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 💪)

1 comment:

  1. "Couldn’t Monster Hunter, or Dark Souls, or games like those, just... do better?"

    Yes. This is my soapbox, the hill I will die upon. Honestly it makes me kinda angry - using play culture / fanbase as a way of patching over problems that the devs should be fixing, should have fixed ages ago - or at least communicate up front that there will be an issue. The tools exist to do better, these are solved problems - do better, devs.

    I had a great deal of fun playing MHW and I think I will eventually get Rise. I've also seen actual tears of frustration from someone who couldn't beat Ku-Yu-La-Ku. I stand squarely in the camp of "I love this game! It's terrible and I will abandon it the moment a better alternative comes along, please will someone rip this game off already"

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