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Designing Xenoblade Chronicles X

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Today and tomorrow, we'll share a set of features digging into Xenoblade Chronicles X, the spiritual successor to Monolith Soft's Xenoblade Chronicles. Today's story is an interview with the development team in which we discuss design elements in X, including its leveling systems and environment design. Come back tomorrow for look at what it's like working at Monolith Soft and what the team thinks about the state of the JRPG.

It's difficult to not get lost in the opening moment of Xenoblade Chronicles X. Monolith Soft's latest role-playing game--a spiritual successor of sorts to 2010's Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii--is jammed with half a dozen leveling systems, tons of gear to keep track of, a tangled web of social links you must navigate like a minefield, and a world so vast it has been said to dwarf Western counterparts such as The Witcher 3 and Skyrim. At first glance, the game is daunting: with so much to keep track of so early on, will you stick around long enough to get invested?

I recently sat down with the developers behind Xenoblade Chronicles X, and they are well aware of this high entry barrier. But creating something complex was their goal with X, tailoring their work to the hardcore JRPG fanbase--and they made it clear that they are proud of the result.

Concept art for an enemy.
Concept art for an enemy.

"In a game like this, where there are a lot of things to track with your character, I think some of that is there because we had to imagine how we could best handle the various things you need to do, considering that you would be exploring and battling on foot in some places, and exploring and battling in a skell in other situations," said executive director Tetsuya Takahashi.

His answer alluded to how X lets players explore on their own or in giant mechanical suits called skells, and noted that having these two very different methods of traversal required several layers of leveling systems--for you, for your skell, for your affinity to your job class, and even your affinity with specific gear manufacturers in-game.

"There's quite a lot to do on such a large map," he said. "With elements and lots of different categories like this, we need to figure out how to present all of that information to the player in a way that they can understand. Given that there are so many different elements to track in the game, and we're trying to do it all with someone who's using one controller as an input device, and presenting all of this information in a UI that they can follow, I feel like we did quite well. I feel like we came away with something that isn't too hard to understand."

I had to ask: was there any concern during development that perhaps cramming X with all these systems would be too much for non-hardcore players? What about those with a Wii U who just want a cool game to play, and haven't been as willing in the past to spend 40, 60, or 100 hours to complete a game? According to Takahashi, this less-committed audience isn't the audience Monolith made X for.

"Since we're aiming for the next evolution in JRPGs, I have to admit that our original goal was not to aim for simplicity," he said. "We were looking for new directions and so that means adding new elements to an existing structure that people might have an innate understanding of. As such, I have to be honest, there is going to be some complexity that comes in, but I feel that we've created a really compelling experience from that."

Many of X's story quests are gated, requiring you to have reached a certain level or have completed certain objectives unrelated to the plot to advance. This gating was added as a way to limit players, Takahashi said.

Concept artwork for one of the weapons available in the game.
Concept artwork for one of the weapons available in the game.

"The way that we think about an open world game is that there is so much space and so much to do that if there were no limitations, it would be very easy for the user to get lost or to not know which objective they need to pursue next," Takahashi said. "From a designer perspective, we think about what steps can we add that will act as limitations to ease people into the experience of this large world. We ease the player into varying objectives and limit their access to certain parts of the map.

"Certainly there are a lot of different approaches to open world games of this type, and I think one of the big distinctions between us and [others] is that we're trying to consider the needs of the Japanese market as well where, I think, most players are not necessarily as familiar with that kind of approach to open world games," he continued.

"The experience that works the best in our market is to have these steps by which the player becomes stronger, and that in turn opens up new areas for them. There definitely was some thought and some sensitivity going around the needs of our market as well, considering what Japanese players like to do and how to give them the best experience."

As for the game's lineage--it's the fifth game in the Monolith's Xeno series and the second Xenoblade title--Takashi was adamant that X is unconnected to its history. Other than an emphasis on exploration, X is not a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles or any other titles that came before. Keeping the Xeno in the title is Monolith's way of letting players know the kind of game they're getting, with Xeno being the studio's stamp.

"I guess for me, the idea of Xeno doesn't necessarily carry one deep meaning that is consistent throughout all of these titles, but rather, they are a helpful way of communicating to people that these are all games that we here at Monolith have worked on," Takahashi explained. "I will say that the Xeno that you would find on each of these titles might refer to something different in each of these games each time. That's something that I really want players to discover."

One of X's quirkier features is the Soul Voice system. Under certain combat conditions, players can trigger an ally to heal or buff them, or even attack an enemy in a certain way. This system removes the player's ability to manually heal with consumables, instead assigning these skills to specific healing abilities or to the Soul Voices.

Another enemy concept art.
Another enemy concept art.

"The reason we decided to go for a system like this is, we actually kind of feel that you are stuck with a defined role of healing throughout an entire battle, or an entire game," explained Takahashi of the switch from healing consumables to Soul Voices. "You might get tired of that role pretty quickly. We feel, generally, that it's more fun to be the one who is attacking proactively, so we considered what kind of system would allow us to let players do that, and the Soul Voice system is what we came up with."

Moving through Mira--the planet humans have settled in X--players will encounter a wide range of creatures, from tiny sheepish beings that won't attack you to four-legged elephant-like giants with elastic limbs and massive, angry-looking primates. According to art director Norihiro Takami, designing Mira's wildlife was a challenge because the team had to take combat situations into account; there had to be battles with enemies more comparable to human sizes, as well as more giant creatures to allow for epic fights either on foot or in skells.

"Because we have some really big structures that are parts of the land here, we wanted to match that scenery by having some really large enemies wandering around them as well," Takami said. "At the same time you need to offer something that has a relatable scale to the size of the player so you need smaller enemies that can swarm around them and match their scale. At the same time, all of it has to feel like it belongs on Mira. You look for ways to unify the design as well.

"It's a little bit tricky because you will find on Mira even some life forms that are not native to that planet," he continued. "We did have to take into consideration this key idea in the design of all of these, which is that we wanted to aim for silhouettes that would be slightly familiar in some ways but distorted and warped just enough to feel both familiar and exotic at the same time in a way that hopefully is a little bit unsettling."

Concept art for one of the support characters, Tatsu. He's not a potato.
Concept art for one of the support characters, Tatsu. He's not a potato.

As for the skell design, according to Takami, mech anime such as the Gundam series played a big role in their creation. Their use also ties into the type of story the team wanted to tell: a near-futuristic tale linked to real human history but with several more fantastical elements--hence the migration to an all-new, beautiful, and dangerous planet and the use of mechanical suits.

"First, on the idea of using a near-future setting with technology that's out of reach but is something that might be attainable, I feel like in terms of story advantages this gives you something that can feel really relatable," Takahashi added. "It also makes you use your imagination to think about how humanity might have reached this point in what might not have even been a really long time from where we are now. Engaging the imagination of the player in that way, it's something that I feel ultimately aids in immersion.

"As for why we used mechanized suits in the first place, that's something that might actually have some culturally specific origins as I feel that in Japan, we have this very romanticized notion to them, a lot of positive attachment to the idea of a mechanized suit that you can climb into. That's a very appealing version of the future for us. I'm not really sure what might be the equivalent of that for Americans. For us, it definitely taps into a deep well of feeling around that."

Armor concept art.
Armor concept art.

Sometimes X's vast world can feel a little too vast--and especially lonely. Takahashi explained that optional multiplayer missions, carried out online with squads of other players, were added to quash that loneliness, should it creep up. He compared X's world scale to that of an MMO, and noted the ability to team up with real players would spur the feeling of helping humanity build a new home.

"You have the ability to choose freely from [multiplayer] options or to forgo them all if you so wish," he said. "We wanted to give people a high degree of freedom and let it feel optional if that's not something that people were particularly interested in. Certainly there's enough content to satisfy anyone who's interested in solo play on their own... We just wanted to give people the opportunity to encounter others in a way that you can feel free to leave alone if you're not interested."

During my time speaking with them, the team continuously reiterated that Xenoblade Chronicles X represents a culmination of game ideas they've wanted to try for a very long time.

"The way I feel about taking fantasy as the basis for our story means you can really do absolutely anything with no limitations whatsoever," Takahashi explained. "Sci-fi, as a world, has a little bit more strict definitions to it. You have to try and think of the scientific basis for things, for example. For several decades I've dreamed of building a game where you could have player characters on foot and in large mechanized suits in the same field. You might remember in previous games, we got around that by having entirely different stage design, whether you are on foot or in a mechanized suit. That was something that I always really wanted to create."

Alexa Ray Corriea on Google+
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Alexa Ray Corriea

Alexa Ray Corriea is never not covered in glitter at any given time.
Xenoblade Chronicles X

Xenoblade Chronicles X

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