Monster Hunter’s streamlining

Quality of Life changes is pretty much just the latest buzzword that replaced streamlining when it comes to video games. Sometimes there are needs for it, as some games tend to have excess that that should be cut out to make the playing more enjoyable. Other times, streamlining or quality of life changes to a game series means cutting certain elements down that seemed too complex, or dumbing down, despite this not being the case. This has to be approached case by case, and with the latest entry in Monster Hunter series being released, looking at the changes to streamline the game might be in place.

I’m basing this post mostly to my own experiences with the series, and thus it is largely anecdotal. Starting with Monster Hunter Freedom, I’ve seen this series tweaking itself with each entry in some way, with Tri, 4 and Generations seeing the biggest changes to the overall systems. These included Tri’s swimming and underwater hunting, something that never made a return; 4’s emphasize on maps being more vertical, making ledge jumping, jump attacking and monster’s vertical movement an integral part; and with Generation introducing Hunter Arts, something that probably won’t be returning until another Best of All type of title comes out.

World is a large departure from previous entries with its single map approach rather than segmented areas per map, and almost a total overhaul to the pacing of the hunts. I’m using the term pacing here, as all the streamlining done seems to aim to make the hunts move all the time.

For example, when the player began gathering usable items from a plant previously, he had to pick up each individual item separately that could be obtained from said plant. If you got three items, you’d need to press a button three times. This was streamlined earlier already in the manner that you’d only need to keep pressing the button to complete said three item gathering. This would be a dedicated motion, which stops the flow of the hunt, as it the player stops. This seems completely natural thing to do, however, and was essential part of the game’s play overall. However, in World the player can now pass the same plant and gather those three items from it while running, without stopping.

The question I had with this, whether or not this sort of simple change impacts the game much. On one hand, it was more “real” in the sense that one had to stop to execute an action that in real life would cause you to stop for a moment. World‘s approach is very much what a video game would do, with gathering becoming very much similar to picking up a health item in Doom or the like; just walk over it.

This seems to be the approach in most places for the game, in that the sort of semi-realistic approach has been now replaced with seemingly more game-like approaches. The Scout flies are probably the best example of this, with them being completely bonkers when you think for it for a moment. They should’ve given the player a hunting hound or some other more natural option rather than blinking lights.

The game is about hunting, after all, and despite the Scout flies being partially optional in their use, their inclusion does tell that the developers want the player to “get to the good stuff” faster. Having a literal lighted up trail that shows the way after few foot prints and scratches on the walls have been identified doesn’t example mesh well, but it’s all easy to use. You can run by these tracks and pick their info up, making the tracking element very uninteresting. If there was a game element to them, something that would be tied to Skills for example, and asking the player to take an active role to do majority of the tracking themselves would not have introduced fat to the game, but meat to play.

On the other hand, in a lot of things World still sticks with the old mould all the while introducing some new problems. The item, armour and weapons management is about as tedious as always, the center hub area has been expanded to be a multi-level town, where you either need to traverse to your destination or use quick-travel via map, which necessitates a separate area load screen. With the game being in online all the time, the game treats single-player experience no different, with you “Posting” new quests online despite you going for the hunt alone. As a side note, single-player hunts seem to be balanced towards the easy side.

However, some of the changes are sensible, at least. For example, certain item that used to be consumables now exist in your inventory from the get-go and don’t vanish. A whetstone just doesn’t vanish when its being used. Pickaxes follow this same pattern, and don’t exist in your inventory anymore as a separate item entity. Despite this may look like some of the preparedness has been removed from the game, the rest of the item management is more or less the same. Then again, it does cut out some of collecting and gathering elements that existed in previous games, but perhaps this is to cut out some of the elements that did not surround the hunts directly. I would like to see a Gathering area like in Monster Hunter Freedom return at some point in the future, rather than just paying someone to increase your items.

That’s the crux of streamlining with Monster Hunter World. Lot of the changes has been made to make the hunting itself more about the forwards momentum, with everything around it being cut back. Except the plot. From the ten hours or so I managed to drop into the game, all the changes really are to make the huntings more about the scene rather than the game, perhaps hinting that the game indeed was streamlined and quality of life changes were made to make the game more accessible to the larger market. World has been the fastest selling title in the series thus far in the West, so maybe in the end they’re doing something right. We’ll have to see a year later or so to see how it has been doing and whether or not its userbase is still there.

Compliance should be resisted

This week we had a Nintendo Direct. I watched it to keep some of my friends company and report whatever interesting stuff came up on the Japanese stream. The Direct was as expected, filled with video footage rather than gameplay, Iwata talking and acting like a stuck-up wind doll and… that’s pretty much it.

I found the Direct bothersome for some reason. Nothing wowed me. All footage shown from Fire Emblem If to the upcoming Rhythm Heaven looked like something we’ve seen many times before. There was the usual Amiibo advertising with new upcoming Super Mario Bros. branded ones with more neutral posing and something about an Amiibo adapter for older 3DS models that lack support for Near Field Communication.

Then there was news about Wii titles coming to Wii U eShop. This is something that we should be vary of, as this leads to a huge possibility of Nintendo dropping backwards compatibility support, substituting it with selling previous console titles on their next iteration of eShop. Whether or not this come to fruition is an open question, one which I hope to see a negative reply. The lack of backwards compatibility for PS3 games on PS4 was met with an outcry, yet for some reason that outcry died out far too fast.

A new console doesn’t automatically make your old one obsolete. The Super Nintendo didn’t make the NES obsolete because the library is ultimately very different, especially if you take into notice the differences between Western and Japanese libraries. When a game makes the previous one obsolete, it has done its deed. Thus, to make the previous console obsolete you either need to give the consumer the option to directly move their older library to that new console, or produce games that would obsolete the older library. Of course, it’s easier to allow the consumer to move over rather than simply make good games.

That sounds pretty bad, actually.

The length a console lives nowadays is regulated by bullshit. The GameBoy lived long damn time because it saw support. The recent consoles, and by recent I mean post-SNES ones, could’ve lived a tad longer if there had been continued support. The Wii saw a dive in quality, and sales, when Nintendo moved their support to then-upcoming 3DS and Wii U. The same happened with GameCube, N64 and to some extent, SNES. The NES saw support from Nintendo even after the SNES was released with titles like Joy Mecha Fight being released in 1993. Granted, Joy Mecha Fight never saw release in the West, but the US saw Wario’s Woods in 1994 and Europe as late as 1995. Similarly, Zoda’s Revenge; Star Tropics II saw a release in 1994, and while opinions are split whether or not it is better than its predecessor, the game itself is guaranteed Nintendo quality and manages to how the NES shouldn’t be underestimated.

The cross-pollination between consoles and PC side has given a risen to a thought that hardware has overt significance over the quality of the games played on consoles. The comparison can be made with cars; the one with the better engine is not always the better ones. With food, the eternal comparison point with everything ever, would have that a dish with higher grade ingredients may be worse than dish with mediocre ingredients. It’s how they’re used in order to deliver the end-product matters more. Making a system like the Sega Saturn or N64 is pretty damn stupid; you always want the people working with the machines to have easy time to make the best use of them. This applies to other fields of design just as well; a service system needs to have easy usage for the service provider in order to guarantee smooth experience for the consumer.

The evolution of technology can’t be ignored. The more complex consoles grow, the more it will require from the developers. Game design becomes highly important at this point and… here’s where the crux is; nothing in the Nintendo Direct was actually interesting. All the footage shown looked much like various other games before that. To say nothing had a proper wow factor seems applicable. Even when games are relatively new medium compared to others, have we already exhausted everything the medium has to offer? During the Atari and NES era we had saw game that made the previous year’s games look like archaic pieces. It wasn’t just the visuals, but the game design and gameplay. The difference between games released in 1985 and 1986 is rather remarkable. The same can be said of movies of that era to some extent with 1983 being a high year in science fiction movies.

I question if game design has improved during the last decade or so. While there has been tweaks to tried and tested formals with every new sequel, there has been no chances made, not boundaries broken or new frontiers found. While some would argue that Oculus Rift is one of the new devices opening new regions, yet thus far we’ve seen the same game design repeated with new interface.

Evolution is regarded as a gradual process, and that it is. However, when it comes to breaking new boundaries there are moments where there is no gradual changes, simply steps. Similarly we should regard the evolution of gameplay, and games in general, taking steps rather than gradual change. It should not be enough to want same game with slightly different package and a new lick of paint, like a new G1 Optimus Prime toy, but something far more greater.

There is no denial that brand loyalty allowed my friends to hype the hell out of the games seen in the Direct. One almost creamed his pants after hearing about the Rhythm Heaven, despite it being a repackage with new minigames. Of course, what sells, sells. I can’t argue against numbers, and whatever my personal view may be are irrelevant. Nevertheless, there is also the point that games could sell more, like during on the NES, DS and Wii.

Are video game consumers far too comfortable with the current situation in their hobby? We should not be too compliant and demand better service.

Monster Hunter and multiplayer could be even more open

Few of my friends have been asking me to get back into Monster Hunter with MonHun 4G. I did enjoy MonHun on the PSP despite the controls being rather atrociously laid out. Claw Grip is one of the unhealthiest and hand hateful position you can have your hand in. Despite my stance against CAPCOM products due to their awful customer and business practices, my interest to play with my friends took the better of me.

Or it would have if Japan would still allow worldwide multiplayer as a standard.

It’s not surprising that CAPCOM divided servers. The division between East and West has been a standard, but there’s no real good reason to create the split. They can give reasons ranging from server problems to connection speeds to language barriers. Any and all customers who are even a bit tech savvy can call out on their bullshit. Language barrier wouldn’t even be a problem, if it was treated in a proper manner. 3DS’ own regional locking is not a problem either, as there’s more than enough games that don’t give two shits about regional lock in Online multiplayer, but for some reason you can’t play local multiplayer with different region consoles/games for some God forsaken reason. Granted, regional promotions, events and addons could pose a problem, but even in that the following example shows how it’s done. Much like with Pokémon, it would be possible to have every language mingle with each other with no problem, and regional things would only apply for that region. For example, if a Japanese and English version players would play together, Japanese would see チャージアックス (Charge Axe) while English would see Charge Blade. This is a matter of coding, and it would seem that CAPCOM doesn’t want to put that extra effort in making the series a worldwide experience.

That’s actually a point that should be emphasized. Monster Hunter has always been a game where you gather your party and go hunt some monsters, despite certain issues earlier in the series or the limit of access to other players. In Japan, AdHoc play is extremely easy as you could find Hunters in almost every corner of any of the larger cities. You could find a hunting party during your train trip and have a short session with the before the train trip ends. Not so much elsewhere in the world, locally practically impossible. I don’t expect Japanese developer to understand different cultures, as it is apparent not even Nintendo wants to deal with West. It’s sad to say, but Japan doesn’t give two shits about Western markets. That is the reason you see Monster Hunter most on handheld consoles rather than on home consoles nowadays. The average Japanese person has no time to sit down and play their consoles anymore. Then there’s the sad fact how the number of children in Japan has been in a steady decrease, which translates to whole lot of other problems to those who wish to create successful kids’ franchises from the past decades. As such, tapping to the Western market would be their absolutely best deed they could do. I can even offer an example in form of Nintendo; during the 80’s and mid to late 90’s, Nintendo had a strong Western presence. They worked with Western developers and have Howard Lincoln as their contact person, who communicated between the two sides. However, after Lincoln moved on, Nintendo’s attitude towards their Western developers, which at that point was essentially Rare, went cold. It’s all cultural of course, and Japan’ long history of being only with themselves and excluding everyone else is well known. It’s sad to see this sort of paradigm has not vanished with time, but has taken numerous different kind of forms.

If we could create the most idealised MonHun game, I guess that one would be Monster Hunter World, where CAPCOM would put every and any content from past games into one massively comprehensive game. Like the given title, the game would be worldwide, calling any and all players to join one massive community of hunters. All the differences the players would have from any point, they all would be connected by their wish to slay dinosaurs and dragons. Basic MMO solutions with servers and whatnot of course would apply, but the point is to bring people together without limitations. Knowing CAPCOM, this is impossible due to their ineptitude to properly satisfy their customers to a large extent. Otherwise it would be completely possible for them to do something like that, it’s not like CAPCOM has seen this sort of products, just in a more limited form.

In the modern era of online multiplayer gaming, exclusion is far from good form. There is no reason not to create an all inclusive multiplayer experience, where everybody could play with anyone from anywhere from the world. Connections can (and often will) vary from bad to worse, but that’s all part of the experience in the end. There’s a lot of people across the world with various attitudes and ways to communicate, and we can’t really understand these people unless we can mingle, even if it is through a hunt of Rathalos. The standard messages most online multiplayers have are often enough to convey the feelings and meanings of the players, but more than not the gameplay and how they act during it allows us to see the similarities we share. There are those who are there just to hunt and help others, there are those who are there to compete for the best pieces and some are there to show the ropes to all newcomers. It’s all about the experience, and limiting who we can play with is directly taking a piece out of that experience.

Of course, one problem is that Monster Hunter is far more popular in Japan than in Western regions but perhaps the more free multiplayer could help in this.

In the end, I could always buy an European 3DS or N3DS Flanders, but to quote a wiseman; Fuck that shit. While I understand why Nintendo chooses to go with region locking, I agree with all the people criticising it. It’s an old method to control a market, and both SONY and Microsoft have opted for better solution to some extent. I have to say that I am rather fond how PSN overall works with its regional differences, as it allows the gray area market to work full force via PSN codes, for SONY’s benefit no less. Screwing with customer can end up the customer screwing with you, and then it becomes a never ending cycle. For companies developing consoles, keeping an eye on the hack scene and what is most popular function among the users would be a good place see what the truly core customer may want to see from you.

Dilemma of lives vs no-lives

When we observe video games and part of what makes them challenging is the limitations put on the player while still allowing him to execute the best possible solution to the problem faced within said games. A failure to met the requirements to complete a task or a challenge in a game should lead into an undesired result of character death, which then would enforce the player to do better next time with the skills he has acquired from the said challenge.

The problem with above is that very few modern games have situations where there is no need  for evolved eye-hand coordination, and failure to overcome the situation usually results in the player being respawned early on. This is not to say that old games were diamond hard pieces that are insanely difficult to overcome, this is a rose coloured picture of the past. This is to say that these games hard harsher limitations on the player and required more intended approach than just forcing your way through. To further elaborate let’s use an example. The Flying Medusa Heads in Castlevania we’re highly irritating obstacle even thou they were relatively weak. Add a guard that compensates their weaknesses and you have a stage design that requires the player to step up their game in order to survive to the end of the level. A lost life means returning to an earlier check-point and going through it again. Same thing if you lose to the level boss in most cases. Compare this to eg. Bioshock’s stage design (for the lack of better term here) where the player is able to continue in each of those pods every time he isn’t up to the challenge. The player can do this as many times as he wants as there is no lives to force him tackle the challenge. There is a level of safety in there, if you will, where the player might lose something by losing, but not all of it. Often these pods are littered everywhere, so there’s no actual loss outside some resources.

Super Robot Pinball is a good and easy example of a game that has a harsh limitation on the player; his ability to play the game well enough. There’s three balls/ lives theå player has, and losing those means Game Over. In order to the keep playing and advancing at the same time the player needs to overcome new challenges whilst juggling between Missions and main tasks, ie. hitting bumpers and defeating Enemy units. Losing one balls means resetting a lot of things and cutting the score multiplier. There’s no midpoints either, and the save you make when you need to take a break vanishes as soon as you load it. There’s no holding back here; it’s do or die.

Against this we have eg. Metal Gear Rising. While a game that I do like, it holds itself back. There’s pretty high amount of checkpoints overall, but losing against an opponent mostly throws very near the losing point, and losing in a boss battle just takes you back to the closest checkpoint, which may be one phase in the boss fight. The comparison fails when we look at the game design of Rising, and that it’s far too loose in terms of stage design and enemy placement to warrant any lives. Checkpoints could be more sparse, and outside the final boss battle (including the Metal Gear), is pretty much a stage on its own, the boss battles could reset to the beginning every time the player loses.

Doom is another example of Do or Die. There’s no middle ground there. If you’re not good enough, back to the beginning and try again. This is the main reason I can’t get into modern FPS games at all. There’s Quick Saves, mid-saves and all this crap that keeps holding the game back and not coming at me at full force. I’m not surprised that younger people than me prefer online-multiplayers, because the players don’t hold themselves back at all; they’re coming at you with the intention of beating your ass down. Single player games used to be like this on the consoles and in arcades. There’s also something I frequently discussed with my friends was that while the a single-player game has one solution only, a multiplayer game’s solutions change from player to player. I can’t fault this logic, unless we argue that making a game’s AI opposition completely random would result in far more varying gameplay to the extent that human opponent can’t do. Of course, this would lead into people calling such a product either completely unfair or too easy depending how bullshit the AI randomiser could be. There is few examples of single player games that apply changes how it behaves according to the player, and the most prominent example of this by far is Zanac.

Zanac is a game designed to counter the player’s way of playing the game. Depending what weapon the player had, the game would pick up the enemy and sub-enemy types that would be able to counter the weapon. This wouldn’t happen instantly thou, as the game keeps account how many times the player ship shoots. With certain amounts the game lifts the difficulty a bit, and changes the enemy type to go with. The variety of weaponry thus forces balancing and managing shooting, changing weapons and pacifistic approach. Zanac and it’s sequel Zanac X Zanac are a rare species where the player can play extensive meta-game with the AI system if they are able get in-depth experience and information. Otherwise, the game will become quite challenging to those who mainly just stick with their favourite guns and go out in a blazing glory. While it would be possible to repeat every game in a similar fashion, the human variable here changes the game elements to a large extent. This kind of player-dependant challenge is not really seen in many genres outside shooting games, and even then only few of them use this sort of ranking system. In modern games only Cave seems to incorporate ranking systems in variety of successes in their products.

What I see as the largest difference between the game design is that perhaps the core itself is yet to mature. During the haydays of arcade every new machine had something new and tried to take away the thunder of their competition. There was a huge amount of evolution in two dimensional game design during the 80’s and early 90’s. With the advent of 3D game design, it too began to go through multiple evolutions… to a point. It could be argued that the three dimensional game design is yet to achieve certain point. To illustrate this with Zelda, compare the amount of active playing the player does in most 2D Zeldas, especially with Zelda 1 and 2, in comparison to 3D Zeldas. There is a lot of empty and non-active playing in Zelda, from riding Epona through an empty field of absolutely nothing to do outside one or two enemies or secrets to find in comparison to Zelda 1’s fields with loads of enemies and secrets in almost every screen. If two people spent an hour with Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda respectively, the amount of active playing would be higher with the one playing The Legend of Zelda.

Of course, this applies very much to console gaming, as PC gaming has been more lax in this regard. This is but one difference between PC, arcade and console gaming and we should embrace it more.

Single player games demand high skill in game design. Multiplayer games can be left for the player community sort it out, especially in modern online era, where balance and bug patches are easy to distribute. One player games demand from the very start meticulous approach in order to get it right, as the player skill against the computer will be taken into account. An enjoyable game offers a fair challenge, but also manages to make your blood boil and give you an adrenaline rush, be it single player or not. While there are those who see that lives are just an old relic from the arcade days, not using them in a smart way has been more damaging to the overall game design than not using them at all.

It would be sad to hear that with modern gaming no player tries to find multiple solutions to a challenge without outside influence. There are always multiple ways to tackle a challenge in games, if it’s properly designed.

You might want to get this glimpse of hope

We’re entering sad and dark times, my dear reader. To uplift your spirit, please do read this. It might help you to overcome the sadness the next game generations brings upon us.

Also, these nice Japanese sirs playing their instruments in gentlemanly manner.