Cape Town: Could DC Universe Online Kill PC Gaming?

Cape Town: Could <i>DC Universe Online</i> Kill PC Gaming?
My supervillain's name is Silent E, a ninja. No mere black-clad Asian acrobat, he can also fly, wield dual daggers and shoot awesome fireballs out of his hands. Gotham hasn't been the same since I joined forces with Catwoman to take down the Bat brigade. Then again, the streets have been crowded with lotsa other new heroes and villains. Metropolis, too. Break-dancing gargoyles, muscle-bound vigilantes and big-boobed caped crusaders are everywhere.

Welcome to DC Universe Online, Sony's massively-multiplayer online game that brings the World of Warcraft-ruled MMO genre ― a persistent and massive virtual world inhabited by thousands of players at any given moment ― to the PS3 for the first time. Though the action-oriented game does top-load repetitive minion-mashing missions, MMOs are ever-evolving beasts, which is how they justify the monthly subscription. Today's DCUO is not tomorrow's, top comic minds like Jim Lee and Geoff Johns are leading the charge and DC's expansive universe and intertwined continuity is a perfect fit for an MMO structure.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. The bigger question is not whether DC's new army of player-controlled meta-humans (given their powers by a time-travelling Lex Luthor) can defeat Brainiac, but whether the migration of MMOs from computers to consoles can defeat PC gaming.

Computer gaming has been assailed from all sides for years now. The primary culprit, of course, is piracy which has been kept at relative bay by the three big console makers, but which is virtually impossible to prevent on PC. With most folks already spending much of their day at a computer desk, it's hard to argue against couching out and playing games on now-ubiquitous HD TVs. PC gamers could once boast of better graphics, but currently only the ones who spend thousands regularly upgrading their computers enjoy that benefit. PC gaming has become a logistical nightmare due to the infinite variations of computers and the inability for most laptops to play high-end games, despite being typically owned by younger users who make up gaming's core constituency.

Consoles have even horned in on competitive multiplayer, and while Sid Meier's Civilization V is still proudly PC-only, strategy games are a niche market and have, with admittedly limited success, been trying to move to consoles for several years. The one arena where PC gaming stands tall is MMOs. The monthly subscription model makes the pirates irrelevant, the keyboard facilitates type-based chat and the social structure of guilds and group raids are purpose-built for PCs. Only a few MMOs, like Final Fantasy IX, have made it to consoles and none have blown up.

World of Warcraft remains the ne plus ultra of MMOs and thanks to its world-revamping third expansion Cataclysm, the six-year-old game will keep the genre centrally located on computers for some time yet. DC Universe Online and the impending Final Fantasy XIV and spy-based The Agency ― not to mention the long-rumoured MMO from Halo-makers Bungie ― will all also be available on PC, which may be another roadblock.

While it makes sense to service the bulk of the MMO market, and console gamers are kept on separate servers, the design has to accommodate both groups and therefore may not satisfy either. Modern MMOs are built for keyboard and mouse and neither type of gamer want a dumbed-down design to accommodate the other. Not to mention it may prove hard to convince console gamers to shell out for a monthly subscription.

DC Universe Online is not yet a threat to World of Warcraft or its PC ilk, but if it proves popular enough, especially as a gateway drug for more console MMOs to come, then it could be a real game changer. And whether that would be considered heroic or villainous depends upon which type of virtual world you currently call home.