Just last week Dimensional Ink Games, the developers behind the free-to-play superhero MMO DC Universe Online (DCUO) launched their 40th “Episode” (DLC). Entitled the World Of Flashpoint, it draws its inspiration from the major 2011 DC Comics event of a similar name, Flashpoint. This episode is the first to be free for all players!
To learn more about what went into this monumental occasion we had a chance to sit down with Jack Emmert, MMO veteran and CEO of Dimensional Ink Games. We had a heart-to-heart chat about this episode, the thoughts behind their membership benefits and we even learned some “gossip” of a few things the team is working on next!
MMORPG: So, Jack, I’ve got a generic question first. With the breadth of DC lore available, how does the team decide on what the next episode will be?
Jack Emmert, Dimensional Ink Games: Well, a lot of it starts with me talking with the executive producer. And to be honest, some of it is my own love and history of DC going back decades now. And then we also consult with our community manager, Ted Stone (a.k.a “Mepps”) to get an idea of who or what things the community is wanting to see covered. And then Landon (Falls, Senior Producer) also helps with what is current and what is modern and what might resonate. Today with DC oftentimes, we look at the DC calendar, we see what TV shows or what movies are coming out, and we try to resonate with whatever they're working on. But “Flashpoint” being a good example, that's just one of my favorite comic events ever. And so, I wanted to do it. And given the Flash, and that we'll have a movie later in the year, I think it makes perfect sense to kick off this spring season with the Flash.
MMORPG: With “World Of Flashpoint”, it's quite an accomplishment that this is the 40th episode of DCUO. I mean, that's more issues than a lot of the comic runs that I read nowadays.
JE: Yeah, it seems like nowadays, they go back to number one, like so many times.
MMORPG: Right. And it won't be long before you and I'll be talking again and I'm sure we’ll be talking about Episode 50, which will be kind of a milestone. So, you guys must feel proud about all that at this point.
JE: Oh, yeah. And the game is going terrific. I think so far this has been the biggest January, February, March, April, ever, even better than last year. So, I have no doubt that we'll be talking about 50, 60,70,80, 90 moving into the future.
MMORPG: So how did you guys come about the decision to make Episode 40 “free for all” forever?
JW: That's a really good question. So, there's a lot of best practices when you have a free to play game. And one of those best practices is to remove paywalls so that people can enjoy the content so that you maximize the enjoyment of the largest possible community. From there, you have enthusiasts who then invest money in the game, or alternatively, a whole lot of time, either way is great. And so, it made sense that with something as epic as “Flashpoint” to give this a try.
At the same time, this is really kicking off a discussion about “what is the subscription in a free to play world”? What is it going to provide? What benefits? And we are currently hard at work on coming up with a smorgasbord of new opportunities for members. So, we're using this year as a way of helping make the game more accessible to more people, but at the same time, make membership feel more rewarding, rather than just using it as a paywall against a fans.
MMORPG: So, you're not talking though about different tiers of membership, are you?
JE: No, no, no, no, we aren't contemplating anything like that. Just a single type of membership. If we're going to make a “World Of Flashpoint” a free for all and previously that was a primary benefit for members then we should start really working hard and replacing that value and some.
MMORPG: Are there any hints as to how the membership will change to accommodate that of which you can speak about?
JE: There's nothing definitive yet. I personally love systems that provide people with quicker advancement or advantages in gameplay, but that's just my personal proclivities. You could use that to read tea leaves if you wanted. But right now, we're in discussion, talking with lots of different folks internally and externally of what they'd like to see in a membership.
MMORPG: Okay, fair enough. So, let's talk about the episode itself. With this free for all episode, will we still have the traditional event like feel with access to low level 15+ content?
JE: We're always going to keep that. I think that we’ve gone past the point at which we reserve new content to only for those at the tip of the spear. I think those days have kind of passed in MMOs, in general.
MMORPG: So, will this episode cover the full “Flashpoint” storyline?
JE: It's focused mainly, well, no, that isn’t even true. A lot of it is, I'd say, the majority of, its focused on what's happening in Flashpoint Gotham. But there is some time travel. There is some stuff that's taking place outside of Gotham, in terms of the instances. So, “Flashpoint”, for example, takes place in England, right? You know, where you've got the Canterbury cricket hard at work, or you're on the high seas or in Atlantis, those are not areas that this is going to cover.
MMORPG: Okay, so does that mean possibly we'll see future expansions on the story in future episodes?JE: Yeah, that would be my hope. I love “Flashpoint”. I think it's one of the best alternate universes that DC has created. So, it would be my hope to build on it. But certainly, it's a part of a puzzle this year, but certainly in future years, I could see us adding to it.
MMORPG: So in terms of content, how does this episode compare in size to previous expansions?
JE: I would say it's probably about the same maybe a little bigger because we've added a little bit more of options in terms of the instances and it's a return to a more traditional format. We had put a lot of focus on the open world in “Wonderverse” and in “Legion”. And this time we're going back to a more traditional approach of not having, you know, the world bosses and things like that. Really a lot more focused on the raids, the alerts, duos and solos.
MMORPG: How many of the main Flashpoint characters will we get to see? We already know we’ll see the Flash, Kid Flash, Reverse Flash, Thomas Wayne Batman, Cyborg. How about Emperor Aquaman and Wonder Woman?
JE: Definitely, you will definitely see them. And you will see, don't forget, Heatwave who was a big factor in it. You're going to see nightmare versions of The Rogues. You'll need to play to see what that is.
MMORPG: Any other surprise characters that you can't spoil her?
JE: Let me think… my head's going into the Rolodex. I mean, of course, you're gonna run into The Penguin…
MMORPG: Booster Gold?
JE: Oh, yeah, that's right. You're going to be running into a version of Booster Gold. He's there in a special way. Oh, Doomsday! You’re definitely gonna see Doomsday.
MMORPG: In “World Of Flashpoint”, we actually see a new Gotham City. Was this a completely new model? Or did you guys tailor and tweak the current Gotham zone to make this one come alive?
JE: We tailored and tweaked. I mean, we added new assets like the Queen's Row Penitentiary, which by the way, that looks really cool when you see that floating in the sky above Gotham.
MMORPG: “Flashpoint” [the comic] used superheroes that we know that DC considered radical in different ways. Did this offer you guys any liberties that you might normally have not had with the usual DCU roster?
JE: Yes and no, there's still you know, at the end of the day, there might be a Thomas Wayne Batman, but it's still Batman. Right? Like, there's certain things that just aren't appropriate. So, I would say that we were able to be very true to the characters in “Flashpoint”. And that was a primary focus. All right, ooh sorry because my head is like an ancient Rolodex, [we’ll see] Plastic Man!
MMORPG: When you guys put the episode together how did you decide which characters to use and not use?
JE: Our narrative designer is a wonderful researcher. So basically, I say, “hey, look, I really like the “World Of Flashpoint””. She takes it upon herself to read everything she can about “Flashpoint”, the series, reviews, all of it, everything. And then she kicks back different ideas of characters to focus on and directions that we could go. And given the nature of our updates, the most obvious place to set it in was Gotham as opposed to other locations. Given some of the assets we already had, as well as just the interest level. Deathstroke’s pirate boat probably isn't as great of a popularity as Gotham. And that's how we did it. I mean, that's really how it went.
MMORPG: So this time around this episode, we get TWO eight player raids, which is nice!
JE: Yes! Like I said, we wanted to put more focus, and we have a Duo, we wanted to put more focus on the instances. Because we had trended so hard on these open world bosses previously, and in “Wonderverse” were super popular. And we did it again in “Legion”, but I think people had fatigue. So, we really wanted to get back to the player requests. They wanted to see more raids; they want to see more instance content.
MMORPG: Let's talk about the styles and Knight Of Vengeance. That capsule looks incredible!
JE: Yeah, Thomas Wayne. Batman is an obvious one. I mean, it just, I don't know, that didn't require any thought. Like, usually we're like, oh, what should we do? And like, nope, that was obvious.
MMORPG: And then there’s the Hologram device you get for free after opening 15 capsules. That character model looks great.
JE: That was entirely, I can't claim any credit, the team did that.
MMORPG: Who was inspiration for that Hologram device? Can you tell people who might not be familiar with the “World Of Flashpoint”? Because it looks like a hawk type. I'm not even sure who it was off top my head. Of course, it's been 10 years since I read the series.JE: You know what? I'm gonna go check right now. [Note: hang in there for an answer ??]
MMORPG: We're also getting Heatwave styles as drops and that looked incredible. And from what I've seen based on the Twitch preview, those styles look very desirable.
JE: Heatwave was a favorite among the team. They really liked him. So, you're going to see him actually several times.
MMORPG: When these new episodes are on the test server, do you guys get a lot of bug reports from that? Or how does that work? I mean, it's on the test server now and you're going live tomorrow?
JE: A lot of it is we do get bugs and a lot of it is for qualitative feedback. “This is too easy”. “This is too hard”. “This isn't fun”. This more so than precise bugs though that we do get that too. We do have a great bunch of testers who do try to deliver as much info as they can. And we keep it. We keep that live for as long as we do because why not? Right? We can always hotfix things if they find something catastrophic.
MMORPG: That was my next point, I didn't know how the turnaround time was when they find something on the test server versus getting the fix into live.
JE: You know, it's down to a science. I mean, we really can-do things pretty darn quick if need be. But oftentimes, we're not finding catastrophic info that almost never happens.
MMORPG: When an episode like this goes live, what's your involvement at that point? I'm sure you let your team handle it. But do you have to get involved at any point when large content like this goes live?
JE: Well, “get involved” is… so my principle is that if I'm not a fan of my own game, then what good am I? So as soon as it launches on Thursday, I'm in there grinding away. I'm gonna be one of the very first people queuing up. And I immediately begin making comments. Because, you know, obviously, I'm playing anonymously. And I can tell the fans that I play sorcery, so I can tell you that. I always love it when people are saying “your healing sucks”. Like, thanks.
MMORPG: This was the first time this week that I've ever used the test server. I just know with my favorite game that sometimes I don't like to ruin surprises that are coming. So, I've never taken to jumping onto a test server to see new content right away.
JE: It's one of the reasons why I personally don't do preview stuff on comic books. Like, I'd rather wait till the comic comes out. I don't want to know what it is until I get it. So, I understand that point of view.
But once it goes live, I usually actively play. And I'm usually looking for anything from how people are actually playing it as opposed to how we designed it, in theory, and how we played it.
One of the things is that were held hostage, all game developers, in my experience, are held hostage by their own assumptions on how people play. And you find out that players will find ingenious ways to maximize their ability to gain rewards. And so, they'll find ways of defeating bosses that are wildly different than anybody could have imagined. And so, it's always so we take that and sometimes there's the [insert long pause here] oh, so the hologram… the reason why I didn't know offhand, it's because it's a copy of your player!
And the other big thing is that when you're playing, especially like, the reward drops the pace of getting currency, the pace of leveling up your character, making sure that's all enjoyable. When I log in, I'll play first thing in the morning, I play late at night or play during the day, so that I understand how long the queues are or aren't.
So, I try to really be the player advocate as much as I can after it launches.
MMORPG: Are you guys looking at some way to improve the new player experience so that when I do all the old content and have to get a party or raid together, that's it's easier?
JE: Absolutely! This is going to be something that we need to tackle. The content that we had in the beginning of the game 10 years ago was great, but times have changed and the gorillas on the beach, probably not as compelling as it might have been back then.But going back and streamlining, making it easier for people to get through, not get stuck and see our levels when there are no queues popping. So that is a huge concern, and we are under active discussions.
One of the solutions was in fact, to turn our episodes into events when they launch so that way somebody can, if they're at CR (combat rating) 250, still play and be leveling up in “Flashpoint”. They don't have to wait for their CR 250 queue to pop. Because there might not be a ton of people at that CR range, but it is something that we need a more permanent, more wide-ranging solution for.
MMORPG: Is there anything else about the episode or DLC that you want to talk about that I might have missed?
JE: I think that's about it. I really invite everybody to jump on, we really have a yearlong storyline. So, jumping on now is going to help you understand the bigger picture.
MMORPG: How are your numbers, since now that we're kind of moving into post pandemic? Are you still holding steady on players? Subscribers?
JE: Yeah, I would say that our members are way up, over even, what they were during COVID. That's been something that really has climbed significantly over the year. I would say that we did have a ton of “lookie-loos” that came in last year in March and April. Some of those churned out and didn't come back.
MMORPG: s there any other cool DCUO gossip you can share with us in closing?
JE: Yeah, there are actually a couple pieces of gossip. But in terms of the overall storyline, think about, people should look towards DC and some of the big cosmic events that have been happening. That's one thing. And another thing would be that we have a formula for an episode, which is fairly predictable. But why make it predictable? Like, new content can take many forms. And we've been using a formula that I developed several years ago. But I think, hey, why not shake it up? So that's something that we're actively considering.
Thanks to Jack and everyone at Dimensional Ink Games for their time! Watch this site in the next week or so as I’ll have a write-up of my impressions from playing Episode 40, “World Of Flashpoint”, from DC Universe Online!
I’ll also be meeting up with Jack in the near future to conduct a fireside chat about comic books. Just two seasoned veterans who read and collect comic books. And we’ll talk about our fandom without involving DCUO at all… well maybe just a “little”.