MMORPGs are becoming increasingly common, but subscription-based MMOs are becoming increasingly rare. Standing out can be hard in a crowded online universe… but being the first MMO on PS3 and using a worldwide famous comic property in DC always helps. We spoke with Debysue Wolfcale, director of global brand marketing for Sony Online Entertainment, about the anticipated MMO, DC Universe Online.

With DCUO launching on PC and PS3 simultaneously, do you think there’s a unique opportunity there for the game?

The answer is yes, not just because there’s two platforms and because there’s no other game that has [what we offer], but it’s that several trends have come together [at the same time]. One is the growth of the MMO genre; we see a proliferation of those types of games with lots of players online, particularly since the introduction of World of Warcraft. The other is the continued popularity of console action games. So introducing an MMO but with console action components, we were looking to bring together those who liked online games and action games and offer it on both platforms. It’s a unique and smart opportunity for the PS3 market.

So knowing you were developing for the PS3, did that help shape the game?

For us, (DCUO) was conceived to be a PS3 game. We knew we wanted it to come to both platforms. We weren’t like, ‘Lets build it and port it to the PS3.’ It was an MMO with an action game mechanic to appeal to both platforms. It was a pretty big challenge, but we saw the metrics for MMO players getting on board, and we saw a hurdle in getting console players interested. We saw games like Modern Warfare 2 being successful and people liked the multiplayer. So we decided to take all the features that people like of MMOs and online multiplayer into one game.

To make it work on the PS3, we had to work within constrains we hadn’t had before.  We had to be aware of bandwidth and the particular tech, whereas a PC can be more forgiving in some places; it brought in a new set of challenges. We are Sony, so we developed a close relationship with SCE and we were able to identify and address all of those challenges pretty early on.

In marketing, there were things we needed to do differently too. We had three priority target markets: we had the MMO gamer, who had a relationship with online games and SOE as a real leader in the MMO space. We also targeted the console action gamers and, of course, we were targeting fans of comics! Jim Lee was the executive creator and vital in bringing this forward-thinking philosophy to all aspects of the game.

We saw there were three different groups of people that all want something slightly different we needed to know how to target all of these people without building a [separate] campaign for all three, so we built a campaign that catered out to those three segments.

We’ve done a ton of live events with this game. We’ve done no less than eight live demo events, like Comic Con and SOE Fan Faire. We had both PC and PS3 demo stations and had separate key commands and we set up our booths to accommodate all the target markets. We attended different events, again, because we were targeting three markets.

What information were you trying to convey to consumers via the various online trailers and how did it change leading up to launch?

We saw people who would say, ‘We love the opening event in the game! It was awesome to see Superman fight next beside you.’ Others said, ‘The first fight in the game is awesome, being attacked by giant robots at the beginning, I think it was called Brainiac!’ For the MMO gamers, by contrast, it was all about creating the character; you could see all this feedback reflected throughout the beta.

That’s different from the way a lot of MMOs start. After you make a character, your first quest is usually talking to someone, and then that person tells you to pick up X item, and then after that you have to kill five slugs . . .

We tailored the opening of the game to bring you into the gameplay mechanics and the user interface. It’s also reflected in our opening movie: the game opens with the cinematic that shows why the world is in turmoil and ultimately it’s either going to be ruled over or taken back. From that point, it feels like you’re dropped into the Brainiac ship. The whole fiction of the game is what’s being giving in the beginning. We’ve felt like letting players feel like they are the hero and that’s the important part. It’s a very story driven experience, and that’s important for DC comics, whether it’s the comics, animated series or movies.

The initial encounter also gives players opportunities to know who Brainiac is and what he is. It didn’t feel like a tutorial and it worked out really well.

I was also glad to see Corey Burton in the role of Brainiac, given his familiarity with the role from Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League. Who were you excited to work with on the project?

For me, I’d have to say it’s Mark Hamil; it’s the experience of meeting him. Such a wonderful man, but his voice and characterization of the Joker are unmatched!

All the actors we got, we knew that we wanted this to reach out to the broader gamer who might not be as involved with the DC franchise as others. We wanted them to be comfortable in this world, with these characters that you know make the experience better and we wanted to leverage the incredible depths of the IP. We built cut-scenes to be a really compelling way to convey information on these characters. So the cut-scenes at the end of the boss fights help [the players] feel more engaged, to find out more about the world.

Were you hoping to maybe reach a wider gamer audience, including women?

That was another target market; there’s always been a strong composition of women in MMO games, because women are good at socializing and organizing, and they play a larger role in the guilds. At the events, I was amazed at the number of women dressed in these uniforms. I’d see girls dressed up as Zantana and they would know their personal background and everything! It’s amazing how many strong females there are in the DC universe. One of the media from IGN, she’s been playing a lot and tweeting, and it’s awesome to hear her talk about.

What was seen as important to convey in the TV spots for DCUO?

In the TV spots, we had three goals. I would say everything we have done on this game, the continual focus on speaking to these three markets in ways that’s exciting to them, it was really challenging. We wanted to convey to them that you’re stepping into the DC universe (key to the comic fan) and we wanted to say you’re crafting your own character and that speaks to the MMO gamer. And we wanted to convey that you’re going to have these powers and pick up stuff in the environment that you can throw, which console gamers like. It’s hard to convey all of this in 15- and 30-second spots, that it has all those gameplay features, weaving them together with editing and music. And everything is gameplay other than the part with our pre-rendered opening.

What sort of feedback have you gotten so far?

I’m amazed . . . I don’t want to jinx it, but the feedback has been incredibly positive! I feel like I’ve been in a dream since it launched. People are embracing the game, and we feel very lucky. It took a long time, a lot of tuning and a lot of long nights, so it’s nice to have people embrace it.

What makes working on a super hero MMORPG different than your typical high-fantasy RPG?

It was different in a few key areas. Firstly, you’re talking to a very different market. Action console gamers are very different than the comic book fans. The different conversations we had needed to deal with three different points of view! It was so much more variety from the way people play games and what they were looking for in the game. In terms of communication, it was talking about the graphics, the art, the text even; it’s about not alienating anyone. Bringing forward those things that people liked and that didn’t attract people before.

With the community, we’re establishing a relationship that grows over time. They have a relationship with us and with each other, and that’s a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity! It’s a lot of what we do with social media marketing. We wanted to go to C2E2 in Chicago with DC Comics, but we were so busy with development we couldn’t go, so we had a virtual fan event through our Facebook page. So that was the first of many virtual events with the fans.

Talk to me about the boost you got from DC and Warner Bros. in helping to realize DCUO.

They’ve been instrumental, I don’t even know where to begin! They’ve been so forthcoming and supportive! The relationships we’ve built with them have been great; Jim Lee was a big positive with us. He’s so talented as an artist, but he’s also a gamer! So not only does he ‘get’ DC comics, but he ‘gets’ games. It was important for him to be on board.

Geoff Johns and Marv Wolfman, incredibly talented guys, also helped. Geoff is the Creative Officer for DC and they’re both the leaders in that company and we got to work with them,. I think it’s given us incredible dividends. Jim made suggestions, he sat down at our desk and talked about what the box and brand key-art should look like.

We’ve put our cinematic on WB releases, and All-Star Superman will carry our trailer. A lot of DC comics will run ads and DC direct is coming out with action figures based around DCUO. From Sony to DC to Warner Bros., you couldn’t ask for better partners.

How has SOE’s experience with online titles helped form and shape DCUO?

We couldn’t have launched this game if we didn’t have the depth of experience with MMO games. Launching these games is a challenge. This game has so many firsts for SOE launched a game on the PS3, in five languages in 22 countries at the same time. That was a pretty daunting task, and I think we did it with a high degree of quality, so we couldn’t have pulled that off without the depth of this company. The founders of this company developed EverQuest and we have so many other great people, whether they worked on EverQuest or God of War, that are just incredible. There are so many people here who have put in hours and hours; one way or another, the whole company has supported this game.

The pre-rendered cinematic that starts the game is very striking . . . was its main intention to grab the audience with shocking events right off the bat?

We worked very hard with the dev guys on that – it was one of the more exciting marketing products on the project. The back-story of this game was written by Geoff Johns. Lee said he wanted this great back story, because MMOs have these great back stories. When I read it, I couldn’t believe how drawn in I was. It was so visceral and compelling and I said, ‘We’ve got to make a cinematic out of this!’ The story was crafted to answer ‘Why are all these heroes popping up ‘ and it conveys the message of ‘The next legend is you.’ It had so much potential we just wanted to show it through as a movie.

The video is an alternate future that you’re trying to avoid; you’re going outside the lines of where the heroes normally are because it’s a separate universe, which doesn’t hurt the synergy of the IP. That story really became the way to convey the value proposition of the game. It was important to convey that you’re the hero, you’re the villain and you’re going to carry the story of the game and the game is growing and evolving. It was written quite some time ago by Geoff Johns and it shows how lucky we are to work with both him and Jim Lee on the story of the game. It wasn’t really about shock value, though; it was about different opportunities to introduce these characters. You’re not playing as Superman or Batman – you’re going to be the hero or villain fighting for or against them.

I know you can’t give anything away, but is it your intention to grow, develop and change the story of DCUO as time goes on?

Absolutely! It’s key to the value proposition that we’re constantly adding content.  We’re letting our players know what is unique about MMO games by constantly adding new events with new things to see and do because it’s an evolving world. In this game, as you’re continuing to play, we continue to grow the game. We wanted to accommodate where we see what’s popular and build more of that to make sure that people have the most fun with it. That’s something we’re hopefully going to find out about and adapt our plan to the players’ preferences.

With most games, you put it in a box and you’re done. Launching an online game is the beginning and not the end! We don’t know where this will lead us. There is an end game which is unique in an MMO, but there’ll be more after that!

Debysue, thanks.

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