DCUO: Countdown to Crisis

I’m going to start 2011 the way I ended 2010: publicly wondering what is going on at Sony Online Entertainment with DC Universe Online. SOE looked to be in a pretty good place to develop DCUO – they had a larger IP than its competitors in City of Heroes / Villains and Champions Online, it had big companies in DC Comics and Warner Bros. in partnership, it could take the time to look at what worked and what didn’t with those previous superhero MMOs and build a ‘best of breed’ – but the execution has been very mixed.

What We Have Here Is A Failure… To Communicate

Something that completely perplexes me about DCUO is how badly SOE is handling its marketing. Originally it looked like DCUO was going to launch in November 2010 with barely a word; now DCUO is launching January 11 2011 with just 21 days notice over a holiday break. People tend not to be paying attention to things like last minute game launches during their holidays – games that do plan to launch in early January typically start telling people about that launch date months in advance so they aren’t forgotten in the new year haze. A title like Dead Space 2 (launching at the end of January 2011) announced its January launch date 7 months ago, back in June 2009.

Gamespot's rankings for DCUO

These have improved since DCUO's originally planned November 2 2010 launch, but if you look closely Gamestop has the launch date wrong. (Gamestop's authority in this area is open to question, but it is just an example.)

Ten Ton Hammer points out that such an early launch in 2011 is a weird spot in the calendar for retailers – too late for immediate post-Xmas sales and perhaps too early for retailers to get behind it when they are counting up existing stock. And with only 20 days (or so) notice? Over Xmas and New Year? There’s no time for a launch campaign, even if SOE cancelled all Xmas leave for its marketing team (and I suspect a lot of the SOE / DCUO team had a very short break in 2010). Even the most obvious choice for a DC game – to put ads in their comic books to publicise the launch date – is unlikely to help launch since a DC title containing the ad would need to be printed, distributed, sold and read between December 21 2010 (when launch was announced) and January 11 2011 (launch). That’s probably not going to happen in too many cases. (Perhaps it is telling the DCUO’s own comic book series is actually coming out in February 2011).

There really is a weird lack of communication around DCUO, especially since it is SOE’s first shot at a console MMO (UPDATE 14 Jan 2011: … since EverQuest Online Adventures on the PlayStation 2, which I’d forgotten about). SOE is releasing DCUO on Sony’s own PS3, which should mean that publicity would be at a fever pitch. A successful PS3 MMO would open the door to an entirely new market of MMO players (and thus, an entirely new market of player wallets). Instead DCUO is being almost quietly pushed out the back door. SOE wouldn’t agree, but to the casual observer it would appear that they have little confidence in the title.

After all, if SOE was confident, they’d be out selling the benefits of MMOs to PS3 players to help them get over the issue of monthly subscription fees with DCUO as a very specific example. Paying month-to-month to play a game is something new to the PS3 and there are PS3 owners rebelling against the very idea of pay-to-play. This shouldn’t be surprising and specifically crafted messages should be used to help some of these people come around.

Instead, the message is “A little over a decade ago, people questioned subscription fees on a PC [but] came to realize that the experience was worth the expense[.] The same thing is going to happen on the PS3.” Or: PS3 players will get used to it, because PC players did. “You’ll get used to it,” isn’t exactly a convincing message and ignores a lot of important differences between the PC and PS3 platforms and user types. (If you want to be a pedant, which I obviously do, you could point out that PC MMOs charging sub fees actually have closer to twenty years of history than ten.) PC MMOs grew out of weird niche audiences who were willing to pay a bit more to take part in their hobbies; PS3 owners are more likely to watch a movie on their console than play a game. Although PC MMOs have entered the mainstream, they had the ability to build up expectations over time about what the genre held; PS3 MMOs have yet to build any history at all.

At the very least there should have been an effort to get players excited about what is coming up in future releases to encourage them to stay on past the first month, but efforts there are limited to, “Trust us, we’re from SOE – more content is coming out.

What Is Going On Here?

I don’t know what the reasons are for this lack of push behind DCUO are. While other MMO competitors are launching TV ads in an attempt to convince players to come on board, SOE is going in very softly softly. Perhaps the thought is that the DC IP will sell the game regardless, or that DCUO is so super-fun that word of mouth would drive sales so a big marketing push isn’t required.

Hangover picture

Plus launching in early January is a problem when the business world is typically doing other things at this time.

It might be due to internal issues. A few years ago SOE was shifted out of control of Sony Pictures and under the control of Sony Computer Entertainment International (SCEI) who have a big focus on the PS3 console. There’s always a chance that the Sony PS3 division really don’t place much stock in what the Sony PC MMO division does, or don’t really understand it, with the working relationship suffering. You’d think that SCEI would want to see a massively successful PS3 MMO though…

Originally I’d thought that DC Comics and Warner Bros would get very involved with DCUO’s launch, but perhaps I over-thought their interest. DC certainly wants a big MMOG title (Marvel doesn’t have one, after all!) to its name and has been promoting DCUO in comic book ads and social networks while also creating a special series (DCUO: Legends) for the game, so perhaps they’ve done all they can. DC restructuring late in 2010 may not have helped get the word out about DCUO either.

Warner Bros could have put more effort into publicising DCUO, but then again perhaps they were happy enough to sign the license and now wait for the royalty cheques that come with launch. I’m also not sure how WB’s purchase of Turbine influences how they view DCUO: great potential source of review? competitor for Turbine’s games? something they’d like to get back off SOE? In any case, their logo appears in-game but it doesn’t look like WB has put any marketing muscle behind this title.

(UPDATE 10 Jan 11: DCUO does get a TV campaign, apparently. It’s probably a bit too last minute to get unaware customers excited about launch, but could help build awareness of the game over time … if it runs for a few weeks.)

All of this is conjecture. What is fact is that DCUO is launching in such a way that there are a lot of people who will be surprised to find it on the shelves of their local video game store come mid-January.

The Game Itself

A quick search will turn up other player impressions about DCUO and in a few days the formal reviews will come in. To my mind, despite DCUO’s good points – nice looking environment, pretty to look at, story arc cut scenes are good, captures a lot of the DC ‘feel’ for fans, voice overs are good, fun in short bursts – it is a title that squandered its opportunities.

Raven in DCUO

Hero or villain, you will be sent after Raven... and she's far from the only character that both sides face.

In a word, DCUO is shallow. Despite offering three mentors a side and two different sides to play (hero and villain) content is quite recycled, so that both heroes and villains will be sent after Raven, Queen Bee and Bane, while mentors offer the majority of their missions to all characters on that side. Superman might be your mentor, but he’s happy to rent you out to Wonder Woman and Batman at a moment’s notice. As such, content can quickly feel repetitive even if you switch teams. Instanced content (i.e. Alerts) is the same for each side.

Other than combat, you’ve got the option of races or collections, both of which are temporary sidelines – if you win a race, or complete a collection, there’s no real point to doing it again (except if you start a new character, because these things are character linked, not account linked).

A lot of basic functionality is missing – DCUO’s text chat system is very limited, there is no auction house at launch, teaming is just awkward because missions don’t sync up, etc – while the UI has been developed for both the PS3 and PC so works less than optimally on each platform. When you feel you are fighting the game to achieve things as basic as talking to other players or trying to understand your character stats, something is wrong. (Another example of how SOE appears to have missed basic technical functionality can be seen in the case of DCUO’s uninstaller not working, which neither understandable nor forgivable in a professionally produced MMO product in 2011.)

I appreciate the combat system for what it tries to do, but the result is a lot of repetitive mouse clicking for combos while the late December patch slowed DCUO down just enough for the cracks to show for me. I’m expecting to see a launch day patch (or close to launch day) that messes around with weapons and powers further because there are some big gaps that exist. For instance: the higher your weapon attack combo, the faster you regain the energy required to use your powers.

Fast weapons (e.g. Dual Pistols) have no problem building up a higher combo even if they miss an attack or two, while the slower weapon types (e.g. Two-Handed) can easily see that combo meter reset because they missed a single attack. Or that there is some pretty clear gaps between the two power trees that go to make up each character role (e.g. Nature has superior healing power over Sorcery, while Fire’s DPS sees it more effective than Ice’s defence boost for tanks) that make you wonder what the balance goals actually were.

There are other quirks of gameplay, such mission rewards that come across as odd (you get something like $27 from Batman for defeating the Scarecrow – gee, thanks, Mr Millionaire, glad I saved Gotham for you), or the rapid pace to maximum level but little to do when you get there, or PvP that allows max level players to stand within sight of the new character safehouses and kick the noobs around. (I’m aware that DCUO is attempting to push into where it sees the gap in superhero MMO PvP, but I question the mentality behind limited safe zones for new characters, even on PvP servers.) A cash shop / microtransaction service has been indicated as coming, but there is no specific news about what it could contain. We’ll see if any costumes (or anything else) pop out of the beta and straight into the cash shop.

At some point in the future I’ll look at DCUO versus CoH/V versus ChampO in more detail, but I see DCUO as having squandered the opportunity to have taken the best from these other titles and added in their own enhancements. Despite steps forward taken in some areas (e.g. combat, voice overs), I can’t help but feel this is overwhelmed by steps taken backwards in others (e.g. character creation and development, limited variety in missions, UI that is less than player-friendly). DCUO’s launch day patch should be interesting.

A Short Honeymoon

The first few hours / first character with DCUO is quite fun, so I expect to see some positive reviews for it at launch. A key statement in all of these reviews will be, “If SOE manages to release timely new content, DCUO has potential.” This is the key – DCUO needs to add a lot more content to keep players involved (and paying the sub fee). SOE is currently promising “every month […] new episodes featuring iconic DC Comics characters” and “[n]ew instances and major in-game events are scheduled to be added to the game every three months” but this is an easy thing to put into a press release – what is more important is delivery. Especially in a title where it is feasible to go from level 1 to level 30 (max level) in about 40 hours.

One of the locations in DCUO.

I'm on a horse.

Given DCUO’s shallowness, I think it will have trouble holding onto subscriptions. A lifetime subscription is on offer for US$199 (PC only – sorry PS3 players!), but I think the attractiveness there is being hampered by the fact that it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere to buy at this point. So most players will spend that 30 days considering if they think DCUO is worth US$199 or US$15 a month or nothing at all and I believe a lot will decide to come back later. DCUO’s stealth launch is going to work against obtaining that critical mass of players to build a community on, leaving servers feeling quite empty quite quickly.

Meanwhile, there will be some vocal PS3 players complaining that they didn’t know DCUO had a sub fee and now they can’t sell the game back to GameStop for store credit. Although you could argue that caveat emptor applies, it is also SOE’s first PS3 MMO, so it is best to start out on a positive footing by not making players feel mislead.

Here’s the thing though: DCUO isn’t a bad game, just not one worth $15 a month. If it had launched free-to-play as appeared to be the original intent, financing itself through the box cost, microtransactions and DLC (i.e. the Guild Wars model), this title would be able to attract a lot more players to try it and then push people towards buying the extras when the ‘basic’ content ran out. This system fits better with what PS3 players are used to, while PC MMO players are increasingly taking to F2P offers.

Following a rough launch period, I’m expecting that there will be some notable shifts in the DCUO development team. It won’t be because DCUO underperformed, of course, just that these developers no longer want to work at SOE wish to spend more time with their families while SOE refocuses resources on this title. (By the way, I’m not suggesting that anyone should be fired for DCUO, just that I believe its revenue performance will see some heads roll.)

DCUO isn’t going to be the start to 2011 that SOE wanted.

6 thoughts on “DCUO: Countdown to Crisis

  1. I agree with most of what you say. It was a fairly close call for me, but I ultimately cancelled my pre-order based on what I saw in beta. The limited character slots and lack of communication by the devs were the issues that tipped the scale. I could easily be tempted to join after the game matures some, except I fear not being able to secure the names I want for my characters. I could not justify joining day one just for the name grab, plus I simply will not reward developers for making the unique-name-required design choice.

    Squandered opportunity – I lump this in with 2010, the year of the lackluster launch.

  2. They’re probably worried about finding a window between other MMO launches having been originally scheduled to launch against Cataclysm.

    I think they’ve found a poor window. It’s close enough to the WoW expansion that people there haven’t got bored. Rift is about to launch and I’m hearing rave reviews from the Beta. They’ve tried to squeeze it out between WoW and Rift and it’s too close to both.

    January is for many people a month where we’re broke after Christmas.

    All in all not looking promising, to a large extent for reasons not to do with the game design.

  3. Pingback: DCUO: A Week Is A While, Right? « Vicarious Existence

  4. Pingback: DCUO: Then and Now | Vicarious Existence

  5. Pingback: DCUO: Price Drop (Maybe) For Australia, An Empty Cash Shop And Still Not F2P | Vicarious Existence

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