DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft ‘can’t touch’

Jan. 11, 2011 | 5:00 a.m.

dc scr plyract metlittlebohem 028 DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft cant touchIn creating an online video game based on Superman and the others in the DC Comics pantheon, it was no problem giving the characters the power to stop a locomotive or leap tall buildings in a single bound. They just couldn’t run faster than a speeding bullet.

The developers of DC Universe Online encountered an unexpected problem when they set about creating the video game: Superheroes and villains that shared the Man of Steel’s velocity could also outrun bullets and dodge missiles fired to eliminate them. Players would quickly grow bored. “If people are always running away,” said Chris Cao, the game’s director at Sony Online Entertainment, “it makes the game less fun.”

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That hiccup, along with a multitude of others, added to a development process that was itself epic in proportion. Players create their own hero or villain and interact with legendary DC characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and the Joker. Guided by these icons, players can act out their superpower fantasies by taking on solo missions or teaming up for more complex battles.

Initially slated for release in 2009, DC Universe Online took 150 programmers and artists across four U.S. cities 5 1/2 years to complete, at a cost of more than $50 million. That’s roughly twice the budget and timeframe of a typical game. DC Universe Online is atypical in another way — it belongs to a rare class in which thousands of players can inhabit the game’s world simultaneously and interact with one another in real time.

And its success is crucial for Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego, a unit of the electronics giant that once was the market leader in online games but now lags behind Activision Blizzard Inc., maker of the popular World of Warcraft. It’s also significant for DC owner Warner Bros., which is trying to build its superhero library into a blockbuster brand across multiple media, including a “Green Lantern” movie opening in June.

dc scr plyract metcityhall 001 DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft cant touchThe odds are long. Numerous games have gone up against World of Warcraft in recent years and failed. But Sony executives say DC Universe Online will succeed because it does more than copy a successful model: It’s the first so-called massively multi-player online game to feature realistic physical simulations.

DC Universe Online also was the only one on the market to play not just on computers but also on a living room console, in this case the PlayStation 3.

“No one can afford to spend that much money on a game and not have a hit,” said Geoffrey Zatkin, a former Sony executive who is now president of consulting company Electronic Entertainment Design and Research. “But if they make it work, it could be an opportunity for them to reach an audience that World of Warcraft can’t touch.”

The straightforward economics make it clear why Sony and Warner Bros. find subscription-based online games appealing. Each of the 12 million-plus people who play World of Warcraft pay $10 to $15 a month, giving Activision Blizzard a profit margin of 51%.

With big opportunity, however, comes big risk. Along with the large development cost, online games require continual updates and around-the-clock customer service. Several attempts based on entertainment franchises such as “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings” have not met the level of success to which DC Universe Online aspires.

dc scr plyract jsa 004 DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft cant touchBoth Sony and Warner know how tough the market can be. Sony’s EverQuest ruled the massively multi-player online game market for five years until the launch of World of Warcraft in late 2004. In 2005, Warner launched the Matrix Online, based on its hit movie series, and immediately struggled. A few months later, the studio unloaded the Matrix game on Sony to manage.

In the process, Warner executives began talking with Sony about making a DC game, which the Burbank movie studio had initially wanted to develop on its own. The timing was fortuitous for Sony, which had come close to signing a similar deal with DC rival Marvel Comics before talks fell apart at the last minute.

Stung by the failure of Matrix Online, Warner negotiated a deal in which Sony would incur nearly all the costs of developing the game, with Warner receiving licensing royalties, according to executives familiar with the talks. Warner also agreed to release a biweekly comic book series based on the game, DC Universe Online: Legends, slated to begin publishing in February.

For the game, Warner enlisted DC Comics veteran artist and co-publisher Jim Lee to help Sony. Over the next five years he oversaw a team of six illustrators who created thousands of pages of concept art. Lee shaped virtually all the visual details in the game, from the silhouette of Gotham City’s skyline to a character’s eyebrow.

dc scr icnpose got 001 DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft cant touchOne reason that the DC Universe Online took so long to make is the amount of detail artists had to create for the game, which is set in Metropolis and Gotham City. Another factor was the complexity of simulating superpowered fights on a grand scale.

“We had to make it so that a player sitting in L.A. can pick up a bus in the game and throw it at someone sitting in New York,” said John Smedley, president of Sony’s online game division. “And we had to be able to simulate it in real time for the 3,000 other players who may be there watching this.”

To broaden the potential base of players, Sony decided to layer on another challenge — release DC Universe Online for its PlayStation 3 game console. Although there are thousands of titles for the PS3 and its major competitor, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, none are massively multi-player online games. Sony’s biggest challenge with DC Universe Online may be its subscription business model, which many other publishers have abandoned.

dc scr plyract jsa 007 DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft cant touchWith so much free content on the Web, they have concluded, few players are willing to shell out every month for a single game. Instead, they’re taking a cue from South Korea and China, where free-to-play online games that make money from a small number of players willing to pay extra for souped-up weapons or cars are hugely popular.

“A subscription model is an impossible barrier,” said Craig Zinkievich, a former executive producer of Star Trek Online. “Many people simply don’t want to pay anymore. That has been a big change from prior years.”

However, Smedley defended Sony’s decision to charge $15 a month to play DC Universe Online.

“For kids and casual players, free-to-play makes more sense,” he said. “But this is a big-budget production, and it targets a more hard-core audience. The sweet spot is that 25-year-old male who doesn’t mind paying money to play a rich, immersive game they can’t get any where else.”

— Alex Pham and Ben Fritz



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66 Responses to DC Universe Online: $50 million gamble aims for audience that World of Warcraft ‘can’t touch’

  1. Eddie says:

    I wonder if the screenshots accompanying the article are from the PC or PS3 version?

    Even though I have a good gaming PC I decided to get the PS3 version out of sheer curiosity to see how well Sony pulls off running this on a console. I'll be trying it out tonight.

  2. Kirby says:

    just bought the game and already dont like the service for it. havent trouble just getting my activation key, and on top of paying the 50$ for the start up buy told i must pay 15 more to start, dont even get a free month trial

    • Gibson says:

      Wow it doesn't even come with a free trial? Fail. I actually considered buying this to try it out, but if I have to spend $15 right off the top for a month that's no go. Isn't there any 10 day free trials like WoW?

      If I'm going to spend $15 a month I would rather do it on an established mmo.

      It's funny how all these companies are trying to get rich with mmos. By definition, a market full of mmos will be full of losers (and I don't mean the players). Just the other day I saw a commercial saying you aren't in Azeroth anymore…for Rift, an MMO. So by Spring, one of these 3 is gonna have failed. Probbaly not gonna be WoW, so Rift or DC Online, be prepared….

    • lincoln says:

      The retail version of the game includes 30 days of game time. Additional recurring subscription fees apply thereafter. Converting an account to an active subscription requires a valid credit card or game time card or PSN™ card (if available). At the end of the 30-day period gamers will be able to choose to subscribe to the service on a monthly basis or to opt for multi-month discount packages. There is also a Lifetime membership available on the PC for a one-time fee of USD $199. Sony Online Entertainment will update the game regularly with new episodes featuring iconic DC Comics characters, new instances and major in-game events.

    • Jason says:

      Yes, you get a free month even when you sub. I ordered the game from Direct 2 Drive. I had to put in a credit card to start a sub but once I did it was very clear I would not be charged for a month. I also had NO trouble loading the game and getting started. Direct 2 Drive emailed me the key once I completed the download.

  3. ladygamer says:

    Well…it does seems like a cool game…but it'll never outdo Warcraft!

    • Jason says:

      Actually it will. There are a TON of older gamers (25-50) who want and NEED something other than WOW and that type of MMO. Thank you for this game DCUO!!!!

      • ladygamer says:

        lol well i AM an older (and female) gamer (43 this past December to be exact) and although the gamer in me would like to try it out, I probably won't stick around too long. Maybe it's a gender thing? Who knows?

    • Lanternsupreme says:

      WoW Sucks. This games is awesome

  4. Scott says:

    I find that some of your research has been inaccurate xbox 360 has the mmorpg final fantasy 11 so the have done the mom thing on a console.

  5. Realistic says:

    Superhero games have been tried before and have failed. Plus, this thing looks too much like one of those arcade games to me.

    In a word:


    • Jason says:

      Play it to comment please.

      • Realistic says:

        I don't need to buy it and play it to know I'm just not interested.

        So yes, dear. I am allowed to comment.

      • Scott says:

        Having no free trial is deffinatley goin to cost sony players i am very interested in trying this game out but there is no way in hell im gonna shell out 50 bucks to find out it sucks or its just not for me.

        also i belive this is a valid comment without playing it

  6. ChiefAllen says:

    As usual, everyone forgets about EVE. It's successful. Has been for years, as a subscription pay game. Has amazing graphics, and has a growing clientele Ive been an EVE player for only about 9 months, but I've been up against players with over 6 years of game time. In it, you can be a soldier, an industrialist, a policeman, a fleet commander. Endless scenarios. At 14.95 a month, it's a steal.

  7. Alex Pham says:

    Hi, Scott. PlayStation 2 also had FFXI, but DC Universe Online is the first MMO for PS3.

  8. Rockym11 says:

    look str8 up..i was looking forward to this game but not to pay a damn subscription fee??!! Im sorry..its bad enough that i gotta pay $50+ for a game let alone pay $50+ and a subscription fee..F— That. its not worth it. There just trying to milk you..they shouldve made the game with atleast a solo storyline where you dont have to pay anything and if you wanna jump online with it then whatever but forget that..i returned the game for something else, not subscription based thank you very much.

    • Drifter says:

      I hear ya man, this game looks awsome, 60 of 50 is a really good price for a game like this, but 15 a month. NO. I'll stick with Mario bros.

  9. Jason says:

    I played the beta on pc and enjoyed it more than any game I have played in some time. I am now playing the real version on pc while a friend plays beside me on the PS3. We are also using similar HD LCD TV's. The pc version is much sweeter visually but the game play is the same on both. I would say the pc loads the game faster too but I have a sweet rig. I think I will be playing this for a while!

    • Realistic says:

      Enjoying that job at Sony, are you, Jason?

      • Reality says:

        So if someone who has actually played the game and likes it they must be working for Sony? By that logic should we all assume that someone such as yourself, who hasn't even played the game yet tells everyone that it is a failure, works for Microsoft? Get over yourself dude. Your opinion is not the only one that matters. Play a game before you pass judgment. Just because your mom won't give you an allowance large enough to afford $15.00 a month doesn't mean that a game sucks. It just means that you should get a job and stop being a cheapskate.

    • solid snake says:

      The PS3 version looks just as visually good as the pc version you must be visually impaired lmfao!

  10. Scott says:

    Hey Alex my comment was in regard to the statement that playstation and 360 have no MMO games among the thousands of titles which is not a accurate statement.

  11. Joel says:

    "The sweet spot is that 25-year-old male who doesn’t mind paying money to play a rich, immersive game they can’t get any where else.”

    For me?! Oh, you shouldn't have!

  12. Sxott says:

    Hey Alex my comment was in regard to the statement that playstation and 360 have no MMO games among the thousands of titles which is not accurate, Microsoft has a MMO title meaning the statement was I'll informed and research was not done properly.

  13. Matt says:

    This game is amazing

  14. that guyaisa says:

    I just bought it and is waiting for the downloading for the PS3 I have noticed a lot of criticism from realistic even though he hasn’t played neither have I but still you can’t judge unless you have played it so buy it then comment

  15. ArchonPrime says:

    It's a SWEET TRAILER!!

  16. UnSubject says:

    For a title targeting the 'hard-core', DCUO is extremely content light. It is going to take less than a month for a high proportion of players to hit max level and wonder about paying that sub fee. And if SOE thinks that player-vs-player combat (PVP) is going to fill the gaps, I think they are going to be in for a surprise.

    DCUO is fun for the first few hours / first character. But that's not enough for a game that wants you to pay-to-play.

  17. h5n1 says:

    Very very nice! Thanks…

  18. Mrmarvel says:

    I have just spent 5 hours installing everything to play this game on a ps3 and I am still not playing this game sycks

    • boss says:

      terrible download on the p3 but game is fantastic once getting started, well worth it, when installing any mmo on a console example: ffxi better to just install it as you are going to bed and wake up to your game

  19. Samantha says:

    I was looking forward too this game it looked really good,and im pissed because i called the company 19 times and was on hold for 2 hours because when i turn my game on it does not work.And they said it would work tomorrow and i tried repeatedly times even restarted my playstation and it still does not work!

  20. Leo says:

    I have the game and there is a 30 day trial!

    But you need a credit card to sign up for the end of the 30 day period there after…

    Also on the retail Version you Do get another code for a 10 day trial, called the Buddy Key…

    And the game it self is great…Very fun and fast..Love the PVP lots of Fun there.

    I only have played for about 8 hours only at lvl-8(+ 2 others lvl 5 toons).

  21. Steven Edelman says:

    I notice how the article, in discussing Sony Online’s efforts, mentions EverQuest, and The Matrix Online, but completely glosses over Star Wars Galaxies. The customer service nightmare and debacle that SOE put the customer base through is a single shining reason why DCU is destined for mediocrity. A large chunk of the MMO playerbase knows of SOE’s reputation for horrid customer service and lackluster effort on behalf of its customers in the drive to make more money. We do not forget, and we will never forgive.

    • Shaun says:

      Let's not forget the infamous server crash of EQ2 shortly after launch where people lost days of work. It was this single even that will prevent me from ever returning to SOE. I'm glad it happened because it gave me happy years on Warcraft until last fall. Thanks SOE… you f@#$ing amateurs.

    • craig says:

      do not forget tho swg was an amazing game at 1 point untill that patch that killed it

    • spudnik says:

      Don't forget the massive data breach that SOE recently had. Would you think you'd like have your information stored on their servers when they couldn't handle people hacking them and trying to hide the fact? Furthermore, they tried to hide that someone infiltrated their systems and compromised 2.6 million accounts.

      It's interesting that for a company that has such resources to back them, they choose to go on its merry way ignoring many of the threats that goes with being a monolith.

  22. ryan cloud says:

    The extra $15 per month is rediculous. If there are significant updates available, then Sony should offer those updates for an additional $15 or something, but not pay $15 every month when the game will pretty much be the same.
    In time, the novelty of WWarcraft will wear off. Something will come out that will be an improvement. Then what? Are people going to continue to pay an additional $15 per month for every game that's started up by a different company? Imagine if you already paying for Warcraft and DC Universe…..that's $30 per month = $360 per year just to play 2 games???? That's as much as an entire game system! Na, this will never make it in the longrun. Companies will soon learn to merge and charge a single monthly fee in order to play all games that offer updates. We're just the pigeons who get screwed in the beginning

    • John says:

      The fact that you even think that games with subscription fees won't make it baffles me. $360 a year for TWO games… or $60.00 for a game that takes 8 hours to beat… hmm, pretty obvious. MMO's are in the long run CHEAPER for the consumer. I save money playing MMOs… Plus, new content comes pretty frequently in MMO's, and the way you play through the game changes considerably based on which side you play, which mentor you choose, powers, skills, etc. Stick with your $60.00 games that you beat in one sitting. I'll stick with the games that are worth 50 cents a day.

  23. Savage says:

    WoW, I can't believe all the people crying about the freaking $15 monthly fee. For all you idiots out there, there is a 30-day trial, yes it looks like you are being charged for it when you have to subscribe, but you can cancel before 30 days is up and there will be no charge. As for games charging…wtf?!? This has been going on since Ultima Online and Everquest, almost every game has charged a montly fee, the only few that don't has either lost the majority of it's player base or a asian-based game like Maple Story, in order to get the best gear, you usually have to either pay for points or buy the item itself, which actually cost more than a subscription itself over a period of time. For the most part, those games are pretty poor in comparison to the subscription based games.

    As for DC Universe, so far it has been a great game, it definitely a breath of fresh air after playing WoW for so long and dealing with all the elistest attuitudes and school kids. If you can't afford to play both games a month, then cancel one, geez who actually has time to play both games?

  24. Keith says:

    ….. sucks when the server goes down the day after you buy it… there goes my 59.99@ target… *Shurgs will i be purchasing the monthly sub. iono! it's been two hours since the server went down… now they said it's gonna take several hours to fix…. beware* u need patience! when u buy one of these games, i kept pressing the X button on the character Load screen for like 20 mins till i decided to get on the FOURM and see what's going on… they need to put a post like WOW on the sign in server down for said amount of hours not just please try again in a few minutes lol good stuff hope this helps, an doesn't deture ppl from the game it's fun while your playing when u can play it lol…

  25. JohnnyApplecock says:

    FAIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Another one bites the dust!!!!!!!!!
    Yet again….Another fail MMO attempt!

  26. Grant says:

    Bought the game for the ps3 and i love it! Not saying that it doesnt have its problems but what game doesnt especially a mmo. The cap is to low and the servers seem to go down to much. also the team speak is hit or miss. That said the action is fun to play, powers are well thought out, and the story line is just like the comics. as with WOW get a few expansions into the game and i can see it rivaling WOW.

  27. mk2 says:

    Great game, super fun and I have tried many, many MMOs, this is an instant classic to be honest.

  28. aaron says:

    This game is a joke!!! You pay a 65 bucks to get, then you can't even play it unless you pay an additional 15 dollars a month, and yes…it's reoccurrring!!! So, when it's all said and done over 240 dollars to buy and play it for a year! Plus, the load time is sooooo slow!

  29. MrTan says:

    The Fact that Asian and Oceanic players was not neglected, they can't even fix a weeklong problem for Majority of the PS3 users playing DCUO. We from Asia although forgotten, wanted to support SONY;s product and give them money … inexchange of a glitchy game. And for us Asia…we had to make a US based PSN account for the Game Activiation Code to be accepted. Means there was never an Asian Version release.

    You spend $50 million on this game…you expecting to recover and make money excluding Asian and Oceanic players? And since its been done, can't you atleast help them play and use what we have paid?

  30. MrTan says:

    The Fact that Asian and Oceanic players not neglected, they can't even fix a weeklong problem for Majority of the PS3 users playing DCUO.

    Yes the game Freezes and Hang's after a minute or 2 of play time at the start. And this problem has been a week and no solution yet from the Dev's.

  31. BHG4LIFE says:

    I find it interesting how the article neglected to actually *name* the highly successful (and subscription-free) challenger to WoW, Guild Wars. From what I've seen of the game's developmental progress, once it eventually comes out it could be the nail in these greedy subscriber-based games' coffins.

  32. mike says:

    The crying about the monthly fee reenforces the author's point about reaching players that WoW doesn't own. Making a PS3 owner pay a monthly fee is a new experience. Verteran PC/MMORPG players are accustomed to the subscription fee.
    My friends are forcing me to play this to get a break from WoW, but like other posters said, it's pretty lightweight for "hard-core" players. I think this game is trying to straddle demographics and it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

  33. Leanna says:

    This game looks very cool. I've missed playing a super hero since CoH hehe. I'm currently playing WoW, but I am definitely interested in giving this game a go. As for subscription, I'm totally used to it. Think about it…it's $15 a month for unlimited play. That comes out to be $0.50/day. Or for people who hate those maintenance days, that comes out to be $0.02/hr that you could cry about…go argue for your 2 cents an hour back! I'd say it's way cheaper than going to a movie+drink+popcorn, don't you think? :P

  34. WTF says:

    Why 15$ a month? Just think if you charged like 5$ a month and you had a million people playing it thats 5 million a mont, more that enough to pay people to run whatever they need to run for the game. The answer is GREED!!!!

  35. Jeff says:

    Sadly, this game failed miserably. If they wanted it to take some of the market, their best bet would be to toss it some free online play. Maybe one day we will be able to all play WoW for free. One can only hope.

  36. corey says:

    mine wont even load its b.s to bad you cant take back games if u open them

  37. spudnik says:

    I find it interesting that this article was very polite to Sony Online Entertainment (SOE); they made no mention of Star Wars Galaxies (SWG), which they absolutely ruined. If you look at how SOE managed SWG, you'll find that how they handle their customers are questionable at best. If spending a lot of money on a project that does not involve much feedback from the general gaming community, you'll have yourself a game that is going to flop and provide entertainment only to a small niche of people that do not mind the lackluster service.

    Something interesting to note is that SWG, which had been on it's way out for many years, is finally allowed to RIP while Lucas Arts decided to make the best choice in allowing BioWare, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, to run it's MMORPG. Hopefully, they aren't just going to just barely produce a product to squeeze money out of it's fanbase like SOE had done with SWG; I hope they exceed expectations and strive to engage dialogue with their customers, thereby increasing their fanbase.

    As for Star Trek Online (STO), I'm not surprised that it had to downgrade from a monthly pay subscription. I bought the game and found it to be very unpolished. I found it very disappointing that the box art had more of a finished feel to it than the game itself. As for Craig Zinkievich's assumption that “A subscription model is an impossible barrier… Many people simply don’t want to pay anymore. That has been a big change from prior years.” It's not that we don't want to pay anymore, it's just we do not want to pay for crap when there are better products that you could pay a monthly subscription such as EVE ONLINE, or a product with no monthly subscription such as Guild Wars, City of Heroes, etc.

  38. Casino_Queen says:

    Turns out that DC universe online wasn't the hit that they were looking for. However, now that they changed it into a free game with no subscriptions, their profits have actually risen. Maybe they had attracted the crowd that went on to play free online slots instead.

  39. Erick says:

    MMO without free comerce = epic fail , max time survive 2,3 years

  40. sally says:

    Amazing trailer and great news in general. I've been waiting for a good game to play for a long time.

    Convert flv to mp4

  41. frogghardware says:

    I too will never buy an SOE product. Rip SWG

  42. The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it doesn’t fail me just as much as this particular one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read, however I genuinely believed you’d have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something you can fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.

  43. I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is something that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy I came across this during my hunt for something regarding this.

  44. weelim23 says:

    I don't know why people like these games so much, I find it a waste of time.

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