It seems hard to believe after four most anonymous years, but DC Universe Online is doing really well these days. Really, really well.
"DC Universe Online has really taken off," SOE president John Smedley told me when I asked him which free-to-play game is doing best for them. "It's the number one performing free-to-play game on the PlayStation Network."
Its numbers would seem to reflect that surprising success. It currently boasts 18 million registered users, and it is the number one revenue generating free-to-play title on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. Maybe not that impressive given the comparative paucity of free-to-play games on the PlayStation Network, but not too shabby given where DC Universe Online was a few years ago.
First released back in 2011, it was met with middling reviews, garnering a 72 on Metacritic. It was initially lauded for its strong character creation and atmosphere, but others criticized it for its repetitive quests and simple click-to-combo combat. It subsequently vanished from the public eye almost immediately, resurfacing later that year for the inevitable free-to-play announcement, then disappearing once again.
But like Star Trek Online, which was similarly criticized at launch, DC Universe Online has grown considerably in the intervening four years. Since 2011, SOE has wrapped up the original Brainiac story arc, started a handful of ongoing trilogies, and introduced lairs and crafting. It also continues to be notable for its large PvP community, which comprises nearly a quarter (22.6 percent) of its player base.
With that said, however, DC Universe Online's rise has as much to do with being in the right place at the right time as it does new and improved content. It has benefited heavily from the launch of the PlayStation 4, where it's been available from the start as a free-to-play release, making it an appealing alternative to the platform's still nascent library. It doesn't match up to the likes of Final Fantasy XIV, which is both deeper and substantially prettier, but it doesn't have to either. Just being easily accessible and free-to-play is enough.
DC Universe Online also benefits from being more action-oriented than most MMORPGs. More of a beat-em-up than anything, its combat is a perfect fit for the PlayStation's controller. Not surprisingly, more than 70 percent of DC Universe Online's playerbase is now on either the PS3 or PS4.
Then there's the matter of comic book movies, which more than ever dominate the cinema. With famous names like Batman and Superman, plus a huge number of lesser-known but still popular heroes, DCUO is perfectly positioned to cash in on the current cultural zeitgeist. And with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice due out in early 2016, it's likely only going to get bigger.
SOE won't divulge details like how much DC Universe Online pulls in per day or its number of concurrent users, but SOE's eagerness to tout it as one of their leading games suggests that it's doing at least fairly well. Almost any success would represent a solid turnaround for an MMORPG that had largely fallen between the cracks in 2012. And considering that SOE hasn't been shy about killing underperforming games in the past—witness the swift demise of Free Realms and Wizardry Online—the fact that DCUO lives on should be considered a vote of confidence.
Going forward, DCUO will be facing more competition in the free-to-play space on the PlayStation 4 with the release of PlanetSide 2, but there's every reason to expect that it will continue growing over the next few years. Once an MMORPG reaches a certain size and picks up enough content, it tends to become almost self-sustaining. After a rough start, DC Universe Online seems to have reached the point, making it an unlikely success story of the new console generation.