Nearly everyone who plays DC Universe Online has an anecdote about spending a good hour or more in its character creation stage, fine-tuning the costume, getting the colors and powers just right, and then taking a deep breath at the name-generation screen and hoping no one's yet taken that perfect one you just thought up.
At Comic-Con 2011, I asked Jim Lee, the game's executive creative director, DC Comics' co-publisher, and an eminent comic book artist and writer for the past 25 years, if he's used the MMO to create superheroes from scratch.
"Absolutely," Lee told me. "[My family was] creating a league called Panda Express, so we were naming all of our characters after Chinese food dishes."
"So my character was Orange Chicken, my wife was White Rice, and one [kid] picked their own, Crab Rangoon, what have you," Lee said. "So, it worked out pretty well."
For the record, Orange Chicken is a fire-based metahuman.
That's funny, I said, before revising the question to ask if Lee ever uses DC Universe Online to make serious characters, or even uses it in his creative process at all.
"You could," he said, "but I choose not to, because if I have a really great name I probably would save it for comics, in print, because great names are hard to come by."
It was refreshing to hear this from DC's co-publisher. It made me feel like I had something in common with him. Any daydreaming adolescent knows how hard it is to pick an evocative, powerful, hell, cool name for his new superhero that hasn't been taken, or isn't a blatant ripoff of someone else. About two months into DC Universe Online I went on a character-creating binge, bringing my total up to seven. Five of them remain very low level, but I wanted to park the names I'd thought of because they were just that cool.
"In an open world space where there are potentially other creators, other writers who work for other comic book companies, I wouldn't want to create a character from scratch and then have it show up elsewhere in print," Lee said. "It's a little paranoid. But it also distinguishes, in my mind, when I'm having fun and playing, versus when I'm sitting down and working, because sometimes it's hard to distinguish the two.
"Sitting down, creating a character in a game space, trying to come up with a cool origin, a cool name, and powers that reflect that name," Lee said, "that's kind of what I do for a living."