With Dragonball FighterZ, All Systems Goku, Super, and to a certain degree even just the existence of Kai, I’ve succumbed to the DBZ hype again. This time, in addition to, you know, watching the show again, listening to All Systems Goku, and playing the terrible, terrible gacha game on mobile, I also finally got around to visiting Xenoverse 2. Now, I played Xenoverse 1, and while I really, really liked it for a lot of the reasons I’ll get into here, I also fell off of it once I got to the endless grinding loop that was necessary to even clear, like, basic amounts of the main story missions. Especially because the gameplay as a character-action game isn’t that great in either.
Xenoverse 2 is basically the Kai version of Xenoverse 1. Sure, the main plot is sort of different (though it shares a lot with 1), but the basic idea is the same: You make a DBZ OC and you go through all the big moments in the DBZ and Super storylines. You have to play through these moments because someone evil is changing things for some unknown reason, and you need to change them back! It’s… not the best story ever told, but hey, your cool Saiyan lady gets to beat up Frieza so that Goku can finish the Spirit Bomb, and honestly, that’s almost enough right on its own.
Now, I finished this game while neglecting some games that I’m really excited about. Battletech sits waiting, half completed. Pillars of Eternity 2 has 10 hours into and I really want to get to it, but I kept getting back to Xenoverse 2. Not to mention Dark Souls Remaster, Hellblade, Banner Saga 2, and more that I haven’t even started. I’ve got a backlog lining up just in my “Play this next” list. And the game that I cleared first of those was a goddamn “Make your DBZ OC and play through DBZ’s story beats”.
The thing that gets me, the thing that made me excited to write about this game, is that the combat is not good. It’s passable, and has some interesting ideas, and it looks like a DBZ fight. Most of the gameplay for me consisted of vaguely switching between smashing X and Y, maybe tossing some B mashing in, and then when whoever I was fighting would fly away, smacking ‘em in the butt with a Masenko or Kamehameha. Then, of course, the final part of the fight was doing exactly that but ending with a Final Flash because Vegeta’s the best. All 22 hours I spent with this game was basically that on repeat. So when I was going to write this game journal I thought “Well what is it that I can learn from this game? This game that isn’t that good, but that also I couldn’t put down?” And eventually what I came to was the reward curve, and how absolutely bonkers it is.
So to start off, I’ve been reading “Beyond Game Design”, recently, edited by Chris Bateman. The book is basically 9 mini-articles about a small part of game design. One of the articles separates out reward structures. The article describes “Ratio” or “Interval” curves in terms of how the rewards are achieved, and “Variable” or “Fixed” in terms of how predictably the rewards are achieved. Ratio curves are basically “Do x get y reward”, so the classic gather exp -> level up, or similar. Interval, on the other hand, are temporally based. So having a shop that resets every hour is an example. Fixed/Variable then is a description of how predictable the rewards are. Random drops are variable, in that you may kill a boss 20 times and not get the item, but there’s always a chance that you will. Fixed is, well, fixed. If you kill 20 boars, you’ll level up.
You can also mix and match these a bit. Master of Orion 2 uses a really subtle version of this in its research. Each technology in the game has a certain amount of Research points needed to unlock it. You generate an amount of research points each turn, so in theory you’re basically just generating research until the technology is researched, right? Well, not quite. In MoO2, once you have generated the research points to unlock a technology, you start increasing a percentage chance of a breakthrough. I’m not sure exactly what the math is, but it climbs each turn. So if you’re researching a 150RP project, you might get 155 RP by the turn you’d “research” the tech, and have a 10% or so of getting the technology that turn. The next turn you might have a 25% chance, etc until either you get the technology or you get to 100% and then get the technology.
So this is an example of a sort of more complicated relationship than just “fixed” or “variable”. The cost is fixed to a certain point, and then the reward from achieving that fixed costs is a different, variable reward structure.
So with that said, let’s get back to Xenoverse 2. Xenoverse 2 has a few reward structures. The first one is leveling up, which is the standard fixed ratio reward structure. You get experience for doing missions and quests, you have an amount of exp required to level up, when you pass the level up exp, you level up. This gives you some stat points that you can distribute as you see fit. In addition, there’s gear. Some of the gear you can buy using “Zeni” or “TP”, two currencies within the game. Some gear is part of a quest drop, so it’s a variable ratio reward. There’s also very tiny daily log-in bonuses, giving a fixed interval reward. On top of that, there’s a series of in-game tests that you can take to raise your rank, which are just extra battles. This is then another fixed ratio reward.
But that’s still not really the main draw of the game, as much as getting clothes that are in the show is fun, and getting stat points is always nice. The big system that kept drawing me in was the instructor mechanic. This is a very basic fixed ratio reward system. After certain missions in the main quest, instructors become available in the hub. Each instructor has an “initiation test”, where they teach you one of their moves, and then you fight them with it, and 3 additional tests that do the same thing. The final test always teaches you the instructor’s ultimate move. I of course did all of these.
I should note here that these moves don’t necessarily have a direct power increase. The instructors that you meet at the beginning of the game have moves that are vaguely similar in power to the instructor’s you meet at the end of the game. There are little differences, like Destructo Disc tacking whoever you’re locked on to, or Galick Gun being chargable, but in terms of overall utility and power they’re about equal. So you’re getting these new powers from this reward structure, but you only bring 3 (4 if you don’t want a way to manually increase your ki) into a battle, plus 2 ultimate attacks, one escape attack, and one transformation. I finished the game with more super moves than I knew what to do with.
The draw of these moves, and the draw of progressing through the story, was for entirely narrative reasons. IF you got through the story, you got to go to the next big fight from the show, and learn the next cool move from the cool character that was on the cool show. And sure, maybe Final Flash does more damage than Special Beam Cannon, but that’s not even the point. The point is that Final Flash is a saiyan move and I’m a saiyan so I’m representing planet Vegeta here.
Now, Xenoverse 2 had the option of learning hard on its source material. Obviously not every game can rely on the fact that a Kamehameha is just, fucking, cool. But what we can learn from this is just how compelling non-mechanical reward structures can be. There’s no power spike from completing these missions, just cool fireballs to shoot. Another important factor in this is that there’s no additional cost to the side-grades, other than time. There’s no resource that you’re spending to get the additional things, they’re just rewards. In a lot of games with aesthetic side-grades, there is some additional cost or resource for the change. In a game like Starpoint Gemini Warlords (A game I have lots of thoughts about), if you want an aesthetically different looking ship, you have to buy it, in addition to unlocking the ability to fly the certain class of ships, etc. etc. Xenoverse 2 is a game that’s basically entirely built around the idea of aesthetics and narrative as reward.
When designing a system, it’s far too easy to think of reward structures as mechanical in nature. Get x XP points, receive y new power. And it would be incredibly easy for a DBZ game to do exactly that. While I certainly would have appreciated some more involving gameplay, the use of non-power reward structures ended up being incredibly engaging.