With the possibility that City of Heroes 2 is dead as a doornail due to the closure of Paragon Studios, there are only two places to get your online super-hero fix: Cryptic’s Champions Online and Sony Online Entertainment’s DC Universe Online. With the upcoming launch of the PlayStation 4, SOE is taking a chance and bringing its free-to-play, super-hero fest to the new console. I spoke to DCUO producer Larry Liberty about bringing the game to a new platform.
Liberty wanted to get one thing out of the way from the beginning: although PlayStation 4 online play will be gated behind PlayStation Plus, DC Universe Online is exempt from that rule.
"We will be free-to-play and we will be exempted from any PlayStation Plus requirements. You don't need PS Plus, you just need a PlayStation 4 and an internet connection. Day one, you'll be able to go to the PSN Store on PlayStation 4, and download the game,” Liberty stated. “We don't need to charge to remove a barrier to let people in. We're confident that if you play and enjoy our game, one way or another even if you don't want to subscribe, you might want to buy something.”
“Sony and Microsoft want to charge to cover their maintenance and infrastructure costs for other multiplayer that doesn't make money for them. But for us, we pay for all the servers, we pay the bandwidth. They are our costs and we will incur those. So we don't want to throw up a speed bump for players. It's important to let in as many players as possible."
Liberty said that SOE expects the PlayStation 4 to bring in new players beyond its current userbase.
“I do expect it to help us reach a new audience and increase our profile. Particularly, if there are only five to ten boxed products at launch; we're there, we're really high-quality and we're free. I think we're going to get some attention as a result of that,” he said.
That said, he also explained that the majority of DCUO’s players play on PlayStation 3, so the studio is looking to make sure those players are taken care of moving forward. The PlayStation 3 is older hardware, while high-end PCs and the PlayStation 4 have tons of new bells and whistles to play with. I asked Liberty if SOE believes that continued PlayStation 3 development would hold back the other platforms.
"From one perspective, that's the case,” he said. “I think we've got some ideas in mind. We have to get very creative technically on the PS3 to allow us to continue to add features. As long as we think we can do that for a few years, I think we'll be okay. Eventually, we'll have predominantly PS4 players, as the PS3 will sunset itself. Once that does happen we can pretty much stop worrying about memory."
“We basically have about 226 MBs available in system memory on PS3,” Liberty explained. “Compare that to a modern PC and you can understand how hard it is to keep adding new things. Every time we add a new power, or any big feature, we've got to figure out a way to optimize what we got and squeeze it in. The plan is to continue to figure out ways to keep getting better and cramming it on the PS3. The PS4 is going to perform better, and be a more stable and smooth experience."
Liberty did admit that it was a “slight concern” that DC Universe Online is an older game going up against titles built specifically for the PlayStation 4. The build shown at E3 was what SOE considers its “baseline” for PS4, essentially the PC version running on a “good gaming PC.” Liberty said more features would be coming to the PlayStation 4 version.
"We will be adding things like anti-aliasing that we don't actually offer,” he said. “Even if you have a really high-end PC, we currently don't allow anti-aliasing. So, there's some other features that we'll probably adding, like screen space effects. Screen space ambient occlusion gives better shadows, better lighting, and better lighting feel. More features like that. Beyond that, there's things we can do with materials. We'll only look better than where we are now. I don't think we'll look like an Unreal Engine 4 game, but we will certainly look better than we've ever looked. We're such a big, good, rich game, that I think we'll hold our own."
I don't think we'll look like an Unreal Engine 4 game, but we will certainly look better than we've ever looked.
He also said that the new features introduced for the PlayStation 4 version would eventually make their way to other versions.
"Everything feeds back to each other. As a result of PS4 development, we're making a UI that takes advantages of the widescreen format,” Liberty told me. “Our original UI was designed for a standard-def TV. Now we're making a more modular UI that can work on high-def. It'll also be more responsive on PS3. While the PS4 is driving that, it's going to benefit everything. We don't want to have hard distinctions between the different types of players. Certainly for the next few years, we going to be on PS3, we're going to continue to support it. It's just going to be a lot easier to do everything that we want to do on PS4.”
Finally, I asked Liberty if the new PC-like nature of the PlayStation was benefit to SOE’s development of DCUO for PS4. He said that while the architecture is a benefit, DCUO was made in Unreal Engine 3, meaning some technical hurdles still remain.
"The one thing to note is if you have an Unreal Engine 3 game, it's not the most thread-friendly engine in the world,” he said. “While it's a conventional architecture, it's still multi-core and there are eight of them. We're going to have to get creative to really push the hardware. I'm confident we can do it, but it's not necessarily a completely brainless thing.”
“We're probably going to have to make some changes to really get more out of the hardware, but I do think it's much easier. Overall, it's going to be very good going forward. The similarities to the other console and PC should make things much easier for developers."