'DC Universe Online' Turns One Year Old: Lessons Learned and What's Next For the MMO

January 11th marks the first full year of DC Universe Online going live and it's been a pretty busy year for the Sony Online Entertainment-developed MMO.

According to data provided by SOE, DCUO's players have created over six million characters, which breaks down into about 3.5 million heroes and approximately 2 million villains (a lot of you appear to be law and order-type vigilantes). On the developer's side, SOE has identified over 1800 new encounters since launch, 1200 new NPCs since the game made its debut, and they've included over 2500 new items.

One of those new items will be a unique anniversary cape with the number one of the back for any characters that exist prior to January 11th (SOE's press release, players don't actually need to log on to receive the free item which can be accessed through their quest log, their character simply needs to have been created before today).

Stats aside, the game made the transition to a tiered free-to-play model back in November and has plans to continue expanding DC character-themed DLC in the future for the user base. And the gameplay itself has received a tweak as of yesterday with the introduction of the Research and Development system which allows equipment mods that plug into player gear, allowing them to boost their existing stats after reaching level 10 with their character.

With all of the recent moves going down in DCUO, we decided shoot a few questions over by e-mail to the game's Executive Producer and MMO development vet (he worked on Star Wars Galaxies) Lorin Jameson and touched on what his team has learned over the last year, some of the challenges facing their game, and how going free-to-play has worked out for their game.

MTV Multiplayer: Looking back on the past year of DCUO, what do you think the biggest lesson learned was about your audience and what they were looking for?

Lorin Jameson: We learned that the DCUO community is large, vocal, and continues to grow every day. Additionally, these players want the ability to choose to play the game their way, which is why we transitioned to the free-to-play model. Since launch and the transition to free-to-play, we have seen thousands of new players join the community and we are confident that we will see it continue to grow, especially as we constantly expand the game with robust game updates and DLC.

Multiplayer: Along the same lines, what do you think the biggest challenge has been for the game?

Jameson: Making sure that there is always something to do every time you log into the game. Whether it is getting together with league-mates to take on Brainiac in the Fortress of Solitude or battling other players in a Player-vs-Player arena, you need to keep the new content and systems coming. I feel we are hitting our stride with the release of our second DLC, Lightning Strikes, at the beginning of December, our great Holiday event at the end of the year, and the release of the new Research and Development system yesterday.

Multiplayer: Could you elaborate on some of the pitfalls you’ve discovered in your years of working in MMOs? How has DCUO been able to overcome or sidestep them? Any that your team has walked into?

Jameson: Like any creative process that involves a lot of people over many years, you have to keep the team focused on delivering fun and constantly questioning its choices. After a few years a team can fall into a checklist mode of just getting features implemented and lose sight of the bigger picture. We place a high premium on playing our game, whatever its state, everyday during the long development cycle. It was not enough to explain how something was fun; we had to show it every day. All great mistakes are worth repeating and no doubt we had our share.

Multiplayer: DC’s comic brand received a tremendous boost in October thanks to the New 52 revamp/reboot. Have you found that you’ve been able to leverage that kind of national attention to comics in any way?

Jameson: The attention surrounding the New 52 certainly spread a bit to DCUO at the end of last year. However, we haven’t leveraged it as much as people might think as DCUO is its own continuity and we established a lot of unique canon. We may integrate some aspects of the DC reboot in content moving forward, but we will pick and choose what fits.

Multiplayer: It used to be that the conversion to F2P was the death knell of an MMO—it usually preceded the dreaded server merge. What do you think has turned that around in gamers’ minds?

Jameson: I think gamers now realize that making an immersive and exciting free-to-play game is the most interesting and challenging development environment today. We are creating and expanding our universe with a steady flow of updates and content packs, utilizing feedback from the community and making sure we provide hundreds of hours of engaging play. I think players realize that we are committed to them; to bring them a game that they want play over and over again. Ultimately it comes down to how fun your game is regardless of business model, and I think everyone agrees we deliver.

Multiplayer: A couple of months out, has there been a noticeable shift in the size of makeup of the audience since the changeover? For instance, are you seeing more casual DCUO players jumping in than you would otherwise?

Jameson: Well the audience has grown incredibly since November, with millions of new players, so that fact alone has changed things, but our community is still quite cohesive. I think our new model allows a lot of people to try the game but I do not see them as casual players. Once you have really gotten into the game you are as involved as the most diehard player.

Multiplayer: Your team must be thinking about and talking about The Old Republic. Any lessons there that you’ve been able to derive for DCUO?

Jameson: It’s a simple formula really. Deliver a great product at a high level of quality. But while the formula may be simple there is nothing simple about actually making a MMO and very few short cuts. I think they made a great game and I count myself a fan.

Multiplayer: This actually brings to mind the question of player loyalty: unlike traditional games, it’s a little harder for an MMO to survive if its fans are voracious consumers of other game types. In your pretty extensive experience with MMOs how have you been able to counter that?

Jameson: You have to give your players a reason to log in every day, or at least feel like they missed something if they didn’t. That doesn’t mean weeks of grinding or endless cookie cutter missions. It is the moment-to-moment game play and the friends that you find that make these games work. There is always something new to play and I don’t fear my players enjoying other games. I just have to make sure they always come back.

Multiplayer: Some shooters—I’m of course, thinking of MW3, here—have taken a page from MMOs with their subscription models. Anything you think MMOs might be able to learn about how these games are hooking players in such a familiar way?

Jameson: I think it is great that more companies are seeing the value in building on and growing their online communities in other ways besides endless sequels. I do not feel they are very sophisticated yet in their approach to ongoing revenue from online communities but these are huge franchises with a lot of time to grow and learn what works for their players.

Multiplayer: Moving into the DCUO’s second year, what is SOE’s vision for the game?

Jameson: We have so many cool things we are planning this year and beyond. New storylines and an endless list of things we want to add. The best thing about an MMO is that no matter where you are at in its life, it is a starting point. Now that we have a strong foundation and a load of dedicated players, we want to keep delivering. I guess if I was going to distill it to a vision, I want DCUO to be the game that if you are not playing, you are tired of all your friends talking about it all the time.

Related posts:

Interview: Bioware Doctors Greg and Ray on the Bestselling 'The Old Republic'

'Marvel Universe' MMO Going Free-To-Play, 'At Least' A Year Away


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