With great power comes great responsibility, as a certain superhero once learned. The same can be said of a great licence. There's always a chance you'll bungle it, produce something that appeals to neither fans of the IP nor the gaming genre, and spend the next five years apologising for your mistakes.
Sony Online Entertainment learned that lesson with Star Wars Galaxies, but that hasn't stopped the publisher taking on another high profile licence and turning it into an MMO. And this time, there are arguably even greater risks attached. To begin with, DC Universe Online is in development for PlayStation 3 as well as PC. So there's the issue of how you make an MMO work on a console, and of designing a control system that works for both platforms. You have to strike the right balance between tactical gameplay and fast-paced action. And you have to answer the question of whether console gamers even want to play MMOs in the first place.
There are also particular problems with the DC licence. Giving players the ability to wield a big sword made of light and chuck things about telekinetically is one thing; what happens when they also expect to leap buildings in a single bound, encase enemies in blocks of ice, shoot lasers from their eyes and do everything else the 4000-odd characters in DC's portfolio are capable of? What do you do when everyone wants to "be" Batman? And how do you balance the combat when everyone playing the game has the option to shoot lasers from their eyes?
Like some kind of MMO Publisher of Steel, SOE is hands-on-hips unafraid in the face of such questions. To start us off, creative director Chris Cao tackles the issue of why MMOs haven't yet made it big on consoles. "People haven't been able to deliver the calibre of game console gamers expect," he says. "We have. We've built a team out of MMO makers and action game makers. We've made an action game moment-to-moment, and an MMO game month-to-month.
"All the things we like about MMOs - levels, loot, long-term stories - those will be there," Cao promises. "But now, for the first time, console players will have a game they actually enjoy playing, rather than one that's meant and better suited for the PC."
I'm approaching DC Universe Online as one of those console players SOE is trying to attract. I dabbled with WOW, getting to level 23 before realising I was bored and it was March, and haven't touched an MMO since. So given the choice of starting with the PS3 or PC version, I pick up the Sixaxis instinctively. And instinctively, the first thing I try out is the flying.
Cao explains the mechanics - click L3 to get your character airborne, then use the left stick to control it on the horizontal axis. Pressing X gives you a speed boost, but this means sacrificing a little control; it's best used for getting from A to B fast rather than manoeuvring during combat.
This is all straightforward enough, but things get trickier when it comes to adjusting your altitude. Pushing the right stick up makes your character ascend, and you push down to descend. However, the right stick also controls the camera, as it does when you're on the ground. So whenever you rise through the air you're forced to look upwards, and vice versa. Surely this could cause problems if you're attempting to soar away from danger down below, or if you're being pursued by another character who's able to fly? The constant flicking between viewpoints is disorienting and awkward, and it turns out I'm rubbish at flying. Just like in real life.
"It's because we have full 3D flight," says Cao. "It's a little tricky. But we've noticed it's good to have player skill in some elements because after a little bit of time you gain mastery over it, and you're able to do manoeuvres a lower level player couldn't. So player skill does matter quite a bit." Shame I don't have any, then. "And of course we're pre-alpha, so we have some refinements to do to make it a little easier."
In the PC version you use the F key to get airborne, WASD to move up, down, left and right, and the space bar to boost. The mouse is used to control the camera, so you can ascend and look at the ground simultaneously. This makes things much simpler, as you'd expect, and as Cao agrees. "I find it easier myself. But it's really a skill thing," he says. "Running at super-speeds can be easier for some people. The racing game guys love the speeding, because they're used to moving so fast in their cars."
So flying isn't the only way to get around the DC universe. SOE isn't revealing all the movement types you'll be able to choose from, but Cao confirms they will include super-speed and teleportation. But why would you ever opt to run really fast when you could, you know, fly?
"Actually, I always choose super-speed, because you have a lot more tactical mobility," says Cao. He explains that although flyers have enough control to make pretty sharp turns, "If a super-speedster was running along the side of a building, you would have to follow him along the side - while at any moment he could pop up over it, shoot you and pop back down behind it. He'd be much more agile than you.
"So while flight movement is easier and much more general, things like super-speed give you advanced tactics. Acrobatics allow you to stick to walls so you can hide out and ambush people... Every movement type has advantages and disadvantages. We're finding they're all very skill-based."
One obvious advantage of flying is you can get a top-down view of the area you're currently in. For the purposes of this demo SOE is giving us five blocks of Metropolis to explore. In the finished game, the city will be made up of 10 districts, each around 85 blocks in size, and of course there will be many more areas to visit. "In DC, these cities are really characters in and of themselves," says Cao. "Metropolis is the city of tomorrow, Gotham is the old, decaying city... Each of those has personalities, and they're reflected in what you play."
Indeed, Metropolis has a bright, shiny quality to it. There are clear blue skies, wide tree-lined streets and clean sandstone buildings, and everything has a golden sheen. Except Brainiac, who is hovering over the city in a giant green sphere while his minions infect the citizens below with a deadly nanovirus. This, Cao explains, is an example of a live event: "The game's content system lets us change all the content in the world on the fly. So we can load it with Brainiac encounters, and suddenly what would normally have been a peaceful Metropolis becomes a Brainiac invasion."
It's carnage on the city streets. Zombified citizens launch endless attacks as dozens of superheroes, both famous and unfamiliar, battle it out. Everywhere you look there are cars being thrown down the street, giant ice cubes flying about, characters zipping along the ground and zooming through the air. It's all a bit, well, odd. Just why have all these superheroes suddenly appeared in Metropolis, anyway? Cao won't say, but apparently you'll find out as you progress through the game.
He will talk about the character creation system, even though we're not being allowed to try it out at this stage. There are three components to every hero or villain, including the previously discussed movement type. Power type refers to the element your character's abilities are based around - ice, fire, electricity and light are given as examples, and more will be revealed in future. And finally there's your power source, which refers to the way your power manifests itself. This might be pistols, swords or daggers, but, "It's not like a normal MMO weapon slot, it's more a part of your character that grows with you," says Cao.
Every player-controlled character in the game will be original - you can't "be" Batman or Superman, for example. "The reason for that is, we want them to feel real," Cao explains. "The best way to make Superman feel real isn't to have you play just another Superman in another Superman game, but to have your own character, and earn the right to fight alongside him." And to earn that right, you'll have to level up and prove yourself in the DC universe. "So come the day Superman asks for your help, you'll get a chill, because you know you're good enough; you're powerful and respected enough to have reached that echelon."
By way of a compromise you can pick a pre-built character who comes equipped with the same set of abilities as your favourite superhero, rather than trying to recreate them from scratch. "You could choose the Superman-type character who can pick up and throw cars, or the character who's filled out with Batman-type abilities - martial arts, acrobatics, gadgets. Then you customise your own appearance," says Cao.
Appearance is key, apparently. There's an "immense array" of costume options to choose from, all designed by veteran comic book artist Jim Lee and his team. "But they focused on things that make you look cool at a distance. It's less about your eyebrow shape and more about your silhouette, your brand."
Regardless of what you start out with, you're not stuck fulfilling a particular role for the entire game. You choose four reactive and four active powers to fight with from the range at your disposal, and can change them around at will. "So if we're in a dungeon and we need a tank, you can take on different abilities and assume that role. But you're still an ice person," Cao explains. "It's like golf - you have a bundle of clubs to choose from, but you can only bring four out to play on the green."
Time to go out on the green, then. Cao explains that to choose from the four active abilities you hold down R2 and press one of the mapped shape buttons; targeting is done with L2. Basic moves, such as light attacks and throws, are also pulled off using the face buttons. As a console player, it all feels familiar and easy. It's not long before I'm encasing characters in blocks of ice, picking them up and chucking them at enemies without any trouble. On the PC, it's WASD to move and the mouse to look, while the numerical keys are used for special abilities.
H aving got to grips with the controls and my character's special moves, I'm able to start helping out the likes of Supergirl, who is taking on Lex Luthor. I manage to encase him in ice, and she takes the opportunity to give him a good kicking. Some more player characters join in and Lex is quickly outnumbered and overwhelmed. I needn't worry about sharing XP, explains Cao, as DC Universe uses what they're calling a "surplus model". XP isn't divided amongst the players who defeat an enemy; they all get as least as many points as if they'd done the job on their own. In fact, the more players team up, the more XP they earn.
"We wanted to make sure people are encouraged to play with each other," says Cao. "It's a physics-based environment, where you could throw something and accidentally hit something that someone else is beating up. So you have to share a lot more. Plus, it's more fun that way too." Of course, heroes and villains don't share XP with each other, so there's plenty of potential to rain on your rivals' parade.
Because XP is shared rather than split, there's no need to create a formal group to carry out actions with other players. But there is the option to - you might decide to patrol the streets or explore a dungeon as a group of four, for example, or go on a raid with 16, 20 or 24 others. You can also create your own heroes' or villains' guild - known as leagues and legions, respectively - with the goal of saving or ruling the world.
But for the purposes of this demo, I'm limited to soft grouping and exploring the five blocks of Metropolis SOE has opened up. Limited is the word; after 20 minutes or so I've worked out what all my powers do and seen Lex Luthor respawn twice. Defeating waves of the same enemies within the same confined space is starting to feel an awful lot like grinding. This area makes up less than one per cent of one city in the game, though.
Which means there are still important questions for SOE to answer. At this stage, it's clear the control system works, but still needs work - particularly with reference to flying on the PS3. It's hard to evaluate how the superpowers will balance out without having been able to create a character and see what happens when you mix up different abilities. As for whether console gamers want to play MMOs at all - that question may not be answered until after DC Universe Online hits the shops, but perhaps SOE is about to change some minds.