Seven years following its launch DC Universe Online is answering the existential question of MMOs — how to stay fresh and relevant? — by leaning on the interest in its namesake’s cinematic doings.
The superhero MMO just launched Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, an adaptation of the classic 1984 story arc (which itself was adapted in a direct-to-video animated film last year). It’s also no coincidence that it launched July 18, right as hype was building for Titans, which will inaugurate the DC Universe streaming service for Warner Bros. Digital later this year. (There’s also the lighthearted cartoon Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, which premiered on Friday.)
Then last week, Daybreak Game Company announced plans for Atlantis, an even richer expansion taking players to Aquaman’s undersea kingdom in November — again, no coincidence, because Aquaman the film will be in theaters one month later, starring Jason Momoa.
Both of these DC Comics staples are in the news, of course, and Daybreak is also finding it a good time to introduce new gameplay features as well. The Judas Contract brings out a new Augments system, which streamlines and replaces the old R&D mods that some players found a little time consuming or hard to understand.
The Judas Contract likewise brings in new, fan favorite characters like Damian Wayne, Terra, Adeline Wilson and Jericho. Starfire and Cyborg get visual updates; Tim Drake is now Red Robin. New locations such as Titans Tower and Titans Island will also feature in the game, and fans who want to match the look of the heroes will get tech-based gear inspired by Cyborg and Red Robin.
S.J. Mueller, DC Universe Online’s creative director since 2015 and herself a big Teen Titans nut thanks to her older sister, said Daybreak’s seven years of work with the DC Universe license has built up a lot of trust with the comics label, allowing them to pitch and develop adaptations that reflect the priorities of the game and its player base without micromanagement from above.
“They trust us to know what is good for the game and our roadmap for the coming year,” Mueller said. Coming up with new ideas is never difficult. “I’ll usually get some crazy idea and just say, ‘hey, what do you think if we tried this?’ Or someone else will say, ‘I would really love it if we did that,’ or ‘I’ve always loved this character.’” A corkboard at Daybreak’s office in Austin, Texas is tacked full of notes-to-self about what might be cool to do later.
Atlantis originated this way, Mueller said. Even though it captures interest in Aquaman, Mera, Ocean Master and others as the film approaches, it’s still built to satisfy long-running urges in both players and developers. Water, the game’s 15th powerset, was added last year around this time with a precursor to Atlantis called Deluge.
“Everyone was so thirsty for Water powers,” Mueller said. “That’s one everyone’s been calling for since launch. It was rather tricky to do, but it’s one of the more popular healer and [damage-dealer] types. And we also started showing what the Atlantean architecture might look like. So it’s been really exciting for fans of Aquaman and Mera over the past year.”
Technically speaking, Mueller and her colleagues realized that these expansions need to be more accessible to the game’s player base — in other words, available to characters in very early levels. “MMOs usually learn that after a year or two,” Mueller said. DC Universe Online’s former approach, in which major expansions were accessed by those who had completed the main storyline (which usually put the player somewhere around the old level cap of 30) sort of divided the audience, Mueller said. This was of particular concern since DCUO went free-to play not even a year after its launch.
Since about two years ago, seasonal content and expansions like The Judas Contract and Atlantis have been accessible to anyone at level 10 or higher — which any player knows takes very little time to reach (not much more than a good day’s worth of playing). This site counts almost 11 million current characters above level 9. That’s out of a population roughly 33.6 million, across two regions and three platforms, considered active and current.
The story Atlantis will tell is tuned to the pacing and ongoing arcs of DC Universe Online, Mueller said; while, obviously, that draws on the canon from the comics, it’s not necessarily something directly adaptive of what’s coming in Aquaman (and The Judas Contract is a set of DCUO missions, feats, styles and other content that references the story line).
“You don’t see the characters having intimate conversations like you do in the comics,” Mueller explained. This is, of course, because the world of the MMO is refracted through the created player character’s experiences, as opposed to someone playing as Arthur or Mera. “They’re thick skinned around you; they don’t trust you right away.” This helps illustrate the surface-and-sea divide that has long defined Aquaman’s sense of conflict.
“It needs to satisfy this idea of an underwater kingdom and realm unlike ours — it’s not just another city block,” Mueller said. “We really explored the streets and lower levels of the city. And it’s seen in things like, light penetrates water differently than it does on the surface for example.” That meant some technical upgrades and changes were necessary to perfect the undersea look, not just a strong design of the cityscape.
Though players will still find that in Atlantis, Mueller says. “It’s more like a medieval city,” she said. There’s a royal castle, and a surrounding district that reflects its importance, but the further you get away from it, the more common and utilitarian the city becomes.
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract isn’t as sizeable as Atlantis but still took “months of effort for both our writers, artists and designers,” Mueller said. It was an opportunity to, for example, update Cyborg with an entirely new suit she hopes fans will find as cool as she does
“We’re our own universe, but we try to represent the characters in the most iconic and legendary way that players can still relate to,” Mueller said. “Obviously, fans will watch the TV show, and they’re also invested in the original Judas Contract storyline, too.”
And the creators at Daybreak are still fans themselves, too. Mueller’s love for comics came from her older sister, who squealed, Mueller said, when she told her what she got to work on. “Everyone here is a fan of something or someone,” she said. So there may be a lot of work that goes into a new project — but coming up with an idea for something is the easy part.