How Monster Hunter plans to move from hardcore pursuit to worldwide phenomenon
How Monster Hunter: World plans plan to o make a hardcore series serie a global phenomenon
There are two types of Monster Hunter player: those who adore it, and those that have never played it. The latter camp have dabbled, perhaps; they’ve heard the fuss, have been assured that, once they get into it, they’ll never look back. But they’ve always bounced off it before the fun really starts. The former group loved Monster Hunter warts and all – and boy, did it have some warts. It was slow, it was grindy, and thanks to its underpowered host hardware (the series has been largely built for handhelds), it was rather ugly, for all the beauty that lay beneath the low-res surface.
If those were some of the criteria that have long prevented this intoxicating series from reaching a widespread audience, Monster Hunter: World might just be the game that changes everything. The return to home-console hardware means a larger, more complex, and seamless world which is home to a believable ecosystem. The pace has been quickened dramatically, with an easy-to-follow intro that has you whaling away on a huge beast within the hour. And heavens above, it’s a looker, a vibrant, varied fantasy action-RPG with a sense of scale and ambition that were only ever hinted at by the boundaries of a PSP or 3DS screen. “It’s kind of a matter of timing,” says producer
Ryuji Tsujimoto of the decision to bring Monster Hunter back to home consoles, and the overhaul that decision has prompted. “We hope to see a large influx of new players to the series, and with that in mind, we’ve rebuilt Monster Hunter from the ground up: retaining the core gameplay, but starting from scratch on the framework of the game. This has meant we’ve been able to revisit certain design decisions – certain legacy aspects which we now have a chance to go back and do a better job of.”
Well, mission accomplished. Monster Hunter kicks quickly into gear, and while it may not show its hand immediately, it at least does a much better job of hinting at what makes the series tick in its opening hours. And you learn not, as in the past, by reading reams of text. A short series of cinematics and fully voiced tutorials help set the scene, and ease you into proceedings. You quickly gain access to Astera, the hub town, and are introduced to its various quest givers and merchants. Perhaps most vitally, after only a couple of hours, beginner players are able to party up with friends. Gone is the old way of Monster Hunter thinking, where single- and multiplayer modes were hived off from each other early on; the story component was an offline pursuit, and those who bought the game and jumped straight into a co-op session would have no idea what was going on. “With very few exceptions,” Tsujimoto tells us, “you can now progress through the storyline and learn how to play the game while playing with your friends in co-op. That’s going to be a great, smoother on-ramp into the game for players whose expectations might be along those lines.”
As Tsujimoto suggests, Capcom has gone to great lengths to update some of Monster Hunter’s fustier elements to accommodate the anticipated influx of beginner players. Yet it has equally striven to ensure that series die-hards do not feel short-changed by all the new tweaks. It’s most purely expressed by your hunter’s sprint manoeuvre, which is now mapped to two commands: the right bumper, in line with series veterans’ muscle memory; and to a click of the left stick, in line with, well, everyone else’s. Item selection has been similarly tweaked, retaining the long scrolling list of previous games, while adding a new radial menu which will be more familiar to novices. It’s not that the Monster Hunter of old has been pushed to the side in a drive to boost sales; rather, the old has been supplemented by the new, and the flow of the early game optimised to ensure players no longer feel like they’re a couple of dozen hours away from the meat of the thing. It works.
Well, most of the time. Chatting to a fellow member of the European press who’s been invited to Capcom’s Osaka HQ for a two-day session with
Monster Hunter: World, we lament what we see as a clunky system for redeeming post-mission rewards. We’re shown everything we’ve won, and must hit X over and over to collect them one by one. Could it not, we suggest, work from the assumption that we want everything we’re entitled to, and manually select what we’d prefer to leave behind? Our colleague corrects us: this is actually a tremendous quality-of-life change for series fans. You used to have to select each item one by one using the D-pad, then press X to collect it.
PERHAPS MOST VI TALLY, AFTER ONLY A COUPLE OF HOURS, BEGINNER PLAYERS ARE ABLE TO PARTY UP WITH FRIENDS
There are other awkward legacies of the old days, many of them quirks of the long-standing Monster
Hunter lexicon. You don’t ‘accept’ or ‘begin’ a new quest from an Astera building board; you ‘post’ one. To confirm your selection and start said quest, you click a box marked ‘finish’. The menus can still confound (are our completed bounties automatically redeemed, or should we do it manually?) and whoever put the one guy selling health-restoring potions on top of a tall stack of boxes in the bowels of Astera deserves the full wrath of Diablos. Some old habits die hard, then, but Capcom’s overall mission is clear and, by and large, it’s cracked it. Or posted it, perhaps.
In any case, once you’re out in the field, such concerns quickly melt away. Another new addition, a swarm of scoutflies that highlight the critical path while bending away to alert you to nearby pickups and crafting supplies, proved divisive among a community of hunters that feared the presence of a breadcrumb trail would numb the thrill of the chase. Yet the swarm feels essential. First, you’re not reduced to wandering these huge lands in the dim hope of stumbling upon your quarry. And more pertinently, the presence of a guiding hand means Capcom can be more creative than ever before in its approach to Monster Hunter level design. The central area of the Ancient Forest map, for example – one of two we see during our time with the game – is a multilayered rabbit warren of thick vines and climbing plants that we don’t much fancy learning to navigate alone.
Ultimately, scoutflies are another pacing device, ensuring you get to the action quickly – but this is far from a quickfire game. The 50-minute timer on most quests makes that clear, especially once you account for the fact that your party members can only be knocked out (or ‘faint’) three times in total before you’re booted back to Astera. Yes, you can find things quickly. But it’s still going to take you a while to put them to the sword, or axe, or insect glaive. The third monster we face off against, Barroth, is a huge, armoured beast with a battering ram for a forehead. Our longsword hits it for a whopping eight damage points per swing; working solo, it takes us the best part of half an hour to finally put it down.
“We’ve always had really good monster AI and interesting stages,” Tsujimoto says, “but being able to combine a very complex topological map with really intelligent monster behaviour, and interactions between monsters and smaller creatures, even plants… we saw a chance to make a rich, deep world.” This, to put it mildly, was no easy task. The
Monster Hunter team has, after all, spent most of the past decade working on handheld systems; if it was to return to powerful console hardware, it would need more people, and extra help besides. Tsujimoto and team staffed up, focusing, he says, on younger and more international blood, who would be more familiar with modern development techniques (by virtue of World’s simultaneous worldwide release, localisation teams were on hand to deal with any communication issues that arose across language barriers). Capcom’s internal R&D unit was an invaluable aid early on, helping the dev team work out what it could do, how it could do it, and how quickly it might see results. “There’s a lot of power in these consoles,” Tsujimoto says, “but you can’t just use everything all the time.”
“It wasn’t just about using the hardware in obvious ways,” lead artist Sayaka Kenbe tells us. “Sometimes it involved taking very roundabout methods to accomplish what we were trying to do. In the past, when implementing things like fur, we were very limited in what we could do. Now it’s possible to get thousands and thousands of strands, but processing-wise it’s impossible. So we figured out other methods to make it look like fur, make it look soft and natural.” Despite all of Capcom’s renewed ambition, the game has been made using the ageing MT Framework engine, though this immeasurably more complex game has almost no code in common with the 3DS games with which it shares a lineage, a legacy and an engine.
A turning point in Monster Hunter: World’s development was a prototype which didn’t feature so much as a single sword. “It focused on the new parts of the game,” Tsujimoto says. “There wasn’t any hunting; it was more about seeing how the player would pick up a monster’s scent, and then when you encountered it you could do various things: you could lure it to meet another monster so they could fight, for example. All the parts everyone has
“THERE’S A LOT OF POWER IN THESE CONSOLES, BUT YOU CAN’T JUST USE EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME”
pointed out as being the great, fresh, new stuff – the prototype was all of that rolled into one, a proof of concept. We have the knowhow for the action component; we don’t need to prove that to ourselves in a prototype, we can trust ourselves to add it later. After that, we weren’t always working to our schedule, but it was a good starting point for us, letting us take a fresh look at how to make a Monster Hunter game.”
Tsujimoto admits, too, that level design was a headache early on. The Ancient Forest was the first map the team designed for the game, and they sailed past their initial deadline. He describes a long, drawnout process of trial and error – but once they’d cracked it, the remainder of the level-design process went comparatively smoothly, as lessons learned in the longwinded creation of the Ancient Forest informed a pacier development period for those that came after it.
The link is obvious: that Capcom’s experience of making the slow, grindy kind of Monster Hunter has made it easier this time to make a snappy, immediate one instead. And as four of us go to town on the mudslinging, slug-like Jyuratodos, it feels well worth all that endeavour. The whys and the hows of the creation of this game are important, of course. But above all else is how it feels in the hands. It’s terrific.
Combat is slow, weighty and tremendously impactful; you can feel strong blows connect even without the newly added damage numbers popping off your foe during battle. They’re another concession to modern expectations, but are scarcely needed given the remarkable standard of animation on show in Monster
Hunter: World’s bestiary. Barroth, for all its heft, limps desperately, urgently away from us as it nears death. Its health pool has been scaled upwards to account for our party’s size, but it doesn’t stand a chance. Serves it right for battering us into a cliffside earlier on, really.
Using bait and traps, you’ll be able to engineer a meeting between two beasts in the same region, but the game is at its best when it does so spontaneously. The highlight of our two-day session comes when we’re fighting Jyuratudos and Barroth ambles over to give us an assist. The mud serpent coils its body around the bony colossus, trying to throttle it, and a damage number we could only dream of pops out of the fray. Barroth responds, charging its foe, winging it badly. It’s a tense back and forth and one hell of a sight, so we head for higher ground so we can take in the view. Seconds later we’re scurrying desperately for cover: Rathalos, a terrifying Wyvern which, we found out earlier in the worst of ways, can comfortably one-shot us, has heard the commotion, and flown over to find out what’s going on, in order to spit fire at it. We hunker down. Moments later, a Capcom staffer walks by to see us crouched low behind a rock, inching the camera along to try and maintain some kind of view. Even if it gets us killed, this is simply too good to be missed.
You can’t bounce off something like that. Suddenly we see, plain as fire-strewn day, what makes this game tick. Game director Yuya Tokuda gives us his personal view on it: “I think the real draw of Monster Hunter, and what drew me to working on it, is the fact that it’s this magical fantasy setting, but you’re not fighting demons. These are realistic creatures that could be part of a biological ecosystem. They’re living things that you can imagine yourself fighting. But there’s also this element of going up against huge monsters, using big weapons, that answers this primal human desire to challenge yourself against these enormous beasts.”
Sounds about right, yep. But away from that unlikely three-way fray, there’s more to Monster
Hunter – and it’s an element that might just make this game the global success its series has, according to fans at least, long deserved. “We’re kind of answering these basic urges,” Tokuda says. “You do these challenges, you succeed, you get a reward and you get stronger. Doing all that in a multiplayer framework that draws in all these social elements is essentially what defines Monster Hunter.”
Monster Hunter has spanned three generations of console and handheld hardware, but it seems the industry has finally caught up to its ethos. A hugely challenging, theoretically endless loot grind in a vast, beautiful world that puts online co-op at its core? That’s the contemporary blockbuster game’s playbook, almost to the letter, and Capcom has had a 13-year head start on it. There are two types of
Monster Hunter players: those that adore it, and those that have never really played it. It feels like the former camp is about to get an awful lot bigger.
THE WHYS AND HOWS OF THE CREATION OF THIS GAME ARE IMPORTANT. BUT ABOVE ALL ELSE IS HOW IT FEELS