DC Universe Online – Interview with John Blakely

DC Universe Online – Interview with John Blakely

This interview happened at the end of our day at the DCUO studio. I had lost track of time while playing the game, and if it hadn’t been for SOE Public Relations Specialist extraordinaire Ryan Peters, I would have missed my chance to sit down and ask the questions that I and our staff worked so hard to put together! With that being said, if you like the interview as I’ve transcribed it below, please be so kind as to thank Ryan on Twitter (@ryancpeters) for stopping me mid-game and giving me a time-update!

From Sony Online Entertainment’s corporate staff page:

John Blakely is the Vice President of Development for Sony Online Entertainment LLC, where he serves as the executive leader for the company’s studios in Austin, Denver, Seattle, and Tucson, Ariz.

Based in SOE’s Austin studio, Blakely is responsible for developing and deploying the upcoming DC Universe Online and The Agency games. He also oversees the Star Wars Galaxies live service and other titles including Legends of Norrath, Star Wars Galaxies Trading Card Game, PoxNora and others.

With this much on his plate, I appreciate that he took the half hour to sit and answer our questions. The interview was recorded using my iPhone 4, but excessive background noise at times make it difficult to hear some of the answers, so instead of transcribing every single word, I’ll stick to the meat and potatoes of it, as it were. The end of the interview may seem a bit out of order, or disjointed, and I apologize for that. My time-management error made me start prioritizing questions near the end so that I wouldn’t miss the shuttle back to the airport. Both the first part and second part of the recorded interview are provided at the end of the article if you want to hear more detail and conversation, which was left out of the at-times-paraphrased transcription.

Chris: Thanks for having us.

John: No problem. I appreciate you guys coming out. It’s one of those games where it’s hard to describe what’s different…you just have to sit down and touch it.

Chris: Would you be able to give us a list of all the DC official characters that are in the game?

John: Yeah, we could probably provide one, but off the top of my head I know we have well over 150 licensed characters.

Chris: How about Vertigo, Wildstorm, or other imprints that are DC run?

John: Right now we’re just working with the main DC canon in terms of characters. We’re keeping things open, and there’s obviously the greater DC Universe where they are shifting a lot of those imprints and what they’re focusing on. Right now we have our own canon allocation, if you will, and we’re focusing on our own continuity, kind of evolving that out.

Chris: How did you narrow down the cast you ended up using? Were there any characters that you guys wanted to get in, or were in, but had to be cut?

John: It’s funny, because the team had their own specific opinions about who should be in there, because you know, everyone has a favorite character. Of course, when you’re making a game like this, it’s taken us forever, and it’s such a diverse universe, not everyone is going to be able to have a primary role, so what we did is we looked at what characters were secondary to the storyline, what characters we knew were active in the storyline, and we looked at our locations, and which characters were central to those locations. We had our baseline story, what was going on with Brainiac, what was going on in the world, how these characters were responding, and then kind of feathered them in accordingly, asking what they would be doing in this case. Like, how would the villains be taking advantage of the situation, how would the heroes try to restore order. It was really driven from a story perspective to be sure it made sense.

Chris: Will we be learning more about the voice actors over time?

John: We’ve had a couple of releases recently…I think we had one that just went out yesterday or the day before yesterday…kind of our second tier of releases, and that was about Dwight Schultz and Wil Wheaton…and Sorkin as well, she’s playing Harley. So yeah, we have an established cast for the top 10 or 11 characters you’d recognize or expect, and from there down, there are different actors playing multiple roles, and there are local actors we’ve picked up where it’s made sense. The big names, the one’s you’d recognize, are probably already out there.

Chris: It looks like some of the character voices are coming from the DC Animated Universe. Is this a trend that could continue if other major characters are introduced later? For example, will we see Gilbert Gottfried as Mr. Mxyzptlk?

John: We’re not making any commitments on these, but we definitely go there first. It really depends on, you know, the role the character is playing in the world, the availability of the actor, if the actor is willing, but we want to go where the fans know the characters, where they’ve done a great job. They build a relationship over time, and the fans develop an image in their heads based on it, so where it works out in a creative and business standpoint we definitely go DCAU.

Chris: One of our writers wanted to give you props for bringing Corey Burton in for the voice of Brainiac.

John: I’m really proud of what the audio team has done in terms of casting, and knowing the IP, knowing who was good. We’ve got really good responses from the fans about the releases that we’ve done for the big characters.

Chris: Sgt. Rock, a WWII era character, appeared in an online list of characters for the game. 1) How is he going to be involved in the game. 2) Will time travel be a gameplay element, or does everything take place in the game’s “current” time?

John: 1) I don’t know if he is…Off the top of my head, I don’t know what role he plays. I can’t recall. 2) Right now everything takes place in the “current” time. DC has a vast universe with lots of tricks and vehicles for us to explore. Right now, the big thing is the Brainiac invasion.

Chris: I’ve seen that Metropolis and Gotham are the two big, free-roam open cities. Are there going to be any other major areas like that or any other locations going to be alert (event) specific locations?

John: We have the Hall of Doom and the Watchtower which we call, kind of like, headquarters. Kind of like a player city. A place you can go to do your routine things, like bank, trade, socialize, get caught up on the latest and greatest. In addition there are the in-city safehouses provided that work on a smaller scale. We have a bunch of different alerts, like you saw today, there’s Khandaq, Smallville, Area 51, the moon…I think there’s a total of 8 or 9 of those different locations that are included in the universe. And we have Oolong Island, Gorilla Island, and a couple of other places you can go and explore the DC Universe. There are also the interiors as well, so you have Arkham Asylum, Star Labs, which are both kind of dungeon exploration areas, and there are 6 or 7 of those exploration areas, and there are the “iconic” areas, like the Batcave. The cities are kind of the shared universe, the headquarters are the place to go to kind of escape that, and there are the alerts, the pvp, the raids, which encompass a lot of the other iconic areas and places. Even the headquarters provide a couple of raids, if I recall correctly.

Chris: Will we see anything in Coast City or Oa? Will players be able to join the Green Lantern Corps? Will they be able to specialize a Green Lantern style character?

John: That’s a question we get a lot, and for this particular product, the light powers…they just didn’t make the cut. Since it’s the DC Universe Online, we might eventually explore those kinds of areas. Right now, for this context, there’s just one ring and that belongs to the Green Lantern in our particular sector.

Chris: Were there any particular timelines, series, stories, events, universes, etc. that you guys drew from more heavily?

John: More heavily, I don’t know. It really came down to…what was great was we had a really close tie-in…Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, all of those guys came together with our storytellers as a team and they were able to take and cherry-pick some of those best stories and put them together in our continuity.

(At this point, Ryan Peters interrupted us to get us into the big group picture that was forming in the green-screen room.)

Chris: How connected will the game be to the current DC Universe? Will Dick Grayson wear the cowl…I mean, it’s based on canon, but is it going to be in-line with canon?

John: Again, it goes back to the stories. If it makes sense, then we’ll integrate…You know, obviously we’re working closely with the guys at DC, so as it makes sense we’ll include more. We have our own continuity, but we want to remain relevant with the characters. We’ll also have our own licensed comic series that will be pushing our continuity and canon as well.

Chris: It seems DC has been fairly involved. It’s not like they just gave you access to the archives and said “Go nuts” or anything…

John: Well, Jim Lee is our Executive Creative Director and he’s been involved since Day 1.

Chris: Now, there’s an in-game marketplace, like an auction house, at the headquarters (Watchtower and the Hall of Doom), and vendors in the city safehouses. Will players be able to sell to other players in these auction houses? Also, will there be any kind of real-world purchase that can be made to augment your game character?

John: Yes, we have the auction house…Broker, we call it…same kind of concept, where a player can put an item up for trade with another player, or sell it in game. We will also have a real-world marketplace that will sell things more for style and seasonal items that won’t affect the gameplay, but allow you to augment and embellish your character.

Chris: Is there an expected life span for the game, assuming everything goes well?

John: You know, that’s always dictated by the market. If you look at our past history, which is no real indication of future performance, but if there’s a player-base that wants to continue using the product, and it’s enough to sustain the business, then we’ll continue running it. Looking at our track record, we’ve got EQ going on its 12th year, EQ2 going on 6 years, Star Wars Galaxies in its 7th year. As long as there are players willing to play, we’re willing to provide that service for them.

Chris: I heard that the only thing preventing PC and PS3 players playing together is a little switch, but that it’s being kept separate due to the possible disparity between controllers and keyboard/mouse inputs in terms of reaction time and precision.

John: No, the decision was made for other reasons. We decided the best gameplay experience was to separate the platforms. We wanted to make sure that customer support, service, the gameplay experience, etc would all be consistent. We tried to solve the problems in combining the services, but we realized that it was best just to separate the platforms and do what was best for each individual platform.

Chris: So it’s not likely to be combined in the future.

John: No.

Chris: How long has it taken to put the game together?

John: Wow, that’s a great question. I got the very first phone call around July 2005. Here we are in November 2010…In fact, my youngest son was born in August of 2005, so now he’s 5. It’s been a while, but then again, any time you build a game with the word “Universe” in the title, and there’s 75 years of stories…And it’s something we really care about. We wanted to make sure that we could deliver the experience in a way that would be meaningful to the fans.

Chris: How big is the DCUO team?

John: We’re a little over 100 people on the team here in Austin, and we have around 15 contractors, so somewhere around 120-ish, which is actually pretty reasonable considering some of the other teams out there. And we also have our support staff, people in marketing and PR, tech support, QA, platform organization, publishing, etc. If we count all that, it gets a lot bigger, but the core development team is about 120.

Chris: How long is the beta planned to run for?

John: We really don’t have a schedule, we just want to make sure that we have enough…it’s really more milestone based. We want to make sure that the game is, at its core, fun on both platforms. We want to make sure that we reach the scale that we need to support operations long-term, which means we want to make sure our servers are optimized to support the operation on both the business and gameplay sides. We want to make sure the game is tuned and balanced. Actually, internally, we’ve been playing the game since summer of 2007. The first play test, you know, it was crappy. So we kept making it better and better and better. This year, we’ve been in beta officially since around April, so we’ve done a lot of testing. Now we’ve finally gotten it to a point where we’re able to bring outsiders in on a more permanent basis for 24/7 testing. We’re looking at first quarter, and I don’t see any reason why we won’t hit that.

Chris: The game was delayed. Was that because of a need for more development, making sure the game was perfect?

John: Yeah, we definitely learned that the investment that goes into a video game like this is significant in terms of dollars, manpower, intellectual property, you know, so we want to make sure we deliver something that’s going to improve the brand both on our side, SOE, the builder, and on the IP side, DC. All those factors coming together, on two different platforms, it took longer, and we wanted to make sure we got the game tuned to the point where you guys can pick it up and get sucked in and not realize two or three hours has passed (in reference to me losing track of time), and that takes a lot of work.

Chris: You guys have done a really…and I can’t stress it enough…it’s fantastic. I can’t wait to either buy a controller for my PC and wait for the game, or buy a PS3.

John: I think you’ll find the game experience to be very, very similar.

Chris: My wife mentioned that a Marvel MMO was announced also.

John: I know they’ve announced the Superhero Squad game, I’m not sure if they’ve announced something more traditional.

Chris: I had heard of the Superhero Squad game, and it seems a bit kiddish. I think she was referring to something a bit more mature. It could have been a miscommunication, but if that is the case, what does that mean to you? How would you feel about it?

John: Unless they’re coming out in the next few months…I think it’s better for the space when there are more options out there for everybody, more good products. You know, we’re trying to move the genre into a new direction and introduce a more true action gameplay and bring something different moment to moment. I say it’s great for them. If they can deliver that, then great for them. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Chris: I know the answer to this, but do you feel there’s a big learning curve for non-MMO or non-DC fans? Will anyone be able to just pick it up and begin understanding and enjoying it?

John: I think we’ll have something new for everyone. If you look at our target demographic, we have the action gamer on the console primarily, we have the MMO gamer on the PC primarily, and then we have the DC fan. When you’re a DC fan, you’re going to see things you recognize, and that’s going to help draw you into the world. You may have to learn to play an action game, or an MMO game, if you’ve never done either, and that’ll be something new for you to discover. If you’re an action gamer, you’re going to pick up the controls and go “Combos, of course!”, and it’s going to feel very familiar, and you’re going to learn about the DC Universe, or MMOs, if you’re not already familiar with them. If you’re an MMO gamer, you’re going to come in and go “Wow, moment to moment this game is different”, and you may have some more about the DC Universe to learn about, or action games. We’re going to put all of those together, and what we try to say, as a final statement to leave with you is, “We’re not an action game, we’re not an MMO, we’re DCUO.” We’re trying to bring all those pieces together, and establish ourselves as a particular type of game, which is really that we just want to be the best superhero game that you can play with your friends online. That’s really a simple statement, but there’s a lot of work to get there.

Chris: Kind of a last question, since I have the time…I know how the classes work, but…Every hero has a secret weakness, or a secret vulnerability. I didn’t really see anything specific…it’s very difficult, I imagine it’s very difficult to implement that on such a large scale and to actually make it useful, but is that something you guys considered, or will be considering?

John: There’s nothing specific, obviously, but there’s definitely a rock-paper-scissors mentality. Even though there’s not a call-out like in rock-paper-scissors…you know, scissors is weak, well it is vulnerable to rock, but scissors can of course cut paper, and paper can…you know, so if you look at the movement types. There are three of them, right? Fliers can be good at specific things, but they’re vulnerable to certain things. Speedsters and acrobats have that as well. The way we’ve built the combat is kind of move-countermove, which is very action game based. Because you’re making so many decisions about your character, every decision you make, you’re going to commit to an area of specialization and that makes your vulnerabilities. That’s the other thing, you have this action bar that has six slots on it that you can put your powers. You’re going to earn way more than that. That’s one of the choices you’re going to have to make as a player, when you enable that particular stance, when you load out that bar, are you bringing everything to bear that you can? And when you’re looking at another player, you have to think, “Oh, well that’s an Ice guy, what’s he going to bring to bear in the battle. Am I going to be prepared to counter that?” So, there are inherent vulnerabilities, but no specifics like Kryptonite. They’re built into the choices you make.

Chris: I guess the shuttle is here, so I’m going to have to grab my bag. Thanks a lot.

John: It was a pleasure, Chris. I’m glad you’re enjoying things.

Disclosure: I attended a DC Universe Online event hosted by Sony Online Entertainment. Sony Online Entertainment paid for my flight, hotel and meals in connection with the event.

I’m the Ambassador of Kickyourassador. I am the Walrus. I’m on a highway to the Danger Zone. I am the Kwisatz Haderach.

I do things with words that have a generally geeky gist.

  • Kyle

    Great interview man.

    • Thanks. Thanks for the questions you contributed to help make it a great interview!

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