Dragon Ball Online was a failure which changed the course of the franchise

MultiverZe of Madness

It’s fair to say that there’s a big crossover audience for MMORPGs and anime. But while major MMOs such as Final Fantasy XIV and Maple Story have successfully adopted an anime aesthetic, the same cannot be said for games in the genre which directly adapt established manga and anime franchises.

Just last month I took a look in on the quite terrible Digimon Masters Online and being a glutton for punishment (as well as a terrible sucker for new release hype), I’ve spent the last couple of weeks diving into Dragon Ball Online. With the latest film, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, having just hit theatres, now seemed like the perfect time to check out this game – one which I knew to have had a short, and not too successful lifespan, but which has subsequently had a large impact on the future of the franchise.

Dragon Ball Online never received an English release despite a reasonable amount of excitement having been built up around the game when it was announced back in 2007. The concept was ripe with potential. World of Warcraft was reaching the zenith of its popularity, while the Dragon Ball franchise had effectively been dormant for the past decade (although the final episodes of Dragon Ball GT, the most recent series at the time, had only finished airing in the US in 2005). The MMORPG genre would arguably never be more popular, and fans of the venerable franchise were hungry for something new.

Female Majin in Dragon Ball Online
Character customisation in Dragon Ball Online is fairly limited, but being able to play as a Majin or Namekian was something of a novelty before Xenoverse came along.

From the outset, the game was evidently not going to be a major global success. Developed by a new studio, NTL, in collaboration with Bandai Namco Games (Netmarble would come on board down the line to get the game over the finish line), early screenshots showed a game with adequate, cel-shaded character models, but muddy, spartan environments and a clunky UI.

While it would still be a few years before the rest of the genre caught up to World of Warcraft‘s level of polish, expectations had already shifted (at least in the west), and it was evident that the grind-centric gameplay and general unwieldiness of South Korean MMOs were starting to be seen with a measure of distaste.

If the game wasn’t going to set the MMORPG community alight however, there were plenty of signs that the game would be a must-play for Dragon Ball fans. Series creator Akira Toriyama was credited as having contributed to the game’s story and character designs, and with the game being set 216 years after the ending of Dragon Ball Z, this promised to be the biggest expansion of the franchise since the end of the divisive third – and then final – series of the show, Dragon Ball GT.

Promoting Future Trunks – one of the series’ most popular characters – to a leading role was a canny move, allowing the player avatar to time travel to alternate versions of established events in the Dragon Ball lore as they are corrupted by a new villainous group the Time Breakers. Your character is recruited to become a part of Trunks’ Time Patrol faction in opposition.

If you’re a Dragon Ball fan who hasn’t played Dragon Ball Online but is finding all of this rather familiar sounding that may be because the game’s story was essentially transplanted directly into 2015’s multi-platform ‘mainline’ Dragon Ball game, Xenoverse.

Time Patrol Trunks in Dragon Ball Online
Players are introduced to Time Patrol Trunks in Dragon Ball Online’s tutorial.

By the time Dragon Ball Online was finally released in 2010 the MMO genre was on the cusp of a major shift that saw a slew of big-budget, polished titles being released as the industry finally caught up to the hype that WoW had generated. The start of the decade saw the launch of Star Trek Online, DC Universe Online, and Star Wars The Old Republic, as well as the initial iteration of Final Fantasy XIV. By comparison, Dragon Ball Online looked and played incredibly dated right out of the gate.

Still, the game initially reached a large audience, spending a couple of months in the top ten most played games in South Korea, before swiftly dropping off the charts forevermore.

When Dragon Ball Online‘s shut down was announced in 2013, it had failed to gain a foothold in the east, and in the west, another MMO trend had further diminished its chances for success should it ever have been localised. During the 2000’s South Korean imports found a certain popularity as free alternatives to the subscription model that was prevalent across western MMOs, but beginning with Dungeons and Dragons Online in 2009, a switch to free-to-play business models had started to become normalised across the entire genre. With more high-quality, modern options available for gamers on a budget, DBO was left only with its IP to draw a following.

But while the game was the sole hope for the continuation of the franchise back when it was first announced in 2007, this wasn’t so much the case by the time it was shut down. A Japanese exclusive arcade/card game, Dragon Ball Heroes, debuted the same year as DBO and it had, by the second year of its ongoing live support, begun to integrate original characters into its storytelling. Furthermore, a new feature-length film, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, was announced in 2012, truly revitalizing the franchise.

Goku and Grandpa Gohan in Dragon Ball Online
Would you have chosen to play a game which looked like this in 2013?

The demise of Dragon Ball Online in 2013 coincided with a general shift in how the franchise would be approaching its videogame output from here on out. Ever since the release of the Super Butoden trilogy on the Super Nintendo, the series had made a success of close-to-annual releases of new games in the fighting genre. Something of a cycle had been established whereby every few years a new “series” of games would begin, introducing a new combat system along with a reduced roster. Each subsequent entry would refine the gameplay and increase the roster before things would be rebooted again.

This formula served the franchise well for a long time, with newer console generations offering increased roster sizes, improved graphics, and flashier battles, but things started to stagnate following the 2007 release of Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 on PS2 and Wii consoles. Featuring an absurd 161 playable fighters, the impulse to once again reset the release cycle seemed a little less worthwhile.

With fewer than half as many characters, the series’ next core title, Burst Limit, brought the franchise to the next generation of consoles but felt largely redundant. One of the major reasons behind this was that outside of a few ‘what-if’ scenarios, the story mode offerings in every Dragon Ball game rarely diverged from the tv show. After spending two decades replaying the same storyline every year, Dragon Ball videogames were in desperate need of a shakeup.

As a new decade dawned and a new film was set to reignite the fandom, Dragon Ball was once again beginning to view itself as more than a legacy franchise. The chance to introduce new stories and characters to those picking up a Dragon Ball game was to be treated as a given going forward.

Player avatars in Dragon Ball Xenoverse Conton City
As well as being an online lobby, Xenoverse 2’s Conton City also uses player avatars as NPCs to fill the overworld.

Dragon Ball Online failed to offer a gameplay experience that matched the frenetic action that the series was known for, but it did provide a story template that would work perfectly in future games. Dragon Ball Heroes was the first game to begin absorbing elements of DBO‘s story, but 2015’s Dragon Ball Xenoverse was the first to bring the story of Time Patrol Trunks, Mira, Towa and the Kai of Time to a global audience.

Moreover, the game incorporated persistent online elements such as a lobby-type overworld, customised player avatars, and RPG-style character upgrade systems. Its sequel, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, was released a little less than two years later and featured even more MMO-lite elements such as an increased overworld size, and raid battles.

In many ways, the Xenoverse model is reminiscent of Bungie’s Destiny, which released its sequel only a short time after the original game, with much more long-running support for that game than its predecessor (unlike Destiny however, Xenoverse developer Dimps has done the great honour of recently making the original game’s story content playable in Xenoverse 2 (for a price of course)). Xenoverse 2‘s latest DLC was released in July this year, and with a roster clocking in at well over a hundred characters and counting, as well as heaps of new story content and mini-games being added, the Dragon Ball franchise seems to have found its perfect final form.

Oh, sure the game isn’t a technical masterpiece; it’s janky as heck, its online modes are rife with hackers, and it has horrendous balancing issues, but when you have a fighting game that’s this expansive then you kind of have to take that as a given. I picked up Pokemon Let’s Go on the Switch earlier this summer and I feel similarly about that game as I do about Xenoverse. While both have their issues, I can’t help but feel how amazing it would be to go back in time and show my much younger self these video game versions of two of my favourite franchises.

Revisiting Goku and Chi-Chi’s first meeting in Dragon Ball Online.

Although Xenoverse is Dragon Ball Online‘s true spiritual successor, that game’s take on the franchise runs deeper than any single title. As previously mentioned, Dragon Ball Heroes was the first game to bring elements of DBO into another title, but since then characters such as Mira, Towa and Cell X have appeared in the 3DS titles Extreme Butoden and Fusions; the multi-platform RPG Kakarot; the mobile gacha game Dokkan Battle; and Bandai’s physical Dragon Ball Super Card Game.

In case any of you lore-heads out there were wondering, Xenoverse‘s story takes place 150 years before Dragon Ball Online‘s. Frankly though Dragon Ball‘s lore has always been an absolute cluster fudge, so while you can kind of stick everything on a timeline and make it work, you probably shouldn’t worry too much.

DBO‘s introduction of the Time Patrol gave birth to the most perfect fan service vehicle that Dragon Ball fans could ask for. Not only can players relive the story they know and love (in alternative histories or with their own custom avatars), but they can also zip around the timeline to events far in the future and everything in between. All this time travelling nonsense being a perfect excuse to bring ‘non-canon’ events such as the movies, anime filler, and GT into the main timeline as established in the manga. Essentially, Dragon Ball Online was the beginning of the Dragon Ball multiverse.

No longer would fans have to argue over whether Super Saiyan God was stronger than Super Saiyan 4, or if Omega Shenron could beat Golden Freeza. These battles were being adapted into video games, anime, and manga of their own.

Player character doing a Kamehameha in Dragon Ball Online.
Pulling off a Kamehameha never felt so unsatisfying.

Having spent some time in the game this past week (on one of the many English-translated rogue servers which have sprung up over the years), I can’t in good conscience recommend Dragon Ball Online in 2022. It’s a game built on a mass of systems whose time has long since passed, and unless you have a particular yearning for mind-numbingly dull grinding and unresponsive tab-target combat you’re better off spending your time with any number of other Dragon Ball games or MMORPGs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that fans have preserved this virtual world, and there are plenty enough active players who obviously enjoy the game enough to warrant so many servers. Outside of hardcore Dragon Ball lore junkies however, I’m not sure how much there is here to offer anybody who doesn’t already have a history with the game.

So Dragon Ball Online shall remain a footnote in both its franchise and its genre’s history. Another Dragon Ball MMORPG seems unlikely (one sorry effort entered beta in 2019, but swiftly disappeared without a trace), but a Xenoverse 3 seems as much of a sure thing as possible. And honestly, that’s the way it should be.

Earlier this year Capcom debuted footage from their upcoming title Street Fighter 6. It touted a Battle Hub mode which appears to function not too dissimilarly to Xenoverse‘s Toki Toki City. With the increasing prevalence of live service elements sneaking into every facet of the gaming sphere, it is possible that in some years’ time we will look back at Xenoverse as the progenitor of the (M)MOFG ((Massively?) Multiplayer Online Fighting Game) genre. If part of that game’s success can be owed to Dragon Ball Online then perhaps that short-lived virtual world’s legacy isn’t so small after all.

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