Sony Online Entertainment has been working on DC Universe Online for a long time, and this week it's finally ready for public consumption. So why should you care? Well, it's a superhero MMO based on the official DC licence, for a start.
More intriguingly, DC Universe is the first proper MMO for consoles. It has been built from scratch by a Sony-affiliated company for PS3 and PC. There's no porting, no adapting, no converting. It's native. Could this be a watershed moment for the MMO genre?
Eurogamer had a chat with John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, to find out what he reckons.
Eurogamer: It's been five years now since development started on DC Universe. What's taken so long?
John Smedley: We've built something pretty amazing - an action MMO that hasn't been done before, letting thousands of players play together in the same world and really fulfil their hero fantasy. A person could be in London throwing a bus and a person could be in Frankfurt getting hit by it. It took us a long time to get right.
Eurogamer: How robust will your game be at launch?
John Smedley: I'm feeling pretty good. We had a huge beta-ending event that gave us our final stress test. We used that data to fix some last minute things. The public will be the ultimate judge.
Eurogamer: What numbers are you expecting - what number would make you happy?
John Smedley: We try to stay away from big numbers until we get some data. We have high hopes is what I'll say, but I'm not going to put that into any numbers or predictions because we don't share numbers in general.
Eurogamer: DC Universe is the first proper console MMO. How significant is that?
John Smedley: It's a really big deal. For us it opens up an entirely new market to the PlayStation 3 users who are already used to some awesome action games. This game is built from the ground up to be playable on both the PlayStation 3 and PC, so it really makes a big difference as opposed to just porting it.
Eurogamer: What are the biggest challenges the PS3 crowd presents?
John Smedley: In this case I don't know that they're used to playing with this many people at one time. That's a good thing. They're going to be exposed to this huge social aspect of gaming that they don't ordinarily see. Most of what these people see is Black Ops. This exposes them to that social bond that makes these games great.
Eurogamer: Are you installing servers in each region for DC Universe?
John Smedley: Absolutely. We're going territory by territory. We felt like that was important, to have European servers. We're going to add servers in places where we see even larger population. We're prepared to do this. We're not going to make everybody go to the US servers. That would be less fun.
Eurogamer: When I start the game on my PS3 will I get a choice of servers to join?
John Smedley: The console is going to automatically put you into the European servers because it's by territory on the PlayStation 3. SCEA will have their own servers, SCEE will have their own servers. On the PC, by the way, you could actually choose to go over to the US servers.
Eurogamer: That's one difference between the two games - are there others?
John Smedley: Most of the differences are very minor. We let you do some key rebinding on PC that actually you could technically do on the PlayStation 3, too. The differences mostly have to do with the interface. But gameplay? No, there are no differences - we made sure of that.
Eurogamer: To clarify: is DC Universe cross-platform - can PC gamers play with PS3 gamers?
John Smedley: Technically speaking it is. However, the servers are separated, and largely they're separated for business reasons. Practically speaking, on the PC, you have to have a Station Account. On the PlayStation 3 you have to have a PSN account. Things are separated mainly for those reasons. Actually, up until very recently, internally, everybody was playing on one sever together and it's actually quite fun.
Eurogamer: Why has it taken this long for a console MMO to appear?
John Smedley: Well I mean they're a lot of work! We had the headstart in that; we already did this once on the PlayStation 2 [EQ]. We did one that you actually patched to a memory card, so it was a heck of a tough job technically. It's just hard. We've got a lot of experience in this space, and that's given us the ability to stick with it and get it done.
Eurogamer: Could a third-party publisher enjoy as much freedom on PSN as you, given your Sony affiliation?
John Smedley: It's funny because a lot of people get the perception that that's the case. But actually we submit just like every single other publisher to get tested - we have to go through the same QA every one else does.
What helps us is that we built the PlayStation Network in the first place. That has given us some advantages in knowing how a lot of the innards work. But all those things are available to the outside world.
Eurogamer: Paying a monthly subscription to play a game will be a shock to the PS3 audience. How will you convince them?
John Smedley: The game has to attract them. A PS3 owner can put this [game] in, and if they don't want to make a commitment they don't have to. They can decline to the commitment after 30 days. If they like it they get to continue and subscribe.
With that kind of choice in there, that is going to turn a lot of heads. People aren't used to this kind of game, and we have to convince them, and I think it is harder to convince people with this sort of game than with a standard console game.
However, they're also going to see the advantages of a game like this: instead of DLC you get patches every few weeks and every few months you get big patches. And you get a lot more content than you do with a standard game where you might get DLC once or twice a year. You're going to be getting things every single month, and major content updates.
This is a game we intend to have live for, you know, five, ten years. Some of our games have been running for 12 years. We're in this for the long-haul, and we're there to support our customers.
Eurogamer: Isn't that an old argument, that subscriptions pay for MMO patches and maintenance?
John Smedley: The question's relevant because this is going to be new to a console audience. We respect that. Just like the PC gamers, once they see the amount and level of content they're getting compared to a normal game with bits and pieces of DLC, they're going appreciate this a lot more.
This is a community, this is a vibrant thing that we need to continue to grow, and grow at a level that keeps people interested and paying us each month. At the end of the day the customer is paying our bills, and if we don't keep them happy then they don't.
I believe very strongly that it's the right tools for the right game; the right business model for the right game. You have to look at each game on its own. DC Universe is a triple-A MMO that had a triple-A budget - I can't exactly reveal what that is.
It will command that kind of subscription because we've got enough content in there, we've got enough features, that it can do that. This is a triple-A MMO and I think it does deserve that subscription level.
Eurogamer: How big is the team you'll have working on DC Universe post launch?
John Smedley: The development team is 115 people right now. We haven't decided on the final team size and structure - a lot of that's going to depend on how this is received. But I would expect it to be 50 to 75 people. That would be a pretty good size.
Eurogamer: What's the DC Universe post-release content plan like?
John Smedley: After release you can expect patches from us with new content and all kinds of fun stuff on a monthly basis. We'll actually be doing some patches on a weekly basis if we spot any issues.
But the plans are about a month out you can start expecting major pieces of content and major new features to come in. We'll be adding all kinds of cool stuff. We're not quite ready to reveal what our after-launch plans are yet. Needless to say we have a lot of content we're in QA on that players haven't seen yet.
The monthly subscription fee means players can expect a lot of new content from us. And I say a lot - I really mean that. This is something that we feel obligated to the players, because they are paying monthly sub fee.
Eurogamer: Will there be any discrepancies between the updates on PC and PS3?
John Smedley: Largely we're going to try and keep them the same. There's some physical, practical differences in timing of release - maybe a day or two separating them. But they should be the same.
In the case of the PlayStation 3, as I said before, we don't just get to put things up - they actually have to go through the format QA team and SCEA and SCEE. That means that will take a little big longer. But what we'll do is hold the PC version until then.
More on DC Universe Online
Eurogamer: I assume there aren't going to be any charges for additional content?
John Smedley: Absolutely not. We will have a micro-transaction marketplace demo on here, but for actual content no. In the future we may have expansion packs, but if you're talking about the regular monthly patches then no, we won't be charging for those.
Eurogamer: Can you give us an idea of what future content will bring?
John Smedley: You'll get large new raids, new end-bosses to fight, new quests, new graphics, new features - we're looking at new voice features. There are many, many things you'll be getting, and a constant stream of it. That's why we'll keep the dev team so large, so we can continue to crank out content.
Eurogamer: Who's the end-boss of DC Universe at the moment?
John Smedley: We've got several of them: you can go to the Bat Cave, you can go into Lex Luther's hideout, there are many.
Eurogamer: How long until someone kills Batman?
John Smedley: Ooh, kill Batman. You know, I don't know that it's possible to kill Batman, exactly. To get into the Bat Cave and fight - it will open one wing at launch. Different people vary. There are some people who do nothing else but play the content.
I think it's going to take people a long time to get through. I'm hoping that the average gamer, three/four months from now, they can start experiencing that kind of content. For crazy, play-every-minute gamers, you can expect them to get through that a lot faster.
Eurogamer: Will you be playing DCU?
John Smedley: We have a war room set up here at our headquarters here in San Diego that's right outside my office. So I'm going to be running back and forth between playing. I will be playing right from the minute those servers are open. I'm a PVP player very heavily and I look forward to it. I plan on racing to 30, so I'm looking forward to it myself.