SAN DIEGO, CA—Sony Online Entertainment LLC (SOE) used Comic-Con International: San Diego 2008 to debut its latest massively multiplayer online (MMO) game to the world. DC Universe Online is the first licensed comic book MMO, as well as the first comic book MMO to be released for both PC and PlayStation 3. The development team at SOE Austin chose Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 to bring the DC Universe to life as a persistent world.
“Early on, we did testing with different engines to see what would be best for developing this game, and Unreal Engine 3 was awesome because it gave us the tools to build this world,” said comic book legend Jim Lee, executive creative director for DC Universe Online and artist for DC Comics. “Unreal wasn't really designed to build MMOs, so there was a lot of tweaking that had to be done early on, but the results have been terrific.”
Lee said the team of 70 at SOE Austin has been able to do some remarkable things with lighting, specular effects and the building of these iconic DC Universe characters.
“The Unreal Engine has been great because it’s allowed us to change things very quickly if we didn't like it or make modifications like adding darkness to the shadows and other things like that,” explained Lee.
John Blakely, vice president of product development for SOE Austin, concurred.
“Unreal Engine 3 allowed us to start playing the game from the start,” said Blakely. “It gave us a tool base to get art into the game quickly and allow designers to test out and prototype what kind of gameplay we were going to be developing. It's been really useful because we're taking an action game mechanic and blending that with some of the online persistent world elements. To be able to prototype this out of the gate, learn what's important, and then go out and build the infrastructure of the game knowing full well what to expect has been invaluable.”
Blakely said the Unreal Engine’s developer toolset gave his artists all the pieces they needed from the start, which allowed SOE Austin to staff up quickly on this project.
“Usually with an MMO game, building the content – the environment and characters and all the things you need to create – is the long-lead item,” added Blakely. “We got out of the gate quickly without a lot of disruption, which allowed us to focus on the other fundamental pieces we needed to build for this MMO, while leaving the artists to work in their world undisturbed.”
Comic book fans know that Lee has a very unique style to his art. Chris Cao, studio creative director for DC Universe Online, said Unreal Engine 3 gave the team a real jump forward on a lot of the graphics and the ability to render these characters well yet cost effectively.
“Jim's characters have a very cut feel to them,” said Cao. “These DC characters have a distinct look to them, and we didn't want them to look soft or cartoony. Unreal Engine helped us do that.”
SOE had six custom-made superheroes playable on the San Diego Convention Center floor at Comic-Con in a scenario that featured an alien invasion by Brainiac. With the citizens of Metropolis being turned into mindless zombies, Superman needs all the help he can get, especially since Lex Luthor and Bizarro have jumped into the fray.
“This is the first time that players will ever feel like superheroes in an MMO game,” said Cao. “They've played superheroes to a degree in console games, but they've never been able to experience this in a large game with their friends. You can freeze somebody in a block of ice, use it as a weapon, and even go bowling with it.”
DC Universe Online features approximately 150 characters from the DC Comics mythology, ranging from well-known figures like Batman and The Flash to lesser known characters like Hawkman. But the emphasis on gameplay will revolve around creating your own superhero or master villain and interacting with these DC characters.
“You can personalize your movements, powers and weapons to make you feel like your favorite character; for example, you can create a character that uses acrobatics and gadgets like Batman,” explained Cao. “You can make anything you want. We have power types like light, which the Green Lantern uses, as well as earth powers, fire powers, ice powers, and electric powers. There will be over a dozen in total, and by combining them in unique ways, you'll be able to do some really cool things.”
SOE Austin created a custom server solution to allow for physics-based combat, which was used in tandem with Unreal Engine 3 to deliver what Blakely calls a “visceral game experience moment-to-moment.”
“We're not using dice behind the scenes in combat,” said Blakely. “If I'm aiming a flaming arrow at you and someone walks in between us, they're going to get hit and you won't. You can dodge things. This is not the type of experience you've ever seen in an MMO game. While fans of EverQuest and World of Warcraft will find a lot of month-to-month experiences that are familiar, the rest of this game focuses on players living out the superhero or super villain experience.”
The entire world of the DC Universe will be there for gamers to explore over time. In addition to a huge, living Metropolis, Gotham City will bring Batman’s world to life.
“One of the key things about DC Universe Online is that these environments are like the characters,” said Lee. “You're not just going to go to a street corner and do your mission. You're going to go to a lot of different kinds of street corners and get different experiences, which is something I think gamers will get a lot out of.”
With DC Universe Online open to millions of gamers, there will be many ways to explore.
“You can go in with your friends and play in small groups and explore Arkham Asylum or Star Labs and have fun,” said Cao. “Or you can join with groups of 16 to 24 or more players and have the kinds of battles you've seen in the comics. It's not as simple as just everyone on one side. In the DC Universe, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so there will be epic battles of heroes and villains against a large party where you'll see hundreds of heroes and villains fighting.”
It seems appropriate that the epic scope of the DC Universe and its superheroes is being brought to life in 3D on PC and PS3 by Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 technology.