In the weeks leading up to the San Diego Comic Con, my friend Jon Ellis, former Editor at PopImage.com, was inundated with party invites and press material from companies exhibiting at the show. As I had not registered for San Diego as press, and run a ‘blog’ instead of a ‘website’, and am not as polite to the general public as Jon is, I was not. I mean sure, props to my friends at IDW and Oni; your free booze tasted great too. But Jon was getting better stuff than me and he hadn’t written about comics in months.
Luckily, he forwarded everything my way.
That’s how I got on the press list for the new MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game–like World of Warcraft or, dating myself, Everquest) from DC Comics: DC Universe Online (DCUO). For the die-hard comics fan who knows little-to-nothing of the online video games, this is the project that pulled Jim Lee away from the artistic tour-de-force that is All Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder. Lee designed and redesigned more or less every hero in the DC Universe, as well as dozens of buildings and locations including Metropolis and Gotham, the Bat-Cave and Wayne Manor. The idea of the game is that you can create your own fully customizable and completely original superhero, and then fight alongside the characters you know and love, like The Superman and The Green Lantern. All well and good, but I doubt I would have made much time for it if Sony Online Entertainment–the folks behind the game–weren’t throwing a huge party on the Wednesday night of Comicon.
I like to think of myself as an ethical journalist or blogger or journoblogger or whatever, I don’t feel like I owe anyone coverage. But If I do say that I’ll stop by and do a hands-on with your game oh and thank you for inviting me to your party, and then I go to the party, I should at least check out the game, you know? That way the next time Bender-Helper reps some insane party they won’t look at their list and go “Isn’t that the guy that had 15 raspberry vodka martinis as poured through a giant ice sculpture of our client’s company logo, hit on all of our product demo guys, and then bailed on his appointment with us Thursday afternoon? Fuck that guy, he’s not getting into the My Little Pony Extreme Online party!”
I think that’s called “playing the game” in modern parlance.
So we headed out to the party on Wednesday night, held at a San Diego nightspot spelled “Belo” and we were calling “Bellow!” (as in “Get Me A Martini,” he bellowed!) and then the cab driver laughed at us when we told him where we wanted to be because it’s pronounced “below” as in “underground”. So yeah, party at a nightclub with a name so trendy we couldn’t pronounce, on a borrowed invitation. Good Start! Did I mention we weren’t on the list either?
Luckily, I am Charming, and talked my way in. Also, let’s face it: I’m chubby with a beard, I looked like I ought to be at a video game launch party, and by God, the nice woman and huge dude working the door knew it as well.
Aside: On the whole, I think I will take the general aesthetic appearance of video game journalists over and above the general aesthetic appearance over comic book journalists. No offence to friends in the industry, but apparently 90% of video game journalists roughly fit the “bear/cub” descriptor, at least at this party, and if you’ve got to be surrounded by people also looking for free booze and hors d’oeuvres, then at least they can have the decency of fitting my aesthetic and gender preferences to a tee. And they did.
When we got to the door (the second, interior door) we did not have nametags prepared, but I did have a close personal rapport with Spencer at the door (“Hey, I emailed you the week before Comicon. Twice. You must totally remember me!”) and so that went well. He directed us to the free-swag table, which consisted of a notepad with Pen, a ballcap, and a poster. I don’t do posters or ballcaps, but the notepad seemed eminently practical and so I grabbed one. Little did I know that the Pen was also a miniature flashlight that shot out the Goddamned Bat-Signal, because if I did, everyone I know would be getting a Pen-with-miniature-flashlight-that-shoots-out-the-Goddamned-Bat-Signal this week. Maybe that’s for the best; walking away from a party with two armloads of swag is a little gauche.
And then, the party! I have to say that it was perhaps not as well attended as the PR folks would have hoped. Admittedly, we did arrive a little early, but perhaps even on a lowly Wednesday night there’s just too much going on in San Diego, including a competing Marvel/Activision party, to pack the joint. Can I just say for a second: THANK YOU. This DCUO party ended up being my favourite of the week. Sure, the booze was flowing and the passed hors d’oeuvres were top notch, the DJ seemed to be playing nothing but tracks cut from the “Chris’ Favourites” playlist on my iTunes, and I got Pen with bat-signal in it, but it was the only party I attended this week where I could hear myself think, or hear what my party companions were saying. I know the irony of me complaining about parties being too crowded when I’m talking about a party I basically hijacked an invite to is thick, but I’ll take “moderately attended” over “there is a wave of people at the bar 4 people deep and also I cannot move” any day of the week. That and, by around 11, it felt like a full party everywhere but the dance floor anyway.
I should probably talk about the game?
The party didn’t have the game up and running. I mean, it’s a game at a party, and despite what the Nintendo Wii would have us believe, having games running during your party can kill the mood. There were several video screens running the promo material, talking about the interactive experience of running through your favourite comic book settings as a superhero, the amount of work that has gone into the game, and, most-touted, the amount of work that Jim Lee has put into the game. DC has been notoriously reluctant to promote creators above and beyond the properties themselves, because most creators are free agents and the comics industry in particular works very hard to ensure that no creator maintains any loyalty to any publisher. I was genuinely surprised to see how hard SOE/DC were leaning on Lee’s involvement with this game–perhaps there’s a different metric at work when the creative force is also a top Vice President at the company.
…thinking about it now, I feel that the biggest reason to put Jim Lee’s involvement at the front-and-centre of the online promotion is that SOE and DC are entering a very, very crowded market for MMORPGs. While the behemoth that is World of Warcraft continues to roll on, there are hundreds of fully-realized video game worlds now available to video game fans, including several with a superhero theme. City of Heroes from NC Soft has a several-year head start on DCUO, and while it doesn’t offer real “licensed” DC characters, neither does DCUO exactly. As I mentioned many paragraphs ago, players in DCU Online don’t play as The Superman or The Green Lantern (or as villains like Lex Luthor or Solomon Grundy), they play alongside them, or against them. While you get to be a hero of your own design, you never get to be the hero you may have idolized, and I would have figured that would be the real draw to a game like DC Universe Online. If the game isn’t going to offer you the chance to be The Superman that you may have always wanted, then is it significantly different from other offerings? Is the presence of the incredibly well-loved superhero creator Jim Lee going to be enough to entice hardcore comics collectors to the MMORPG realm? How do real gamers feel about that, are they just companions to the real heroes?
I didn’t know the answers to these questions, and so I decided to do journalism, if by journalism you mean asking opinions of random people at a party. Which I do. The consensus that I received was that even gamers wouldn’t trust fellow gamers with the keys to The Batman. Can you imagine The Superman crashing out of the sky, beating up dudes and knocking down buildings, screaming “n000000bs!”? It turns out Sony could, and did, and hence the appearances of The Aquaman and The Wonder Woman are all computer controlled. Sure, fair point, but maybe I really want to be The Superman and replace all of my “o”s with zeros? Why can’t there be a game for me? Most of the assembled gaming journalists seemed to accept the game on its premise (play in the DC Universe), rather than the platonic ideal of the game (I will play Guy Gardner and constantly hit on other male characters, as is my right), which was refreshing and made me reconsider my position on the game a little. Then I realized that I was at a party and talking about video games instead of drinking and schmoozing, and so I headed to the other section of the bar with the dance floor.
Aside: I hinted pretty strongly to someone at Tor.com that I should blog for them, because hey, why not? That’s what industry parties are for.
Another Aside: I listened to a dude talk about a new collectible card game (like Magic: The Gathering) that exists entirely digitally, inside an upcoming new STAR WARS themed MMORPG, for like 10 minutes, just because he was cute. This was awful too, like you’re spending real money to buy digital cards that you can only play with in this game, and he was just really cute and earnest. Heartbreaking.
Seeing as only one extremely extroverted young man was braving the dance floor (and I require something of a dance-quorum before shaking my groove thang), we went in search of oversized comfortable furniture in which to sit and drink and chat. We met these two great British games journos who were actually at the end of their U.S. sojourn, it having begun a few weeks prior at E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. They weren’t “comics people” per se, but were enjoying little bits here and there and having a fun time in America. As we sat chatting about comics and games and Japan, Heidi MacDonald swung by with Mr. Beat in tow. Mr. Beat is English, as were our game journos, and so they started talking in some sort of impenitrible slang that is normally turned off when interacting with foreigners. Heidi and I observed that we were in a party at the San Diego Comic Con where we were the only comics people in attendance. Which is a little weird, you know. Well, us and Jim Lee, who showed up at some point and I didn’t notice it.
You know Jim Lee? No? Well all you need to know is that Jim Lee is having an excellent time. Seriously. Jim Lee is the new Stan Lee. Jim Lee was rocking the dance floor, just him and like 7 ladies, dancing away and snapping photos and having a great time, all to the strains of Journey… you know that song that’s everywhere since The Sopranos ended? I heard it at every single club party I went to all week. Anyway, Jim Lee was having an amazing time, and so I went over and said “Thank you for having a good time at this party, you’re just awesome,” because I’d had quite a few but also it was genuinely heart-warming to see someone enjoying themselves at a press party.
Then the lights came up and we all turned into pumpkins.
I just-barely made my appointment at the SOE booth the next day thanks to wall-to-wall-crowds, for my hands-on time with the game. Thanks to the first day of the show being a madhouse the official press schedule was thrown out the window. That said, I got onto a machine with my marketing/sales tour guide within 5 minutes, and might I just add that he was cute too? SOE: Thanks for employing my type of guy, it makes the marketing speak go down waaaaaaaay easier.
So my initial, hands-on-impression of DC Universe Online? It’s a video game. Seriously. I mean, it has that sort-of-clunky handling I mentally associate with Tomb Raider rather than the slick movement feel of first person shooters like Halo, and I feel like that might be a hallmark of the genre.
I was running around kicking and punching guys, throwing cars at them, blowing up scenery, the whole 9 yards. As I got more comfortable the PR guy starting showing me how to do more and better super moves, each looking impressive. To keep an element of strategy to the proceedings you can’t just keep hitting the “Kick everyone’s ass supermove” button, with each special attack requiring a period to recharge, marked by a little on-screen timer. So I’m getting into it and running around beating up civilians who’ve been infected with an Alien virus (Brainiac-related, I think) when Lex Luthor drops from the sky, being chased by The Green Lantern. Myself and the other heroes on the connected consoles descend on Lex with a barrage of fully-charged supermoves and kind-of ugly costumes… It’s a bit disconcerting to see Lex LuthorTM In Power Suit being engaged by a gaggle of superheroes that look like something out of a mid-90s superhero publishing effort, sort of like Fan Fiction. I can’t tell if that’s good or bad, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say the fan base would be “into it”. Lex gets defeated, zoomed away, and then he and The Green Lantern both “respawn” to take up the reigns of their eternal battle once more… It all feels a bit pointless, like it’s all going on whether or not I’m there, and for a game where gamers are going to be expected to pony up a monthly subscription fee, that’s a strange to me. Admittedly, this is just the demo, to give us a feel for the game, but those were my feelings so there you are.
Meanwhile, messages are flashing across the bottom of my screen. SUPERGIRL HAS BEEN DEFEATED! THE ALIEN VIRUS HAS BEEN STOPPED! BIZARRO IS ON A RAMPAGE! or something along those lines. The PR guy tells me that if I activate my super speed, I can head over to where the other characters are and get in on the fight. I have super speed? I click it on and move my character. Zoooooom! I’ve got that electric/blur trail, like in The Flash comics, and that is pretty cool. “You know,” says the PR guy. “You can run up the side of that building there.” And I’m off. And I am running up the side of a building at super speed, and across the side of another building, and on the underside of a bridge, and it is super, super awesome. Seriously, this is the point at which DCUO goes from being just a video game to a whole experience, when I get to viscerally feel the thrill of running up and over a building and leaping from the ledge onto the next one. I also know as I’m doing it that this likely isn’t an experience unique to DCUO, but it is an exciting one and well-executed too. If you haven’t tried breaking the laws of physics, I do recommend it, it’s a lot of fun.
In all my running and jumping and moving to higher vantages, I spot one of the game’s big events: Bizarro is squaring off against The Superman below me. With a mighty punch Bizarro fells The Superman and without hesitating I launch into action. With no other superheroes around–TM DC Comics or otherwise–it’s up to me to stop this huge and shambling monster. Groups of virus-infected civilians begin to swarm me as I unleash a well-orchestrated series of supermoves on Bizarro, trying to keep the monster off guard so that his eye beams will stop knocking away huge chunks of my life-meter. I’ve got the explody superpower, and the spikey super power, but it’s the one where I generate a big club out of rocks and then take a swing that I finally knock him out of the park. Yes, 90s-looking superhero with a strange mix of powers and me, we succeeded where even The Superman had failed! Bizarro: Defeated! I was proud of my accomplishment, and cute PR guy was genuinely surprised (“Wow, I thought you were toast when you went up against him.”) which only added to my sense of pride. Bizarro disappeared, and “respawned” down the way (as did The Superman, which is too bad because I was sort of hoping that all of the in-game characters would wear those black armbands with the bloody Superman logo for a while), reminding me that these characters really are fighting a never-ending battle, but one I walked away from feeling victorious.
I’m going to be honest here, I’ll probably never play this game again. When it comes to consoles I’m a Wii guy, and I’m never going to have a computer new enough or powerful enough to play a cutting edge MMORPG. Hell, I got this gig because I was looking for somewhere to drink on Wednesday night that wasn’t the Hyatt. I can see how my opinion is both invalid and not to be trusted on this one, but: The best part of my Thursday at the show was defeating Bizarro in an online game. It was just incredibly fun, and I recommend the experience. While I can’t tell you how this stacks up against MMORPGs or whether Jim Lee has enough fanboy cred to attract a whole new audience to the genre, I can tell you that in this game, you are no mere companion to heroes. That counts for a lot.