GameCentral talks to the producer of the biggest Monster Hunter sequel ever, about appealing to the West and games as a service.
Despite having been around for almost 13 years now, Monster Hunter has never been a major hit in the West. It gets a little more popular with each new entry, but it’s never had that breakthrough moment that’s turned it into a mainstream smash. But Capcom’s hoping that will all change with this month’s Monster Hunter: World.
Although the franchise started life on the PlayStation 2, and did appear on the Wii, it’s primarily known as a portable game. It almost single-handedly made the PSP a success in Japan, which led to Nintendo taking the unusual step of securing the numbered sequels as 3DS exclusives. That deal seems to have ended now though, and this marks the first appearance of a mainline entry on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Monster Hunter: World is being promoted as Monster Hunter 5 in all but name, and one of the most important entries in the series’ history. No longer limited by the graphics or controls of a portable, the game takes part in a beautiful open world environment unhindered by loading screens and filled with all the graphical splendour the current gen can provide.
If you’re not familiar with the Monster Hunter series the concept is very simple: you and up to three other players have to hunt dinosaur-like monsters in a medieval-esque society, using their bones and body parts to construct ever stronger weapons and armour in order to take on ever bigger creatures. The original game owes a considerable debt to the seminal Phantasy Star Online, although the co-op elements would nowadays be seen as having much in common with something like Destiny.
The combat is surprisingly simple in terms of the controls, with the gameplay depth coming from learning how to wield the wide range of very different weapon types and memorising the attack patterns and abilities of all the various creatures. But despite the vastly improved graphics, and much more accessible tutorials and menu systems, what’s surprising about World is that it’s still not very different from the more recent 3DS titles like Monster Hunter Generations.
That’s not a negative though, and we admire the fact that Capcom has avoided dumbing the game down in its attempt to win over Western audiences. The game’s learning curve is now a lot shallower for the first hour or so, but despite what producer Ryozo Tsujimoto implies in our interview the game’s combat can still feel unwieldly and clumsy for a long time after that.
But that’s also not a negative. There’s a lot of Dark Souls in Monster Hunter (or rather Dark Souls has a lot of Monster Hunter in it) and the game’s challenge comes from mastering your weapons to such a degree that you’re able to predict and react to enemy attacks almost before they happen. As Tsujimoto-san points out, it’s not your character that gains experience from playing the game, it’s you yourself.
But the great thing about Monster Hunter: World is that you don’t have to take his, or our, word for it, as the game has already had two successful open betas and there’s a third and final one due to run between Friday, January 19 at 2am and Monday, January 22 at 1.59am.
We strongly advise you to give it a try, if you haven’t already, as in terms of graphics and accessibility this is the Monster Hunter fans have long dreamed of. And it also has a very good chance of being the breakthrough hit Capcom’s execs have also long been waiting for.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 26th January 2018 (autumn 2018 on PC)
GC: [Having come directly from playing the game] Wow, that Nergigante is pretty tough!
GC: It’s obvious this is an important milestone for the series, but what surprises me is that despite the improvement in graphics this still plays quite similarly to the last couple of 3DS games. Is it maybe the formats and the demographic that you’re aiming at which are the most important changes here, rather than the gameplay?
RT: I think you can’t really separate the audience from the content, because you’re only making the content because you think your audience exists. So it’s hard to say which is more important for this entry. It’s definitely a big step for the series, because the shift back to [home] console… it feels like a really great chance for Monster Hunter to break through in the West, in a way that perhaps it hasn’t been able to achieve on portables. And that’s something we’re looking forward to seeing.
The gameplay is not the product of an analysis of, ‘this is what people want so we’ll give it to them’. We’ve had a firm concept in mind for what we want the game to be, and we want to get the core Monster Hunter gameplay to be more accessible to more people. But the way to do that is not to change the gameplay to make it what people are used to, it’s to make the on-ramp easier to get onto. So they can get to the good stuff faster and with less frustration. So it’s kind of all connected, it’s hard to really pick out one thing that’s more important than any others.
GC: I admire the fact that you’ve not tried to dumb the game down at all. But given how long the franchise has been around, what gives you the confidence that Western gamers will finally take to the series? Because although it’s accessible in terms of the basic controls it does require a lot of patience and attention to detail, which is not necessarily the case with a lot of other mainstream titles at the moment.
RT: This is a game where you do need to learn the skills to play the game, and put them to use. And then you’ll feel this cycle of achievement as you progress and get better. You’ll maybe hit a wall where you can’t beat a monster, but what you can do then is strategize and look at your gear – see if you can improve your weapon and armour, go back in and beat it. And then getting through that hurdle is going to be really satisfying.
And yes, it does take patience… but that’s the game. We’re not going to simplify that just to make it easier to get through the game. The feeling of getting through the game, even though it was tough, is the challenge. If you want people to get better at chess you don’t sell them checkers. You let them get into the game in easier ways.
This is not a game where your character gets XP by your playing. You’re the one who actually gets better. It’s only your gear that you can improve, so it’s the skill you get from learning how to play the game that becomes most important. So as you go through it and overcome the challenges; one day you’re looking at your character with this cool gear and weapon and then you realise actually, ‘I’ve earned the right to this stuff, because I’ve got so good at the game that I’m actually this amazing hunter now!’
That’s the enjoyable experience we want people to have, and it’s one of the most unique aspects of Monster Hunter. It’s kind of like playing a sport. You’re never going to be able to get rid of the challenge, and the need for patience and practice, but then the ultimate reward is so much better.
And again, in terms of capturing an audience, we’re leaving all our great stuff there but we’re making it so that the tutorials are better and you can get into it easier. And the game starts quicker, and instead of reading a lot of text you can have a voiceover telling you what to do. All these little quality of life improvements to get you into the middle, into the core part of the game, are what has been improved and made easier now. We haven’t made the core itself easier.
GC: I know from my experience, and speaking to others, that the reputation of Monster Hunter – the initial sense many Western gamers get from seeing and playing it – is that it feels, for want of a better word, clumsy. The controls, the camera, and the general confusion of battle. As you say, overcoming that is the game, but it does present a problem when trying to attract players that are not used to it.
RT: I think if anyone plays the game and finds it clumsy… perhaps they expected a game where you could press a bunch of buttons and get these sword slashes, but it turns out they chose the Great Sword and the animation to do a big heavy hit was big and heavy and took time. The reason for that, on that particular weapon, is that that’s the strategic power of that weapon.
It’s incredibly powerful, but as a built-in power of the weapon you have to know how long it’s gonna take to hit. And you can’t just walk up and hit the button. You have to be reading the monster’s behaviour, and hitting ahead of time almost. And that’s the choice you make with the Great Sword.
Compare it to a fighting game: if you haven’t played Street Fighter before and you pick it up and you choose Zangief you might think it’s a clumsy game because he has no fireball moves, and he’s slow, and he’s big, and he only has grapples. But the reason we have so many different weapon types in Monster Hunter is the reason you might have 16 characters in Street Fighter. There’s a variety of ways to play the game and you chose the one that suits you.
So, the Dual Blades are incredibly fast. They’re low DPS, but they’re going to be able to get you moving faster and hitting more. We have ranged weapons where you can hit from a distance, you have powerful swords, you have lighter swords, you have the lances with charge attacks… there’s such a huge variety there.
In Street Fighter it’s an equally valid game experience for the guy who likes picking Zangief and the guy that likes picking Chun-Li, right? They’re playing the same game after all. But they’ve decided what they want to prioritise in that gameplay experience and that’s completely legitimate. And we’d actually encourage it, because in a four-player co-op game there’s no need for everyone to have the most powerful weapon.
One person who knows his movements and knows his positioning can be with a powerful Dual Sword, making the right moves at the right time to have big hits; the next person could be running around with a bow causing status effects with poison-tipped arrows; the third person could be with a Dual Blade spinning around like a Dervish and causing constant damage; the fourth person could be the Hunting Horn and they could be doing status buffs by playing notes on it.
And all of them will have quite substantially different gameplay experiences on some level, in terms of button inputs and movements, but they’re all playing the same game and they’re all trying to achieve the same goal. And ultimately they’re all playing Monster Hunter.
GC: A large reason for the game’s success in Japan is the socialising that was enabled by playing locally on a portable, which is obviously difficult to translate to home consoles. We’ve been playing it here today, but is multiplayer still as important in this game as it is in the older ones? I thought it was interesting it seemed to be de-emphasised in the reveal trailer.
RT: With the announcement trailer, I can understand that impression in terms of just the percentage of footage dedicate to one mode or the other. But the idea was that we wanted to start off promotion of the game by showing you this amazing, rich new ecosystem world that was just so much deeper than ever before. To do that, and show that in an immersive way, we decided that showing just one hunter allows you to focus on seeing the world they’re in and not just the action.
It was more about: look at this amazing world! And then we showed some action and combat, and then right at the end we were like, ‘And that’s not all, there’s also multiplayer!’ If we’d just started off with four people attacking a monster, you’re just going to look at that and the world itself would kind of fade into the background – and that wasn’t our intention because the world is one of the stars of the show this time around.
GC: Monster Hunter as a concept could already be described as games as a service, of the sort that is becoming very popular now with things like Destiny and GTA Online, is that something you’re actively looking to expand upon with this game?
RT: We definitely don’t plan this game to be a five or 10-year client, where you buy it and then you have content for the next decade. We always have had a really rich post-launch experience for Monster Hunter players, with lots of free DLC and extra quests. And, as we recently announced, there will be regular large free updates for Monster Hunter: World, starting with the first one in spring with an extra monster.
So there’s a lot to sink your teeth into after you’ve finished the main game, and you’re going to be following along with the DLC plan, but it’s not something as long-term as years down the line we’ll still be releasing things for this game. It’s a regular game with a really meaty post-launch content schedule, but it’s not like a service.
GC: So the phrase ‘games as a service’ is not one that’s reverberating through the halls of Capcom HQ?
Translator: I had to explain the phrase to him when I translated your question. He said, ‘What do you mean, a game as a service?’ I don’t think it’s really a Japanese thing at the moment.
GC: Really? That is interesting. I think there was a great fear when Square Enix started throwing around the term, that it was going to become the new buzzword amongst Japanese publishers.
[Translator checks with Tsujimoto-san]
Translator: Yeah, he agrees with what I said he said. [laughs]
RT: It’s a game we sell you, we want to keep you interested for a long time after launch, but it’s not a multi-year plan.
GC: Well, thanks very much your time. That was very interesting. I like your top, by the way. [Tsujimoto-san is wearing a rather natty black top with a grid of silver stud-like decorations.]
PR woman: I said that too!
RT: [in English] Oh, thank you! [laughs]