dc universe online… designing to fail

25 Jan

I got asked by some people what I thought of DC Universe Online.  Not gonna pull any punches here.  This is a game which has a tremendous amount of possibilities and at the same time suffers so severely from just demolishing some of the core rules of user experience design that its almost as if they designed it that way.  My guess is, they did.

Let’s roll back just a second and discuss the game itself.  The idea of an MMO built around superheroes isn’t new.  The highly successful City of Heroes broke this market several years ago – so regardless of all the current hype… what this game is doing isn’t new.  It’s not even close to new, and it’s main draw is that for the first time ever you can now play along side mainstream big name “superheroes” – in a rather beloved by fans world, namely the “DC Universe”.   What’s more  it’s not even the first MMO to allow both PC and Console (Playstation 3) play there have been others who have tried this.  Notably Sony with their Final Fantasy, and Everquest series.  Although if you really dig deep File:Phantasy Star Online.PNGSega’s Dreamcast technically had the first console based MMORPG and even Microsoft’s ShadowRun is ‘technically’ an MMO but that’s really stretching the definition of an MMO.   The fact is – MMO’s and consoles have been tried before.  So DCU  isn’t the first to have this idea.

In fact,  it’s not even the first super hero MMO to look at it.  A few years back Marvel was working along side Cryptic Software (creators of Champions Online and City of Heroes / City of Villians)  and Microsoft.  For reasons unknown – Marvel or Microsoft (depending on which trade blog you read) backed out at the last minute after Cryptic had invested considerable time and money into creating such a game.  Cryptic took the peices of this effort and retooled this into the now successful Champions Online.

One of the key questions people have asked about Champions has been about their “We have Xbox 360 support…”, “We will not support Xbox 360…” since the drivers support were created, tested and play for the 360 was announced, and then shut down.  Even today, some players play Champions using  Xbox 360 controllers via their PCs.  This is important for understanding the only really glaring failure of DCU.  You’d think something this small wouldn’t be that important but as I said, this is core to User Experience design, so bear with me.   Years ago a lot of research was done on the subject of PC and Console play happening side by side, much was said about it at the time and then it and was very quietly pushed under a rug to be forgotten.

The fact is if you use a console and you play against someone on a PC… you get PWNED.  Hands down, it’s not even a competition.  This has been tested over and over and the naysayers out there who use consoles have repeatedly failed to keep up with anyone using a PC.  In fact, even the lowliest newbs on a PC – could go not just toe to toe – but own seasoned console users.   It has to do with basic mechanics.  A PC user has a mouse and a keyboard and under most common configurations they’re able to direct an attack. select an option by merely sliding to it – clicking and then engaging using the keyboard.  They can do this without even looking away, and at the same time have full control of their peripheral experience so in addition to the speed of attack they actually see more of what’s coming and can plan for it.  Even when you change this around a bit -it’s a far more precise system of gaming and much ownage will ensue.

You wouldn’t think it would be but tests show this is the case.  Now – keeping in mind “under most common configurations”, and keeping in mind that a PC processes events in a different fashion than console from a driver perspective – if you design for a console, and you run it on a PC interface issues will occur.  It’s like losing several fingers on one hand, half your vision and most of your left arm.  So it’s not to say that Consoles don’t have some advantages over PC users.   This is to say that if you design for a button mashing experience (console) then you have to make up for all those keys and visual targeting you’re losing.  If you force a PC user to that very small perspective, and force them to perform gymnastics on the keyboard and mouse – there’s a serious issue for them.  It’s really really really difficult to not hobble a PC user when you have one interface – and that’s for a console.  So for some things – it’s a whole lot easier for the Console user.  But in the specific area of targeting and acting on anything the PC user has an advantage… that is IF you provide a PC interface.

If you dont’ you’re looking at coming up with combinations accessible to both worlds and that frankly doesn’t work well.  Even something simple like in game chat mechanics for a console become problematic (since you dont’ have a keyboard to chat).  Granted a lot of gamers use voice chat – but in the world of MMO’s there are many who, for example are playing at 3 am and y’know the wife may put up with you being on raids at all hours … provided you don’t wake her while playing in the same room.  For this reason – keyboard chat on an MMO still exists.

It’s a design consideration you take into account.  It’s also why die hard Halo and Call of Duty FPS players are frequently single for most of their lives, or don’t play in the bedroom.  Console=TV in living room… PC=PC might be anywhere… even the bedroom.  Once again, it’s a core tenant of User Experience Design… consider who will be playing the game, and how.  DCU considered only that the game would be both for the Console, and begrudgingly… for the PC.  Not as an after thought, they are after all well aware that the MMO market is very very much a PC world.  But the goal was to get into that market with their console – so the design is purposely bent to getting the Console, not for how the game played best for people.

Because even from a console perspective – this game is a design user experience fail.  To accomodate all the playing options you’re faced with countless screens which scream the need to pause the game as you click through options endlessly.  This pain is felt even more so if you’re on PC as you can’t thumb click, but have to hunt for them, scroll, hunt, scroll.  Even simple tasks like navigation – where ordinarilly you’d be able to set your player in flight and hit a “run’ key to just have them move to a point… aren’t possible.  You have to actually direct them every agonizing mile.  Thank god the graphics are beautiful and there is a level of interaction all throughout or it’d be almost as much fun as Flight Simulator without auto-pilot to go make a sandwich.

So as you can see – a game which is designed to be both for the Console and the PC has a choice, allow Pwnage … or hobble one user in favor another.  DC Universe was designed with this in mind.  No proof directly but all evidence seems to indicate this is the case.

From how mouse looks function, how you interact with NPCs, how everything works it’s pretty clear this game was re-designed for someone with a thumb stick, a D-Pad, and multiple buttons to mash from an interface perspective.  Anything related to the PC is a secondary consideration in the design – the preference is for the console.

No surprise there since the games being bankrolled by Sony who’s wanted in on the MMO market since before there was a World in World of Warcraft.  They also are looking for a success for their PS3 which lets face it is pretty much falling behind all consoles aside from the Atari 2600.  So yeah… this game has a very definite feel of a really well designed game that at the last minute people came in and redesigned it for the console.

I say “redesigned” because the game is also obviously designed very thoroughly by people who were very anxious to design an actual “world” steeped very deeply in a mythology and culture.  They first designed a game… and then decided how it would be played at the coding and development end, which, was I’m guessing very definitely biased.  (Anyone arguing with me on this point needs to consider that the graphic for any number of actions you perform … is a dPad “X” shape.)image
Now… is the game playable? Yeah actually it is.  But it’ll take work if you’re used to most MMOs.

If you’ve ever installed an MMO btw – your first shocker is how Sony’s chosen to install the game.  As a seasoned installer of all manner of software this game put me through more hoops than the early versions of City of Heroes (and let me tell you THAT was a fun one).  They try to make it easy by installing an adware thing that’s supposed to help, and it does… but you wind up with a funky Comrade installer module and other crap that doesn’t need to be installed (to be honest) which is largely to create an advertising system to install other Sony games.  Use it to install your game – then use uninstall to get rid of it.  You’ll need to reboot your computer as it installs a service bot in the background.  Sad smile

Now, before you can play the game (after you’ve installed it) you’ll need to create a “Station Account” – which is how they’ll bill you the $15 a month for the actual game.  (This is nothing new to anyone who’s played an MMO – but if you haven’t it can be a shocker. )  This is pretty normal – now not to beat the Champions drum here but if you want a free version of Superhero MMO’s – Champions now has a free option.  Which… is pretty cool.  From there, things go pretty smoothly and you can play.


You’ll have to create your hero which, if you’re familiar with Champions or City of Heroes the character creation options are pretty limited.  You get 3 body types, it’s sluggish, and well painful.  It works well for a console, but for a PC user used to picking things and having options this is almost agonizing.  The good news is – you can if you’re careful and continue to go back a few times get a fairly interesting set of combinations out of it.  image

Which is … the good news because after all that you’re treated to a very rich world experience.  The play can be accomodated for but I’ll be honest after crunching to a level ten over the last few days it’s really been painful but getting better.  The natural way for a PC user isn’t available- this is to pick my enemies.  You can pick a specific enemy by cycling through them via the tab key as opposed to point – click and shoot.  Even selecting powers is now relegated to button mashing, using bizare combinations of the left and right mouse buttons in a 3x left button+hold right, or 2xtap left+hold right… it’s complicated, it’s unnecessary… and in the end it’s annoying.  But playable.  You have to have patience but it’s playable.

And this is the core tenant of User Experience design which to be honest is the only inexcusable failure of this game.  The bread and butter of a game like this is to be able to appeal to as many users as possible.  PC, Console, and so on.  This game is very definitely designed for the Console, and not just any console but the PS3.  A game like this needs to have a very large market to survive and it doesn’t.  It alienates the PC user, who are the vast majority of the market.  It attempts to get over the bias of the PC user interface by making it difficult and clunky to allow Console users a fair chance either intentionally or unintentionally… either way it’s a fail.

Will I continue to play this game?  Yeah – I’ll run a toon all the way up to the max just to be fair.  But after that I’ll probably go back to Champions or CoH.  Why?  The Champions and CoH worlds are not as fun visually or in terms of content – but for actual play?  They beat this hands down.  I can concentrate on playing and immersing as opposed to be constantly drawn out of that immersion by the annoyance of what I have to go through just to do simple tasks.  This is the failure which will kill this game, and it’s a shame because it’s really amazing visually and from a content perspective.

They got so much right… just not… the play.

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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


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