DC Universe Online’s Jens Andersen on working with big IPs, staying connected, and doing what you love

Jens Andersen is currently the creative director for Sony Online Entertainment’s DC Universe Online and has been in that role since the game’s inception. Andersen has over 14 years of game design experience and prior to working for SOE, he worked at Activision, Z-Axis, and Pandemic Studios. Some of the games he has worked on include Heavy Gear II, X-Men: The Official Game and titles from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, and there is no evidence connecting him to the local superhero, The Austin Avenger.

Gamesauce:  You got a B.F.A. in Acting from Ithaca College in 1993, but by 1996, you had started work as a Game Designer for Activision.  What inspired you to switch from acting to game design?

Jens-AndersenJens Andersen: The fact that I was six-foot-eight, skinny, and unbelievable insecure about myself – oh, and I loved gaming. I should probably put some context to all of that: I went to school for acting because it was something I loved to do with the best of friends I grew up with in Westport. On day one, my professors told us something, “Unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else…you shouldn’t be here.” I didn’t really buy into that back then – I figured I would be the Neo in my little dream of becoming a Hollywood movie star. I wanted to be the lucky guy that brought some fantasy, Sci-Fi, or superhero character to life on the big screen.

But that was not meant to be. I was tall, skinny and utterly awkward when it came to meeting people. The odds were really against me, and faced with a life of waiting tables versus finding something else to pursue (that something that my professors were referring to) I decided to make a change in direction. I decided to pursue my passion for games, and indeed have come to discover what they were really talking about – I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

What were some of the initial challenges you faced when you transitioned from acting to game development?  Are there elements of your academic training that have helped you develop videogame concepts?

In hindsight, I made so many rookie mistakes. But that’s okay—that’s what rookies do, right? Once I found my footing, it was a matter of learning the process of making games. When you’re acting, everything is so transparent from one second to the next, almost everything you do from the moment you start has an audience. You are constantly in a fishbowl while you work. Games were different. I had to learn to be more autonomous about what I was creating, and pick my moments to share my work.

When I first started, I think I was overly dependent on my peers and leads. I had to get out of that really quickly. Once I did, everything I learned through years of live performance was really helpful to me. All of my performance training allowed me to fill some voids on a small team: when it came to story, voice direction, and in-game cinematic work, I stepped in to try and do those jobs. I was pretty green, so I had a lot of learning to do, but I at least understood how to create immersive, entertaining experiences.

One of your earliest jobs was as a Game Designer for Activision where you worked on several PC titles such as Battlezone, Heavy Gear II, and Star Trek: Armada.  What were some of the challenges you encountered during this period?

My biggest problem was remembering to walk before I ran.

My biggest problem was remembering to walk before I ran. I was voracious when it came to taking on as much of the vision or direction of the games I worked on. In short, I was sticking my nose into everything, and I would get frustrated if one of my ideas wasn’t implemented. Everything was hyper important to me, no matter how small a detail. If it had to do with the user’s experience or the creative vision, I would pounce on it. Early on, I probably was overzealous, but I was just so passionate about what we were doing and I wanted to do more. I came from a world of auditions and constant critique, so I was very forward with my views about where things were going. It definitely got the attention of my leads – in a good way – but might have ruffled the feathers of some of my peers as I spread my wings in the nest.

Your LinkedIn profile states that you worked on a game called Aliens: Colonial Marines for Check Six Studios, but it was cancelled before release.  While I imagine that most of what happened is confidential, could you discuss how this experience shaped your approach to both game development from a creative and business standpoint?

That was one of the games I learned the most on – most of it through mistakes. Once I was able to internalize the whole experience and look back on what I could have done differently to affect a better outcome, I really grew a lot. I was able to apply that knowledge to my next project. I also came to terms with the fact that there was actually nothing I could have done, as an individual, which would have changed that outcome. Even so, that experience was when I first realized that games were fun and entertaining, but it was a serious business with serious consequences.

We were sandwiched between two heavyweights – at least compared to us – and we got chewed up and spit out the other side.

Activision was so huge, it had such strength as an organization, it felt almost impenetrable, and I was insulated in a way. It certainly was a heavyweight when dealing with the business side of things, so I had very few worries in those early days. In contrast, by the end of my time at Check Six, we were working with three major publishers, two of them on Colonial Marines (Fox Interactive and EA Partners). We were sandwiched between two heavyweights – at least compared to us – and we got chewed up and spit out the other side.

An example was that Fox licensed us a mature title, but when EA Partners came on, their people wanted us to make it a teen-rated game. For example, they wanted us to remove Chestbursters from the game. Statements like, “Can’t you just have the victim face the other way, and not show it?” were common during meetings with our new publisher. These kinds of creative differences – how to handle the license – combined with financial leverage, made for a pretty calamitous end to the project. On the one hand, the concept for the game was way ahead of its time; I know it would have been really compelling on that front. On the other hand, I am not sure we had the right cards in our hand to make a truly great shooter. Either way, I’ll never know.

From 2001 to 2004, you worked at Pandemic on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Battlefront. Did you find any significant difference between working on a Star Wars game versus working on a Star Trek game?  Did you find one franchise to have more creative freedom?

After A:CM was canceled, I was fortunate to fall in with some other colleagues from my Activision days. They brought me on as a cinematic designer for the Star Wars game they were trying to wrap up. I made over 80 cinematics for that game in just a few short months. I pushed that tool to its limit and really practiced my presentation skills as much as possible. While that was going on, I pitched the concept of Star Wars: Battlefront to my Director – one of my oldest friends in the industry. He and I worked on the concept, made the pitch, and the rest is history. I became the Lead Designer on Star Wars: Battlefront, perhaps one of the best games I’ve made to date next to DCUO. Yet, that did not earn me a de facto Lightsaber – robbery!

The creative freedom with any given license varies a lot between projects, based on the whims and fancies of said producers

As for my experiences with franchises-that-start-with-the-word-star, they were very different. But, before I get into that, I think it is important to note that dealing with big IPs like these really means you are dealing with a lot of individuals that represent the brand. You aren’t very often given direct, unfettered access to the source material itself. The individual producers on the publisher side that are the primary gatekeepers for the brand make a huge difference. So the creative freedom with any given license varies a lot between projects, based on the whims and fancies of said producers. That being said, working with Lucas Arts was more rigorous than working with Paramount. I think this has to do with the nature of each IP itself: Star Trek was created with an episodic format in mind, featuring a wide range of stories hidden away in remote corners of the galaxy, just waiting to be discovered. Star Wars was based on a singular story arc that had reverberations throughout an entire galaxy; it dominates the landscape of that universe. While individual, episodic stories have developed later, its roots are more or less defined by those early films, which were highly focused. In short, Star Trek by nature is more open to harebrained ideas for storytelling. Regardless, I enjoy creating under both circumstances. Limitations present challenges and overcoming them is very satisfying, but sometimes it’s fun to run wild with ideas. It’s good to have a balance over your career.

Player created characters battling one another in DCUO’s Safehouse PvP

Player created characters battling one another in DCUO’s Safehouse PvP

You were the Creative Director of X-Men: The Official Game, which functioned as a bridge between the movies X2: X-Men United and X-Men Last Stand, and was co-written by Zak Penn and Chris Claremont.  What did you learn about game development from this project?

Wow, I have mixed feelings about that one. It was one of those projects that you’re proud of as a developer, because you knew what it took to even get it on the shelf, but from a player facing standpoint, you’re not so proud because it left some things on the table. We certainly did our best given the circumstances.

I would say the thing I took away from that development cycle was a lesson in the power of politics. The X-Men game was a victim of constantly changing goals and politics. Originally, it was going to be based on the comic books. Chris Claremont was hired to write; the team was building versions of the characters and environments based on the comic book portrayals and his story ideas. Then the company decided they wanted to tie it to the movie, so Zack Penn was also brought onboard because he was heading up the movie script – it was thought this would be the best way to try and get synched up with the movie. But this didn’t turn out to be true. The script was constantly changing and they kept it under wraps. I decided we needed to shift the story to be in-between the two films in the timeline, in order to move forward with confidence.

So, we switched boats midstream, but we didn’t alter anything about our schedule – which got even tighter due to the movie’s release date. On top of that, the company wanted to move toward a certain product cycle that maintained a larger number of titles under development. The studio began to expand rapidly. A large portion of developers joined from another prominent studio in the area. There was a huge culture clash as a result. Then there was a major management shift and the company’s strategy shifted again. That, coupled with the challenges I mentioned previously, caused politics to come out of the woodwork. The development of the title became really difficult. I’d like to say I learned how to be more adept at political maneuvering, but really I just learned how much I hate politics in the creative process.

DC Universe Online is your second game based on a comic book universe.  In addition to being a comic book fan, what is it about the superhero genre that interests you?

I love how comics re-invent themselves; I love how they are serial in nature. There are so many characters and themes for everyone to relate to and enjoy. I also think it is a place to really push creative boundaries. And the speed at which you can generate the content (story and art) is astounding from a game developer’s standpoint – it’s so fast!

I also just love the art. Comic book artists are amazing. The ones that inspire me have the ability to capture the motion and emotion of a scene in a single frame – it’s a tremendous skill. There is a beautiful simplicity to it. There is a very limited amount of space and they have to accomplish a lot [illustrate the script] in a very limited area [number of pages]. The skill it takes to strip down an image to the most essential elements required to advance the action is something I respect. I try to think about that process when I go about scoping my designs. At a high level, I try to make sure there isn’t a lot of wasted movement or extraneous elements. I want to capture the core of the concept. Then it can be passed to the rest of the team to add in the necessary details to support it. In game development, this is super important because each added element, unlike a comic book panel, can create all kinds of complications in an interactive environment. Messaging and mechanics are critical; we have to take even more care with the details because they have consequences in game.

Future Batman,  Nightwing, Harley Quinn, Bizarro, and other iconic characters battle in Legends PvP

Future Batman, Nightwing, Harley Quinn, Bizarro, and other iconic characters battle in Legends PvP

DC Universe Online features many of DC Comics’ most popular characters.  Are there any less known characters that you’d like to introduce into the game?

Oh, heck yes! There are lots of characters I would like to see added to DC Universe Online. There are lots of characters already in the game I would like to see developed even more. We have several ongoing storylines featuring a large cast of characters. We’re going through them as fast as we can, all the while layering in new story hooks as we go, which we will build on later. It’s a weird adaptation of the Levitz Paradigm I suppose. Thankfully, we have years ahead of us to continue to explore the vast roster of characters DC has to offer. Eventually, we’ll be seeing the likes of Darkseid making appearances, I’m sure.

As a creative director, I’m a fairly mainstream guy though, and ultimately I think that’s what most people want in the game. If I were going to pick out some characters that are my top-choices for additions to DC Universe Online they would be Black Manta, Vixen, Plastic Man, and Atom. For me though, this is always less fanboy and more game developer. I can’t help but begin to spin the scenarios of what each character would bring to the game in the short and long term. Each of those characters offers some kind of hook for a new super power, location, or storyline for our players to enjoy. For example, Atom could bring the Palmerverse to the table. We could begin shrinking players down for microscopic adventures! So for me, these lists are always strategic and less personal.

DC Universe Online is driven by its own great story in which players are trained by establish characters to prepare for an invasion by Braniac. Given that DC has fantastic stories – such as Kingdom Come, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Sinestro Corps War, and more – are there any stories that you’d like to turn into a separate video game?

Kilowog combating Amon Sur of the Sinestro Corps in DCUO’s Legends PvP

Yes, there are several. We make massively multiplayer games, so from that angle, a few ideas leap to mind: I would do a planned three-part trilogy of games based on the events from the onset of the Sinestro Corp War, through the horrific action of Blackest Night, and into the conclusion of Brightest Day. I think we could do an amazing job of putting players in the roles of Lanterns in one of the expanding corps, fighting alongside the great icons in the key moments of the story. Sure, we could throw in a legends mode like DCUO has, in which players step into the shoes of the main characters…why not? The second one would be based on the 52 mini-series. I think it would be pretty cool to recreate those events and put players on the frontline of some of those epic battles as the main DC characters.

I’ve noticed that you are not only active on Twitter, but you frequently answer questions about DCUO and help players troubleshot any problems they come across.  What inspired you to want to actively communicate with and help fans?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Perhaps it was when we were doing fan events and going to cons to share the game with people. We did one right after launch, before we released Fight for the Light, and I still remember it. Interacting with the fans at these events, seeing how passionate they are about the game, their appreciation to be able to spend some face time with the developers, it touches you on a personal level.

The other part of it is being a good representative of the game to the players. This is essential, because it is a live product. It doesn’t release and get replaced by the next thing – it never stops, it’s always expanding. It is important for players in a game like this to know that you are accessible to them, because the decisions you make when adding to or changing aspects of the game affect them.

On the whole, this is a rewarding experience for all parties. But, like everything, it does come with a price. Individuals don’t always like what we do, they never agree entirely with each other either, and they are a few key presses away from letting you know just how they feel about anything and everything. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, even crosses a line, and people lose perspective and it becomes hurtful. But in the end, the benefits it provides the players who do appreciate it, and treat you respectfully, make that sacrifice well worth it.

Though you’ve been in the gaming industry for two decades, do you have any interest in returning to the world of acting? Additionally, given that you are a comic book fan and that you get to work with iconic superheroes, would you ever want to write a comic book?

Wow, now I feel old. I don’t think a return to the acting field is in the cards. I’m still tall, and thanks to that time in game development, I’m no longer skinny. There are people more dedicated to the craft of acting than I am. I have found the perfect outlet for my creative talents in game development, and I look forward to continuing it as long as I can. I have been able to scratch the acting itch a bit over the years though. I have been fortunate enough to voice many characters in the games I have worked on. So I guess that college education paid off after all, Mom!

I would love to write something. I’m very interested in creating new and exciting worlds for people to enjoy no matter what the medium. Game development takes a long time, and the teams have gotten huge. The idea of creating something from start to finish by myself is an exciting challenge. I began dabbling with writing a graphic novel just to give it a try. It’s a very different creative muscle to flex. When they say a picture paints a thousand words, imagine how many a few moments of gameplay could generate. So I’ve been heavily relying on the sights and sounds my medium provides. It’s like starting all over again when you try and make the switch to prose. Things that would come naturally to me with games were taking more effort to get right with my script. I’m trying to understand the construction, how to make people turn the page, when and where to surprise them. I have a love-hate relationship with my effort so far. I keep putting it down and then picking it up when I get to come up for air. Sadly, I am really good at holding my breath.

 DC Superhero, Steel, is in the middle of a battle with player created characters

DC Superhero, Steel, is in the middle of a battle with player created characters

Looking back at your career in the videogame industry, what things have you learned that you think younger people entering this field should know?

Things have changed a great deal since I got into the industry. I would urge them to take on as much as they can, but to do so humbly. It is important to be ambitious, but it has to be tempered with patience. I would encourage them to understand the process of making games, understand the rules. Then you can learn that every rule has an exception. Based on the goals you and your team have for the product, you’ll be able to understand how to apply those rules and when to break them.

It’s all about what you are trying to accomplish. Never lose sight of what is happening in the other creative mediums either, or the world around you. I call it loading the creative gun. Read, watch, and listen to a lot of different things – don’t just play games. You have to draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of sources and then bring them to your games. Make sure to keep broadening your horizons each and every day.

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