The creator of some of the most popular superhero games ever chats about his long road to 'DC Universe Online'
The creator of some of the most popular superhero games ever chats about his long road to 'DC Universe Online'
Kick off a discussion about superheroes in video games, and at some point you'll almost certainly have to bring up Jack Emmert. It feels like superheroes barely even had a place in gaming until he designed the popular and influential MMORPGs City of Heroes and City of Villains at Cryptic Studios, which he co-founded with few qualifications apart from confidence and a love of costumed do-gooders. That love goes way back, as we learned in our recent chat, and his path led him everywhere from pen-and-paper RPGs for Marvel and DC to his current position as CEO for the Austin branch of Daybreak Game Company, responsible for producing DC Universe Online.
Emmert doesn't always stick to superhero projects – he also served as the online producer on Cryptic's Star Trek Online and, as Cryptic CEO, he helped with the creation of the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG Neverwinter. Superheroes, though, are his true passion. In our chat, he talks about his rarely discussed academic background in ancient Greek and Roman civilization, his faith in Marvel's recent "evil Captain America" storyline, and his regrets from a rich life of game development.
When did you first realize that you loved superheroes?
Oh, wow. I started reading comic books back in 1975. My grandmother used to take me to a fleamarket in Maryland in a very small town called Thurmont. We bought all the comics there. I think that was really my first exposure and I just started reading them voraciously to the point where my mother even asked my elementary school teacher at the time, "Is this a problem?" Later on, my second grade teacher said, "No, no, look. As long as he's reading, any reading is good reading." Which, to be honest, was pretty enlightened back then. And I simply never stopped reading them.
Have you kept any of the comics from those early years?
I've kept every single comic I've ever bought. I have over 50,000 sitting in my garage here in Austin. My favorite comics, from when I was a kid forward, were Fantastic Four, which I just adored, Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, The Justice League, Flash, Green Lantern. And I've been reading them ever since.
Why do you like the Fantastic Four so much?
It was family, right? It's, you know, most other superheroes acted or did things because they were fighting crime, but the Fantastic Four were explorers and they were family, held together by that common bond. And that was special and unique, and I just really identified with that a lot.
You have a deep background in pen-and-paper RPGs as well. When you were younger, did any of those have a superhero setting instead of the usual sword-and-sorcery?
Yeah, there was a Marvel RPG and a DC RPG, and I wrote for both of them.
I mean before you went professional. Did you use the tools available to try to make a story based on superheroes?
I started playing pen-and-paper RPGs in '79. In the beginning, you know, there weren't a lot of options readily available. The very first superhero RPG I ever played was Villains and Vigilantes, and it was hugely influential to me. And, actually, just as a funny coincidence, the creator of it lives here in Austin. I've actually met up with him and he has a new edition coming out, so I'm kind of excited because I'm planning on running a game at the office with this new edition of Villains and Vigilantes.
What did you like most about Villains and Vigilantes?
Well, you sat down and you rolled the powers you would get, and then you would make your superhero character. You'd get a certain number of powers and it would be crazy, right? You could get cybernetics and plant control and this weird conglomeration, and you'd just try to fanatically create something which made sense. And the modules were very good, excellent. Some of the early ones were illustrated by Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham. Willingham went on to be a comic artist in his own right, and actually a writer, too.
Do you think that comic culture was different back then? If so, what would be the differences?
Hmm. Wow, that's interesting. I would say that comic culture is definitely older than it is now because comics are written, more or less, for adults. Back in the Seventies, I don't think it was quite aimed in the same way, although they were certainly accessible if you were an adult. It was still not really looked at in that fashion. It wasn't really until the late Eighties that comic books started developing as a mature medium – that people said, "Wow, this could be for adults too." So suddenly you had comics like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and Swamp Thing. That's when comics really shifted, and I think that's continued a great deal. Also, comics have themselves probably more focused on a hardcore set of people today, because the mainstream – in other words, the casual fans – they can access comic book culture through TV, through movies. They don't have to get their superheroes just from the comic books like they might've 25 years ago.
And what about video games during the Eighties? Were you as interested in them as you were into comic books?
Not really, because the technology wasn't there yet to create a compelling superhero experience. This was the age of Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Missile Command, which all worked with a very limited set of pixels – a very limited set of technology and physics and all those sorts of things. So to be able to create real superpowers just really didn't happen. Typically, you had some very poor licensed products. You didn't really see superhero games take off until, frankly, City of Heroes, and to a lesser degree Freedom Force in 2004.
Did you ever play the Silver Surfer for the NES? That's the first early one that comes to mind. But even that was basically a standard shoot-'em-up.
Yeah, I do remember it. I remember playing it, but it wasn't, like, super engaging.
Your background in pen-and-paper RPGs reminds me that both Star Trek Online and Neverwinter have a heavy focus on user-generated content that allows player to make their own scenarios and dungeons. I assume that grew out of the background you and other people at Cryptic had in pencil-and-paper RPGs. Do you think more MMORPGs need something like that?
I think it's extremely dependent upon the type of game you're doing. And from my own experience, I think user-generated content has to go one of two ways. It either has to be so simple, like Minecraft, where you're just putting blocks on top of blocks. Or it has to be incredibly complex, so that the hardcore people will really enjoy fidgeting with it. So the original Neverwinter Nights RPG for example, had tools like that.
Anything in between doesn't work very well. Because then it's too hard for most people, but it's not as in-depth and doesn't give enough control as the hardcore fans want.
You would never in a million years think that Captain America is a villain, but Marvel's saying, 'The hell with it, we're gonna do it.' And it's all in the name of a good story.
The second thing I learned is that user-generated content, for the most part, is constricted by how important it is to the game. So the loot, the experience – there's always a certain number of people who want to play interesting stories – but in my experience, the majority of people are focused primarily on the rewards they get. So unless user-generated content is hooked up into the reward schemes, so that doing UGC is no worse than doing anything else in the game, that UGC tends not to get a huge audience.
So why do you keep working in the superhero genre?
I suppose because I live and breathe it, right? I read comic books every single day. I played my superhero in DC Universe Online this morning. It's just who I am. In fact, I'm staring at some of the DC miniatures I painted. It's literally everywhere. If you cut open my veins, I think I'd bleed ink. And so I love bringing superhero worlds to life. It's that simple.
You have a master's degrees from the University of Chicago and were on the committee on the ancient Mediterranean world. The history of classical civilizations shows up a lot in your early resume, but to my knowledge, you've never really incorporated those interests into your later work. Do you wish you could have?
I think it's very helpful with coming up with names of things. City of Heroes, for example, is filled with classical references everywhere. Mostly because when you're creating a world from scratch, you're just like, "Okay, well, what's another name for a street," right?
So you're just gonna go to Homer and open up a random page. I mean, one day I would really like to do a game that revolved around Greco-Roman mythology. I've got a couple of ideas on that. But, you know, to some degree, what are superheroes but modern-day mythology?
So how difficult was it go from a background like that to founding a game studio like Cryptic?
I was incredibly arrogant, so I don't think I really felt like it was hard, because I just thought what I was doing was, "Oh yeah, well, I know what I... I know everything." But in fact, I was incredibly naïve. And I'm just embarrassed at the way I acted and did things back then.
Considering your other studies, did you ever get to a point where you were like, "This is not what I want to be doing, I need to be doing something else"?
No, I don't think so. Because, to be honest, I was so convinced that City of Heroes was going to be a success. I hadn't been in the industry before, and I didn't really know how many games failed. And of course, after that and especially after City of Villains, I realized that, jeez, we were really lucky. A million things could've gone wrong and almost did in retrospect. At the time, I didn't realize what a tightrope we were walking on.
Do you think your creative process would have been hurt if I you tried to study other games too closely while making City of Heroes? I remember reading that you researched a lot of action games before jumping into work on Champions Online. Seems like a significantly different approach.
Yeah, I think that, for example, if I had really been a total MMO fanatic and played Ultima Online, that I might've designed City of Heroes to be exactly like that. But I didn't have those preconceived notions. So this allowed me to think, "Well, okay, we're going to have character creation." I think if I'd been more entrenched in the industry, I would've said, "No, no, no, you need gear progression." But at the time, I was like, "Well, people want to look like whatever superhero they want to look like." So of course, we're weren't going to restrict it to the gear sets they wear. And I think that's a really good example of where my naïveté at the time meant that we developed a unprecedented feature. I mean, nothing had been like that up until that point. Now, of course, many games have character creation with robust features and tools. People can create a lot of cool-looking different things in all MMORPGs and even some shooters. But back then, it was simply unheard of.
Would you say your work with pen and paper RPGs helped influence that vision?
Yes, in the beginning. A lot of City of Heroes was designed almost with a pen-and-paper mentality. The way the game mechanics resolved, everything. It didn't take me too long to realize that those game mechanics don't work so well in video games. Like, for instance, resolving a to-hit roll, where on the to-hit, you'd miss. Now, this was very normal in a paper-and-pencil RPG. You'd roll a d20, for example, and you might miss half the time. Well, if you miss half the time in the video game, it's excruciating. So I soon had to learn that needed to change. And then there were also intricate issues of balance that I hadn't really thought of.
Do you think you've ever perfectly captured the essence of superheroes in your work?
Well, I think City of Heroes was the perfect game at the perfect time. I'm not claiming that a game like City of Heroes would succeed today. But at the time, in 2004, it was pretty phenomenal. That's probably been my best job in creation – that and Champions Online. And then with DC Universe Online, I think we're really going to be doing a lot of fan service. We're not superficially doing DC. So our anniversary event was the Anti-Monitor, right now we have the Starro event going. We're really working with DC and we're plumbing the knowledge of DC I have to bring alive all those things hardcore fans like myself really enjoy.
Did you enjoy yourself while working on Star Trek Online and Neverwinter, or did you wish you could be working on superheroes instead?
Well, I'm a big geek overall, and while I love superheroes, I was a big Star Trek fan and I played a crap ton of D&D. So they still fit into my wheelhouse. And, you know, we also worked Champions Online around the same time, so it's not as if I wasn't getting some level of superhero fix. But of course, right now, I couldn't be happier with my situation with DC Universe Online and maybe some other secret stuff.
[Superheroes] show that underneath everything, there are basic rules of what's good and what's evil and that people who choose good are going to be victorious in the long term.
How would you say the "vision" of DC Universe Online has changed since you came on board?
Obviously, we're still experimenting, but ultimately, what we want is, one, a game that's accessible and that anybody can get into. And two, a game with a rich narrative, so people feel like they're inside a fully fleshed-out DC universe. We want to make sure every dungeon doesn't feel like a loot raid. I want DC Universe Online to feel like it's part of something greater, because that's what makes the comic book universe tick. And three is understanding how free-to-play works. In other words, incentivizing and allowing people to play the game successfully without ever paying a dime. And that's fine – not trying to monetize everybody. It can be difficult to get away from that, but my previous experience showed that it can be a successful model.
Do you feel limited by having to work within a specific license such as the DC Universe? I know you had comparative freedom with City of Heroes.
There are certain storylines that simply aren't appropriate for us to do in DC, but to be frank, I think just about anything would be great, as long as we could justify it with a really interesting storyline for the players. Obviously, when you're designing your own stuff and you have 100 percent control, you can do almost anything you imagine. There's nothing stopping you. But I can't say that there's anything in DC that's really stopping us. If we were to do something radical, like kill off Superman, I think they'd like to see a good storyline from it.
If budget and technology weren't concerns, what would you want to see in your perfect superhero MMORPG?
Oh, to create an immersive, emergent experience so I could program super villains to have behaviors which would act themselves out, and then give them decision trees based upon what the players did. I'll use DC's Ra's al Ghul and his League of Shadows as an example. So his primary thing is that he wants to destroy Gotham City. Okay, well, if you stop him, first he's gonna choose poison gas, then he's gonna choose a nuclear weapon. Every time you foil one of his plans, he goes to another one. And then eventually, he says, "Well, I'm gonna go do this over in Metropolis." So that it's interactive, and utterly dependent upon what the players do. And by the same token, if the players fail in something, there's some sort of overarching effect.
You know, for all the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comics themselves are in a weird place right now, what with Captain America being outed as a Hydra agent and all. What are your thoughts on the direction comic books are going in?
I think this all goes back to when The Avengers started becoming the best-selling title Marvel had. It has been selling hundreds of thousands of units, in excess of anything that's being sold now. And what does Stan Lee do? He blows up the entire roster and replaces it. So instead of filling the roster with the day's the popular heroes, they keep Captain America, who was not a founding member, and then they add Hawkeye and Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. These last two were fringe characters at best – they'd barely appeared in Marvel comics – and even then, they were more villains than anything else. So he said, "Look, I'm just gonna turn everything on its head, because why not?" And Avengers started selling even more than ever before.
Lee did something many big corporations would never dare do: he risked everything. The idea, no doubt, was that at the end of the day, he would bring back the classic heroes and recreate the pantheon that the Avengers initially started with. And they did, but he created brand new characters that became beloved for years.
So I'm gonna compare that to today. You would never in a million years think that Captain America is a villain, but Marvel's saying, "The hell with it, we're gonna do it." And it's all in the name of a good story. I mean, what do we always complain about in comic books? It's that, well, the good guys always win. And what Marvel's trying to do is say, "Well, no, you can't just walk into a comic book and expect everything to be exactly like you think it is. 'Cause that's boring." At the end of the day, nobody wants to read the exact same story, so they mix it up, they change it. And these are good stories.
Now do I think Captain America will eventually find his way back? Of course he will. But this is an interesting journey to read about.
And how has the current climate been affecting the population and community of DC Universe Online?
So every time there's a new movie, or there's press about a new movie, DCUO gets a sudden burst of activity. There are new people coming in, and a lot of times, these people really only know DC on a very, very basic level. Like, they know Superman and Batman and Joker, but that's about it. And of course, the same thing is true with the Arrow and Flash television series – these are great gateways into our game. And of course our game takes it to the next level, where they're seeing characters from the Flash universe, or from Batman, that they haven't seen in the movies, they haven't seen in the television series.
What our game does is kind of introduce them to the greater DC Universe, in a slow, piecemeal way as they slowly progress through the game. And I think that's a good thing. It's just a matter of making sure that we do it in a way that doesn't alienate these people that just walked in from having seen Batman vs. Superman and really have no idea who Ra's al Ghul is or really don't know much about Clayface.
A lot of people think MMORPGs as a whole are kind of declining in popularity. What do you think the genre has to do in order to stay alive and remain relevant?
Let's use an analogy from ESPN since that just happened. So ESPN is realizing that traditional news anchors and sports anchors are no longer important in a world where you can get the headlines from your phone immediately. Sports Center used to be the single place to go to see highlights and things like that for national sports, but now I can get all that and some analysis from clips. And that's fine, it's a transition of an industry.
MMOs have kind of gone through the same thing. Destiny, for example, is effectively an MMO. It's got progression, it's got instancing, it's got pickup groups, it's got all of those things you would expect to see. The same thing is true of The Division. So what's happened is that mainstream games are kind of adopting a lot of pieces of MMO gameplay, and I think that's really the reason why MMOs, per se, or ones marketed as such, are not appearing with such frequency is that every game is now an MMO to some degree.
Do you have any regrets, or anything that you would've done differently?
Oh, yeah. I don't think I would've done City of Villains the way that I did. I would've made it more villainous because I don't think that the game fulfilled its promise. It was actually a better playing product than City of Heroes, but you weren't really a villain and that was a mistake. With Champions Online, I don't think I did enough work to really stake out a vision that was separate, that was unique from both City of Heroes and from MMOs. What was I offering the marketplace which was special? I don't think I worked hard enough on that. With Star Trek Online, probably the bugs and some of the unpolished stuff at launch. I would've loved to have filled out the Klingon stuff. Neverwinter didn't have a true endgame at launch, that was my regret there. And as far as DC Universe Online goes, my current regret is, boy, I really want to go back and improve the early game. But I haven't been able to yet.
Why do you think it's important that superheroes have a place in our popular culture?
They're supposed to represent the best of us. They show that underneath everything, there are basic rules of what's good and what's evil and that people who choose good are going to be victorious in the long term. Sometimes that can be hard to see in our daily lives, and I think what we want to see in the screen, whether it's the small or big, is that very basic notion. Superheroes show us as we wish we could be. Certainly this goes back thousands of years, and you could compare our modern day superheroes with Gilgamesh or Hercules or Achilles or Odysseus – men and women who achieved greatness in the face of amazing odds and obstacles. And, most importantly, they overcame them for the betterment of everyone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.