the console expertise that we brought to the Austin studio, and you have a formidable, flexible team that was able to bring the DC Universe Online to life.

DIG: What kind of game do you expect DC Universe Online to be tomorrow? What are your plans for adding content and expanding to keep the game fresh for your most active players?

We’re driven by playing our own game. That’s what informs our decisions, guides our direction, and inspires our ideas. The community isn’t a separate entity to us. We’re a part of it, whether that’s in the game, on the boards or in the press. The players, both devs and fans, are driving the evolution of DC Universe Online forward. And that’s resulting in better content, better combat, and tons more stuff to do.

DIG: Tell us about the technologies you used when making the game. Were there particular engines or tools that were vital to the game’s creation?


C.C.: Like almost any large-scale MMO, DC Universe Online is full of new and unique technologies that allow us to create the towering cityscapes of Gotham and Metropolis and execute the fluid action-style combat of the game in a persistent world experience shared by thousands of players simultaneously. We set it as a goal from day one to really deliver combat in DC Universe Online that is far different from the turn-based/state machine combat systems of most other MMOs. We needed to create new technologies to allow us to use a very responsive control scheme in the latency-rich environment of today’s Internet. Although the team was a good blend of seasoned MMO and action game developers, almost every aspect of the game required doing things that had not been tried before.

DIG: So what was your approach?

C.C.: Along with developing our own technologies, we utilized numerous commercial middleware packages in the game. The client-rendering system and many of our art and design tools are based on the Unreal Engine 3 game engine. We use Havok for our rigid body physics and cloth systems. We also use a variety of packages to handle audio, AI path finding, user interface and playing videos in-game. Like most games we try to identify the systems that would be appropriate for using off-the-shelf solutions and focus our innovation on those parts of the game which play to the key pillars of our vision that set us apart.

DIG: How did the tech for your physics engine come about and what does it deliver for players?

C.C.: When we first started development of DC Universe Online we wanted, first and foremost, to deliver on the fantasy of being a superhero or super villain. The most vivid images from the rich history of DC Comics are of powerful characters such as Superman or Wonder Woman performing acts of super-strength or manipulating the world around them by harnessing the powers of nature.

We simply could not deliver on that expectation without a powerful and dynamic physics environment. This presented a huge challenge. In a persistent world game like DC Universe Online, everyone needs their environments to be synchronized. Being able to pick up, move, throw and smash everything from dumpsters to city buses means that the environment is constantly changing. It is essential that they change in the same way for everyone in the game.


DIG: How did you solve that problem?


C.C.: DC Universe Online runs synchronized physics simulations on both the game client and server in a way that ensures a consistent world for every player in the game. It was a monumental undertaking and its successful implementation truly sets this game apart from other MMOs on the market.

Based on the Havok physics system, our engine is able to simulate tens of thousands of separate physics objects in the game, allowing a player in Australia to throw a phone booth at a friend in London while a player in South Africa watches. Honestly, when we got it working, it was one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my career.


DIG: What are the technological benefits of building an MMO for Sony Online Entertainment?

C.C.: Sony Online Entertainment has developed and launched more MMOs than any other publisher in North America. That heritage has taught us a lot of lessons about building and running online games. We have very robust backend services -- reporting, billing and commerce infrastructures that give us a big head start in developing new products. It allows us to focus most of our efforts on creating the actual game play that our customers ultimately care about most. We have hundreds of experienced engineers, artists, designers and producers that have long experience in developing these types of games so we have a very enviable institutional knowledge base to draw on during the development process.

That being said, each game presents new challenges. We are not interested in producing cookie-cutter clones of our previous work, so although we have a great starting position when developing a new game, we are still obsessed with innovating and moving the medium forward. While we definitely know the science of making an MMO, what differentiates us most is our willingness to push the envelope of the art of our craft.