Monday, 5 April 2021

Monster Hunter and Play Culture

 In most video games, pushing a button on your controller makes the character on screen do a thing. When you press the Jump button, for instance, Mario jumps.

There’s an elusive sensation called “gamefeel” which sounds like a meaningless buzzword - and it kind of is - but is considered a real and pretty important thing to aim for in game development. There are proper academic books about it and everything. Basically, that press button to jump flowchart has got to feel right every step of the way, various parts working together to make a single, smooth, cohesive action. So, the physical button has to feel good to press. The jump animation has to look right, feel proportional. Sound design has to reflect what’s happening on screen and what the player expects.

And speaking of player expectations, one of the biggest parts of gamefeel is latency. Essentially, the less delay there is between “button pressed” and “Mario in the air”, the more responsive and good-gamefeel-y the action is. In highly technical systems like fighting games where every frame of animation counts, this is extra important - this breakdown by a professional animator touches on how a game like Smash has to translate the classic animation principle of anticipation to only a few fractions of a second in pursuit of gamefeel. Too much latency and a game feels sluggish and unresponsive. Unplayable.

And then there’s Monster Hunter.

When wielding the game’s iconic greatsword, the time between button press and monster getting hit can be whole entire actual seconds. That’s not even mentioning the recovery animation after a hit, or the fact that inputting a follow-up attack commits to further lost moments - because this game has no animation cancelling.

In a fighting game, a punch is over in a few frames, and if you want to do something else before that punch is over, you just press another button and the character (most of the time) will stop the punch animation and go right into the next move. Instances where that doesn’t happen are specific, a known factor. Otherwise it’s zero frames between the two, a hard cut. In Monster Hunter, if you press a button, you are going to watch that attack’s long, slow animation from beginning to end, every time. And that’s whether or not the attack hits its target - your prey may well have moved out of the way, or started attacking you back, by the time you’re done.

This, understandably, causes frustration in new players. Monster Hunter refuses to act like almost every other video game, seemingly deliberately choosing the opposite of what conventional wisdom says feels good to play.

But the biggest hurdle is that Monster Hunter does not tell you any of this.

The games are filled with tutorial text boxes explaining its various menus, options, and the ins and outs of the game’s hunt-carve-craft gameplay loop. The Hunters Notes in the pause menu is an extensive manual that details every aspect of the game experience with screenshots and clear explanations. Tutorial text boxes may be outdated design, but these cover everything you could wish to know about the game... everything except how to actually play it. That second-to-second action, the fact that every attack requires your little caveman to hoist his dinosaur-jawbone sword over his shoulder and drop it, painfully slowly, onto whatever happens to be in his path by the time he’s done swingin’ without any hope of stopping that momentum, is never mentioned, explained, reasoned out or tutorialised. You will simply try it, feel how wrong it is, look for some meaning behind it, find nothing, and give up.

Ok. Got all that?

Now then.

A YouTuber recently tried out the demo for the series’ newest title, Monster Hunter Rise. He gave it a fair shake but, again, understandably, had pretty much the exact experience I just described. This game is sluggish and slow. It feels bad to play. The attacks are unresponsive, and it feels unfair that I can’t make the character just do things by pressing buttons. Isn’t that how video games are meant to work?

His video, “Why I’m Not Buying Monster Hunter Rise” explained these frustrations pretty reasonably. What I’m interested in here is what happened next.

If you look at the comments for that video - a dangerous proposition at the best of times, but bear with me - you’ll see an outpouring of support and reassurance from Monster Hunter fans. Rather than the “git gud” mentality of a lot of online gaming spaces, people shared their own histories of frustration with the series. Jay’s experiences were valid. Others had also bounced off these games. They really are that confusing and hard! But the comments came with advice, suggestions, and mostly just implored the guy to please, please try again. Because all these people had hated the game at first too, but they’d somehow found something there they’d grown to love, and they wanted to share that.

You can watch the next few videos on Jay’s channel if you want to know what happened next, from his follow up “Why I AM Buying Monster Hunter Rise” video to the two let’s play series he’s currently running on two different entries in the franchise. He tried again, took the lessons the community had given him, and found what they found. He’s now a devoted fan.

So.

I could go into how and why Monster Hunter games actually are good, what the trick is to getting that gameplay to finally click, but that’s not really the point here.

How many of us read an RPG book for the first time and just... didn’t quite get it? How many of us were introduced to what these games even were not by the texts themselves but by our community - an older relative, a friend who’d already cracked the code, our first GM, an actual play stream or podcast. How many of us were taught, wholly or in part, how to get an actual game out of these esoteric messes of rules rather than somehow figuring it all out on our own?

Does that make the texts bad? ...Kind of, yes! Couldn’t D&D books do a better job of explaining their purpose up front? Isn’t that why every indie darling begins with a What Is An RPG section after all, to just try and teach? We desperately want people to understand, we know it’s hard at first but we’re trying so hard.

Couldn’t Monster Hunter, or Dark Souls, or games like those, just... do better? Be up front, explain themselves? Surely that would help all these people who bounce off the game at first actually get into them easier. Surely a game shouldn’t have to rely on a community of fellow sufferers to convey its basic play concepts?

After all... this must limit the player base, right? For every HeyJay there must be thousands more who tried the Monster Hunter demo and swore to never touch it again. For every one of us with a kindly DM to show the way, there must be thousands who muddled through the PHB, bounced off the wall of text or attempted a game and just gave up. If games could just teach themselves, wouldn’t that be a better system than relying on randos to maybe, hopefully, get through their initial dislike, somehow become experts and, after all that, spontaneously volunteer their time to teach what the hell is even going on here?

Right?

Monster Hunter is the biggest selling game franchise in Japan, frequently beating out both Mario and Pokemon domestically. The last big entry, World, was its biggest seller yet, and publisher Capcom’s single biggest selling game of all time. Yes, that Capcom. Rise has just come out, selling approximately 5 million in its first week - almost as much as World did in the same time frame, and Rise is only available on one console. And 5th Edition D&D’s sales have grown year on year since its release, making it the biggest selling game of its kind in history and parent company Hasbro’s biggest seller since Magic the Gathering. Yes, that Hasbro - yes, that Magic the Gathering.

Far be it from me to equate capitalist success with any kind of moral victory, but... clearly, the system works.

More important than good rules or a “good game”, whatever that is - more important than those rules being accessible, well-structured or clearly explained - is play culture. If people want to play your game, they will learn it and teach it, and people will want to play your game, and so on. Apparently, you don’t have to do a thing.

Well... These games must be doing something right... right?

There are tons of factors here, but the biggest one is baked in at a design level - cooperation. Monster Hunter has no in-built competitive play. This is a co-op game, with almost all content playable with friends locally or online. Players want and need more players to play with, and will do the work themselves to make that happen.

Tabletop RPGs, likewise, need a group to function. If you promise people the gaming experience of their lives, a game of pure imagination, as long as they gather friends into the fold, they’ll rally those friends. Groups beget more groups, no zealot like a convert. The games require word of mouth to even be played, and word of mouth perpetuates itself. It’s the most effective marketing tool - ugh, I know, but... it is, because it isn’t marketing at all. It’s friends playing games.

And at the end of the day...

Nobody cares, at least not initially before brand loyalty has taken its evil roots to their brain soil, what the game is. They just need a problem to tackle with their friends, a fun new thing to share with their friends, an excuse to get together with their friends. And that could be anyone’s weird, bad, “unplayable” game. Maybe it’s better to have that initial struggle, just enough jank, so that people can take on the challenge together.

Some people might like watching Citizen Kane, some people might like laughing at The Room. Some people genuinely don’t like Citizen Kane, or unironically enjoy The Room.

...Who cares? The point is having something to talk about afterwards. Something to share.

this one is more on the “the room” end

So what’s the takeaway here? We make convoluted, weird, even “bad” games and expect people to find them, somehow understand and then propagate them of their own volition?

...Kind of, yeah!

I don’t think RPG play culture can be effectively explained to every potential player in the same way and get an equal reaction. So why bother trying? Instead of writing an explanation, write something that their friends will have to, want to, explain to them for you. Engender excitement and curiosity, offer tools, and... let it go.

And idk, maybe that’s the takeaway? Play culture will grow on its own, wherever we stop interfering. People already have the main ingredient - friends - we’re just supplying the seasoning, maybe the cutlery. (Don’t look into that metaphor too hard.)

With the right conditions in the Petri dish - a decent design, an initial push, some challenge or ambiguity in the way of direct interpretation, and a whole lot of luck and probably even more money, the culture takes care of itself.

And it might take bold new shapes, might grow into something separate from your initial seed. But, like... so what? Sure, they might “get it wrong”, but who are you to decide that? If you stop someone using the bits from your spaceship model kit to make a robot, you’re not teaching or guiding at all, you’re just stopping their game. At that point you’re basically just - spoilers - the bad guy from the LEGO movie. And if people do play D&D “wrong” and start teaching that “wrong” game to others... again, so what? They’re joining a lineage of designers that starts with and includes Gygax.

I think we make toys, and it would be the height of arrogance to try and decide how anyone else should play with them.

(Does system matter? Well, whether I take my ball or my scooter to Jerry’s house we’re going to have fun playing, and we’d probably still find a way to have fun even if I took neither, and oh look I’ve spent too long theorising and now Jerry doesn’t want to be my friend any more.)

The best we can do is offer possibilities. The fun is in seeing what happens next.


(EDIT: I’m liking MHRise so far! Aknosom is my boy but the biggest surprise to me so far was Bishaten, what a fun fight. GL main and proud. Hit me up and we’ll hunt together 💪)

Friday, 19 March 2021

March Update!

Heya,

Lots going on behind the scenes, which is great but leaves very little time for bloggery, so I thought I’d do a little rundown.

- Journeylands is coming together nicely! After funding about a month ago, I had to wait for Kickstarter to process everything - so a couple of weeks ago we were finally able to get started.

Progress has been great already! I love being able to pay people to do good work. I’m doing visual development, bringing on artists and fine-tuning the text. The mechanics are all good, but the way they’re presented and explained in the final book is just as important. If not more so, haha.

So, early days, but good progress is being made. I’d say something drastic like “it’ll definitely arrive before next year!” But after how last year turned out... I can’t be quite that confident about the future. But yes, it’s doing well.

- I’m working on other projects! Did you know that if you like my stuff you can just hire me? :0 The pamphlet adventure I’m doing for Dying Hard On Hardlight Station is going to be good, hope all you Mothership fans managed to back that one. It’s cool to be part of someone else’s ZineQuest, would be cool to maybe do even more next year

- Other ongoing projects - GRAVEROBBERS is always happening. People seem to like that, every week or so it gets a new download! Well, it’s gonna be A Thing at some point, but I want it to be always free to everyone so there’s 0 budget - work will be slow. DEADLINE is paused but I know what that’s going to be, it’s still happening at some point.

- Always working on new things - I really hope I’ll be able to put out a new Paradice Arcade game this year, those are so so much fun. There’s a game I’ve been working on longer than any other project that is finally coming into what may well be its final form, and it’s looking quite Paradice-y. I have finished games from last year that just need the right artist too.

- I’ve been slowly gathering bargain-basement minis and making terrain out of recycling in order to play a game of Chris McDowall’s GRIMLITE. Just a home game for fun but it’s hobby-related so I thought I’d mention it I guess? I mostly keep non-work stuff to myself but I’m proud of this and having fun so I might share it on twitter at some point, idk

I’m finding a better work-life balance these days, and being hired for things and funding projects allows me room to breathe. All my art is going to benefit. This blog will be quieter, but think of it as a calm before a storm.

Happy gaming!

Friday, 12 February 2021

Zinequest Ahoy!

 Just thought I’d make a quick wee post reminding folks that ZineQuest is very much underway!

I don’t suppose there are many people who read this blog and don’t already know about zq, but just in case - it’s a bunch of tiny indie RPG projects, all on Kickstarter at the same time. You can put your money where your mouth is and support artists making bold, useful and ridiculous new game stuff - for cheap!

This is as much gameable material as you’ll need for the rest of the year - or indeed for much longer - for a fraction of the price of the big brands, and your donations help new and small creatives burst onto the scene in style.

My own project Journeylands is already overfunded with just a day or two left on the clock, and I’m over the moon with all the support so far. Click here to browse the wide range of other projects looking for your help!

And hey - now is as good a time as any to start planning for next year if you want to be involved in ZineQuest 2022! Myself and all the other creators who’ve done it before are always happy to help and give advice if it’s something you’re considering. The rate of projects that meet their goal soars during zq, so it’s a great time to debut your stuff and get a cool-ass zine made!

Peace x

Edit: And I’ve just been announced as a contributor on the ZQ project DYING HARD ON HARDLIGHT STATION! It’s a Mothership module based on Die Hard... I think that’s reason enough to go and check it out. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Journeylands Is Go!

Journeylands #1 is live on Kickstarter as part of zinequest 2021!

Check it out and support if you can!

Uhh... That's it!

Thank you! x


Saturday, 16 January 2021

Journeylands Solo Play Report

Record of a solo playtest of Journeylands #1: Coral Canyons. 100% procedurally generated using the material and mechanics available in the zine.

*

Set out at 5pm. Using the PsyNav for the first time is... weird, but I soon settle into it. I know where I need to go.

A couple of minutes of driving and I’m getting the hang of that too. Think I can go a little faster. Saw a rock that, uh... Well let’s just say I won’t forget its shape if i see it again. Will make a good landmark on my way back to Mack’s.

17:05, saw a whale! Just for a second. It came down, still too far above to touch but I could see it clearly.

Came across a stretch of soft coral reef. I’d heard about these things, they’ll sting you if you’re not careful. I... wasn’t careful. Was already going pretty fast so figured I could just breeze through and avoid the worst of it, but they zapped the SABA 2.0 and damaged her a little. If I come back this way I’ll try going slower. Or use the shield.

Don’t know why I’m in such a rush. Still got plenty of time. But wow it feels good to go fast. The sun shining, fish swimming...

17:12, I saw what looked like an old hut. Huh. Whizzed right by it, but it seemed empty. Good to know it’s there, I guess? Wonder who built it. If anyone lives there.

Woo! This thing can really go! I’m shooting through the canyons like a sailfish now. Just leapt a gorge or a ravine or something - didn’t look down, probably a good idea. Felt like i was flying as I went across it though. Time now is quarter past 5... making good tracks.

I can see why they call this the coral canyons. Just passed through all this pink-purple stuff, looked like rippling waves. Or brains, haha. Slowed down a bit to appreciate the views.

... And, the PsyNav started calmly humming at me. Sure enough, right up ahead was the junk collector I was looking for. It feels weird how accurate it is... But strangely peaceful as I reach my destination.

The collector doesn’t say much. I explain what Mack needs and he happily hands it over. I guess people just share here in the Journeylands.

Time now is about 17:18. Got a while before sunset.

I think I’ll take the long way back.

*

Click here to be notified when Journeylands #1 launches on Kickstarter as part of ZineQuest 3.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

The Road to Journeylands

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may remember Journeylands, my small ruleset about roadtripping a post-post-post-post apocalypse in custom vehicles.

It’s back, baby.

Art by Krzysztof Maziarz
Done for the original version of the game, way back when
Doesn’t fully work with the new version of the setting but I’ll probably still use it because LOOK AT IT

The new Journeylands will be a completely new system with accompanying anticanon setting, delivered in the form of a magazine. Each issue will be completely playable on its own, with a “vertical slice” of game materials, or you can of course combine, collect, mix and match and - hopefully - homebrew.

The new system is modular - each widget on your dashboard (read: each bit of the character sheet) is a diegetic part of your vehicle that can function independently. So these are rules and tools, mechanics that you can piece together into your own game. Every issue will have its own “finished” sheet, plus some extras to swap in and out. Then you can get another issue for more widgets, or make your own and share them.

While each widget is independent, they will of course interact in some ways and function differently depending on how they’re assembled as a whole! I hope this facilitates play through design and allows people to build games the way they want to play them. (Ha! I just tricked you into acknowledging and engaging with the GM’s role as game designer >:D)

Journeylands is also playable solo. Solo play differs pretty heavily to group play due to the absence of the classic GM role, but I hope it will be a welcome take on the ruleset for people who want to experience it that way. You can read the magazine, play a little game for yourself, have a nice time, lovely jubbly. I know last year made getting together for games hard for most of us, so hopefully this helps.



What else to say...?

Ah yes, Journeylands #1: Coral Canyons will launch on Kickstarter as part of ZineQuest 2021!

I don’t know if ZineQuest is happening this year, but, uh... well, it is now, I guess. The real ZineQuest is the friends we made along the way etc. I hope those of you who’re able to will stick around and back this project (and any other zines folks put out for ZineQuest!), and if you’re not that’s fine - share it with your friends and get excited anyway. I want to pay cool artists to make cool art. I might even contact writers I like to contribute for stretch goals if that doesn’t prove too scary for me 😬

Journeylands is a weird place that’s very personal for me. I’ve said before that I have an easier time writing J’lands content than for anything else - that’s because a lot of it is just natural, unfiltered “me”. It’s very silly, cool and hopeful. I hope it resonates with someone.

You can keep up to date with progress on the project, yell at me about it, and find out when it launches on Twitter. I’ve started a #TheRoadToJourneylands hashtag to talk about the game’s development. So, follow me for that. Or follow me and mute it, haha.

Here’s to 2021.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Movement Through Space



On a wee little break, such as it is, over the Christmas season, such as it is. But had this thought and felt like writing, so here you go. No idea if it’s worth reading, mind.

Take care of yourselves and the people close to you, and I’ll see you in the New Year to do this all over again.

X

I tend to think of a game as a space, not literally. Something like: “A game is a theoretical space defined by its participants’ interactions with and around a set of rules while mitigating or subverting relevant consequences and obligations present for those actions outside the space, with the aim of facilitating exploratory experiences within participants, activated or driven by their chosen interactions.” Or whatever.

But most games that aren’t ttrpgs utilise physical space or representations of such in a much more direct way than this hobby does. That’s what I’m on about here - actual space. Or virtual space. The realm that gameplay happens in.

Sports have courts and fields, adventure playgrounds are the space, and other games become the physical space they take place in - hide and seek, tag, climbing a tree, etc. Even board games do more than most ttrpgs by having a board, or at least expecting a “play space” such as a table to house their components.

Video games take this one step further by representing physical space digitally, then allowing movement through that space vicariously through an avatar. Movement mechanics help define the space and vice versa - Mario being my go-to example for most things as his game design is widely and simply understood. But see how the way a PC/avatar can move in other games like Zelda BotW, Gravity Rush, Splatoon, and even the cursor in RTS games affects gameplay, and defines and is in turn defined by the space through which they move. And if you think I’ve used the word space too many times already, buckle up.

Ttrpgs don’t use or need space this way, being played through conversation. Any space - actual play space - is, generally, imagined.

Our relevant sphere, adventure games, has several approaches to this. Our go-to, and still a classic, is the dungeon map. The mechanics to move through these spaces are divorced from the maps themselves though - enough conversation, the medium’s proprietary core mechanic, can take the place of any physical map or drawing. More rigid mechanics such as movement speeds, encumbrance, etc, define and map the space in game terms like echolocation, through the avatar’s interactions, also giving the avatar its necessary movement mechanics through abstraction. Even if we were to put actual miniatures on a nice piece of gaming terrain, we would still be representing the game state rather than enacting or enforcing it, like a little real-time puppet show.

So then, the typical adventure game response to this lack of definition in the play space is to rigidly define necessary parameters and limitations that directly impact play, and leave the rest to oracles and the GM role. The rules, along with the social contract and play culture produce verisimilitude, the narrative equivalent of reliability for our fictional equivalent of a literal space.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with all this, in fact it all works remarkably well for half-century-old design. But it’s only one approach.

Another fairly typical game response in this space is to accept the lack of realised play space as a limit of the medium and design around it, whether through abstracting concepts of space and movement partially or entirely, or by rendering them irrelevant to play states through design. Some games might use range bands in place of literal measurements of fictional space; some might simply declare that you are wherever it seems like you should be. These rely more heavily on the social contract and are common in “story” games, in which oracles such as genre convention may be used in conjunction with GM fiat or group consensus. (Given the free form nature of the medium, these tools are of course available in any game.)

If we are designing an adventure game, however, and space needs to be both important to play and theoretically limitless in its specificity, defining that space is imperative. Some abstraction will always be necessary to avoid some Borgesian simulationist nightmare, and so it is then the nature of that abstraction that will define our game space, the nature of movement through it, and our gameplay.

The issue, then, is in designing around the implementation of space through abstraction, much as many games design around the removal of space through abstraction. This has lead to clunky, bloated or misguided design implementations in the past - see Why Your Travel Rules Suck, one of the earlier things I wrote on here. Simply put, gameplay must be centred around movement in order to justify/necessitate mechanical abstraction of space.

Video games - those mentioned above being shining examples - have this down pat. The nature of video game development and structures inherent in the medium obviously contribute to this, but there’s no reason relevant lessons can’t be taken and imported.

Dungeon crawls centre movement nicely - though many find the mechanics antiquated in places and the specific procedures for crawl play have been lost, skewed or lazily implemented in many places outside the tiny hobbyist sphere. Beyond the classics, new ways of abstracting space and movement into the medium have been widely unexplored, without of course borrowing mechanics wholesale from wargaming and board games.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this (ha). Just... the space (and here i do mean not-literal-or-virtual space, but the design space) is out there. A new mechanic or perspective is waiting.

(As with the last post, don’t worry, I’m working on it :P)