Today, the world of DC Universe Online, the popular free-to-play MMO, got a little bit bigger with the release of a new "episode" of content centered on the Birds of Prey. In the new event content, Black Canary, Huntress, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, newest member Harley Quinn work to figure out what it is, exactly, Lex Luthor is up to (assuming he's alive) after all hell breaks loose in Metropolis -- with the help of players, of course. Ahead of release, ComicBook.com had the opportunity to speak with Dimensional Ink Games Creative Director SJ Mueller all about the new content, balancing a 10-year-old game for new and old players, and just what it is the future has in store for DCUO.
Notably, the Birds of Prey content is just the latest in a long line of ambitious updates to the video game. At the end of last year, the free-to-play concluded its take on the events of the Dark Nights: Metal comics. While obviously inspired by the comics, movies, and more of the various reaches of DC, DC Universe Online always gives these storylines its own flair, so don't expect everything to play out in the game like you remember various events of the past.
Here is how Dimensional Ink Games officially describes the content of the new episode, for anyone curious:
"Players must help Harley Quinn, Black Canary, The Huntress, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman - the newly formed Birds of Prey - reach Oracle (aka Batgirl / Barbara Gordon) in crisis. Lex Luthor has detonated his own LexCorp Tower, sent Metropolis spiraling into chaos, and has Oracle in his sights. Ferocious DC Super-Villains like Lobo, Amazo, and Brimstone will do whatever they can to crush the opposition. It will be up to Oracle’s closest allies to uncover and put a stop to Luthor’s plans before time runs out."
DC Universe Online is currently available, free-to-play, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. The new Birds of Prey episode launched today, and is available for everyone level 15 and above for a limited time, though this will apparently come later this month for Nintendo Switch players, specifically. You can check out all of our previous coverage of the DC-based MMO right here.
Keep scrolling to check out our full interview with Mueller!
ALL ABOUT BIRDS OF PREY
ComicBook.com: What can you tell us about DC Universe Online's Birds of Prey episode?
SJ Mueller: I've been working on this project for 10 years, but I've never had a chance to do a fully Birds of Prey episode, but it's been my favorite comic book for like 15 years. So I finally got to do it. It's such a great addition to the game right now because it has such broad appeal. A lot of people when the movie came out were like, "Who are the Birds of Prey? Are they bad guys? Because Harley's on there." And I'm like, "Oh no, no, no. They're a team for good, but sometimes just like in comic books and in our video game, villains and heroes get together to team up for an enemy, a common enemy."
What I love most about this episode is it's kind of a departure from the darker Metal storyline that we did last year, which was really cool and really heavy metal, and had a lot of crazy stuff in it, but it was pretty dark. And this episode by design was meant to be a little bit more fun, a little more lighthearted. I mean you got Harley Quinn as a headline, Black Canary, Poison Ivy. These are kind of more just exciting characters. Huntress can get a little dark, but it seemed like it just worked out. Like you were saying, we're in a weird place right now in the world. And when we announced Birds of Prey and put it up on our test server, our players were so excited about how it was funny. And it made them feel good to get online, and just have a lighthearted adventure. I mean the entire universe is at stake, but we're having fun while saving the universe.
It's available to all players level 15 and up. And you can get to level 15 in like a couple of hours in our game, and that's assuming you're a newbie and don't even know what you're doing. So it's also free-to-play during our event cycle, so for the next three or four months, you don't have to pay a dime to try out Birds of Prey. You just need to download the game on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo or a PC. We're pretty much everywhere. And within minutes you can be in our latest, greatest content.
WHAT DREW YOU TO BIRDS OF PREY
Now, you mentioned that Birds of Prey has been a favorite of yours for a long time. What drew you to Birds of Prey?
Many years ago I was working at a comic book shop. And as a kid I loved Batman, but I kind of got out of reading comics as a teenager, just kind of it didn't seem as relatable to me as a teenager, a teenage girl. And somebody was like, "Hey, you might like this book." And I walked over to the shelf, picked it up, couldn't put it down. That was a couple of books from Chuck Dixon's early run. And then Gail Simone's very popular run, first run on the Birds of Prey. And as I read the books, it sounded like not only is this targeted towards me, and it made me understand that there's a place for me in being a reader, but also a place for me in someday being a creator.
INSPIRATIONS FOR BIRDS OF PREY
What sort of key elements of the Birds of Prey were important when making it? We've seen them exist in so many different iterations in the past.
Yeah, totally. I know what you mean. And Oracle was like our keystone. For one, she's incredibly important to DC Universe Online. She is essentially the mission guide for the whole game for heroes, and occasionally she'll pop in and work with the villains. And so she was such an important part of our game. And her foundation is the Birds of Prey. So we knew we had to start there. This is an Oracle story. Even our key art, we have all these new characters that have joined the team in recent years like Ivy and Harley Quinn. But the whole background is just full of Oracle symbols, because that's where we started, that was our inspiration. And then like a lot of our stories and characters in the game, we didn't just pick one run or one book to focus on. We took inspiration from these key moments throughout time and tried to combine them.
There's a run, Platinum Flats, where Superman got involved with the Birds of Prey, and I wanted to touch on that because it was really interesting. Because they're not the most powerful group. They might have the biggest heart, but they're not the powerful group. So when you put them with Supergirl and Superman... and touched on that important moment in history for them. But also lately, adding Harley Quinn to the group, that was something we wanted to make sure we did because to a lot of people, she's the center of the Birds of Prey. And so I think it's really interesting in our game to watch our players who come from many different backgrounds, see it through the lens that they understand and they see it represented. But then they start talking to each other because that's one of the best things though about MMOs, you get to communicate with other people, and then they share their experiences. And I think we actually did a good job of like, if you were ever a fan of the Birds of Prey, there's something in this for you.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT IN THE BIRDS OF PREY EPISODE
What are you most excited to see players respond to in the Birds of Prey episode?
That's Oracle’s very iconic home base, her base of operations in the comics for the last 20 years or so. Because she's inside the clock tower in Gotham City, above an abandoned building and that's where she runs her operations. And in our game, we've also assumed that she also runs her operations out of there. So especially people who've been playing our game for 10 years, they've been dying to see the home base of the person who's guiding them through the game. And so having a shadowy figure of Oracle behind some glass, where you can't really see her, oh, you can't find out who her secret identity is because nobody knows it's Barbara Gordon. And they actually get to step foot in this. It's almost more mythological than any cosmic place you can go in the DC Universe, even though it's just the clock tower in Gotham City, and it's a beautiful map made by our art team.
HOW TO BALANCE FOR NEW AND EXISTING PLAYERS
Now, you've talked a bit about how the game has been around for almost 10 years now. Crafting the balance of these new episodes, how do you go about making sure that both existing players and new players are going to enjoy the same content? Is that a difficult road that you always have to take?
I think we have a good solution to that. I mean obviously, it's pretty traditional for MMOs to just keep stacking new raids and new episodes at the end of the game? And so like a new player, "Oh well, you just got to work your way there." Well, of course we have shortcuts where you can level up your character if you want to get to endgame. But that's why we designed these new episodes to be… For a limited time, from the entirety between when this episode comes out and the next episode comes out, everybody can play together. We have an event mode of the content that's pretty easy to get through, as long as you've gone through the tutorial and you know how to play the game. If you queue up for this mission with other players, we'll put them together, and it's fun, it's easy, you get to learn how to play with other players and you can complete the storyline.
It was really important to me that people could do the entire story. It used to be that raids were only for the really, really, really, really good players, but a lot of people weren't getting the whole story. They'd be like, "Oh, this event happened. Oh my gosh, we're being invaded by parademons from Darkseid." But they never got to go fight Darkseid. And so we have a nice breakdown of difficulty modes, so everybody can enjoy these stories, and they can live their superhero or villain adventure in our game.
SAY HELLO TO DIMENSIONAL INK GAMES
Earlier this year, there was a pretty big change for y'all with the formation of Dimensional Ink. How has that affected DCUO, or has it?
Oh, to be honest, for a long time the Austin studio has been pretty autonomous. We made most of the decisions for ourselves, but this kind of communicates that outwards too, that we have our own identity. That we arrived from Pulp Fiction and cool IPs, and that's who we are. We made Star Wars. We made DCUO. We take these really huge IPs and deliver the experience of living in them. And so it's nice that our players and our community, and the gaming community as a whole, understands that Dimensional Ink has their own personality and development style. Even down to our combat in our game is different than other Daybreak properties. So I think that's what's most important to me, is that what we've hold true in our heart is now very openly communicating to everyone else. And it allows us to kind of just pave our own path and have our own identity.
ON DCUO BEING ITS OWN UNIVERSE
Now again, speaking about being a long-lived MMO here, what has it been like to see the landscape of the DC Universe, particularly with movies and TV shows, evolve since the game first started?
I took over as creative lead about five or six years ago, right after New 52 happened and the movies started really, really taking off. And it was something that was probably the most challenging thing for me and the team, to like -- how do we adapt? Our launch game was set in a particular part of the comic continuity. It wasn't identical to it, but it was very much inspired by the 52 run from the early 2000s. And it took us a little bit to kind of realize that we're basically our own universe in the DC multiverse. And while we can take inspiration from any story, we're not beholden to any of them. We get to carve our own identity, in fact, that's something that we were planning our next episode. And a lot of questions came up from the writers and the designers about like, "Well, they did this here. Do we have to do that?"
And I'm like, "We absolutely do not. We are our own universe." And when we see something that really just has a spark, like viewers, readers, players, they really grabbed onto Harley Quinn over the last few years. And she was in our storyline, but she wasn't quite as featured as she is in Birds of Prey. So it allows us to be adaptable, and really just kind of listen to the DC brand as a whole and see what they're doing. And see, how do we apply that to the player's story? If they see something big happening in the movies, and they get to play and be a part of it, it makes them feel like that they're part of the DC Universe also.
ON THE UPCOMING 10TH ANNIVERSARY
With it being so close to the 10th anniversary, are there any surprises in store that you could maybe tease a little bit?
Oh, I can't tease yet, but I definitely think that year 10 is going to be an incredible year for the game, and we are not slowing down whatsoever. And me and one of our new lead producers have several features on our mind that we think really could improve both the day-to-day life of the game, and just kind of turn it on its head and make it a little more modernized. But there's no specifics or timeline yet that we can talk about, but I'm very excited for the future of DCUO.
DEVELOPING DURING A PANDEMIC
Fair enough! You had mentioned being full speed ahead still. Obviously with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, what does development look like at Dimensional Ink right now? How has that affected y'all?
Shit, it is so weird! It is weird. It's very challenging and it's exhausting. We were just chatting about that. Somehow working from home is exhausting for a lot of us. And communication is... We're trying to find new ways to communicate with each other. A lot of us are doing video chats of course, but we are 100% work from home. And we could occasionally work from home, but having the entire team doing it was definitely a challenge for our engineering and our production staff. But it's pretty smooth now. Every time we come up to a new point in development that we haven't done before, like we're going to need to do voiceover sessions soon. And as you've seen in the news, other games are like, "Yikes, how are we going to handle this?" So that's something we're tackling right now.
But it's pretty good. We've been really engaged with the community over this time because it's a collective thing that we're all going through. It's not unique to our team. It's not unique to our game. It's just such a vast experience. And we've actually, when it first started, despite knowing we were going to get a little bit behind because of the transition from work from home, we decided to take the time to actually create some extra events in-game for players because we know they need something, they need an escape, they need a place where they can go and make new friends, and see their online friends they've had for years, and just have a fun, safe place to be, virtually if nothing else.
And so we extended our weekend bonus events to being week long. We've doubled up some of them. We're just really trying to make sure that we're there for them and that they know it. And they've been so kind to the team on social media, thanking us and sharing stories about how it helps them get through this time, and I'm just really honored to be a part of that.
NO CUT CONTENT
To dip back into the Birds of Prey episode a little bit, obviously with any sort of development like this, there's a lot of avenues that are explored, but not maybe make it to the final product. Is there anything that y'all ended up cutting or that didn't work out, that you wish could have made it to the final product here?
That's a good question. There's usually something that doesn't quite get there, but I think we really did get everything that I'd hoped for, ‘cause it's a pretty large episode to be honest. Lots of characters are showing up. We had a very large character. And it sounds a little bit crazy if you're like, "OK we want Superman, and we want Birds of Prey, and Lex Luthor, and a giant lava monster from Apokolips called Brimstone, and the clock tower." And somehow the team managed to pull it off. And part of the production of the polish phase was even during the work from home transition and we somehow nailed it. So proud of the team.
HOW TO GET STARTED IN DCUO
If someone were eyeballing DCUO, has been interested but hasn't started, how would you recommend them go about starting? All of these things seem very daunting at first I feel for new players.
I think if you download it, you try the game, it seems less and less daunting. We've actually recently curated, especially since we hit Nintendo Switch last year, our onboarding experience. We have a lot more messaging like, "Hey, you should do this and you should do that." And it's very guided. It's also like we were saying, of the newest stuff, the latest and greatest stuff is available to you right away. You don't have to pay anything. There's never been a better time to start the game. Especially if you're... These are tough times, and as long as you have access to any major gaming platform, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, or a PC, just go to the marketplace to the free-to-play section, we're right there. You just download it and you jump in. It's so easy to get online. It's easy to communicate with other players.
You could make new friends. You don't have to make new friends either. Most of the game you can play on your own, in the sense of like we queue you up, we matchmake your groups, we try to really not... One of our goals is, and we're always improving on this, and this is stuff I want to do in the future too, is to make sure you're never confused, never wandering alone. It's just such a wonderful experience to get in and immediately start playing the latest content. There are so few barriers. The biggest barrier is just going to that marketplace and downloading it.
Now, you mentioned earlier that DC Universe Online is available on pretty much all of the modern platforms here, but that is going to change at the end of the year. Should we expect to see some DCUO news about all of that at some point in the future here?
We'll have some messaging about that later this year, but I mean, like I said, we're full steam ahead. There's a big long future for this game.
Anything else that you would like to add, or anything you would like to say?
There's one thing that I didn't mention when I was talking about Birds of Prey, and I thought it's really cool, because DCUO has a lot of women in leadership. A lot of our senior artists, we have designers, many of our QA testers, and obviously myself, who identify as women. And having the opportunity of watching these developers get to work on something that's so women centered and focused, was a wonderful experience for me. It's something I'm never going to forget.