It only took 14 years, but with Monster Hunter: World, the rest of the, uh, world finally understood what Japanese players had been obsessing over. World was not just a hit, it was a massive hit, becoming Capcom’s best-selling game ever. Instead of immediately pivoting to a sequel, Capcom has continued to update World with new quests, gears, and monsters. And with this fall’s Iceborne expansion, Capcom is basically delivering a sequel; the winter-themed map will reportedly be bigger than anything featured in previous games.
It’s been more than a year since I’ve ventured into the wild in search of meat and loot, but my hour spent with Iceborne at E3 reminded me why it was one of my favorite games from 2018. The thrill of working together with friends to take down a kaiju-sized creature within seconds of the in-game timer running out, the despair of watching the next dismantle your strategy within minutes, sending you back to the drawing board. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
And with Iceborne’s welcome additions, like a hook that allows you to grapple onto the game’s enormous beasts whenever you please, it seems Monster Hunter remains alive and well.
Some of the people keeping Monster Hunter going are producer Ryozo Tsujimoto and executive director/art director Kaname Fujioka, both of whom I spent some time speaking to last week. Their answers were as humorous as they were interesting, shedding light on the game’s development process, the series’ distinct lack of spiders (there’s a good reason!), what it means to depict the suffering of animals in a game about hunting, and much more.
Our conversation started as soon as I walked in the room, after one of the public relations representatives for Capcom asked me what my favorite weapon in the game was (hammer, obviously), and then informed me one of the people I’d be talking to shared the very same preference.
VICE: What do you find interesting about the hammer?
Ryozo Tsujimoto (Producer): It's powerful. You don't need to guard. What's not to like? [laughs]
I agree! And what do you find interesting about the lance?
Kaname Fujioka (Executive Director/Art Director): I love how the lance lets you get up close and personal with the monsters during the battle.
Tsujimoto: Both of us have stuck with the same weapons ever since the start of the Monster Hunter series. 15 years of weapon monogamy! [laughs]
Given you have such a strong preference, how do you wrap your head around other weapons, to get a sense of what makes them interesting for other players?
Fujioka: It's not like I'm directly involved in each and every weapon for every single aspect of the tuning of them personally. For the team who do that stuff, I tell them, as a kind of philosophy: “You have to find the core pillar of each weapon's gameplay and not betray that as you make decisions about how to design and adjust the gameplay.”
Take something like the hammer, which we just mentioned. You can't guard with it. There will be situations where you want to guard but you can't, and you need to make a decision how to handle that during the action. If you're going to say we're going to release new content, we want to think "Let's upgrade the hammer. Let's add some more options, add some more strategies to it." The solution isn't "add guarding" just because it can't. It wouldn't be the hammer if you could guard. The solution is to find other ways to give players cards in their deck, so to speak. “OK, when this situation comes up, I'm going to need to get out of the way to avoid damage. How do I do that, being a hammer user?”
I think if we can keep that philosophy intact, we can have all the weapon types feel unique, while also complementary as a whole arsenal in the game, rather than, in the process of improvement over the years, they don't start to merge together.
Every weapon should, and hopefully does, feel different in terms of its best range of attack and its rate of fire. The pace at which you get in and out from the monster—get up close, attack and get away, stay up close for a while and then retreat, stay at a distance—they all have a completely different feel, I think. There's a different combination of factors for each weapon. I make sure the designers don't stray too far from each weapon's own particular [identity], and that means they can stay unique and true.
Could you talk about the designing of a new creature? Obviously, it's a really big deal to have a new monster in the game. Does it start from "This is a cool design! How will it work in the game?" or is it "We have an idea for a gameplay concept, how do we design a monster around that?"
Fujioka: We have a layout of the structure of the game we have to design first. We need a framework for what kind of monster is going to be needed at each stage of the game. They all have a different role to play.
Taking Monster Hunter: World as an example. In early stages of the game, they needed tutorial monster, so to speak, to show you this is what it's like to hunt a monster. They have relatively simple attacks, easy tells—when it does this, you know it's going to charge at you, you get out of the way, and don't take damage, and then you just keep attacking it. What wouldn't be appropriate at the start of the game is a monster that needs you to pull out every tool in your deck. You need to gradually get better at the game, as you keep playing. On that curve—not just a difficulty curve, but also game layout—we're placing each required role, so to speak, before we even get to the point of deciding which monster goes into which one.
That means later in the game we might have one where, for example, [it's] not just harder to beat, but this monster at this stage, unless you use non-weapon items to get it ready to be attacked, you won't really do very well. That's going to expand your horizons. "I can't just be attacking all the time in this game, I need to remember I have these useful tools I can use, whether it's trapping or so forth." Gradually, the player will build up the amount of things that they've learned, and then we can start letting the later monsters [be set up to] let the player choose what they want to use on it.
"I suppose if I had to pick something about the difference in the players [worldwide], it would be that Japanese players tend to be more cooperative in the team in the sense that they treat the idea of co-op gameplay as not just 'four of us will all attack the monster at once'"
Once we have our framework in mind, the next stage is to think about the flow of how the different stages are introduced in the game. In the case of Monster Hunter: World, you start off in the Ancient Forest, keep on to the Wildspire Waste, [then] to Coral Highlands. Each one expanded in turn, and that meant we were introducing different monsters in each stage. Their design is going to reflect where you're going to meet them.
In the case of Iceborne, the whole frost region is one big area, but it's going to be gradually unlocked as as you play and you reach new areas. Those two aspects of the difficulty framework and the teaching the player framework and where it's going to appear, those are what inform our next step: "OK, we need a monster X to do this and this in the game, let's come up with some concepts." The designers and planners will work together to decide, "OK, here's my basic idea for it, this is how this monster fight will look or behave." The ones we like, we pick them up and then everyone will flesh them out. Based on the original basic concept, we add more details, more features. By the end of the process, you've got a monster that not only fits the gameplay but because it's been designed with the world in mind and not in a vacuum, it actually feels like a convincing, cohesive part of the ecosystem, which is one of our goals for an immersive, realistic game.
To take an example, the Banbaro, it's the deer-y looking thing. That was one where we wanted, like we described before, a relatively simple attack set. It's going to charge at you directly and you have to avoid that while you're attacking him. The designers thought it'd be fun if it was able to do things like pick up trees and other objects as it charged at you, sort of roll them along with it and create that intense feeling, where it's charging so much it's ripping up the map in front of you. We thought that was a good idea, so we developed the concept of the monster further to have these two sets of big antlers. In that way, the difference stages of visual and concept design start to inform each other as the design progresses.
Have you ever considered letting players pet the animals, instead of attacking them?
Fujioka: [laughs] You'd probably just get [imitates hitting motion] ... the monster would probably kick you back?
Translator: Is this coming off the Can You Pet the Dog? Twitter account?
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Translator: [Explains Can You Pet the Dog? to Fujioka and Tsujimoto, laughter ensues]
Fujioka: We do have Poogies, which are adorable pet pigs which you can pet to your heart's content. In fact, there is the little mini-game. I think it's one of those player superstitions where if you pet the Poogie before your quest, it goes better.
I asked that question because as the series has become more visually realistic, you can depict these animals with a fidelity that when you see them in pain, when they're limping away, it's possible for the player to have some level of empathy for their situation. But it is a game about fighting them and fighting them over and over again. As designers, I'm curious how you approach between portraying them as realistic beasts, while also knowing you still want to encourage them to participate in the core action of the game, which is killing them and getting materials?
Fujioka: Yeah, there's a difficult balance where, like you said, the more realistic we're able to depict the monsters, the more you may feel a bit weird about attacking or killing them. We try to design the game so the setting is telling you this is a necessity of the life of a hunter. It's not just a massacre of things minding their own business in the world. We try and structure it so that it's a necessity to stay alive to get resources, or to get food, to stay alive in this harsh environment. The quests are positioned as these necessary actions, whether it be story-based stuff where you're being attacked or requests are being made by people for you to do. We want to try and separate the idea of necessary violence and unnecessary violence, and focus it on the former, so that it doesn't feel weird to players.
I have heard stories of a father and son playing the game together, and they'll see one of the more realistic-looking creatures, like the Aptonoth, and the dad starts wailing on it because he wants to get that raw meat and the kid's like "Nooo, hold on!" In a way, it made me happy to hear, because it meant I achieved my goal of verisimilitude of depiction of creatures. But I agree, there's a balance that needs to be had there so it doesn't just come across as cruel.
VICE: Because World has certainly been the most popular entry among Western audiences, is there anything you've noticed about the way Western audiences play the game differently, or what they're interested in differently? Did that inform any decisions for building Iceborne?
Fujioka: I don't know if I'd say I noticed any big differences between the Western and Japanese playerbases. When you get into some small details—we did some focus testing before we released Monster Hunter: World and we realized a lot of Western players didn't like not having damage numbers. While we never went as far as putting an HP bar there, knowing how much a given hit damaged a monster so you could learn how to get better, it became clear that was something we should do. That was partially why we added that.
I suppose if I had to pick something about the difference in the players, it would be that Japanese players tend to be more cooperative in the team in the sense that they treat the idea of co-op gameplay as not just "four of us will all attack the monster at once" but they are more on top of the fact that they need to watch out for each other's health bars and if you see if someone is about to faint, get on it with a group healing item. The Western players tend to treat, generally speaking, co-op as "let's cooperate in taking it down." But with certain monsters, particularly later in the game, if you all just start attacking all the time and no one's keeping an eye on each other's group status, you might get in trouble because the monster is just too much to handle in those situations.
But I think as people got better at the game—and Monster Hunter: World was a lot of Western players' first Monster Hunter game!—and they learned the skills and they learned what the game needed of them, they gradually got on board with the fact that that's what co-op means in Monster Hunter. It's not just co-attacking. Really good teamwork is necessary to get through the whole thing. I'd say they've come closer than ever.
"There's a difficult balance where, like you said, the more realistic we're able to depict the monsters, the more you may feel a bit weird about attacking or killing them."
When you show a new trailer for a game, people are focused on the big stuff. The new monsters, the new weapons, the new combos. But these are games full of small details people may never notice. Is there a particular small detail that you're proud of, excited about, that people didn't necessarily notice?
Fujioka: An example of a little detail I like is that in World, in Astera, you can eat at the cantina in the main base or you can eat in the gathering hub. In the gathering hub, it was presented as being cooked in the Astera base and being delivered to the hub. If you looked around Astera, there wasn't any physical reality of how that was happening? It was just the idea of how you were getting food.
So in Seliana, the new frontier base, I wanted to actually have set dressing that showed you that this is really happening. Same situation, you've got a main cantina in the base and you've got the gathering hub where you can eat, but if you look closely, between the two, there's kind of a pulley system with these barrels going along, and it's structured so that even while you're in Seliana, you'll see occasionally, out of the cantina, a kind of take out delivery jury-rigged, rube goldberg machine thing that's showing you that, yes, they're cooking it here and someone's sending it across on an actual device. I just wanted to make that relationship clearer and have it make sense within the game's world.
Tsujimoto: If you want to check out these kinds of details, the new View Mode is great! It's like a little free camera mode, kind of a screen shot mode. You can zoom in and see details that you might not have normally noticed, and if you find something cool, you can snap a screenshot with your system and share it online.
Easy last question. I was looking through all the monsters that have been in all these games and I noticed a distinct lack of spiders? Are you just afraid of spiders?
PR: There is one!
Fujioka: It's not that we're scared of spiders. [laughs] It's just a reality that if you want tons of monsters in these games, we have to realistically limit ourselves to a number of base skeletal structures we can base the monsters around. Something as specialized as a spider's unique way of moving all the legs and stuff, which you can't reuse for any monster on any level, it's just not something we can really use the resources on for one monster when we could be creating baseline animations and skeletons that can actually contribute to have more monsters in the roster. It's just sort of a reality of development.
We'll try and get one in there eventually. But not in Iceborne.